I’m not ‘down with the kids’. I don’t play video games – I’d get way too addicted way too quickly. Still, I recognise them as an important medium by which imagined past times are disseminated and engaged with in the present. In particular, they are immersive and interactive past worlds. Hence, no matter how fantastical, they afford an unrivalled sense of navigating seascapes and landscapes that is deserving of archaeologists’ attention.
Modern video games are packed with archaeologically inspired themes and materials. These include not often only past material cultures (including treasures), buildings and landscapes – some broadly inspired in different measures by archaeological and historical sources as well as legendary and mythological themes – but of particular interest to me they can sometimes include direct inspirations from past funerary monuments and practices.
Addressing ‘mortuary archaeology’ in virtual gaming worlds, I recently edited a fascinating book chapter by Rachael Nicholson deriving from her 2016 student Dead Relevant conference paper. Published in the select proceedings of the conference – The Public Archaeology of Death – Nicholson explores themes in the mortuary archaeology of MMOs, MMORPGs and MOBAs (Nicholson 2019).
Rachael’s work is part of a burgeoning literature on archaeogaming – exploring archaeology in games as well as the archaeology of games. For example, in the forthcoming book of the 2nd student conference, from April 2017 – Public Archaeology: Arts of Engagement – there is chapter by former student Afnan Ezzeldin about ‘Archaeogaming as public archaeology’, identifying the rich potential for games to educate and inspire people to explore the human past. The growing interest in archaeogaming owes a considerable debt to the fieldwork and writings of Andrew Reinhard whose Archaeogaming website is a rich resource of themes and debates. His book is recently out and also called Archaeogaming (Reinhard 2018). Another recent valuable collection is by Mol et al. (2017). Yet to my limited knowledge, Rachael’s is the principal discussion of the mortuary dimensions of past societies portrayed in video games.
Moving forward, I’m keen to learn more regarding how video games portray mortuary archaeology, and early medieval funerals and cremation practices in past societies. To my delight, one of my super-helpful doctoral researchers – Abigail Downer – alerted my attention to the prominence of a cremation ceremony at the very start of the PS4 game God of War (2018), set in a fantastical yet detailed virtual world of Norse mythology. I watched the opening sections of the game-play in this fantastic YouTube video by Jacksepticeye.
Therefore, taking forward Nicholson’s (2019) funerary archaeogame focus, let me make some observations on the funeral of Faye, the giantess wife of Kratos, which creates a sombre start to God of War. Now through the early bits of the game I’ve viewed thanks to the YouTube video, the walking dead are among the enemies, and stone coffins containing treasures and human remains populate the environment, but here I want to discuss how a cremation ceremony serves as not only the starting point, but informs the structure and direction of the gameplay as Faye is cremated, then her ashes collected, and the quest is directed towards honouring her wishes of scattering her ashes from a mountaintop.
We start with a birch tree marked with a hand-print that Kratos then cuts down. He carries the trunk single-handedly and ties it to the back of the boat and drags it downstream. Once at a small jetty, he hauls the tree out and carries it across the snowy woodland to the pyre situated outside the cabin. We later learn that Faye had marked this tree to be used for her pyre, and in doing so the protective magical barrier around their home is broken.
Back at their home, the pyre is already part-prepared, several paces outside the main door.
The pyre set between two triads of low stone uprights. This doesn’t have a precise parallel in the archaeological record, but in crude terms it does evoke a range of shapes and sizes of funerary monument known across southern and central Scandinavia from the later Iron Age. Again, the stones (like the tree) bear the yellow hand-prints, suggesting Faye hand-marked those elements to be used to dispose of her remains. One is left to imagine Kratos moved the stones into place before also gathering the specific trees for the pyre.
While Kratos single-handedly splits the (surely now completely soaking) log to create fuel for the pyre, Atreus, Kratos’s son, walks into the dwelling and we see a shrouded corpse on a table ornamented with flowers and with candles placed around it. He lights the candles and says a prayer: an evocation of the afterlife destination of the dead akin to the speech of the slave-girl in the Rus funeral witnessed by when she is raised over the door-frame. Atreus then utters an incantation:
Lo, there do they call to me x 4.
Then, Kratos enters the dwelling as the boy stands back. He picks up the cadaver (somehow avoidingknocking over the many candles), having miraculously cut up the wide girth of the birch tree into smaller logs, and using it as the principal pyre material unseasoned and presumably dripping wet. There is kindling underneath, and the stones produce a practical framework for the pyre, but I honestly don’t think we have any Viking-period cremation pyres that were plausibly constructed in this fashion. I propose it is near impossible to use such large, unseasoned, soaking wet logs to cremate the dead, but this is fantasy land after all.
He carries the cadaver to the pyre, and uses his ludicrously big axe to strike a light and the pyre is lit within seconds! Again this is naive thinking, especially in the snow-covered environment with damp wood, but it does mirror Snorri’s Prose Edda in which Thor uses Mjolnir to light Baldr’s pyre.
