Mondo Museum: a sim game to build your own world-class dream museum

Interview with Michel McBride-Charpentier

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Mondo Museum is an upcoming simulation game developed by Viewport Games[1] where you can build your dream museum. Equipped with dinosaurs, Books of the Dead, classical paintings, and space-age stuff, Mondo Museum has something for everyone. The game will be soon published by Kitfox Games and is already listed on Steam.

The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed designer/programmer Michel McBride-Charpentier to understand how such a wonderful game like Mondo Museum came to be. You can read the full interview below.


Q: There are lots of sim games around, but as far as we know, there has never been one about curating and running a museum. So how did you get that idea?

A: After the announcement, a few people have said they’d also had the idea of a “SimMuseum”, so I don’t think it’s a wholly original concept. I’m actually really surprised nobody else has made a game like this since the idea first popped into my head over a decade ago and I’ve spent the last 5 years really expecting one to drop on Steam at any moment.

The idea, like most good ones, came to me through synthesizing a lot of different interests I’ve developed over my life: visiting a wide variety of museums in school and later as an adult, a love for Maxis and Bullfrog management games, and a personal desire to create work that is educational and engages players with systems thinking without being a dry capital-letters Serious Game.

Q: Do you have any particular type of museum you enjoy the most? Or an all-time favourite museum?

A: Museums that contain a wide variety of exhibits that have no apparent relation to each other are always the most fun for me to visit. For example, The Met in NYC which has collections ranging from Ancient Egypt to medieval European armour to Rembrandt paintings. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is also in this vein, with dinosaur skeletons and fossils next to Chinese sculpture.

Asking for my favourite is an impossible question, but I’ll use this opportunity to shout out the Noguchi Museum in Queens, NYC. It’s entirely focused on the life and work of Japanese-American sculptor/designer/landscape architect Isamu Noguchi. Walking through those galleries and the sculpture garden for the first time sparked a real appreciation for abstract sculpture I never had before, and he instantly became my favourite artist of the 20th century.

Q: Did you bring into Mondo Museum some of your personal experience or preferences?

A: Choosing which collections to include at launch was definitely driven by my personal preferences. When I was a kid I wanted to be an Egyptologist and archaeologist, so including an Ancient Egypt collection was an obvious choice. Many of the things that invoke a sense of wonder in kids but are often lost as we become older are represented, such as dinosaurs, space exploration, and the geology of the Earth.

Q: Have you or anyone in the team worked in a museum before?

A: C.J. Kershner is writing the exhibit item descriptions and the few characters who are directors/curators of other museums, and has many years of experience volunteering at the American Museum of Natural History as an info desk attendant (so obviously had to know a lot about the workings of the museum from the visitor’s perspective), and as an explainer for a live exhibits team.

Q: So, let’s turn to the game now. What is the players’ goal in Mondo Museum? Are there different scenarios and objectives to be met?

A: There’s a sandbox mode where the end goal, or how to achieve the highest prestige ranking, is mostly up to the player to define. There is a task/objective system that provides short-to-medium term goals, such as unlocking new items or receiving more funding.

As for scenarios, the current plan is to have those, though what exactly they will look like is still undecided. A campaign where you move between different museums with unique challenges and constraints is the goal, but will likely only come in an Early Access update.

Q: From what we’ve seen, the game includes all types of museums: natural history, technology, archaeology, anthropology, art, etc. How did you manage to gather all these different areas of study and interest into a single package?

A: As I mentioned above in what my favourite types of museums to visit are, it’s not uncommon for real museums to display a wide variety of collections under one roof. But we go one step further, and let players mix and match items from any collection. The challenge was in selecting items that complement one another and allow players to discover these relationships between items. One example is how in the Ancient Egypt collection there’s an astronomical chart, and tools for observing the stars, that can be combined with items from the Space Exploration collection to create a kind of “Astronomy through the Ages” combo. Right now I’m explicitly defining these combos, but might try out a more free-form tagging system, where for example any item tagged “Tool” could be placed in an exhibit hall with others that share that tag.

Q: And now perhaps the most important question of all: does Mondo Museum include exhibits of the giant squid (Architeuthis dux) or the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni)?

A: “The Ocean” is on a shortlist for collections to include in a future content update, but if you’re really desperate to see some horrors of the deep, mod support means if a player can make a 3D model of one then it will be very easy to put in the game.

Q: Did you bring in any museum staff as consultants while making the game?

A: No real consultants other than C.J., but if anyone is brought in will likely be to review specific collections for cultural sensitivity issues we might have been oblivious to. For example, someone recently brought up the debates museums have around the subject of human remains when making exhibits about ancient burial practices and so on, which I hadn’t considered before. That kind of insight is really helpful (in our case, this helped me decide to only have mummified animals because a) they’re actually pretty cute while human mummies are pretty gross and b) a human mummy is kind of unnecessary since the real interesting artefact/art is the coffin and sarcophagus).

Q: There is a lot of discussion today around ownership and repatriation of artefacts, especially in archaeology and anthropology[2]. It is a tough subject, but does Mondo Museum tackle it in some sense?

A: Absolutely, and it’s core to the politics of the game. I didn’t want to recreate the systems of colonialism and looting that resulted in many museums in the West originally acquiring their collections. Mondo Museum takes place in a more just and utopian world, where all items have been repatriated (or never left in the first place). The way you unlock new exhibit items is by satisfying the conditions of visiting directors/curators from these museums around the world, who will then effectively give you permission to display parts of their collections.

Q: The game focuses on the exhibitions, which are the public face of museums. Will there be any mention to the vast collections of objects and specimens museums have and of all the research (scientific and otherwise) that is done based on these collections?

A: The research and archive aspect of the game is still a work in progress (there are researcher staff you hire who can improve the quality of your items/the understanding visitors get from it in a sort of abstract way), but I like the idea of the item we have created that is on display representing a lot of associated items that don’t have 3D models but you need to manage to some extent. I’m trying to keep the scope achievable for the moment, but big updates are planned throughout Early Access.

Q: Do you hope the players will learn something with Mondo Museum or maybe spark their interest to visit a museum?

A: I really do hope it encourages players to go to museums if they haven’t been in a while, or maybe since a school field trip. Hopefully the game will give everyone a deeper appreciation of the work behind creating an exhibit that makes sense to the public, or consider what curation decisions they might have done differently to tell a different story.

