By the Power of Zeus: Apotheon, Divine Power-Ups and their Classical Inspirations, by Maciej Paprocki

In the early 2010s, I had the unique chance to work as an academic consultant for the Canadian video game studio, Alientrap Games, helping to design Apotheon (2015), a 2D platform action-RPG game set within the mythological storyworld of ancient Greece and visually represented in a black-figure vase art style. Some of my tasks included advising developers on the game narrative/story, co-designing characters and writing dialogues. My main aim, however, was to discover how to rewrite Greek gods into believable video game characters who would interact in thought-provoking ways. I have previously discussed some aspects of my work on Apotheon in a series of interviews and a book chapter.1 In the following blog post, I focus on some of the particulars of our creative process, focusing on the nature of the divine power and how it was reimagined in Apotheon.

THE FINAL STAGE OF MYTHOLOGY: APOTHEON AND THE DEPARTURE OF THE GODS

Apotheon’s narrative combines and develops Hesiod’s succession myth and the myth of the five ages of man, which is outlined in the Works and Days. The game is set after the end of the Iron Age, when Zeus decrees the final separation between deities and humanity so that the current generation may die out. The Olympian gods withhold their divine blessings from the earth, whereas minor gods of the countryside leave the world and travel to live on Mount Olympus until the earth is cleansed of humanity. As a result, Mount Olympus becomes a crowded divine ‘refugee camp’, whilst the civilization collapses as forests and oceans become barren, springs and rivers run dry and crops fail under the sunless sky.

Nikandreos at the beginning of the game, while the town of Dion is under attack. Screenshot from the game.

The game story follows Nikandreos, a young Greek warrior from Dion in Macedonia, a historical town at the foothills of the Mount Olympus. During an attack on his hometown, Nikandreos is plucked from the fray by Hera and urged by her to topple Zeus, whose affairs have deeply wounded the Queen of the Gods. Hera directs Nikandreos to wrestle or win six iconic badges of office from Apollo, Artemis, Demeter, Ares, Poseidon, and Athena—and thus absorb divine shares of power (in Greek, timai, singular: timē) held within; furthermore, the player may decide to collect the items of four remaining Olympian gods (that is, Aphrodite’s girdle, Dionysus’ kantharos (drinking cup), Hermes’ sandals, and Hephaestus’ hammer). At the beginning of the third act, Hera immortalizes Nikandreos and imbues him with her own timē so that he may become powerful enough to challenge Zeus: what ensues is a heated thunderbolt battle, the outcome of which determines who truly deserves the position of the King of the Gods.

THE NATURE OF DIVINE POWER IN APOTHEON

I tremendously enjoyed myself while working on Apotheon, since the tasks I was given resonated very well with my research interests. I want to understand how Greek gods work, to learn about their powers, limitations, fears, and wants. I believe that Greek myths, especially as narrated in epic poems, contain hidden messages about the realities of divine nature. As a development team, we had to decipher these messages to learn how the gods functioned as three-dimensional characters for Homer and Hesiod; the second step was to apply these newly-discovered rules to rewrite gods into workable video game bosses for the player to interact with.

Working on the game document, we decided very early on that Nikandreos should be able to wrestle divine powers from gods to restore the balance of the world they have upset. When a deity relinquishes their power in Apotheon, it materializes as a small item for Nikandreos to collect, with objects selected mainly representing the emblematic attributes of the Greek gods. 

Collectable timai of Apotheon.
Top row, from left: Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Ares. 
Middle row: Poseidon, Zeus, Hera, Athena.
Bottom row: Hephaestus, Demeter, Dionysus, Hermes.

What happens once Nikandreos grabs such an object? In terms of design order, we first chose Greek gods Nikandreos would confront at each stage of the game. Subsequently, we selected divine attributes that would represent divine powers and then picked appropriate blessings conferred by these objects. One option was to make powers mere symbols of the narrative progress, of no actual benefit to the player. Another option was to translate acquisition of divine powers (or blessings) into durable status effects. We chose to include both options, since the acquisition of divine powers would then enhance the player’s immersion in the story and confer tangible benefits that represented Nikandreos’ gradual climb towards divinity. 

In role-playing games, a status effect (when beneficial, it is also called a buff) is a modification to a game character’s original set of statistics/stats—pieces of data that represent a particular aspect of a fictional character, like health or strength (expressed as an integer). For example, Nikandreos in Apotheon has a Health stat and an Armor stat, both set at 100 at the start of the game and raised by increments at the later stages. Although many games feature temporary status effects (usually active only when special powers and abilities such as spells are used), we chose to reimagine the possession of a given divine power as a conferral of a specific permanent buff.

