Forms in Light

Some Things Last Some of the Time

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #132. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.


Architecture and games.


Walk around the game world in Ashen for long enough and you’ll pick up on something strange: the place is filled with ruins. These are meant to be the products of a civilization which has long since fallen from glory. In any case, the decaying remains of what are supposed to have once been settlements can be seen in each and every corner of the game world. The first one of these which you’ll come across is called Vagrant’s Rest. This becomes your home early in the game.

When you first set foot in Vagrant’s Rest, you’ll find that a bunch of bandits and brigands have turned the place into their hideout. Vagrant’s Rest is really just a random collection of sheds and shacks at this point in time, but it slowly transforms into a stately settlement as you progress in the game. The piles of rocks and rubble disappear after you drive out the bandits and brigands. The collapsed columns are put back on their socles. People start filling the streets. You come across Vagrant’s Rest in a sorry state, but the place looks pretty prosperous late in the game. The settlement transforms from a ghost town into a boom town right before your eyes.

When it comes to architecture, things don’t tend to last for a very long time. Buildings have a habit of disappearing. People frequently demolish them on purpose, but they’re sometimes allowed to fall apart on their own. While it doesn’t happen very often, buildings can last for hundreds or even thousands of years, though. In its depiction of settlements, Ashen raises the question of why some structures are preserved and others aren’t. Vagrant’s Rest provides quite a bit of insight into this question, but settlements like Einarden Reach are worthy of some consideration, too. The answer mostly has to do with how settlements are reoccupied after being abandoned.

You might remember that I once wrote a piece called “Some Things Last Forever.” You might also remember that I once wrote a piece called “Nothing Lasts Forever.” This led me to the conclusion that I simply had to call this particular piece “Some Things Last Some of the Time.” In any case, let’s take a look at what Ashen can tell us about how buildings are preserved.

As an archaeologist, I’ve noticed that settlements are often abandoned. This happens for a variety of different reasons, but in cases where settlements aren’t reoccupied, the buildings in them decay to the point of collapse. The only parts of these buildings which remain after a while are their foundations. These are buried over time as dirt and dust accumulate on top of them. When settlements are reoccupied, people tend to preserve some of the buildings, though. Structures are often taken apart to have their materials recycled and reused, but people sometimes also renovate them. You can see both of these processes at work in Ashen. Vagrant’s Rest and Einarden Reach provide the best examples of this. You can see some of the same things in Rome, so let’s compare these parts of the game world to this part of the real world.

Vagrant’s Rest becomes a burgeoning settlement after you drive the brigands and bandits from their hideout. Buildings can be seen popping up all over the place. You won’t see anyone demolishing the decaying structures, though. These are definitely dismantled, but the most useful parts of them are in fact recycled and reused. This can be seen when it comes to the stone slabs. These can be found in quite a few of the quoins and corbels of the buildings that you’ll come across under construction. Walk around Vagrant’s Rest at just about any point in the game and you’ll see these old materials being worked into new structures.

The population of Rome started to contract after the second century. Structures were slowly abandoned. Since almost all of them were made from wood, most of the buildings in Rome were destroyed by fire, but the stone monuments were just reduced to ruins. When the population started to expand in the tenth century, some of these were preserved as churches, but the majority of them were taken apart for their materials. Pompey’s Theater provides a good example of this. While the marble was ground up in the process of producing lime, the travertine can be found on a mansion called the Palazzo della Cancelleria today. The concrete furnishes a foundation to the nearby Palazzo Orsini Pio Righetti.

Explore the game world beyond Vagrant’s Rest and you’ll soon come across Einarden Reach. This particular settlement shows that structures aren’t always taken apart to have their materials recycled and reused. The collapsed castle between Listener’s Ridge and Prophet’s Rise for example is clearly being renovated. Scaffolding can be found all over the place. The point is apparently to keep the structure from collapsing, but some of this looks like it serves more than one purpose. Platforms furnish porches to the houses that used to be nothing more than hallways in the collapsed castle. You’ll even find a couple of shops in between all of the stairs and ladders.

Pompey’s Theater was taken apart to have its materials recycled and reused, but the Colosseum was spared from this fate. The marble from the Colosseum was removed after an earthquake in the fourteenth century, but the concrete parts of the building are still standing today. The back rooms were used as workshops and factories for several centuries. The structure was even converted to a castle at one point in time. Spend a while in Rome these days and you’ll see the Colosseum being used as a venue for a variety of different events.

Why are some buildings taken apart and recycled while others are simply renovated? The answer has to do with their state of preservation when a settlement is reoccupied after having been abandoned.

While the Colosseum was in pretty good condition, Pompey’s Theater was apparently falling to pieces in the tenth century. Since the structure was about to collapse, Pompey’s Theater was taken apart to have its materials recycled and reused. The same could be said about Vagrant’s Rest. The place was in a sorry state when the brigands and bandits made it their hideout, so recycling and reusing the materials makes a lot of sense when you stop to think about it. The collapsed castle between Listener’s Ridge and Prophet’s Rise in Einarden Reach is another story, though. Similar to the Colosseum, this particular structure was apparently found in good enough condition to be worth renovating.

I stand by what I wrote in the pieces called “Some Things Last Forever” and “Nothing Lasts Forever,” but Ashen definitely provides a reminder that preservation is a complicated matter when it comes to architecture. The main takeaway is that buildings are only preserved because settlements are sometimes reoccupied. There are definitely exceptions to the rule, but when settlements aren’t reoccupied after being abandoned, the buildings in them are slowly reduced to ruins. When enough time has passed, the only parts of them which remain are their foundations. These are buried by dirt and dust after a while. I think that Ashen does a good job at depicting these processes of preservation. In any case, I would encourage you to closely consider settlements in the game world like Vagrant’s Rest and Einarden Reach because they resemble settlements in the real world like Rome. You can actually learn a lot about preservation just by looking at these two places.


Justin Reeve is an archaeologist specializing in architecture, urbanism and spatial theory, but he can frequently be found writing about videogames, too. You can follow him on Twitter @JustinAndyReeve.

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