Q: Do you hope museums worldwide might learn something from Mondo Museum?

A: The people running modern museums are generally doing a really good job in engaging visitors these days, so I’m not expecting to reveal anything they don’t already know. Maybe there could be more museum activities for adults, and not just kids or currently enrolled students. I’m targeting an audience of all ages, and there’s been a lot of interest from adults intrigued by the game. Curator talks, seminars, group tours, opening parties, etc., are fairly common, but I’d love to see more creative activities and workshops designed with adults in mind, since there’s clearly an adult audience for “playing” with museums.


Michel McBride-Charpentier is Mondo Museum’s designer and programmer; the other team members are Genevieve Bachand (artist), Farah Khalaf (producer), C.J. Kershner (writer), and Rhys Becker (artist). Viewport Games is a small studio based on Montréal, Canada. Kitfox Games, also from Montréal, is an independent games studio focused on creating intriguing worlds to explore.

[1] Be sure to visit their website [].

[2] See, for instance: Woldeyes, Y.G. 2019. Repatriation: why Western museums should return African artefacts. The Conversation, 15/May/2019. Available from:

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Dogū: from prehistoric figurines to collectible pocket monsters

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Wellington, New Zealand.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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As an avid consumer of Japanese video games during my early teens, particularly of the RPG sort, I could not help but notice that some monsters would pop up in several games and typically had a pretty standard depiction. I have always been interested in mythology and could naturally identify the usual chimeras, griffins, phoenixes, and gorgons.

However, these monsters shared their screen time with more unusual ones (or unusual to me at least) from Japanese myths and folklore. Maybe expectedly, I started to read about Japanese myths and to learn about kappa, tengu and many others. Still, one monster, in particular, was suspiciously absent from the books: a sort of statue-like creature with large round eyes (Fig. 1). I did not know its actual name and could not find information about it anywhere.[1]

Figure 1. The monster called “Pocus Poppet”, from the Dragon Quest series (Square Enix, 1986–present; artwork from the game). Other versions of this enemy (you know, those with different colors and more Hit Points) are called “Clay Doll / Terracotta Warrior” and “Dirty Dogu”. Source: Dragon Quest Wiki.

Then, I forgot all about this monster when I switched my geek focus to tabletop RPGs and my gaming preferences to Western hits (Bioware RPGs, Gears of War, etc.). This lasted until some years ago when I played Persona 4 and Pokémon: Alpha Sapphire for the first time (I had skipped Pokémon’s Gen III back in the day); there and then, I re-encountered that weird statue-like creature (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. The Pokémon Baltoy (left) and its evolution Claydol (right). Official artwork from the Pokémon series (The Pokémon Company, 1996–present). Source: Bulbapedia.

Even so, it was not until a recent visit to the British Museum that my interest was reignited. In their Japanese exhibition, I discovered that this creature was not a mythological monster after all — it was nothing like a tengu or a kappa! The damn thing was a prehistoric clay figurine (Fig. 3). As a category, these figurines are called “dogū”.

Figure 3. Dogū excavated in Tajirikabukuri, Ebisuda, Miyagi Prefecture (circa 36 cm in height; 1000–400 BCE). Source: Tokyo National Museum, Digital Research Archives (item J-38304).

Needless to say, I began searching for books and scholarly articles about dogū. Sadly, most of the literature on them (and prehistoric Japan in general) is in Japanese, which I cannot read and do not trust Google to translate it for me. Nevertheless, I wanted to report what I could find, just in case these figurines have captured the imagination of someone else out there (maybe someone like you, dear reader). So please keep in mind that my report here is based on the somewhat scarce literature available in English and thus it may lack some information and/or be overly simplified in some aspects.

Before we start, however, I need to briefly explain how Japanese prehistory is divided. So let’s get down to it.


Japanese prehistory can be broadly divided into two large periods: the Paleolithic and what may be informally called “Ancient Japan” (Table 1). The latter is a mixture of the usual Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age that has defied classification by archaeologists using this standard Western periodization (Imamura, 1996). This span of time contains three periods: the Jōmon, the Yayoi, and the Kofun. Here we are interested only in the first one, the Jōmon period.

Table 1. The main periods of Japanese prehistory and their approximate duration. Dates according to Henshall (2004), but these numbers are still much debated.

Taken literally, Jōmon means “cord-marked”. This refers to the usage of cords to create decorative patterns on ceramics (Fig. 4), which was achieved by simply pressing a cord on the clay prior to firing (Kaner, 2009).

Figure 4. An example of Jōmon pottery (5,000–4,000 BCE), from the Tokyo National Museum. Source: Chris 73 (2005), Wikimedia Commons.

During the Jōmon period, Japan was covered by rich temperate forests (Imamura, 1996). This allowed people to live as hunter-gatherers, although there were phases (maybe seasonal) of sedentism, with some settlements growing quite large and possibly housing a few hundred inhabitants (Imamura, 1996; Henshall, 2004). There is also evidence of slash-and-burn agriculture and limited domestication of plant species, accompanied by skillful management of resources (Imamura, 1996; Habu, 2004). Furthermore, a good portion of the Jōmon people lived close to the coast, exploring marine resources (Henshall, 2004).

The Jōmon period was not, however, a single homogenous thing across all Japan. There was regional variation in habits and material culture, which changed at different paces throughout the country (Henshall, 2004). Furthermore, people from the continent migrated into Japan and added their share of knowledge, culture and genes to the mixture (Imamura, 1996). The Jōmon period ended with the start of rice cultivation and metallurgy.

One important social aspect that gained strength during the Jōmon was how people dealt with the supernatural. Artifacts (Fig. 5), burial practices, and stone circles (Fig. 6) all indicate that religion and ritual were steadily developing throughout the period (Kaner, 2011). One type such artifacts was, of course, the dogū.

Figure 5. Phallic stone rods (sekibō) are common ritual objects found in Jōmon settings. Source: Tokyo National Museum, Digital Research Archives (item J-34676; 1000–400 BCE).
Figure 6. The Ōyu Stone Circles, in Kazuno, Akita Prefecture (2,000–1,500 BCE). Source: G41rn8 (2016), Wikimedia Commons.


