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The Greek National Character

June 17th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · Feature:Nations, History

What this is about, including full list.

The Greeks are the Ur-culture for us in the West. Though our religious traditions are putatively Middle Eastern, our understandings of man’s relationship with other men, with nature, with society, and with the divine are very Greek. This shouldn’t be surprising, since even those Middle Eastern religious traditions were mediated through a Greek lens; the Levant had been Hellenized almost three centuries before the Romans showed up, and you can see bits of Greek philosophy throughout the Christian scriptures; even the Rabbinical writings. Thomas Aquinas made Aristotle palatable for the Middle Ages, the Renaissance was all about rediscovering what the Greeks had known and voila, we are all Greeks now.

The irony, of course, is that when most of us think of the glory of Greece we are really thinking of the glory of Athens. It flatters us to see our ancestors as good as we think we are – wise and democratic and rich, building great buildings and encouraging math and science. Ancient Greek culture was varied, of course; from the military state of Sparta to the tyrannies of Syracuse. Plus all the city states like Thebes and Corinth, and islands like Rhodes and Crete, and hinterlands like Macedonia and Magna Graecia, mostly separate from classical Greek history until they decide to take starring roles.

As I noted in the entry on French character, culture is elusive as a game variable. You can certainly have it as a factor, mathematize it. But to weaponize it and make it an attractive option is more difficult. That’s probably why the Civ games have generally looked to Alexander as the great Greek hero even though he really doesn’t embody many of the attributes we generally associate with the Glory of Greece. He was a man of empire, not city states. He didn’t just honor the gods, he aspired to be one. He may have been a man of culture, but he was mostly a man of war. He didn’t simply punish cities, he razed them. He could be considered the first “modern” conqueror of the classical world, a breaking point in Greek culture since all the rulers that came after him saw him as the model despite his brief life.

This is where the national bonuses come in, of course. Rise of Nations can honor Alexander with strong Greek cavalry, but lets make sure they also get bonuses at the university. Civ 5 can have the perfect Alexandrian war machine (before the latest patch, it was almost unstoppable once you had horseback riding), but also include that diplomatic bonus for dealing with city states, since that’s what the Greeks did, right?

The best historical Greek game, of course, is Hegemony: Gold, from Longbow Digital Arts. No other game comes even close to understanding how distance, terrain and politics kept the Greek states divided and made Philip’s hegemony over Greece a wonder of diplomacy and warfare. It isn’t great for understanding how the developers (and us) understand the Greeks as a people, but it’s simply brilliant in understanding them as an historical artifact.

When people ask me how I got interested in ancient history, though, my answer reveals why two games have excelled at bringing the Greece we want to believe in to life. As a kid, it was all about the myths. And just as Alexander paid homage to the shade of Achilles, the most Greek of the strategy games do honour to the myths that are some of the foundations of our literature.

Whenever I write about Age of Mythology, I usually dip into one of two modes. First, it is a simply brilliant design. It has two interweaving cycles of rock/paper/scissors in units and three factions so distinct that you cannot copy strategies easily from one to the next. And yet, it is still immediately easy to understand if you get what an RTS is. Second, it’s stupid fun watching monsters eat stuff and knock things down. Only Rise of Legends has cooler creatures, but you have no damned idea what any of them are.

But Age of Mythology also has one of the only story based campaigns in an RTS that speaks to me as a story. It is consciously framed and elaborated as a myth. The hero, Arkantos, must regain the blessing of Poseidon for his home of Atlantis and to do so he must travel far and wide undertaking many labors. He meets other heroes and voyages to distant Egypt and the Northlands (have to get those factions in there) building to a climactic battle against an evil Titan. True, most of the scenarios are the usual build barracks, build soldiers, kill soldiers, build more, etc. model but the overall arc and the scenario goals make sense in the context of an epic tale. Arkantos gets as appropriate reward for victory, but it is bittersweet as the rewards in most Greek myths end up being.

The Greek mythic world is so strong and evocative that Ensemble clearly had no problem thinking about which gods to include, what their powers would be or which monsters and heroes to have (of course, only the Greeks have named heroes – that’s how they roll). Even the single expansion, Titans, was more Greek myth instead of going to China or India or Mesoamerica. Of all three factions, the Greeks were the most traditional, for sure. But they were also the most thought out and the one that spoke immediately to my heart.

The Impressions city-builder Zeus had some of this spirit as well. Like most of the Impressions games, it had a pretty weak historical grounding in ancient class systems. It did however let its hair down for once and try to have fun. The architecture was a little off, the walkers seemed a little happier and heroes and monsters and gods walked the street. Zeus was Xena, a light fantasy world where missions popped up and you would solve them and then move on to the next monster of the week.

By focusing heavily on the implementation of Greek hero stories and myth, Ensemble and Impressions are able to transport us to a pre-classical Greece that still feels sort of like the Greece we know from Herodotus and Thucydides. Leonidas didn’t hold the pass with 300 spearmen, 5 centaurs and a cyclops; in fact he didn’t hold the pass at all. In a way, these games carry on the philosophy of Darklands, the old Microprose RPG set in medieval Germany as the Germans believed it to be.

In the end, we have absorbed and twisted all the Greek philosophies. The math and natural history has been superseded or disproven. But Hercules still has strength. Achilles is still swift of foot. And Odysseus is still trying to find his way home. The very best games with Greek themes speak not about Greek character as much as they speak the to child in us that first fell in love with those stories.

Coming up, India. One billion strong and growing.


8 Comments so far ↓

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  • Patronicus

    While I would say it’s unfortunate that viewing the the Greek national character through the lens of classical Greece neglects modern Greece, frankly you weren’t depriving your readers of much. One can only shake their head at Greece’s sorry post-1821 history with its accounts of poverty, political unrest, civil war, and dictatorship.
    Personally, I assign blame for Greece’s decline to the centuries-long Ottoman occupation, which saw a noble, confident and educated Byzantine Greek culture decay to mountain banditry and insular backwardness. The Greek’s elite of the day may have preferred the Turkish turban to the Papal tiara, but Ottoman Greece’s accounts of intellectuals fleeing to Italy, the fragmentation of Greek into regional dialects while absorbing Turkish loanwords, populations retreating to remote villages to avoid taxes, the stifling of travel due to the prohibition on non-Muslims riding horses all remind me of a certain proverb about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

  • Prof. Loewy-Brueller

    I absolutely adore this series. It single-handedly elevates your blog to the best strategy game blog in all houses. Thanks, Troy. Looking forward to the next one.

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  • Kalle

    One of the things that stood out to me in Hegemony was how they used shrine descriptions to evoke the feeling that religion and myth was all around. There was the cave where Cheiron lived. This was where Hercules cleared out the stables. It was a small thing, but the sheer number of places revered and honored made me see the game world a little more like the ancient greeks. The world was infinitely smaller than ours, much wilder, and myth and history were the same.

  • Troy

    Very good point, Kalle and I had forgotten all about that.

  • LoneWolf

    The Misery of being Greek and all that stuff.

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