In 2014, Alientrap Games delighted classics-lovers, gamers, and classics-loving-gamers with Apotheon, designed by Lee Vermeulen and Jesse McGibney. The game, as you may well know, is a beautiful, action-packed 2D platform for Steam and PS4, delivered in an imitation black-figure vase style. It takes a hero, Nikandreos, on a mission through worlds of classical statues and mythological bosses to save humanity by defeating the gods. We caught up with Dr Paprocki to find out a little about the making-of...
Above, a sample of Apotheon's game-play.
1) Part of your role in the creation of Apotheon was to develop the plot with ancient traditions in mind. Would you tell us a bit about that?
When I began working for Alientrap, the developers knew only that they wanted an ancient Greek-flavoured story, with the designated hero fighting the gods and taking their powers for himself. I was brought in to add flesh and bones to that idea. As a mythology consultant, I made sure that Apotheon stayed as true to the Greek succession myth as possible: I consulted the game narrative/story, co-designed characters and wrote dialogues.
We started with a glimmer of an idea: Jesse McGibney suggested that we could elaborate upon the myth of the five generations of man, which is outlined in Hesiod’s Works and Days. According to Hesiod, humanity has passed through five stages of development (the Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroic and Iron generations), becoming crueller and unrulier as the epochs went by. Hesiod prophesied that at the height of the Iron generation, humans will no longer feel shame or indignation at wrongdoing; babies will be born with grey hair and the gods will have completely forsaken humanity. This sounded like the perfect apocalyptic moment; to begin spinning our yarn - and so we did.
The game starts at the end of the Iron Age, when Zeus decrees the final separation between deities and humanity so that the current generation may die out. The Olympian gods remove their divine faculties from the earth, whereas minor gods of the countryside leave the world and travel to live on Mount Olympus until the earth is cleansed of humanity. As a result, Mount Olympus becomes a crowded divine ‘refugee camp’, whilst the civilization collapses as forests and oceans become barren, springs and rivers run dry and crops fail under the sunless sky.
The game story follows Nikandreos, a young Greek warrior from Dion in Macedonia. During an attack on his hometown, Nikandreos is plucked from the battle by Hera and urged by her to topple Zeus, whose affairs have deeply wounded the Queen of the Gods. Hera directs Nikandreos to wrestle or win six iconic badges of office from Apollo, Artemis, Demeter, Ares, Poseidon, and Athena — and thus absorb divine shares of honour (in Greek, τιμᾶι, timai) held within; furthermore, the player may decide to collect the items of four remaining Olympian gods (that is, Aphrodite’s girdle, Dionysus’ kantharos cup, Hermes’ sandals, and Hephaestus’ hammer). At the beginning of the third act, Hera immortalises Nikandreos and imbues him with her own timē so that he may become powerful enough to challenge Zeus. What ensues is a heated thunderbolt battle, the outcome of which determines who truly deserves the position of King of the Gods.
2) Your research into trouble between Zeus and the Titans seems like a great match for that plot. How did you bring your research into the plot development?
In my research, I am keenly interested in what I call theologies of ancient Greek epics. I investigate what Greek myths tell us about the nature and role of gods, focusing on their powers and relationships with other deities. Establishing this line of enquiry, Jenny Strauss Clay has studied Archaic literary depictions of the Olympian gods, showcasing how they create political hierarchies and vie for power at Zeus’ court. Building on Professor Clay’s interpretations, I research non-Olympian deities, exploring how non-Olympian gods express their dissatisfaction with the Olympian politics of Zeus and defend their rights and privileges. Accordingly, I am fascinated by civil strife on Olympus: I look closely at under-dogs, gods ignored or disparaged, those who rebel against Zeus.
Apotheon alludes to and plays with these myths: during his journeys, Nikandreos learns that the edict of Zeus has deeply divided divine society, with many greater and lesser deities (including Helios, Thetis, Persephone and Daphne) deciding to clandestinely oppose the divine establishment and assist Nikandreos in his quest. Deities slighted by Zeus and his family could pity humanity: wouldn’t these divine dissidents do something about humanity’s imminent destruction? Other, even more pointed questions also needed to be asked. Could you really kill a Greek god? If yes, how? As a mythology advisor, I had to find out how the gods functioned as three-dimensional characters for Homer and Hesiod; the second step was to apply these newly-discovered rules to rewrite gods into believable characters who would interact with Apotheon’s players in thought-provoking ways.