Dogū are ceramic figures produced during the Jōmon period. The earliest dogū dates back to the Incipient Jōmon (Table 2) and they remained restricted in numbers during the Initial and Early Jōmon (Habu, 2004). However, from the Middle Jōmon onwards, their manufacture thrived and their design became more elaborate (Kaner, 2009).

Table 2. Subdivisions of the Jōmon period. Dates according to Habu (2004); note how they do not exactly match the dates given in Table 1. The dates also vary regionally within Japan, as different parts of the country reached these phases separately.

Most of the dogū are clearly female (some of them supposedly pregnant; Fig. 7), so some scholars believe they are representations of an earth-goddess. They claim that this mother-goddess worship is common in agricultural societies, but then again, agriculture was only incipient during the Jōmon period. Other scholars take into consideration the prominence of secondary sex characteristics and hypothesize that the dogū are just general fertility symbols[2], related to fertility rituals and magical protection during dangerous events such as childbirth. This latter option seems apparently more likely, as similar symbols are known from pretty much everywhere.

Figure 7. The so-called “Jōmon Venus” (2,000–1,500 BCE), from the Togariishi Museum of Jōmon Archaeology. Source: Takuma-sa (2012), Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, considering that figurines such as these have only one function is careless, to say the least (Soffer et al., 2000). As such, other interpretations have appeared in the last decades. For instance, some authors link the increase in the production of dogū from the Middle Jōmon onwards to an increase of agricultural practices and the role of women in this subsistence shift (Togawa, 2003).

The actual functions of dogū remain unknown, but the constant debate makes archaeologists revisit old ideas, propose new ones, and slowly fine-tune our knowledge.

There are several types of dogū, roughly classified by how they look. Because of that, they have some really amusing names (Habu, 2004): heart-shaped dogū (Fig. 8), sitting dogū, mountain-shaped-head dogū, goggle-eyed (or slit-goggle) dogū (Figs. 3, 9), horned-owl dogū.

Figure 8. Heart-shaped dogū (2,000–1,000 BCE), from the Tokyo National Museum. Source: Daderot (2014), Wikimedia Commons.

It is still unclear if these different categories of dogū had distinct purposes or functions. Furthermore, dogū came in several sizes, from palm-sized figurines to large ones more than 30 cm high (Togawa, 2003; Kaner, 2009). As such, it is likely that they had different functions, ranging from personal belongings to probably community-wide ceremonial artifacts (Togawa, 2003).

Figure 9. Dogū excavated in Kamegaoka, Kizukuri, Aomori Prefecture (circa 37 cm in height; 1000–400 BCE). Source: Tokyo National Museum, Digital Research Archives (item J-38392).


Today, people can see all sorts of dogū in museum exhibitions around the world, like in the Tokyo National Museum and the British Museum. But they are not merely relics of an ancient past – Japanese people certainly have not forgotten them. For instance, there are some conspicuous monuments in Japan commemorating the most popular type of dogū, the goggle-eyed dogū (or shakōki-dogū).

Two of such monuments can be found in the city of Tsugaru, in Aomori prefecture. The Kamegaoka Site, an archaeological site dating from the Final Jōmon (1,000–300 BCE), is located there. This site is important because it is the place where the most textbook-famous dogū (a goggle-eyed one with a broken leg; Fig. 9) was found back in 1887 (Tsugaru City Board of Education, 2018). One of the monuments is a simple statue (Fig. 10), as could be expected, but the city’s railway station (Fig. 11) is something else entirely!

Figure 10. Monument at Kamegaoka Site, in Tsugaru city. Source: Tomo HGS (2018), Mapcarta.
Figure 11. Kizukuri Station in Tsugaru city. Source: Bakkai (2008), Wikimedia Commons.

Box 1. Pseudoarchaeology

Unfortunately, the dogū (especially the goggle-eyed) became victims of human stupidity, just as several other archaeological icons (the pyramids, the Antikythera mechanism, the Nazca lines, etc.). That is, they were linked to alien activity by people who abhor scientific research and methodology and who prefer to make up their own wild stories about reality. Their “explanation” is that the goggle-eyed dogū resembles a person in a space suit. And no, I will not give the reference to their original “works” — these people should not be given the satisfaction of an actual citation!


Given the cultural importance of the dogū in Japan and the increasing influence of television, mangas and video games, it was expected that these clay figures would make their way into pop culture.[3] This is especially true for the fan-favorite type, the goggle-eyed dogū (Rousmaniere, 2009).

The obvious examples, as I mentioned above, come from video games, especially RPGs such as the ever-present Final Fantasy (Square Enix, 1987–present) and Dragon Quest series. The dogū are featured in various games, often just as meaningless enemies in random dungeons. Thus, I will not bore you to death with an extensive list of all dogū appearances. Instead, I will point out just a few examples that I find more meaningful.

One of them is the Pokémon Claydol (Fig. 2), which does not have the most creative name around. It is a Ground / Psychic type and most Pokédex entries on the series point out that it is a clay statue made by ancient people (Bulbapedia, 2018). The entries in Pokémon Sapphire (2002), Black/White 2 (2012) and Alpha Sapphire (2014) date them from 20,000 years ago, which, as we have seen above (Table 1), is a clear exaggeration for the late parts of the Jōmon period.[4] However, the Pokédex entry in Pokémon Ultra Moon (2017) is much more problematic; it reads: “The ancient people who made it apparently modeled it after something that descended from the sky.” Pokémon, of course, is not known for its scientific rigor (Tomotani, 2014; Mendes et al., 2017), but spreading ridiculous alien stories is irresponsible, to say the least (see also Box 1).

Another interesting appearance of the goggle-eyed dogū is in the Shin Megami Tensei series (henceforth SMT; Atlus/Sega, 1987–present), which includes the Persona sub-series. These games allow players to summon mythological monsters (and deities) from virtually all cultures around the world. Since it is a Japanese game, it focuses heavily on Japanese creatures. The goggle-eyed dogū from SMT is called Arahabaki (Fig. 12).

Figure 12. Arahabaki’s official artwork from the SMT series. Source: Megami Tensei Wiki.

