One of the first things you learn in The Forgotten City is that the gods are real. “The many shall suffer for the sins of the one” is divine rule, enforced by the hand of some higher power who shakes the stones, brings the statues to life, and hunts you through their bright blazing eyes and aurifacient arrows. His voice rings out, just as a feminine voice whispers during quiet moments. The gods, quite obviously, exist here, if nowhere else.
And yet the identity of these gods is hidden. Every time you dig deeper into the game, down under the city or under the layers of shifting culture, you get new answers about who exactly runs things down here in this cavern apart from the world.
It starts with small mysteries. The architect, Virgil, tells you that you can find Greek construction amidst the Roman buildings. The obelisk at the front courtyard of the great temple, a strangely Egyptian sight in itself, clearly displays reliefs from four different places: Sumeria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Georgios and the other non-Romans make plenty of references to the imperial nature of Roman overwriting of other cultures, and the secret Christians give some unsubtle hints that their religion will be the next rewriting of history.
If you choose to follow up on this line of inquiry, investigating the tunnels below the Greek temple of Demeter, you find more literal interpretations of this theme. Below the Roman city lie Greek ruins, and below that lies the Egyptian underworld, and all the way at the bottom, a Sumerian site filled with traps.
Four civilizations, four sides to the obelisk, four layers, eventually, to the temple atop the hill. Four names for each of the gods. And, should you progress to the game’s final ending within that temple, you meet the singular being who claims the names Pluto, Hades, Osiris, and Nergal.
This sort of linear progression and one-to-one correlation of myths is absolutely typical – and absolutely chock full of problems.
It’s not uncommon to hear the truism that what the Greeks had, the Romans copied. This is an imperfect understanding of cultural appropriation, of course. The Romans often interpreted the gods of others as versions of their own, and took anything particularly popular to become part of their own, just as the Greeks did, and everyone both before and after. The fact that the Greek and Roman myths fit so neatly onto one another is as much a part of shared inheritance of Indo-European gods as it is cooptation and interpretation.
But things get stranger when you try to project these same stories and characters onto the Egyptians. The story of Hades and Persephone, seemingly one of the more closely adhered to into Roman Dis and Proserpina, does not map nicely onto Isis and Osiris, where Osiris is dismembered and dead and resurrected by Isis. And in Sumerian religion, Ereshkigal is queen of the underworld; Nergal, god of death, only became her husband and thereby the underworld’s king in Akkadian times. So why try to force the story of kidnapped and trapped Persephone and ruling Hades back onto them? Why try to align Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman stories all into one?
Indeed, why these four civilizations at all? Several of them existed in overlapping times, and the central areas of their reign were not the same. Sumeria rose from the Mesopotamian cradle, where Tigris and Euphrates rivers create fertile land, and it flourished from the 5th millennium to the 3rd BCE, and then was followed by the Akkadian and Persian empires. What we think of as ancient Egypt grew along the Nile, ranging from the 10th millennium BCE to well into the 1st. The ancient Greek conglomeration of city-states concentrated on the southern coast of Europe become recognizable in the 2nd or 1st millennium BCE, depending on how you define them, and become part of the Roman empire by the 2nd century BCE. And then Rome, which arguably conquered all these areas equally, began on the Italian peninsula traditionally in 753 BCE.
But the various intercultural ties and overlapping time periods aren’t the only strange thing about this choice. Why only these few civilizations? Why not the Indic civilizations, or those in sub-Saharan Africa?
There are a few reasons for this, but ultimately, they all come back to racism – not necessarily or even all that likely on the part of the game developers, but something that runs much deeper all across the white anglosphere.
A quick Google search for the history of civilization will tell you that civilization began in the Cradle of Civilizations, Mesopotamia, and then Egypt sprang up, and then the Greek Miracle begat what we now know as Western civilization, cemented by Rome and Christianity into the form we know and love today. This idea has been around for ages; it’s taught in schools across the anglophone world, and probably well beyond. First, people were hunter-gatherers in loose tribes, then they learned to farm and build cities in the rich land between the Tigris and Euphrates, something something Egypt, and then Greece had all the greatest thinkers and created culture from whole cloth – Rome inherited from Greece, and the British inherited from Rome, and America is number one rah rah yeah!
This simplified, teleological progression through history, where each nation arises in one unified bubble of space, time, and culture, making way for the next, more advanced group, is nothing you would expect to see in the world around you now, and that’s a sure sign that you wouldn’t have seen it any other time in history, either. The closer you look at it, the more the cracks show. It’s not just about time or place or intercultural connections; it’s also just nonsensical. Humans did not arise in one specific place in one specific time in one specific monoculture and go from animal to upright.
You don’t need to know about Mohenjo-Daro, a city from the Indus River Valley in the 26th century BCE which was so well-constructed that its stone cisterns are still watertight to this day, to see this. You can simply look at China, where they started farming rice over 9,000 years ago, and built empire atop prosperous empire, and cared nothing for the distant barbarians across the western desert. You don’t need to realize that the sub-Saharan Kush conquered and ruled Egypt for 200 years to look at the Meso-American Olmec and their great stone edifices and domestication of cacao trees as early as 1200 BCE. All over the world, human civilizations in all their diverse forms and functions arose and learned about the world, developed art, math, language, science, and more. Mesopotamia was never the singular cradle of civilization at all, and the linear view of progress from ignorance to intelligence is completely unrealistic.
