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A Bloody Video Game Ode on a Grecian Urn

A temple in collapse in 'Apotheon,' a video game influenced by Greek vases (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)
A temple in collapse in ‘Apotheon,’ a video game influenced by Greek vases (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

Ancient Greek pottery was as much about its stories as its forms. Cavorting satyrs, wrathful deities, battling athletes, and mortal warriors are frozen in this mythology of clay. Apotheon brings that classical world to life as a full-length animated video game.

Scene from 'Apotheon' (GIF by the author via YouTube)
Scene from ‘Apotheon’ (GIF by the author via YouTube)

Released through Steam by Alientrap this month for PC and PS4, Apotheon is a gorgeous interpretation of the black-figure Greek pottery style of the 6th to 4th centuries BCE. As the intrepid Nikandros, you’re on a one-man quest against Zeus, who has left humanity to rot. Teaming up with Hera, who is unhappy as usual with Zeus’s philandering, you battle your way through the Olympians, from Apollo with his dance party to Poseidon in a wrathful sea. Mostly it’s a standard progression in each level from small tasks to killing a “boss” with whatever xiphos or doru you have handy. In the most beautiful sequence, and the best to grasp the twists of fate entwined in Greek mythology, you first chase Artemis disguised as a deer through a forest, then later have to flee her bow when transformed into prey yourself.

Boat on an Attic black-figure cup (520 BC) (via Cabinet des Médailles)
Boat on an Attic black-figure cup (520 BCE) (via Cabinet des Médailles)
On a Greek ship
On a Greek ship in ‘Apotheon’

I played Apotheon on my MacBook Air (not the intended platform) and the gameplay was a bit cumbersome, combining a mix of defense and weaponry that takes some getting used to. If you play without a console, you have to juggle between a mouse for targeting and keyboard shortcuts for movement and fighting. However, I was in it for the visuals, curious after discovering the Greek vase animations of Steve K. Simons last year to see how they would be incorporated into a game. Most of the play of Apotheon is basically kill-kill-kill, and the endless slaughter can be gleefully gruesome, with heads flying and animated blood sometimes spilling down the stairs. This is ancient Greece, after all, so propriety is not to be expected. More variation in gameplay would have been an exciting way to break up the action, though. Perhaps some chariot competitions, bacchanalian drinking challenges, foot races, or other spectacles depicted on the historic vases might have made for a welcome break from the bloodshed.

Nevertheless, the game is strikingly vivid from start to finish. There’s an impressive depth to the hues of ochre, green, and gold through which Nikandros plunges as you encounter poor Daphne transformed into a laurel tree in Apollo’s garden, or fall beneath the giant club of the cyclops Brontes. It’s not an educational game on classical art by any means, but it is notable for successfully embracing an ancient aesthetic and reinterpreting it centuries later in an entirely modern medium.

Black-figure Greek vase (via Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon)
Black-figure Greek vase (via Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon)
Illuminating the dark in 'Apotheon'
Illuminating the dark in ‘Apotheon’
A temple in 'Apotheon'
A temple in ‘Apotheon’
Encountering a cyclops
Encountering a cyclops in ‘Apotheon’
Teaming up with Hera against Zeus, with a preview of Artemis
Teaming up with Hera against Zeus, with a preview of Artemis in ‘Apotheon’
Daphne transformed into a laurel tree
Daphne transformed into a laurel tree in ‘Apotheon’

Apotheon is available on Steam for PC and PS4.

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