Why Are Videogame Designers So Obsessed With Ruins?

Gaming's biggest blockbusters are often set amid the crumbling foundations of great civilizations. Why?

Perhaps the most-anticipated game of the year is called Titanfall, which takes place on a war-torn planet amid the ruins of a great civilization. This has become a standard trope: game creators routinely return to the well of ruins to set their games.

Our friends over at the gaming-centric art criticism publication Killscreen have a great piece about the aesthetic beauty of ruins, and why games from Fallout to Uncharted to The Last of Us are all set among the crumbling foundations of an older world. As Killscreen's David Chandler notes, ruins reinforce the concept that we are all delicate and mortal:

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.

Roman ruins via Comic Vine

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.

Humans have long been fascinated by ruins, whether they were musing on Grecian antiquities or visiting Mayan pyramids. We are intrigued by a vision of disorder, that what once was whole can be irrevocably broken.

Games, Chandler argues, are in a unique position to transform this ruins-gazing tradition into something active; not only do you gaze in a game, you also rebuild. Games often ask users to bring order to a disordered world, whether that's saving an alien race from destruction or building a line of blocks in Tetris. "Ruins provide an aesthetic setting that matches the core idea behind most games: to interact with a broken world and change it through play," Chandler writes.

Ruins also provide a fitting metaphor for the wildly competitive nature of game design. Writes Chandler:

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.

Read the whole piece here for more.

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3 Comments

  • Daniel Bullen

    Also, it provides an interesting urban-like environment without the computational load of having it "alive" and full of dynamic elements, like people, animals, vehicles etc.

  • David Hill

    Isn't it really just an excuse to have something to duck behind during gun battles. I don't buy that it's anything more sophisticated than that

  • Also having walls you can go up, down, over, through. It's probably easier to make "gray stone" textures to fill up levels. And don't forget all the barrels and crates.