The entries about Arahabaki in the SMT games’ lore describe it as a god (Megami Tensei Wiki, 2018), which we have already established is the less likely hypothesis. The game also refers to it as “he/him” (at least in the English translation), while clearly depicting it with a female body, like the original clay figurines. SMT uses myths as a basis for its setting and story, and infuse them with fiction, so it is hard to tell if their information came from somewhere or if they just made it up to fill a narrative purpose. In any event, their description of the goggle-eyed dogū is off the mark.[5]

Last but not least, there’s Ōkami (Capcom, 2006). The game is set in classical Japan and mixes lots of Japanese myths and folklore. In Ōkami, the goggle-eyed dogū (Fig. 13) is one among many demons that the player faces. The demon’s entry in the game’s bestiary (Okami Wiki, 2018) handles the matter much better than Pokémon: “Of all the odd clay figures in this land, the Dogu is the strangest. Fascinated people have speculated that they originated on the moon.” Thus, the game makes clear that the whole alien thing is just a story made up by some crazy folk.

Figure 13. Official artwork of the demon “Dogu”, from Ōkami. Source: Okami Wiki.

Dogū are also featured in several mangas (e.g., Doraemon), typically as the focus of one or a handful of chapters. However, one title features them prominently: it is called “Dogū Family” (translation) and was printed in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. The story focused on the everyday life of a family of goggle-eyed dogū in modern Japan. Unfortunately, I could not find the actual manga to read.

Dogū also appear in Japanese products and TV commercials, and there is even one TV show about them: The Ancient Dogoo Girl (“Kodai Shōjo Doguchan”; Fig. 14) and its sequel The Ancient Dogoo Girls (“Kodai Shōjotai Dogūn Faibu”). The series aired on MBS (Mainichi Broadcasting System) from 2009 to 2010.

Figure 14. The Ancient Dogoo Girl poster. Source: IMDb.

The series’ plot is very basic Japanese stuff: Makoto, a hikikomori, finds a weird breastplate buried in the woods, touches it, and awakens a girl named Dogu-chan. She is a yōkai hunter from the Jōmon period and ends up living with Makoto. Dogu-chan has a familiar/assistant named Dokigoro (Fig. 15), which is a sentient goggle-eyed dogū that transforms into magical (bikini) armor for its master. The sequel had another five girls wearing armors based on other types of dogū.

Figure 15. A collectible figure of Dokigoro, from The Ancient Dogoo Girl. Source: HobbySearch.

The Ancient Dogoo Girl is a very weird and rather embarrassing show, even by Japan standards, as it involves a lot of breasts-based magic. I just skimmed through the first episode to write these paragraphs and already regret it. So if you are curious to watch it, know that you have been warned.

Aliens and bikini armor aside, it is amazing how Japan is always finding ways to keep its culture alive. Because of that, even prehistoric artifacts such as dogū still have a place in modern Japan – and not only a place in museums, as national treasures, but also as pop culture icons.


Bulbapedia. (2018a) Baltoy.  Available from: (Date of access: 12/May/ 2018).

Bulbapedia. (2018b) Claydol.  Available from: (Date of access: 12/May/ 2018).

Dragon Quest Wiki. (2018) Pocus poppet. Available from: poppet (Date of access: 16/May/2018).

Habu, J. (2004) Ancient Jomon of Japan. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Henshall, K.G. (2004) A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower. Second Edition. Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire.

Imamura, K. (1996) Prehistoric Japan: New Perspectives on Insular East Asia. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.

Kaner, S. (2009) The Power of Dogu: Ceramic Figures from Ancient Japan. British Museum Press, London.

Kaner, S. (2011) The archaeology of religion and ritual in the prehistoric Japanese archipelago. In: Insoll, T. (Ed.) The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Pp. 457–469.

Megami Tensei Wiki. (2018) Arahabaki. Available from: Arahabaki (Date of access: 14/May/2018).

Mendes, A.B.; Guimarães, F.V.; Eirado-Silva, C.B.P.; Silva, E.P. (2017) The ichthyological diversity of Pokémon. Journal of Geek Studies 4(1): 39–67.

Normile, D. (2001) Japanese fraud highlights media-driven research ethic. Science 291(5501): 34–55.

Okami Wiki. (2018) Dogu. Available from: http:// (Date of access: 15/ May/2018).

Romey, K.M. (2001). “God’s hands” did the devil’s work. Archaeology 54(1).

Rousmaniere, N.C. (2009) Rediscovering dogū in modern Japan. In: Kaner, S. (Ed.) The Power of Dogu: Ceramic Figures from Ancient Japan. British Museum Press, London. Pp. 71–82.

Salvador, R.B. (2017) Medjed: from Ancient Egypt to Japanese Pop Culture. Journal of Geek Studies 4(2): 10–20.

Soffer, O.; Adovasio, J.M.; Hyland, D.C. (2000) The “Venus” figurines: textiles, basketry, gender, and status in the Upper Paleolithic. Current Anthropology 41(4): 511–537.

Tomotani, B.M. (2014) Robins, robins, robins. Journal of Geek Studies 1(1–2): 13–15.

Tsugaru City Board of Education. (2018) Historic site Kamegaoka Site. Available from: 2013/07/leaflet_13kamegaoka.pdf (Date of access: 14/May/2018). 


Those figures presented here that were extracted from the Tokyo National Museum (Digital Research Archives: and Wikimedia Commons, have been slightly modified (cropped, etc.) to improve presentation.


Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a paleontologist and biologist, but is irredeemably fascinated with archaeology and mythology. Although his main “thing” remains Ancient Egypt, he is becoming increasingly drawn to the Jōmon and Yayoi periods of Japanese history. He has faced Japanese pre-historic monsters in many JRPGs, sometimes even summoning them to fight on his behalf – well, actually that last bit was just in SMT/Persona, because who on Earth uses a Claydol?

[1] Back then, in my home country, Internet connection was awfully slow and the service very expensive.

[2] The phallic stone rods seen above (Fig. 5) are also typically regarded as fertility symbols (Habu, 2004).

[3] That happened to other weird beings, such as the cartoonish Egyptian god Medjed (Salvador, 2017).

[4] And talking about exaggerating dates, the Japanese archaeologist Shinichi Fujimura claimed to have found Paleolithic artifacts in Japan dating back to 600,000 years ago. However, it was later discovered that he fabricated his own artifacts and planted them on his excavation site so he could “find” them later (Romey, 2001; Normile, 2001).

