I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
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. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias
- Fertile ground for the imagination
- Warnings that time consumes all
- Boring piles of rocks
I’m an A and B kind of person. Crumbling castles and empty cities are potent reminders that whole ways of being human have gone extinct. Look on my works, ye mighty, and feel an unresolvable existential angst.
I get something of that same frisson from other places that aren’t “ruins” exactly.
I lived for a few years in a “ye olde” part of Boston where some of the streets are still paved with cobblestones.
The red brick buildings had brass and iron bootscrapes still embedded alongside the doorways. On the nearby commercial street, the storefronts had sidewalk delivery doors. A few were still used, but others were cemented over, sealed forever as a ward against personal injury lawsuits, or simply because real estate agents never need to move produce in quantity.
My home state of Massachusetts was historically well-provided in the articles of tax revenues, lunatics, and a WASP-ish sense of propriety. This combination led to the construction of an extensive system of state mental hospitals, where the violently insane, neuro-atypical and mildly embarrassing were once warehoused for life. Budget cuts and new philosophies on psychiatric treatment destroyed the system in the 1960s and 70s, and the buildings were mostly still standing, and poorly-patrolled, in my youth.
You can find lots of urbex photos of them, but it’s not quite the same as tripping over rusty bedframes (complete with leather straps) as you stumble through a dark and rotting hallway.
Ruins in video games
There are ruins in video games, and forgotten places, too. They may exist within the game itself, or be buried in the released version, abandoned avenues of development.
The Goldeneye island
Goldeneye 007 was a game about mercilessly slaughtering your friends in splitscreen multiplayer. Usually, that’s how I played it. But sometimes a strange mood would take me, and the game became a wistfulness simulator.
There was a place in the first level of Goldeneye that you could not reach. Not just you. I couldn’t reach it; we were both of us James Bond, so he couldn’t reach it either. The place wasn’t much. A small island off in the far foggy distance, visible only from the far edge of an empty dock, and then only clearly through the magnifying scope of a sniper rifle.
I would stand on that dock and look at that island, and I would think: There is more to this world than I am experiencing. I was right, but I had the context wrong.
As I later learned, the island was debris left over from an earlier version of the level. The developers planned to have the player take a boat there and do something, until they changed their minds. The idea was scrapped, but the island remained, forgotten and useless and beckoning to me from across the flat and blurry waves.
Other “lost” content
Many people with better work ethics than me are similarly fascinated by this kind of “what could have been” examination of games, both released and unreleased. If you’re a strange obsessive, here are a few strong recommendations:
- Lost Levels, curated by former journalist and current game dev Frank Cifaldi, is a fantastic source for information on unreleased games. Lately his tumblr, covering beta versions of released games as well as unreleased games, has been more active.
- Unseen64 covers unreleased games and beta versions of released games. I like their longer-form articles.
- This Eurogamer article about “The quest for Shadow of the Colossus’ last big secret” offers some great tidbits about the game and the psychology of the people who can’t stop searching for its furthest islands.
The Goldeneye island caught my imagination by accident, but other games make deliberate use of ruins. Dark Souls communicates a lot about its world by suggesting how the places you visit have changed since their glory days. The inevitability of decline and decay are key themes in the game, and the use of environmental design to drive that home is especially effective.
My home base for the majority of the game. I never learned what this crumbling shrine used to be, but odds are it was connected to the sun god worship that used to be the prevailing religion in the area. Until the sun god disappeared and the world started to collapse and everything got all horrible.
Firelink Shrine is pretty. It reminds me of the 17th-19th century paintings of Greek and Roman ruins that made great allowances for picturesqueness over geographical accuracy. Like many of those paintings, the design of Firelink also focuses on the way that nature reclaims ruins. It’s one of the few hopeful notes in an otherwise grim and cynical world.
New Londo Ruins
Calling a city “New Londo Ruins” sets certain expectations. The schools are probably terrible, and odds are the restaurant scene is limited—count yourself lucky if you can find a few decent takeout places. The reality of New Londo in Dark Souls is far worse, easily delivering on the promise of the name.
I visited the moonlit, waterlogged stone piles of New Londo soon after beginning Dark Souls, but the presence of some tough and spoooooky ghosts drove me back until much later. When I returned, a magical bureaucrat explained what happened here. “Ancient evil arose. Pretty bad one. Had to seal the city.”
The bureaucrat drained the water from the city so that I could proceed with my
video game heroic quest, and it wasn’t until I reached the newly opened depths that I realized “seal the city” was Newspeak for “drown them all.”
The floor was made of corpses. Thousands of people had been killed when they flooded New Londo. They, and their buildings and children and culture, were collateral damage. Ruins.
New Londo namesake Anor Londo was perfectly preserved but conspicuously empty when when I arrived midway through Dark Souls.
Turns out this “city of the gods” was abandoned by the deities as their power waned. The glorious sunlight that wreaths its spires is an illusion, as are the few remaining inhabitants. The one god remaining in the city spends her time desperately maintaining those illusions. It’s rather sad.
No one can turn back time—not even the gods.