Videogames and the aesthetic of ruins

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains.

–Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”

In 1816, the Italian explorer Giovanni Battista Belzone recovered a massive fragment of a statue of Ramses II from a Theban mortuary temple. A year later the British Museum announced that it would receive the statue, news that likely prompted Percy Bysshe Shelley to compose one of his most famous poems—the sonnet “Ozymandias.” In fourteen lines, Shelley romantically contemplates the transcendence or futility found in an object, a physical reminder of a powerful man long dead, ravaged by time. Art had seemingly immortalized an ancient king, but the statue itself now stood incomplete, a pale copy of a greater work now further preserved in Shelley’s verse.

For Shelley and others, ruins are as unsettling as they are captivating. Collapsed structures of stone, wood, and steel draw our collective gaze and force us to confront that intangible boundary where the past and present meet. The arts have a long and varied history of gazing at ruins, one that has become less a defined tradition and more a dialogue concerning the myriad ways to appreciate their aesthetics. A century after Shelley began to write his sonnet, filmmaker Fritz Lang pioneered complex special effects to bring the energy of a destruction to life through the cinema in Metropolis. Years later, Gordon Matta-Clark tears apart abandoned buildings and photographs them to de-romanticize the concept of architecture. Countless other artists spanning centuries and media cast their eyes on destruction and antiquity, and though the realities of ruins are often raw—the results of a natural disaster, war damage, infrastructural decay—the ways in which we perceive them are always mediated.

It comes as no surprise, then, that videogames have inherited an obsession with ruin aesthetics. Many of the most notable games of the last generation (Fallout 3, Dark Souls, The Last of Us, BioShock, and so on) drop the player in a broken, dystopian world. Other games used ruins more as backdrops for exploration (Tomb Raider, the Uncharted franchise, Spelunky). Even a quick glance at this year’s release calendar gives us a glimpse at how upcoming games will continue this trend. Dark Souls 2 promises another horrific romp through a dilapidated hellscape. Bungie’s Destiny takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where players explore the last vestiges of civilization. Tom Clancy’s The Division puts the player in a collapsed United States.

At first glance, it seems as if games are simply parroting the locales and techniques used by literature, art, and film. It’s not hard to find connections between the Art Deco aesthetics of the early twentieth century and the design of Andrew Ryan’s decaying city beneath the sea, or to point out the similarities in the writings of H. Rider Haggard and the exoticized ruins and natives of Far Cry 3. To be sure, games owe much to their precursor media, perhaps most clearly with regards to ruins as symbols of disorder. But on a textual level, the aesthetic of ruin has a more intimate relationship with videogames than with any other medium because almost every game begins from a place of disorder.

Most single-player videogames start with a problem—the princess is kidnapped, a terrorist cell has a plot to destroy the world, some Macguffin has been stolen or needs to be found to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Even an abstract game like Tetris tasks the player with creating order from chaotically falling blocks by making neat lines which are then deleted, re-ordering the play space through erasure. Such games cast the player in the role of “restorer,” someone to set the world right again. Ruins provide an aesthetic setting that matches the core idea behind most games: to interact with a broken world and change it through play.

Fallout 3 (and really the series at large) offers a clear fusion of ruin aesthetics and play and an urtext about embracing player freedom in a world where social strictures have been annihilated. The Capital Wasteland serves as a constant, almost oppressive reminder of the social and structural collapse that resulted from a catastrophic war. As the recently-emerged Lone Wanderer, the player sets out on a quest to find her character’s father and transform the Wasteland to a livable environment. As post-nuclear Messiah, the player travels the last vestiges of civilization, sifting through the wreckage of the old world to build a new one.

Unless, of course, the player chooses not to. Fallout 3’s open-world design affords the player the opportunity to reject the script of wasteland savior, to turn away from the heroic paradigm rather than alleviate the wasteland’s architectural and social wounds. She can abandon the main quest, detonate a nuclear bomb in a shantytown, hand escaped slaves over to their captors, and commit numerous other heinous acts designed to embrace the cruel amorality of a post-apocalyptic world.

Fallout 3 is just one of many games that affords the player the opportunity to fix a broken world or to widen its fractures. Dark Souls allows a player to hinder or help fellow pilgrims in an unfathomably cruel world. The threat of succumbing to the despair of a land abandoned by its gods acts as an antagonistic force reflected in the decrepit buildings and crumbling towers populated only by the restless dead. Supergiant’s Bastion works in a similar fashion, taking place after some vague “Calamity” has sundered the world. Walking across the void causes the world to re-form into a shell of its former self, and the player chooses how she wants to put it back together.

This focus on active participation allows videogames outside of the shadow of the ruin-gazing tradition. 

This focus on active participation allows videogames outside of the shadow of the ruin-gazing tradition. A photo sequence such as Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect asks the viewer to look through (or rather out from) a dissected building to glimpse the ordered world outside with the perspective that the idea of cohesion could be an illusion. Games push us to seek out such an epiphany through play, as each blown-out building or dilapidated shrine reminds the player that the social orders they stand for are just as susceptible to breakdown as the decaying remnants of a place that was once so sure of its permanence.

This transformative power lies at the subversive heart of the aesthetic of ruins, and it gains new depth with respect to gameplay. Ruins most commonly represent the decay of the former civilization’s values, and the pleasure of such texts comes from the opportunity to glimpse into the past from a position of moral superiority, often through hindsight. Games, however, afford us the ability not simply to peer into a bygone era but to engage actively with evidence of the past in new ways.

Inasmuch as they represent the fallen ideals of their given societies, ruins become a tactile presence in videogames by reconfiguring the remnants of an intangible past for unconventional mechanical use. Blown-out apartments become snipers’ nests in Fallout 3. A toppled skyscraper creates a new path to avoid the dangerous streets below in The Last of Us. Dangerous sections of subway stations that seemed so alien and odd now become the safest places in Metro 2033. A crumbling temple turns provides cover and opportunity for vertical traversal in an Uncharted firefight.

Yet there is another layer still to uncover regarding a game’s relationship to the ruins the player explores. In “Ozymandias” Shelley contemplates not only history but also the role of art in its preservation by juxtaposing the time-worn nature of the statue itself to his own poem, wondering if his own verse will remain poignant as language continues to change and evolve. H. G. Wells asks similar questions in his dystopian novels. The ruins of the distant future in The Time Machine confirm the death of any literary tradition, further reified in the vacant sensibilities of the life forms of a post-literate earth.

Games are obsessed with ruins because they are products of a technology always trying to delay its inevitable crawl toward obsolescence. 

Games share a similar textual anxiety, perhaps even more so given games’ intimate connection to the technology that runs them. As videogame technology evolves, the gulf that separates generations of gaming machines widens, and, though players will undoubtedly hold onto a few titles, the demands of new software and hardware will ultimately color the way we remember these older games. Games are obsessed with ruins because they are products of a technology always trying to delay its inevitable crawl toward obsolescence. Each ancient temple Link discovers and every retro-futuristic room in BioShock’s dilapidated city of Rapture is an attempt to freeze moments of time in digital space while acknowledging the game’s inevitable, terrified crawl toward obsolescence.

Though games will change and aesthetic trends will wax and wane, the ruins will likely remain as aesthetically ubiquitous as they are today. Developers and players alike will continue to sifting through digital rubble to find evidence of some intangible past that gains new mechanical significance in a virtual present. We are no longer content to gaze and ponder the remains of the mighty works of the antiquity. We engage with them to bring the past closer, not to look upon them and despair, but to discover how they can be made anew, if only digitally, to stall the ravaging march of time.

Header image by Ollie Hoff

Body images via digit-al and Ilona Gaynor