[5] Arahabaki’s look was very different in early SMT games, such as Megami Tensei II, where it was depicted as a samurai of sorts. So maybe they just retained the name, alongside the original idea/description, and changed this monster’s appearance to that of a dogū in later games.

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The heritage futurism of Blade Runner: 2049

Andrew Reinhard

Department of Archaeology, University of York. York, United Kingdom.

Email: adr520 (at) york (dot) ac (dot) uk

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Blade Runner: 2049 (Columbia Pictures/ Warner Bros.) is the most archaeological film I have ever seen, and even though it features neither excavation nor rugged men in hats punching Nazis, it is possibly the most archaeological film ever made. Written by Michael Green and Hampton Fancher, and directed by Denis Villeneuve, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (Warner Bros., 1982) embodies and explores archaeology, digital heritage, and heritage futurism in nearly each one of the film’s 164 minutes without appearing to do so consciously.

The traditional definition of “Archaeology” is that it is the study of human history through excavation and analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. Blade Runner: 2049 does this on film. Humans are (arguably) defined by the things we use, which comprise our material culture. As we become increasingly digital and post-human, the archaeology of our things changes to accommodate for the synthetic and immaterial. What follows is an examination of the archaeology of Villeneuve’s film[1], what that means to a 2017 audience, and how we can plan for an archaeology of 2049 and beyond.

Blade Runner: 2049 is a film about (among many, many other things) memory and being remembered, a feat accomplished through materials, through things, and through how the characters interact with them. The appearance and usage of things are supplemented by action: forensic and archival research, radiation testing, and off-screen excavation. More generally the film succeeds in demonstrating how people and media-obsessed culture in the near future choose to recall the past, living in the present among discarded artifacts and landscapes of abandonment. Blade Runner: 2049 also recalls the original film through recycling symbols, creating a meta filmgoing experience where the viewer at times is watching both movies at once. In the interest of simplicity, I will review the archaeology of Blade Runner: 2049 in the order in which things appear as the film plays (I’d say “unspools”, but that would be an anachronism). Think of it more as a video game walkthrough, or an excavation of the film.

Blade Runner: 2049 opens on a tight shot of the eye of replicant blade runner “K” of the LAPD. Eyes feature heavily in both films, and become artifacts in each as proof of personal identity. We know from the original film that eyes are manufactured, bioengineered for both replicants as well as humans who desire body modification, a post-human trait. One minute into the film, ideas are already in play about accuracy and authenticity, especially when considering the reproduction of original things. Late in the film, original blade runner Rick Deckard meets a reproduction of his wife Rachael, but notes that his wife’s eyes were green. The reproduction’s are brown. While the replicant conveys authenticity, it is not 100% accurate. Archaeologists face this question when completing digital reconstructions of ancient structures. Where do we draw the line between authentic and accurate, and can something convey the feeling of authenticity without being completely faithful to the original? I can imagine that in the future archaeologists could attempt to recreate digitally not only structures, but also the people who inhabited them.

The replicant Rachel in the original Blade Runner (left) and a reproduction of her in Blade Runner: 2049 (right). Credit: Warner Bros, Columbia Pictures/ Warner Bros.

K’s first mission takes him to a farm run by bookish replicant Sapper Morton. The flight over Los Angeles and surrounding geometric farmlands reveals a world and a landscape in ruin and continued decline. However, the farmhouse occupied by Morton is clean and full of things hearkening back to the mid-20th century: a gas stove, a cast iron pot, simple, old furniture, an upright piano, and hardwood floors. We learn later that wood is a precious commodity, and becomes a symbol for the film. The things that are the most “real” to the characters are always made of wood. For Morton, it is his house and the tree outside, symbolizing a rich internal life, and a rich past. For K, it is his wooden toy horse. For the spiritual heir to replicant-creator Eldon Tyrell, Niander Wallace’s offices are paneled with rich wood. Wood has permanence; the digital is temporary. For the duration of the film, the loss of the digital is always either happening or is about to happen, without any way of retrieving what is lost. But this loss of digital things, as communicated by K’s digital companion Joi, makes things feel more real. Even though we live in a blended environment, our emotions remain real. Our attachment to digital things are quite real. And when real things cannot mitigate our loneliness, we turn to digital surrogates. We make these things to comfort ourselves, yet they continue to bring us pain. But that pain, as Wallace reminds Deckard later, proves to us that our happiness is real. These emotions throughout the film are governed by the presence and absence of things.

K and the tree outside Morton’s house. Credit: Columbia Pictures/ Warner Bros.

At the conclusion of the opening confrontation, K removes Morton’s eye; it becomes an artifact. It is used as proof-of-capture, but before that serves as a trigger for K’s melancholy. The presence of this thing — the eye — binds both replicants together with their shared experience, but K is a Nexus-9 replicant; Morton is a Nexus-8, an older model able to think and behave more freely. The newer generation must “retire” the old. We destroy our past in order to bury it. But burying it also serves as an act of preservation for the future. The buried must become “reactivated” through excavation and study, creating a new (or at least modified) history based on the presence of something newly discovered in the archaeological record.

K notices via a remote-sensing drone that something is buried at the base of Morton’s tree. It is a crate that holds the bones of what K will later learn might be his mother, a “miracle” of a sexually produced live birth of a replicant child with two replicant parents. We never learn how replicants are assembled under the skin, so the presence of DNA is assumed as part of the creation of a non-human workforce. And we never learn why replicants (at least by Tyrell Corporation) where given a functional reproductive system. What’s interesting is that when the bones are analyzed in the LAPD’s forensics lab, K discovers inscriptional evidence: a serial number inscribed on one of the bones. Archaeologists are always looking for inscriptions, and the presence of the inscription in the bone points to a thing that is made, not born.

In an interlude early in the film, K returns home, passing by biocentric, anti-replicant graffiti on his way to his quiet sanctuary. The humans who remain on Earth resent their non-human neighbors, and mark their environment accordingly. Even though he’s a replicant, K clearly has human — perhaps designed — needs, which are satisfied by things: cooking pots, a shower, entertainment, including paper books. The food is instant, practical, and disposable. The scene is driven by a dialogue with a woman off-screen, revealed over time to be an AI. K’s relationship with “Joi” helps him with his loneliness. He uses a thing as a human proxy, reminding viewers of Spike Jones’ AI film Her (Warner Bros., 2013). Joi is tied to K’s apartment via a hologram projector on the ceiling, and she appears to K in a variety of outfits conveying tropes about the women men theoretically want (at least as the media portrays them): 1950s housewife, 1990s manic pixie dream girl. Clothing serves as an icon communicating time as well as presumed values. The things K possesses help define his character: he is simple and practical, lonely, longing for conversation and meaningful interaction. I imagine he could have easily chosen a pornographic hologram to welcome him home, but instead he has selected a woman companion to keep his brain company, to make him feel welcome and appreciated, something or someone who remembers him.