3) What was the influence of the Ancient Greek pottery on the game design?
When Apotheon lead designers, Lee Vermeulen and Jesse McGibney, were looking for inspiration regarding the art aesthetics, they found out that very few games emulate historic art styles, with arguably the only well-known example for Greek art being Rock of Ages. Having familiarised themselves with ancient Greek art and storytelling aesthetics, they found that the art medium and the message complement each other perfectly: accordingly, they set out to design a game that would look as if its narrative unfolded on a piece of ancient Greek pottery.
One crucial decision Lee and Jesse had to make was whether to emulate the black-figure or the red-figure pottery style. In terms of design, they found black-figure style much more forgiving to work with. In the black-figure style, every solid object is painted black, with the ochre body of the pot providing a uniform background. In contrast, the red-figure style has ochre-tinted characters on black backgrounds. The question was which style would accommodate more detail: black-figure characters can have ochre backgrounds (positive space), whereas red-figure characters stand against unchanging black backgrounds (negative space). Since characters and objects are smaller than backgrounds, Jesse chose to adopt the black-figure style as more appealing and adaptable.
One consequence of that choice was that primary colours of sprawling backgrounds could differ between locations to provide variation. Ochre backgrounds appear in the human world and on Mount Olympus, contrasted by pale blue-greys of Poseidon’s seas, midnight blues of Hades’ Underworld and lush greens of Artemis’ woodlands. Another hurdle was that black-figure pottery rarely contains detailed backgrounds, so Jesse had to create them from scratch. He spent a long time studying Greek art and identified common patterns he could borrow while designing trees, furniture and buildings. The result is a style that strongly resembles a Greek vase, but would never be mistaken for one of them.
4) You've mentioned the importance of including ancient traditions. What balance was aimed at between fun and education, and how far do you think that was achieved?
Apotheon was not designed as a learning tool—nevertheless, it engages with numerous myths, inserted to enhance players’ immersion in the game world. When one deals with such a diverse and convoluted body of material as the Greek mythology, it becomes crucial to ease an audience into the unfamiliar material so that they can gradually understand the setting and characters. In retrospect, I believe that Apotheon succeeded in balancing familiar and unfamiliar material. The first stage of the game takes place on earth, in the village of Dion, as you battle against human raiders. At the temple rise of Dion, you get to meet Hera, a very well-known goddess, who from that point on guides you in your quest against the gods of Olympus. The first three gods to defeat, Apollo, Artemis and Demeter, respectively represent sunlight, animals and plant growth, bare necessities of human life Nikandreos must obtain to save his village. All in all, the first stages of the game build on recognisable story motifs, simultaneously setting stage for the more complex myth material ahead.
The game recreates the Greek myth-scape through careful world-building. Weapons, potions, locations and beings encountered and referenced in-game closely resemble those described in ancient Greek texts, with players gaining a measure of working knowledge about their mythical counterparts. To increase player immersion, we decided to blend Archaic Greek art with period weapons and artefacts of the myth. In a fight, Nikandreos can wield several types of armaments (including doru - spear, xiphos - sword, labrys - axe, and kopis - sabre ), furthermore, he can imbibe healing and warding potions brewed from dittany of Crete (a herb well known to Harry Potter fans!), olive oil, milk of moly root (used by Odysseus against Circe) and other ingredients. However, my chief objective was to steep Apotheon in ancient Greek literature: accordingly, I prepared 50 passages from ancient Greek writers (ranging from Homer to Oppian of Apamea), which were inserted into the game as inscriptions to immerse players in the game world and provide them with backstories of deities and monsters to be encountered. We know that some players skip the inscriptions; nonetheless, those who read them often praise the inclusion and note their increased understanding of the game narrative. Hopefully, some are encouraged to go even deeper and look up other facts on gods and heroes encountered within the game. It would be my greatest joy to learn that the game inspired players to read about Greek mythology!
5) Would you tell us a bit about what you're working on at the moment?
My main task now is to write a book on a family of gods I've dubbed ‘the Hyperionides’. These are the descendants of the Titans Hyperion and Theia; the group includes characters such as Selene (the Moon), Eos (the Dawn), Helios (the Sun) and his children (the witches: Kirke and Pasiphaë, and the kings: Aeëtes and Perses) and grandchildren (such as Medea, Ariadne, Phaedra and Glaukos). The Hyperionides are fascinating offshoots of the early Greek mythical imagination, balancing precariously between gods and mortals, becoming embroiled in the exploits of Heracles, Jason, Theseus, Hippolytus and Odysseus.
