Ryse Son of Rome: On Civilization

There’s a special place in my heart for 6 / 10 game narratives that hit all their major beats. When a game has a story that’s unambitious, pretty derivative, something you could reconstruct entirely from the pieces of other stories – but that still manages to hit all its beats – to me, that’s just perfect. We had a similar conversation about Call of Duty: WWII back in 2020 – I don’t really have a problem with derivative video games. I think they’re cute. That’s convenient for this week’s game – Ryse: Son of Rome.

Ryse is a 2013 hack and slash game from Crytek, a major game company responsible for the Crysis and Far Cry franchises. It kinda feels like Space Marine crossed with the aesthetic of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – that’s anachronistic, as Hellblade didn’t come out until 2017, but that’s the feel I’d attribute to the game. It’s a very pretty game that also has that iconic dumb-as-rocks hack and slash gameplay. And the story is just so solid. It opens at the end, with a high-ranking Roman soldier Marius (our player-character) leading Emperor Nero to safety during a barbarian invasion. They hole up in a secret safe room, and Marius starts telling Nero his life story. And you know – you just immediately know, right from the moment they start talking – that Nero betrayed Marius in some way and that this whole thing will turn out to be Marius’s revenge. Nero has overtones of Juan Borgia the Elder, from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Marius is both stern and distant, both angry and clearly keeping it in check. And that’s more or less how the game unfolds. We learn that Marius’s father was running to be a senator, and posed a political threat to the emperor Nero. In response, Nero sent a bunch of barbarians to invade Marius’s family home and murder his father and the rest of his family. The bulk of the story then sees Marius sent on campaign to Briton, where he fights a barbarian rebellion and puts up with the interference of Nero’s wretched children, and slowly realises that Nero was behind his father’s murder. The mismanagement of Briton by Nero’s kids allows the rebellion to succeed, and Marius and the Roman army retreat back to Rome. The barbarians (led by Boudica) follow and invade Rome, and in the game’s climactic sequence, Marius has to both defend Rome from its enemies and purge its decadent leadership, thus avenging his father and restoring the empire to its strength and glory.

In a sense, Ryse is a story of national rejuvenation. The nation’s leaders are corrupt and stupid, the nation becomes unstable, and a figure who embodies the national spirit has to step up and get the nation back on course. That’s the story of David and Goliath – or more broadly, rather, it’s the story of Saul and David. Israel is a nation under God, but Saul, its king, disobeys God. The nation becomes unstable, it becomes vulnerable to its enemies in the Philistines, and David, who obeys God, restores Israel to its glory by reaffirming its national character – by demonstrating his obedience to God. You can find further examples of the same basic pattern – Macbeth, arguably? Or the James Bond film Spectre: Andrew Scott plays a secret Spectre agent who has infiltrated the British government and is pushing it towards joining a global surveillance network. Fortunately, Bond (as the bastion of British national character) stops him and manages to course-correct the UK away from becoming a surveillance state. It’s a bit of a weird film, if you think about it. In any case, Ryse isn’t showing us anything revolutionary. From the very old to the very recent, we’ve seen this type of story a billion times before. The interesting part, really, is how Ryse chooses to portray the national character of Rome.

The basic opposition at play in Ryse is between Rome, as a symbol of civilization, and the tribes of Britain, who represent primitive chaos. It’s definitely quite racist, tapping into the same binary that underpinned the colonial enterprise – it’s all built around very Western ideas of what constitutes civility and barbarism. After the Romans land in Dover to quash the barbarian uprising, the Roman commander Vitallion gives a speech to his men, outlining these differences in detail. The barbarians, he says, are “a race of rabid bastards who’ll fight us tooth and nail.” Note that the weapons of choice are not sword and shield, weapons crafted by the forge, but the organic weapons available by nature of birth – a little rhetorical gesture towards the animalistic, uncivilized nature of the barbarians. Rome, by contrast, is “civilization,” “order,” and “power.” The conflict between the two groups is thus existential, with the fate of human nature at stake. As Marius muses in the opening to the final level: “If Rome falls, then our world will descend into darkness. Chaos will lay waste to civilization.” Rome is a fragile but important human achievement, a society uplifted from their savage native state and elevated towards some higher cause. The barbarians symbolize the basic regression that threatens such a society. As with zombie stories, if the heroes lose, they don’t just die – they regress into the thing that they are besieged by. The physical battle against this slavering horde represents the heroes almost struggling against themselves, struggling to maintain their humanity in the face of entropy and the flaws of human nature.

The major battleground in this struggle for civilization is around the concept of revenge. When the initial Briton rebellion is brought to a halt, the barbarian king, Oswald, explains that one of Nero’s sons has been traded to a tribe in the north: “We Britons lived in peace under the rule of the old Roman chieftain. But this new Chieftain Commodus, son of your king, is evil. He deserves the fate he is suffering.” The chaos of the Britons is the chaos of revenge, of retributive justice. Commodus hurts us, and we hurt him back. But this cycle has no end. When Commodus is freed and given instruction to make peace with the Britons, he instead murders Oswald: “Now you see what happens when you defy me?” Thus the cycle continues: the barbarian rebellion escalates, and the Romans are pushed out of Briton and back into the mainland. Boudica swiftly follows with her army, keen to exact her own retribution. The chaotic Britons thrive off the logic of revenge, and when the leaders of Roman civilization behave similarly, their nation is brought under threat. Civilization, according to Ryse, is that which transcends simple retribution. Revenge is the sickness that threatens its continued existence, and which must be purged in order for the city to survive.

Given this framing, the heroism of Marius – his arc, really – is his developing understanding around the concept of revenge. Obviously at the start of the game his family is murdered by Nero. Once he figures that out, he wants revenge, and adopts the persona of Damocles in order to avenge his family. Ryse reinterprets the story of Damocles as a sort of ghostly revenge tale: in this telling, Damocles is a betrayed soldier, returned to the world as a vengeful spirit, “a ghostly black-armoured centurion who would hunt down and kill each of the generals who had wronged him.” Marius continues within the rubric of revenge, but it is legitimized or cleansed as a role divinely appointed by the gods. As Marius kills Nero and his sons, it is an act of revenge for the murder of Marius’s family, but also for the soldiers who died under the mismanagement of Nero’s sons, and for the broader threat that the family poses to civilization. It is not the cyclic, individualistic, tribal conflict of the Britons and Commodus, but a purifying vengeance, reasserting the structure and norms of civilization by casting down those who transgress against it.

In the final level Marius sets aside the Damocles persona and returns to his soldier’s garb. He completes his arc not as a mystical spirit of revenge, but as a citizen of Rome, as a participant in the civilization that he seeks to protect. He executes Nero, ironically impaling him on the sword held by a giant Nero statue. And then Marius dies as well, overcome by the wounds he’s sustained. His revenge is not for himself, not for his own benefit – it is sacrificial, setting the needs of Rome above his own, even to the point of laying down his life. Where retributive justice operates on a system of exchange – getting what you deserve, returning wrongs, an eye for an eye – Marius transcends, replacing revenge with sacrifice – accepting personal loss for the sake of something greater. As I say – it’s not necessarily an original story. I think the influences from other texts and traditions are fairly obvious. But when it’s so consistent in its vision and hits those beats so reliably – it’s just beautiful. Love this game. Solid 6 / 10.

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