It’s no revelation that big-budget games of all stripes tend to focus on fighting as a mechanic, so it’s equally unsurprising that most games about Greek and Roman antiquity do, too. When you think about modern, popular games that deal with the ancient world, probably the first titles that come to your mind are God of War, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and perhaps Rome: Total War or Hades. Or maybe you’re a fan of games that deal with antiquity in a modern context, so your first referent is Tomb Raider.
And why not? These are excellently made games. God of War lets you live out the power fantasy of taking direct revenge on the gods who instigated the evils of the world. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a beloved entry in a longstanding franchise, but with the added benefit of well-researched historical and mythological characters, storylines, and world-building. Rome: Total War is one of the most accurate simulations of our understanding of how Roman armies worked, and you can really dig into the military history of one of the greatest martial powers of European history. Hades is an absolutely charming game about fighting the dead while learning about Orphic mythology. And the Lara Croft world is one of treasure-hunting, cleverness, and gunfighting. Those are wonderful, engaging, and creative ways to experience antiquity.
But the ancient world can offer more than that, and I think Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a great example of how. The Assassin’s Creed team has been very dedicated to historical realism in their landscape and design, and recently each game has ended up having a tour mode: you don’t have to participate in the violence to experience the world. Walk around ancient Giza or Athens and look at all this cool historical stuff! And while you do, take a look at these videos we made that give you extra educational context!
When scholars engage the world of the ancient Mediterranean, it’s not only the war history that brings them – their wonder applies to trade, politics, poetry, and more. And it’s no different with people who are attracted to video games (and board games!) about the ancient world. It’s not only those of us who already study antiquity getting fired up about finding a larnax or a painted frieze of Asclepius in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (though some of us definitely do); it’s also everyday people, fascinated by the mystery that is the ancient world, traveling virtually through both time and space to experience something they never otherwise could.
Indie game interest in the ancient world from other angles started back in the heyday of point-and-click with the LucasArts’ Indiana Jones adventures, like the 1989 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. A far cry from Lara Croft’s double-pistol treasure hunts, Indy puzzled his way through modern troubles by means of archaeological moon-logic. And while his style of, hm, archaeology isn’t necessarily any more representative of real-world digs than hers, it does open the door to thinking about game mechanics that aren’t fighting as a way of experiencing antiquity.
Many of the non-fighting games that interact with a distant past are set in a modern or even sci-fi setting. My favorite LucasArts point-and-click, for example, is The Dig, a game of interpreting and puzzling through the remains of a long-dead civilization you cannot understand… but it is set on an alien world. And modern indie puzzle game The Talos Principle lets you explore photorealistic ruins from Pompeii and similar sites – you can even play in VR! But The Talos Principle is a simulation within a simulation, a game where you are exploring a very limited illusion clearly from a high-tech future, filled with robots and recordings.
One absolutely fantastic example of a game mechanic that could be meaningfully turned on the past is the epigraphy of Heaven’s Vault. Yes, in that game you are in a different universe with a different past, but you play an archaeologist specializing in learning an ancient language no longer spoken. The mechanics of epigraphical discovery are engaging, well-thought-out, and a real motivator to not only play but replay the game, as you build on your knowledge of the language each time.
And Heaven’s Vault’s other main mechanic is talking to the impoverished, colonized, often wary or even hostile locals, or interacting with a colonial, religious, and bigoted academia. It’s so true to everything I know of the trials of archaeology in the real world that I can’t help but find it more compelling as a story of interacting with antiquity than most. Can you imagine an epigraphy game set in Greek ruins, or Egyptian ones? It was never far from my mind as I played.
One game that is out there trying to specifically bring a real-world moment of ancient Greece into players’ lives is Sailing with the Gods, a research game built by experts at Emory University Classics in collaboration with a nearby program of game developers. You play a trader on actual ancient trade routes out of Samothrace, dealing with realistic issues of storm, supply, and more, but your main goal is to build your trading network via social interaction and efficiency. You can play that game right now; they update their blog every time a new feature is built in.
Sailing with the Gods is wonderful, but it is still primarily a research game. Imagine what a AAA budget game built on the idea of bringing the past to life – and not necessarily just to death – could be. Can you imagine a rhythm game based on the tales of Orpheus? Or perhaps a trading game based out of Roman Londinium? What about an exploration game where you are a bard trying to make a living singing the epic cycle?
One game I personally have little experience with is Immortals: Fenyx Rising, but it’s been described (and not unfairly) as Zelda: Breath of the Wild as a Greek hero. The game is narrated by a combination of a wonderfully snarky Prometheus and monstrous bro Zeus, sprinkled liberally with references to all sorts of mythology. It’s like someone really did take one look at Breath of the Wild and thought, same as I did, what if I could make this about ancient Greece?
These kinds of games lead us to imagine more – a Minotaur game where you build a thriving society in the heart of the labyrinth with the children sent as tribute, as one amazing Twitter thread described, or a dating simulation where you can date literal Greek gods, or a political infighting game set in Augustan Rome!
I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what video games can do with the ancient world. The mechanics of antiquity allow for so much more – and I’m excited to see what comes next!
Julie Levy is an independent scholar with two MAs in Classical Studies and Philology. Her favorite video games include Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Stardew Valley, and Civilization IV. You can see her talk more about classics and video games here or listen to her discuss asexuality in Greek mythology here.