Archaeogaming – Podcast with A Game with Chums

Video games inspire us

“All men dream – but not equally. Those who dream by night, in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity… But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.” From T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

I get asked a lot, “how did you get into archaeology?” it’s not a question I like to answer. I find myself tugging on the ends of my sleeves, an awkward reflex I picked up during the tortuous years of high school. The truth is I always lie when I respond to this question. I lie quite unabashedly about getting interested in archaeology in my teens, but the truth is archaeology never really crossed my mind until my early twenties. I’d always loved history; castles and I took delight in Indiana Jones as a kid but that was the extent of my appreciation for the discipline. The reality is videogames got me interested in archaeology, and not just any video game, Dragon Age. I loved the series so much, but it wasn’t just the storyline or characters that sucked me into the world, it was the world itself: scattered ruins, ancient races, forgotten languages and mystery hidden behind every corner.

The environs of Dragon Age got me thinking of historic landscapes in my country, England. I started visiting ruins of abbeys some which could be picked straight out of Ferelden. I loved the symbolism found in Celtic crosses and was drawn to the preserved landscapes of the prehistoric. After a year of making the most of my English Heritage membership I knew that I wanted to pursue something that made me fulfilled, much like how video games had made me feel. I applied for a degree that year, and continued playing video games with archaeology as a focal point, Tomb Raider and Uncharted. My archaeology origin story was one I didn’t like to share with others at university who usually had the typical story of joining their father’s excavation at Durham or found their first piece of worked flint at the age of 8.

Video games have always influenced my life and for the most parts in truly positive ways. It was my love for video games that led me to Japan when I was 20, got me into sewing as I recreated outfits of my favourite characters. It’s how I met my best friend, my first boyfriend, it’s provided me with a number of positive female role models throughout my adolescence and early twenties. It provided escapism when life just got too tough, allowing me to switch off the static around me. The role video games has had on my life and career has been unmeasurable, I owe Square Enix, Bioware and Core Design my sanity and happiness. When parents complain about their kids on that damn Xbox all the time, don’t automatically think they are wasting their time. It’s likely they are being inspired for the rest of their lives, to take risks they probably wouldn’t  take outside of the safety from their own living room.  To think outside the box, to study astrophysics to be like Commander Shepherd, to be fearless like Ellie or to create their own video games as a writer, artist or composer. That’s because video games inspire us.

Lara Croft: the problematic archaeologist

She proved to the world that women can make exceptional protagonists. She embodies woman empowerment, wit and adversity, but Lara Croft also represents the colonial values of old school archaeology.  Like many archaeogamers, I’m a huge fan of Lara Croft, even Classic Lara, who stole artefacts and disseminated archaeological sites just because she felt like it. In the first Tomb Raider, she says it herself: “I’m sorry, I only play for sport.” But as the reboot series tried to transform Lara to less of a female avatar built for the male gaze to a relatable hero, she fell more victim to Western imperial privilege. Oh the irony.

This wasn’t an issue with her character in 2013’s Tomb Raider. When the game was released we were introduced to a very different, much younger and inexperienced Lara. She eventually becomes reminisce of the fierce warrior we all know and love. Her trials throughout the game proved that she could take care of herself no matter what was thrown at her while still taking a moment to awe at the ruins and artefacts she encountered. I loved 2013’s Lara Croft, she reflected the metaphorical journey of becoming an archaeologist that it was hard not to root for her.  In the game, Lara voyages to find the lost kingdom of Yamatai on an expedition (not to look for her lost father, thank you kindly Alicia Vikander) funded by her best friend Sam. The trip turns into a fight for survival as she finds herself stranded on a desert island with cultists and a supernatural force who refuses to let her leave. The story focused on her trying to break into the archaeological world with a huge discovery, and that’s the key difference to its successors.

Rise of the Tomb Raider shows us quickly that Lara has changed, she’s become more interested in hunting an organisation known as Trinity, (who she believes is behind the death of her father) than in archaeology. Before in 2013’s Tomb Raider, Lara was mesmerised (as much as she was afraid) of the island she was stranded on. But the narrative device of seeking revenge leaves her more in John Wick territory than Howard Carter’s trench. In Siberia, Lara joins the Remnant (descendants of the prophet Jacob) in order to defeat Trinity. Lara is less interested in discovery and the excitement of the archaeology she finds, and more the need to prove that her father was right (about Trinity and the supernatural). Rise of the Tomb Raider gives Lara less agency in her decisions, which only makes her less competent as an archaeologist and explorer.

But her incompetence doesn’t equate to British imperialism, she might make bad decisions, but she’s not a looter or a thief. That however changes in 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider, everything I had loved about Lara was shattered with her intro in Cozumel, Mexico. As Lara Croft “takes” a knife protected within a pyramid, she becomes part of the gang of white folk traipsing around the world, stealing treasures from other cultures.