At the conclusion of the scene, K gives Joi a gift, an anniversary present. It is a portable projector so Joi can travel with K. This device delights the AI, and gives K a mobile companion who not only is a friend, but who also looks out for him and seemingly feels for him. The film’s audience must remember that both of these characters are, at their simplest, robots, or at least synthetic people. They are both things that interact with each other and with other things (as well as people). The way humans interact with K (replicant) and Joi (portable AI) are reprehensible if one projects humanity onto the digital. It reflects the way modern humans treat their entertainment: disposable commodities that offer a brief reprieve from loneliness and boredom, yet will never be on equal footing with “authentic” experiences and relationships. To be a digital entity is to be abused. No wonder the Nexus-6s, 7s, and 8s rebelled against their creator and users. The fact that Nexus-9s (of which K is an example) were programmed for obedience confirms that humans are fully aware of how they treat their things, and that things are ultimately disposable. We throw everything away, and these things neither resist nor resent their disposal. Everything is rubbish, and is therefore archaeology.

Armed with the serial number from the bones buried under Morton’s tree, K travels to Wallace’s headquarters, which contain its corporate archives. K shares the number with the archivist who recognizes it as from a very old replicant dating to before the Blackout, which wiped everything stored digitally. As K and the archivist walk into the archives, the archivist quips about the only thing permanent is saved on paper. He reminds K that everything digital can be lost forever. The interesting thing about paper is that it is a product created from wood pulp, and we are back to the idea of the analogue nature of wood yielding the only things of reality and of permanence.

Wallace’s replicant-in-charge, Luv, finds K in the archives, and leads him into literal cold storage to listen to a digital audio recording maintained on a physical marble dropped into a reading device. Older media is read on older technology preserved in a cold, dark place. The more things change, the more they stay the same. K and Luv listen to a recording of Rachael (whose recovered bones contained her serial number) from the original Blade Runner. It is her interview with Deckard as he conducts his Voight-Kampff test on her to confirm if she is a replicant. This test recalls the Turing test for identifying AI. Future technologies are developed to satisfy the same needs of technologically enabled humans from 100 years ago. Although humanity’s needs and desires have not appreciably changed during the history of the human race, the things people invent to satisfy those fundamental needs continually appear, are updated, are replaced.

Luv retrieving an old record from the archives. Credit: Columbia Pictures/ Warner Bros.

After the visit to the archives, K begins his search for Deckard in order to learn about Rachael, and finds himself interviewing Deckard’s associate from the first film, Gaff, who is able to connect the dots for K about what happened to Rachael and Deckard, the mystery that closed the original Blade Runner. Archaeologically, the most interesting thing from the brief interview between K and Gaff is the origami sheep Gaff creates. The figure recalls the origami unicorns Gaff made and left in locations throughout the original film. It also recalls the eponymous sheep Deckard was saving to buy for his wife in Philip K. Dick’s source story, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” What we see in the new origami figure is an example of material memory, but for the viewer. The presence of the origami animal in the new film reminds us of what we saw and felt in the old film. The audience continues to experience the sequel in a meta way. Also, origami is a paper art, a medium that communicates something real. It separates Gaff, a human, from his replicant counterparts. At the same time, the origami sheep is a facsimile, drawing a further distinction between real and virtual.

As the interview happens, Luv meets with Wallace as he prepares to witness the “birth” of a new replicant model. Wallace is blind (possibly intentionally), his “eyes” being six Bluetooth drones, which allow him to see in a more holistic way than a two-eyed person. Body modification continues to be a trope shared by humans of the future as we physically merge with digital technology, becoming post-human. Luv carries a box of computer chips with her, but only one is used to activate the eye-drones. As we saw in the first film and at the beginning of the sequel, eyes remain key to what is human, and what is “other.”

Wallace and his Bluetooth implant. Credit: Columbia Pictures/ Warner Bros.

The birthing scene merges the organic with the synthetic. A replicant in the form of a naked adult female tumbles out of a clear plastic sac, covered in gel. She is clearly cold and afraid, and Wallace takes the opportunity to demonstrate how precious life is, even to something that is literally born digital. The newborn replicant’s near-immediate death at the hands of Wallace (who uses an analog blade, something else conveying the meaning of “reality”) shows again how humans treat their things, even their own creations. We make. We discard. The death of the nameless newborn contrasts with the tenderness taken to bury Rachael. In the latter case, replicants observed care in the afterlife of one of their own. For humans, replicants remain as objects. In fact, as we see later in the film, the whole of Earth has been abandoned by those humans who can afford to make the voyage, leaving a planet that exists as a global rubbish heap. We have thrown our own planet away, and it remains as one giant archaeological site. Wallace wants humanity to conquer the universe, to control everything natural, and to do so he needs to create replicants who can replicate each other through procreation. Humans, to Wallace, need a slave-labor replicant force to support their conquest of the stars. He must learn Tyrell’s secret of live birth, but these records (along with all other digital records) were wiped out in the Blackout of 2021. Compare this to all of the science that was likely lost when the Library of Alexandria burned in 48 BCE and again in 270 CE and what needed to be rediscovered over the next 2,000 years.

Jumping back into the main mission of the film’s narrative, K is ordered by his LAPD superior to return to Morton’s farm to destroy everything. This is a kind of damnatio memoriae, a destruction of memory, a phenomenon familiar to Egyptologists and Roman archaeologists. Before he torches the house, K finds a baby sock hidden in a small box in the analog upright piano. The sock is a human thing, with its own material memory, kept because its owners saw it as precious. K’s supervisor would later dismiss is as “just a sock,” but it clearly had meaning to the replicants present at the live birth at Morton’s farmhouse.