An interesting part next transpires that speaks to the mnemonic significance of items retrieved from the funeral pyre: it is as if this is straight out of one of my publications about recycling iron blades and other martial artefacts from early medieval funeral pyres! As the pyre starts to burn but Atreus grabs the knife placed on top of the shrouded cadaver. Somehow, within seconds, the knife is already super-hot, and it burns Atreus’s hand when he decides to claim it before the flames rise higher: Kratos tends it with snow and then gives the knife to Atreus, stating it was once hers, but now it is his. It is as if the heating and retrieval of the artefact mark its transition to a new owner: a very nice touch! Notably, the knife becomes Atreus’s weapon for fighting against trolls and others and thus is instrumental in the boy-man rite of passage that the game charts for Atreus.
Then the game begins as the boy Atreus sets off to hunt deer while the pyre still burns. Again, this is odd, and reflects a modern desire for people not to witness the decomposition of the body by fire, as if this is somehow incidental to the funeral, rather than its primary focus. This once more reflects modern sentiments and starkly stands at odds with what we imagine took place in past funerals involving cremation where the pyre would need to be tended, guarded and witnessed as a means of honouring the dead.
At this point, I should also say that the cremation performed by a pair of individuals without a broader audience, while making sense in terms of the game’s storyline, does play to the romantic idea of cremation as a form of private mourning more than public spectacle. Viking funerals would have been religious and social events: day-long parties involving sex, violence and feasting. It must also be said that the wrapping of the body in the shroud to conceal the body is a doubtful part of early medieval cremations, and again reflects a modern aesthetic: bodies may have been lain on the pyre within coffins or covered by furs and clothing, but they might have been left on display with the artefacts placed with them rather than cocooned in a very late medieval shroud.
Having been critical on all these dimensions, it is important to note that open-air cremation is certainly a feature shared between the pre-Christian Greek and Norse worlds as revealed in later mythological and legendary literature and also the archaeological record. So this mode of disposal is appropriate and interesting.
What is significantly different about this cremation from other portrayals of the rite in television dramas and films is not simply that this game begins with a cremation, but that the treatment of the ashes is an integral part of the subsequent story. Kratos returns and collects the ashes into a leather bag bearing serpentine designs. This is ridiculously simple: as if ‘ashes’ are simply the ashes of the fire, rather than the bones of the skeleton shrunken, distorted and fragmented. Moreover, he seems unharmed by the intense heat of the still-cooling pyre. Still, by featuring this stage, God of War does more than many other popular culture representations to shed light on the importance of this stage in many cremating societies.
I confess I’m not going to stay through hours of game-play to see what transpires with the ashes, but if anyone knows a short-cut to their scattering I’d be very interested. But the aim is for Kratos and Atreus to take Faye’s ashes to the mountain top as their first quest in the game play.
It should already be clear why this is interesting and worthy of archaeological attention from what I’ve said about about the popular representation of cremation in past societies, as well as the growing field of archaeogaming. Let’s summarise though. This is a rare example in early 21st-century popular culture where ancient cremation ceremonies are shown extending beyond the burning of the pyre to multiple stages of disposal. A vast corpus of archaeological data shows that while cremation practices vary considerably over time and space, this aspect would have been a widespread feature of many past cremation ceremonies, whether ashes are scattered, buried or integrated into monuments and architectures. Cremation is a process, not an event.
So in this regard, God of War gets an Archaeodeath thumbs up as both interesting and educational. Certainly I present criticisms regarding the details of the pyre construction, pyre-lighting, the all-too-brief funeral ceremony, and the portrayal of ash-collecting, ech stage of which doesn’t really quite make sense in relation to either Norse mythology or archaeological and ethnographic evidence for open-air cremation ceremonies. But then, why should they be ‘accurate’? It’s just a game! What’s important is that this popular medium has chosen to use a cremation ceremony as a prominent dimension of its gameplay: this is deserving of archaeological recognition, scrutiny and debate.
Ezzeldin, A. forthcoming. Archaeogaming as public archaeology, in H. Williams, C. Pudney and A. Ezzeldin (eds) Public Archaeology: Arts of Engagement, Oxford: Archaeopress.
Mol, A.A.A., Ariese-Vandemeulebroucke, C.E., Boom, K.H.J. and Politopoulos, A. 2017. The Interactive Past: Archaeology, Heritage and Video Games. Leiden: Sidestone Press.
Nicholson, R. 2019. Here lies “ZOMBIESLAYER2000”, may he rest in pieces: mortuary archaeology in MMOs, MMORPGs and MOBAs, in H. Williams, B. Wills-Eve and J. Osborne (eds) The Public Archaeology of Death. Sheffield: Equinox, pp. 141-155.
Reinhard, A. 2018. Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games. Oxford: Berghahn.