But when you finally progress to the innermost sanctum of the temple atop the Forgotten City through the gates of this narrow window on historical succession, you learn that this is not the end of the strangeness. Because racist Mr. Freeze, sitting atop his ivory throne, is not a god at all, but an alien.
No joking, when I opened the final door, I screamed aloud. I didn’t expect to have to talk about ancient aliens today. But here we are.
Don’t get me wrong; a lot of great science fiction has come out of the idea of aliens visiting earth at some time in the ancient past, causing a huge leap forward in the civilizations they find among humans. I love Stargate, too, okay? But at some point, we have to own up to the fact that the ancient aliens conspiracy theory is extremely racist in its own right.
Dr. Sarah E. Bond wrote an excellently accessible history of the idea, but what really popularized it was the 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? by Erik von Däniken. In it, he puts forth a theory that complex structures found all around the world, from Mexico to India, from sub-Saharan Africa to China, were actually built by and possibly for superior entities from outer space. It sounds, honestly, goofy, but only until you look at how it is used. “Far from innocuous,” Bond writes, “these alien theories undermine the agency, archaeology, and intellect of non-European cultures in Africa and South America, as well as the Native peoples in North America by erasing their achievements.” And indeed, why question the origin of the Great Zimbabwe, but not the Parthenon? Von Däniken wasn’t shy about why – it’s because he imagined the white race to be eternal and supremely capable, and only aliens could explain why great works cropped up elsewhere on the planet without shattering his worldview.
But this idea didn’t die down with the advent of the Civil Rights movement; it’s just subtle enough to be picked up by other conspiracy theorists without too much examination. The History Channel’s Ancient Aliens show did more than damage the reputation of the channel – it also put forth the specific theory that alien contact uplifted so-called Western civilization above the rest, starting with our friends, the Sumerians.
So when I opened the door to that grand spaceship in the core of the underworld to see sleek white futuristic constructions, clear surfaces scrolling with cuneiform code in Matrix green, and golden statues of captive humans lining the walkway, my scream was not one of excitement, but of horrified disappointment. Speaking to the god of the underworld helps not at all, because he freely admits that his kind uplifted the Mesopotamians and just went from there.
This isn’t meant to be an attack on the game of The Forgotten City or its developers. In fact, I enjoyed the game a great deal, and I highly recommend you play it if you want an alluring, low-combat murder mystery set in a compelling interpretation of an ancient Roman town. One thing I want to praise the game for is not shying away from depicting all sorts of differences that often get elided when we discuss Rome, like slavery, sexuality, and ethnicity. The cast of characters include a marginalized man from Roman Britain who had been a slave, a Black Judean woman who is respected as a doctor, and a Greek man who freely discusses his difficulties holding on to his own identity which the Roman world seems so keen on erasing. These issues are taken quite seriously.
And more than that, I think the game has something profound to say about the nature of cultural appropriation. If you choose to descend into the depths of the underworld, you eventually meet the Egyptian Khabash, and you have a life-or-death philosophical discussion with him about the nature of culture, time, and history. In order to survive, you must convince him that just because the world has moved on from the height of his land’s empire, it doesn’t mean the past is gone, or that his ways have no truth in them. Each new group defaced the obelisk of its previous owners’ veneration, but the only way forward is to recognize that all of them have value. The Christians, too easily seen as the ones in the right in any given game, are just one more set of people with their own biases and views here.
The facile conflation of empires that runs under the surface of the game allows that message to shine. For all that this game contains a pleasing amount of direct historical and archaeological material, it is, after all, a fantasy, and the message you take from it could be many worse things than, there is no one true way.
And I’ll let someone else dive into the moral quandary of everyone’s fates in the epilogues.
But why ancient aliens? Well, I think the lead developer, Nick Pearce, gives us some idea in talking about how difficult it was to convert this game from a Skyrim mod into a full historical setting. In the original mod, an ascendant being of ancient energy rules the realm below with fantasy technology; no more excuse is needed. But once you set the game in the underworld of Mediterranean antiquity, you have to make some choices. Are the gods really gods, and, if so, why do they care? Why does the afterlife hold so few people?
In reaching for a new endgame, he probably had very few options to hand. What could make a god act this way? And ancient aliens, for all its racist origins, is a common science fiction trope. We, as the imperial audience, can be expected to be familiar with this twist, in the abstract. It will read right.
At the end of the game, what I felt was distaste, not for the game or its developers, but for the state of understanding we, as a culture, have of the ancient world. We scholars and enthusiasts need to be louder about the way the ancient world really was- diverse, messy, and interconnected. The past is not alien; like the ruins below the city, some part of it always remains.
Julie Levy (she/they) is an independent scholar with two MAs in Classical Studies and Philology. Their 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 previously on this blog. They have also appeared on podcasts to discuss asexuality in Greek mythology and the state of academia. If you want to check out her Ancient Gaming live streams, you can watch on Twitch Saturdays at 3 p.m. EDT, and for older streams and more ancient world content, check out her YouTube channel.