As with other historic buildings lost in history, the farmhouse then burns. K preserves the tree, however, the base of which contains another inscription written at the bottom of the trunk: 6.10.21. It’s a date, likely a birthday, and is tied to the burial nearby. K literally finds his roots and returns to them. It’s a human thing to do, to be curious about our parents, about previous generations. This is communicated in the landscape, but also in the objects with which we become connected. Seeing the date triggers a memory for K: as a young boy he was chased by other boys who wanted his toy wooden horse. Carved into the base of the horse is the date 6.10.21. We have inscriptional evidence tying the thing (wooden horse) to the tree. It is like finding a join between two pieces of pottery found far apart. They connect, yet come from different contexts.

K visits a human archives to search for DNA with Joi’s assistance. Here the synthetic being researches the natural, discovering that two people (impossibly) share the same DNA, a boy and a girl. As opposed to the Wallace corporate archives where research is done digitally, K conducts his human archival research through a fiche-reader, something analog. Yet again, the analog is treated as real in the film. According to the archives, the girl died of a genetic defect, but the boy survived and was placed in an orphanage. K is playing the role of an archaeologist throughout this film, conducting research prior to heading back out into the field to find material remains.

K and Joi researching in the archives. Credit: Columbia Pictures/ Warner Bros.

As K approaches the ruins of San Diego, which has been turned into a gigantic disposal center for technology, he is shot down in his Peugeot police prowler. Scavengers attempt to kill him and seize the remains of his Spinner (flying car), but they are killed via a rocket-firing drone controlled by Luv from Wallace HQ as she gets her nails done: animated, luminescent cartoon figures. Looters are punished by death in order for K to track down the boy. This is not too far from modern history where in areas in Syria controlled by ISIS/ISIL, looters are killed if they do not turn in their finds to local antiquities processing centers, or if they are caught stealing antiquities to sell themselves. K enters a metal hut, and discovers that the orphanage contains hundreds of children tasked with recycling digital materials, something currently happening in modern-day Ghana and elsewhere in Africa. Humans continue to recycle and repurpose things for other purposes. In this case it is digital spolia.

The records K consults at the orphanage are kept in bound, printed volumes, pointing to the reality of what once was. The pages he needs are gone, ripped out of the book. K’s dismay at losing physical evidence is heartbreaking, and it is as if that history is now lost forever. Before he leaves, K wanders through the remains of a factory attached to the orphanage. His presence within this architecture reminds him of the memory triggered by the date on the tree, and he finds his toy horse hidden where he left it 30 years ago. His material memory runs full-circle as he is reunited with his toy. It proves his memories are real, and he makes the connection that he was the boy who was born, and that Rachael and Deckard are his parents. The combination of landscape and artifact recalled history that K believed to be implanted. He acknowledges that in his time it is nearly impossible to determine what is “real”, but as a cop, his appreciation of material evidence and the location in which it is found gives him the proof he needs.

Through an interlude with Joi, K comes to terms with his near-humanity, perhaps made more human because of his birth, birth imbuing the child with a “soul.” Regardless of what your opinion is on the “miracle” of birth or the absence or presence of souls in people, the film gets at the question of what makes humans human, and how are they different from the things that they create. Humans make tools, and replicants are the superior tool, human-like but not human. One wonders how humans could identify their own humanity if there were no things at all. Joi gives K his birth name, “Joe.” K, skeptical of memories, decides to visit Wallace’s chief memory-maker, Ana Stelline, to determine if his memory of the horse is true and not an implant.

In 2017 we already know that digital media can be faked, and that the real can be enhanced. We know that human memory is unreliable. When K visits Stelline, she uses a camera-like tool with analog controls to manipulate the appearance of a digital insect, and later of a child’s birthday party, the notion of a birthday hinting at K’s origins. Humans speak through symbols and images, and it’s as if Stelline knows something about K that he himself does not. They discuss the difference between real and manufactured memories. Real memories are messy; the synthetic is too detailed. Compare this to digital archaeological reconstructions of structures, and we return to the idea of authentic versus accurate. The absence of things in the archaeological record makes for incomplete reconstructions that the archaeologist must fill in (or choose to leave as a void). The memory-maker is engaged with this kind of recreation, making conscious decisions about what to omit, what to leave messy to lend authenticity to the memory. She herself is a formation process, with the brain as an archaeological site.

K returns home to process what he’s learned, and is met by both the holographic Joi and the real prostitute Mariette. They merge, the digital woman overlaying the real, turning a synthetic sexual encounter into a “real” one, merging the digital mind and desire of Joi with the physical surrogate of Mariette. As we’ve seen earlier, the digital is in control of the situation, manipulating the human to do something, in this case to have sex with a replicant. This is perhaps commentary on how our digital things control our lives (or at least our actions) instead of humans having the illusion of control. Wallace realizes this in his Nexus creations, but general consumers do not. We have stopped being able to make our own conscious decisions, and instead elect to purchase things, giving them license to have power over us. We have abdicated our freewill to the things we make.

In two scenes in the film, K must undergo a “baseline test” after a traumatic LAPD service event. He easily passes his first test after retiring Morton. He completely fails his second test after learning about his past. The phrases repeated in the baseline test come from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, which itself is a tricky piece of meta fiction and poetry that can be read in both a linear and nonlinear fashion. It is a reflection of the film (albeit from 1962), and the presence of the book in K’s apartment, and the presence of its text in the baseline test, makes for another meta event in the film, bringing the film world and the real world together. The book is a clue about what is happening in the action of the film, the clue being given by the presence of a thing in its context. What is this book to K, and why won’t he read it to Joi when she asks?

Returning to more traditional archaeology, K brings his wooden horse to an antiquarian, Doc Badger, who runs a radiation test in order to source the material. Instead of being from the tree on Morton’s farm, the tritium signature points to Las Vegas. Doc Badger also notes the value of such a small piece of pre-Blackout wood, saying he could trade it in for a real horse, and that K could become a rich man. K won’t part with his toy, speaking to the nostalgia we have for the things we each cherish. Our things possess our memories, or at least trigger them. Possession of things makes access to these memories easier.