Even the antagonist, the leader of Trinity and esteemed archaeology professor, Dr. Dominguéz underestimates Lara’s entitlement  saying “It never occurred to me that you would just take it.” Not only does she freely steal a clearly valuable piece of cultural heritage she also triggers a massive tsunami that kills almost all the inhabitants of Cozumel. The relatable Lara that Crystal Dynamics wanted us to so truly love in 2013’s Tomb Raider had disappeared. The consequences of her actions and her remorse are left out of the rest of the game. The empathetic Lara, who went to immeasurable lengths to save her friends in 2013, unintentionally drowns a whole town and she hardly manages a shrug. But it only gets better, Lara then “discovers” the ancient and still living city of Paititi, where she does simple tasks for the indigenous people, who seem incapable of doing any sort of action before Lara came swooping in. This is obviously a citadel purposely built  for Lara to steal plenty of Indigenous souvenirs along her way.

There aren’t many more ways for it to get worse in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, right? Wrong! The introduction of good old human sacrifice elevates the game to Apocalypto level of racism and inaccuracy. It’s true sacrifice was practiced by many different cultures of pre-columbian South America, but that’s true of almost every culture in the last millennia. Humans were killed because of contemporary ideological beliefs, be it religion, politics and/or conquest. The use of sacrifice in Shadow of the Tomb Raider reflects the savage Indian trope. In order to implement sacrifice into the main storyline, the developers needed to recontextualise parts of the practice separate from white colonialist ideas of good and evil. Later in the game, Lara replaces Unuratu (the leader of Paititi) as the hero of her own people.  Lara doesn’t just steal artefacts in this game, she steals people’s destiny. Unuratu can’t save her people, she needs Lara for that.

After Lara does indeed save the day, she returns to her manor in the British countryside with a butler bringing her a fresh pot of tea. In typical colonial fashion, she returns to her comfortable life and her crimes are left unpunished.

Archaeology of Video games

For many, video games offer a distraction from the harsh cry of reality. They grant us a chance to delve into a world unlike our own. I loved being able to shut off the demands of homework when I got back from school. One of my favorite games was Final Fantasy VII, the steampunk world that Square Soft invented was so far from my own mundane existence it was very easy to switch off and immerse myself into its story. But, my favorite games were the ones which took place in a medieval fantasy world, they had just the right blend of anotherness and familiarity to make me feel content. I loved running around derelict towns, and fantastical ruins that it awoke a part of me that I never thought about before – a love of history and archaeology.

I can name a few video games which use archaeology as it main premise, there is of course Tomb Raider, and her male equivalent Nathan Drake’s Uncharted.  These games mashed with the supernatural make archaeology a world not left to the dead. Although the realities of archaeology are hardly ever shown, it allows for the mystery to draw you in. For archaeology to truly be effective in video games, it’s not the truth or accurate depictions of history that need to be implemented. It’s the aesthetic quality of the archaeology, seeing ruins and the degradation of civilization is just as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying.

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An ancient elven temple in the Dragon Age: Inquisition’s DLC Trespasser  ©  Bioware

One of my favorite visuals in video games comes from the fantasy series Dragon Age, in the DLC Trespasser, your character travels to a number of abandoned and ruined temples to uncover a plot to take over southern Thedas during a period of political uncertainty. The temples and structures are ancient elven, although they could be picked right from the North York Moors or the Scottish Highlands. 

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Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire a “real” ancient elven temple.

The aesthetics for ancient elven ruins weren’t plucked from the artist’s imagination although there is definitely a degree of creative licensing. These ruins are based mostly off medieval monasteries, most of which were destroyed during Henry VIII’s reformation.  Ruins tend to inspire a distant world long gone, one that sparks our imagination. In 2013’s Tomb Raider Lara voyages to the land of Yamatai, a forgotten feudal kingdom off the south coast of Japan, the island is full of ruins, most which are remarkably still intact. Although running around the island killing cultists had some fun, I was taken back by the beauty of the Kofun-period ruins. Just like the elven ruins of Dragon Age, they aren’t picked from an artist’s imagination.

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The reboot of Tomb Raider in 2013, took place in Yamatai, an insland full of ruins  ©  Crystal Dynamics

When I lived in Japan, I visited a place called Nokogiriyama home to a sprawling Nihon-ji temple complex. There are a number of reliefs carved into the side of the mountain which definitely are reminisce of Yamatai’s Queen Himiko’s statues. Game environments like these allow us to explore the past from more than just a player’s perspective. Interaction is a key to gaming, a medium that has allowed us to explore ancient environs. When it’s done successfully, a la Tomb Raider and Dragon Age, it can inspire gamers to seek the real truths, or spark their own creative imaginations.

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Nokogiriyama definitely had some real life Yamatai vibes. It is home to one of the biggest buddhas in Asia.

There are the plenty of other examples of the use of archaeological ruins and artefacts, but these two are my favorites. There is something very much ingrained into our psyche about archaeology and the mystery of what our ancestors left behind. When we interact with these environments in game it allows us to think of its functionality, its beauty and its past. In Trespasser when we go further and further into the evanuris to discover the truth of the plot, we discover a past that in fact is very much like our present. A world full of conspiracy, intrigue, betrayal but yet one full of beauty and humanity.