Imagined in this manner, buffs became the integral part of the gameplay of Apotheon: the status effect bestowed on the player was to align both with the narrative context in which the divine power was received and with the nature and powers of a god from whom the player received this power. Seizing respective divine badges of office both increases the upper limit of Nikandreos’ health stat and confers benefits specific to a given deity. Crucially, the game does not include scaling (that is, increasing the enemies’ stats in tandem with the player’s progress so that they remain a challenge). As Nikandreos grows more powerful on his way to divinity, the previously formidable enemies become laughably weak, to the point that they perish after a single hit from Nikandreos’ stolen thunderbolt. The growing discrepancy between the player and enemies’ stats symbolizes the chasm that begins to yawn between them as the divine buffs begin to add up and Nikandreos’ ascension continues. 

In Apotheon, the finalized divine buff system includes the following effects:

Divine emblemEffectIn-game description (the mythological rationale for status effects)
Kantharos of Dionysus: Effects from potions last 25% longer“This humble earthen drinking cup carries the power of wine and freedom. Joyous times and social euphoria flow from its rim like a wellspring.”
Cestus of Aphrodite: Receiving Darts (Arrows) of Eros, which can charm enemies to fight for you“Woven from braids of silky hair, this elegant sash carries the power of love and desire. Its allure is irresistible to anyone pierced by the darts of Eros.”
Bow of Artemis: Faster “reload” for bows“Crafted from flawless horn and golden sinew, this divine bow holds the power of the wilds, and its arrows will effortlessly pierce the heart of any unwary game.”
Sheaf of Demeter: +50% Health Points from food“Sown, ripened and reaped by the Goddess of the Harvest, this golden bundle of plentiful grain carries the power of renewal and growth.”
Lyre of Apollo: Permanent faint glow around Nikandreos (half the radius of a torch or less)“Gifted to Apollo by the infant Hermes, who crafted it from a tortoise shell, this is the first Lyre. Its ethereal music has the power to command the light of the Sun itself.”
Artifice of Hephaestus: +50% Armor [protective stat] from armor pick-ups and repair kits“These heavy adamantine tools carry the power of craftsmanship and industry. With these, even the tiniest scrap can be forged into a brilliant masterpiece.”
Caduceus of Hermes: Grants the use of Caduceus, a unique unbreakable javelin that doubles as a grappling hook“This staff of the heralds, wrapped by two snakes and surmounted by godly wings, carries the power of swiftness and communication.”
Trident of Poseidon: Grants the ability of a mid-air roll (essentially, a double jump)“Wrought in volcanic vents deep beneath the waves, this imposing three-pronged spearhead carries the formidable powers of the sea. Gale winds accompany the wielder, giving them sudden bursts of speed.”
Aegis of Athena: Shield durability slowly regenerates when equipped out of combat“Interwoven with the head of the Gorgon Medusa, this protective mantle carries the power of cunning and strategy. Those who bear it are guarded from harm.”
Crest of Ares: Attacking with a full Stamina bar does +25% damage“Witness to countless battles and bloodshed, this grim helmet carries the power of savage warfare. Enemies fall like lambs before its brutal visage.”
Plume of Hera:Acts as a reusable lockpick, allows the player to light censers that transport one into Zeus’ sanctum“This immaculate peacock feather brooch carries the powers of matriarchy and matrimony, but also harbors dark secrets of deception and jealousy.”
Thunderbolt of Zeus: Unique unbreakable spear that tosses lightning and does extreme damage to one’s opponents“Forged in ancient times by powerful Cyclopes, this blazing weapon carries the power of storms and absolute authority. It is the ultimate judgement of Zeus.”

THE NATURE OF DIVINE POWER IN ANCIENT GREEK MYTHS

What is a divine honor in ancient Greek mythology and how did it inspire the collectable timai of Apotheon? In the final part of this post, I consider some of the ancient Greek ideas about divine power that influenced our design of the game. 

The preserved poetry of Homer, Hesiod and their contemporaries uses three overlapping yet not identical notions of timē, gēras and moira to demarcate a deity’s social standing in the divine community of Olympus. Often respectively translated as honor/esteem (timē), prize of honor (gēras), and part/portion (moira), these concepts can also apply to mortals, but with some significant semantic differences. Since Greek gods don’t have any use for labor and wealth, they primarily measure their social status by three criteria: esteem of other gods, possession—or lack thereof—of cosmic spheres of influence, and reception of mortal worship and sacrifices. 

Nikandreos (left) and Artemis (right) in the Forest of Artemis, the domain where the goddess resides. Screenshot from the game.

For Apotheon, the most relevant criterion concerned the possession of a cosmic sphere of influence, a unique power over a facet of reality. This intangible and rather confusing notion continues to pose problems for scholars of the Greek myth. Jean-Pierre Vernant, a preeminent French scholar of ancient Greek divinities, elegantly described the cosmic sphere of influence as “a particular mode of action—a domain of intervention reserved for each [divinity]” (47).2 To put it differently, it is a unique energy signature particular to every god and goddess, “a set of specific characteristics that makes them recognisable by differentiating them from the other supernatural Powers with whom they are associated” (47). Although many scholars disagree with Vernant’s conclusions, we chose his approach as a good approximation of how the divine powers could work in a narrative context.