One thing that intrigues me about the Hyperionides is that Helios, Eos and Selene apparently have a functional connection to Nyx (Night), a primordial deity Zeus himself is explicitly said to fear (Homer, Iliad, 14.251-261). In the Odyssey, Helios, unable to directly punish Odysseus’ crew for slaughtering his cattle, extorts his revenge from Zeus, threatening to go and shine amongst the dead if his demands are not met (12.377-378). Were Helios to truly leave, Nyx would probably bring about eternal night in the sun’s absence. Helios’ attempt at blackmail uncharacteristically does not infuriate Zeus, who patiently placates the sun god: I like to think that Zeus recognises Helios’ disturbing potential to upset the cosmic order—expressly as the sun’s light is vital for plant growth. Ancient potters also recognised the connection between Helios and Nyx: on a terracotta lekythos attributed to the Sappho Painter (Metropolitan Museum, 41.162.29), we see Helios rise from the horizon in his four-horse chariot, as Nyx and Eos respectively drive away to the left and right. The ancient Greeks reimagined the eternal cycle of night and day as a never-ending race between these heavenly charioteers: should one of them ever quit, the consequences would be catastrophic!
Metropolitan Museum (USA) (41.162.29).
6) Who's you favourite ancient Greek?
I think I’d pick Thetis, Achilles’ mother. Thetis is a fascinating character. She was destined to bear a son more powerful than his father; to avert this threat to his kingship, Zeus married her off by force to his mortal grandson, Peleus, to whom Thetis bore Achilles. Peleus wrestled with Thetis and had to subdue her before receiving her hand in marriage.
I believe that Thetis’ appeal lies in her ambiguity, her constant oscillation between power and vulnerability. In her seminal work (The Power of Thetis), Laura Slatkin demonstrates that the Iliad presents Thetis as a formerly powerful, yet ultimately marginalised deity. The Iliad suggests that Thetis once played an active role in divine affairs, having rescued Hephaistos and Dionysus and having freed Zeus from bonds put on him by rebellious Olympians. Curiously, in the timeframe of the Iliad, Thetis appears mostly passive. She inexplicably knows a lot about future and past happenings, she carries enormous clout, and she indirectly influences the war, but she exercises her power indirectly, only through calling in favours from Zeus and Hephaistos. Slatkin noted that Thetis still blames Zeus for her arranged marriage, yet she never directly opposes him, as if some unseen factor forestalled her wrath.
Notably, Thetis was one of very few goddesses subdued (and probably raped) by a mortal, with pottery depictions of the wrestling match between her and Peleus often hinting at erotic violence. My favourite depiction of their fight is shown on Douris’ Attic red-figured kylix from Vulci (Cabinet des médailles, BNF (Inv. 539)), which you can see here:
The pottery piece has a gigantic Thetis thrashing and shapeshifting into a lioness, as she towers over boyish, clean-faced Peleus, stressing their difference in status. Peleus encircles Thetis’ waist—and simultaneously, her womb, from where the powerful son was meant to come—with his hands. The mortal man rigidly clutches the waist of the goddess, pushing her downwards, as if to fix the body in a spot. His hands lock in a swirly pattern, resembling a spiral or the Greek key. No transformation of Thetis can break Peleus’ grip, as if this simple gesture took advantage of her greatest vulnerability. The static scene has no obvious resolution. Being immortal, Thetis could have simply waited Peleus out, but for some unknown reason, she did not. As it is, Thetis’ story remains markedly incomplete, with an unspoken gulf in the narrative - and that's what makes it attractive to me!
Thank-you very much to Dr Maciej Paprocki for sharing these insights into a remarkable game and some fascinating research.
You can follow Maciej on Twitter at @maciejwpaprocki , and you can hear the talks from his recent conference, The Other Crowd - Nethergods in the ancient Greek mythical imagination (co-organised with Dr Ellie Mackin Roberts and Gary Vos) at: https://cast.itunes.uni-muenchen.de/vod/playlists/CIdxGO5j8a.html
If you enjoyed this and are keen on antiquity and games, you may also like to follow these further Twitter accounts: @Archaeogaming, @adreinhard (Dr Andrew Reinhard), @ArchaeoEthics, @GingeryGamer (Meghan Dennis), and @Paigniographos (Dr Dunstan Lowe). And of course, if you're all set to take on the gods, head for Apotheon at: www.apotheongame.com.