People familiar with Greek mythology universally know that Greek gods tend to be associated with certain activities and places: Hades influences the netherworld, Poseidon governs the oceans, Demeter revels in growth of grain and wilderness attracts Artemis. Vernant’s conception builds upon and transcends these associations: the divine power is nothing less than the utmost expression of the essence of the given divinity. For example, Athena does champion just war, wisdom and domestic arts, but these are only extensions of her true power: “A sovereign mastery of the art of cunning intelligence, ingenious stratagems, skilful know-how, [and] shrewd lies” is what truly constitutes her being (45-6). Unsurprisingly, she is naturally drawn to those who exhibit these features (like Odysseus) and whenever someone acts upon them, her divine energy is present. The Greeks deeply believed that whenever they performed an action skilfully, it is the god’s own skill and energy that did the work: the inspiration that pushes blacksmith’s hands to create beauty out of intractable metal is no other but a sliver of Hephaestus’ divine energy (675).3

At the early stage of the world, when the Greek gods were coming into being, they are described to have often fought over these shares of honor, with the most relevant material found in Hesiod’s Theogony and a group of the Homeric Hymns. The two aforementioned works respectively depict the birth and ordering of the universe and the ascent of Zeus (Theogony), and the turf wars between Zeus’ siblings and children (Hymns), who vied for power using both peaceful and violent strategies. In the Greek myth, gods either willingly share and exchange their honors and privileges—or, more often, give them up under duress or have them wrestled away per force. The majority of extant mythological narratives indicate that divinities appear to prefer violence, since the (re)distribution of social prestige, spheres of influence and mortal worshippers often (but not always) defaults to a zero-sum game: there is only a limited amount of power and prestige to go around. 

Hera (right) involves Nikandreos (left) in her scheme to topple Zeus’ divine power. Screenshot from the game.

Conniving backbiters, Greek deities scheme to damage their peers’ social standing, encroach upon their spheres of influence or take away their worshippers: the theme of divine disenfranchisement and resultant shame surfaces perennially in the preserved poetic corpus. Even so, dishonored deities seldom challenge the oppressive order of the divine society, since Zeus swiftly punishes every attempt at rebellion. Exceptional gods who successfully blackmail Zeus (such as Helios and Demeter) exploit their intimate knowledge of his weaknesses to redress personal grievances and extort their revenge via blackmail, pressure tactics and sowing internal dissent. Nikandreos employs similar tactics in Apotheon where we had divine dissenters (such as Hera, Helios, Daphne and Thetis) aid the player against Zeus and gods who support him. 

Some players could wonder why Nikandreos cannot command the powers of nature once he seizes divine emblems. The simple answer is that it would have completely upended the gameplay balance for him to do so. Nonetheless, we have also considered this issue from a mythological viewpoint. Although he becomes ever godlier, Nikandreos is not a god by nature and thus he cannot command the entirety of any god’s power before his final ascension into immortality. While designing the system of buffs in Apotheon, we worked with a specific allegory in mind: we saw divine powers seized by Nikandreos as lenses that would allow him to wield a mere fraction of said powers while mortal. 

Dionysus (left) gives Nikandreos (right) his kantharos, allowing Nikandreos to share in the god’s power.

Nikandreos isn’t absorbing everything that makes up a god’s domain: instead, he bears the badge of office over that domain and can control some of its aspects. For example, when Nikandreos obtains Demeter’s sheaf, he gains the wherewithal to bless the fields of Dion and receive more health from consumables. Although he theoretically could restore the earth’s fertility with Demeter’s sheaf after the first chapter of the game, Zeus’ continuing enmity ensures that he doesn’t have a chance to use any of his timai before Zeus is dealt with once and for all.  

As Nikandreos acquires several divine symbols of office and spends more time skulking around on Olympus eating nectar and ambrosia, he is hinted to gradually transcend into divinity, with the process finalized when he challenges Zeus for power at the final stage of Apotheon. After Nikandreos becomes the last god standing, the floodwaters fall, plants and animals come back to life and the sun shines upon the ruins of Dion, signifying that Nikandreos’ stolen powers are finally his to command. The creation/reviving of a human being reflects the totality of Nikandreos’ mastery over nature: now a God, he can create intelligent beings in his image—who, in time, could challenge him as he challenged his superiors. 


Maciej Paprocki (@maciejwpaprocki) is a Library Science Specialist at the University of Wrocław. He is interested in ancient Greek gods as depicted in epic poetry and modern media: their powers, limitations, fears, and wants. His previous research projects concerned culture studies and desert road archaeology. An avid gamer, he has worked as a historical consultant, helping to develop Apotheon (2015), a video game set in the mythological storyworld of ancient Greece. His upcoming edited volume, co-edited with David J. Wright and Gary Vos, concerns Thetis, one of the most fascinating and misunderstood goddesses of classical antiquity.


[1] So far, I have produced the following works that discuss my experience with Apotheon

[2] Vernant, Jean Pierre; Zeitlin, Froma I. (1991): Mortals and immortals. Collected essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[3] Sale, William (1965): The Dual Vision of the “Theogony”. Arion 4 (4), pp. 668–699.

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