The Las Vegas K visits is radioactive, vacant of people, dust-covered, with abandoned casinos and ruined sculptures. The colossal sculptures ruined in the dust recall Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” but in a perverse way. In the poem, the ruler Ozymandias laments what has become of his empire. In Las Vegas, the broken statues of objectified naked women mock Las Vegas and its permissiveness towards instant gratification of humanity’s basic needs. This empire of entertainment has also fallen. K finds Deckard in the Vintage Casino, a place that recalls an idealized mid-20th century America where he lives with his dog. “Is he real?” K asks. “I don’t know,” Deckard replies. “Why don’t you ask him?” K and Deckard’s introduction to one another comes by way of a fight in an empty cabaret where a glitched recording of Elvis singing “Suspicious Minds” plays on stage, occasionally interrupted by a moving image of Marilyn Monroe. We see what is already the future of entertainment, with dead entertainers (e.g., Tupac Shakur) appearing digitally in front of a live audience, a technology being developed now by Japan’s Crypton Future Media. We see a futuristic jukebox in Deckard’s bar playing a Frank Sinatra tune while appearing as a 3D black-and-white hologram atop the player. Our analog musical heritage has become digital.

K examining a hologram of Frank Sinatra. Credit: Columbia Pictures/ Warner Bros.

Deckard and K have an uneasy conversation about Rachael, tying up more loose ends from the first film. K also notices several hand-carved wooden sculptures of animals on the bar, matching the size and style of his own toy horse. Luv arrives at the casino in order to kill K and to kidnap Deckard so that Wallace can interview him about the live birth event. Luv destroys the device K uses to take Joi with him; she is lost forever. Left for dead, K is rescued by a group of rebellious replicants who want K to help them find Deckard and Rachaels’ daughter, confusing him. His memory was manipulated by Selline to protect the identity and location of the daughter, proving that memory is always fallible no matter how true the possessor might find that memory. K returns to Los Angeles where he is approached by a colossal advertisement of a Joi model who says he looks nice but lonely, a good “Joe.” The AI was just an AI after all. It can be replaced and retaught.

As K returns home, Deckard sits in Wallace’s office with Luv and watches as a facsimile of Rachael enters the room. Deckard detects the difference in the eyes (a human trait and additional evidence of reality), and Luv executes the replicant, leaving Deckard shocked in the midst of his nostalgia, a thing-as-person (or person-as-thing) disposed of without hint of love or care. He sentences this Rachael to destruction by calling it a fake. Humans crave the real, the original, the first edition. Any copy is of lesser value, something that is evidenced in the antiquities marketplace.

After a fight in which Luv is killed and Deckard rescued by K, who has somehow learned that Deckard is being transported to the Off-World Colonies. K and Deckard return to the offices of Selline, who lives and works in a sealed environment because of her genetic condition. Selline is the true replicant child of Deckard and Rachael. Replicant meets replicant, a reunion of “soulless” things that are somehow no longer things, reconnected by love and memory, separated by a screen.

As the replicant (and real child) Selline works on a memory of snowfall inside her creative space, the replicant K bleeds out on the steps to the office, catching real snowflakes in his hand. The snow itself is a metaphor for humanity, unique to one another, yet of the same shared materials, left to occupy the ground, resting atop each other over time, ultimately disappearing, ignorant of what came before and what will come after. It is no different that the pottery dumps at any number of archaeological excavations, where sherds are collected, counted, and weighed, then thrown away after yielding their data.

One wonders then what Ridley Scott thought after releasing the final edition of his Blade Runner film in 2007, 25 years after its initial theatrical release, if it would produce a sequel that shared the same DNA with his film. As already described above, watching Villeneuve’s interpretation of the world and its characters proves to be a meta experience, seeing at once the original, analogue film overlaid with what was filmed and projected digitally. Both films are real, but are produced in two separate worlds. Blade Runner: 2049 uses many visual and audible cues to recall its parent, ranging from Gaff’s origami to Vangelis’ “Tears in the Rain” from the original soundtrack. The ambient noise in K’s apartment is re-used audio from Scott’s 1979 film Alien. The clear raincoat Joi wears when leaving K’s apartment for the first time recalls that of Pris in the first film. Deckard’s original Spinner car from the first film makes a brief appearance in the casino where Deckard currently lives. Even the first scene where K confronts Morton was written for the first film (but not used), and instead introduces the second movie, old words in a new environment. This is a kind of archaeology of film, making connections between the things shared between original and sequel, actual props created for one and re-used in the other. It’s recycled media in the service of a new story.

The archaeology of Blade Runner: 2049 is complex and present throughout the film, focusing on materials and memory, about how people and things interact with each other, and about what separates humans from the things they create. We confront the traps of nostalgia. We recycle materials and memory. We occupy landscapes that affect our behavior. And we let our things determine our actions. As we look ahead to 2049 and after, we must consider the presence of our digital selves, how they manifest, and how they can be preserved, and what happens when our digital lives are lost. It’s an attempt to communicate the new idea of heritage futurism, and serves as a cautionary tale for 21st-century archaeology and beyond.


Dick, P.K. (1968) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Doubleday, New York.

Jonez, S. [director] (2013) Her. Warner Bros.

Nabokov, V. (1962) Pale Fire. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.

Scott, R. [director] (1979) Alien. 20th Century Fox.

Scott, R. [director] (1982) Blade Runner. Warner Bros.

Shelley, P.B. (1818) Ozymandias. The Examiner 524: 24.

Villeneuve, D. [director] (2017) Blade Runner: 2049. Columbia Pictures/ Warner Bros. 


Andrew Reinhard is a PhD student at the University of York’s Centre for Digital Heritage, part of the Department of Archaeology, and he is also the Director of Publications for the American Numismatic Society. In 2014 he led the team of archaeologists who excavated the Atari Burial Ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico. He runs the Archaeogaming blog (https://archaeo and Twitter (@archaeogaming). His book, Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in (and of) Video Games, will be published in May 2018 by Berghahn Books, and he has even recorded a song inspired by Blade Runner: 2049 ( Despite his obsession with science fiction and horror films and video games, he’d rather be outside before the fallout-crazed zombies arrive.

[1] Warning: major spoilers throughout.

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History’s first Easter egg

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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Any gamer worth of his/her salt is well acquainted with the term “Easter egg”. It designates any sort of secret message or feature (or even inside jokes) hidden in a video game or any other kind of software. The name is obviously based on the egg hunt game that many children enjoy during Easter.

Nowadays, Easter eggs are everywhere, having spread from games and computer software to comics, TV shows, and movies. Some would even argue that they have gone too far and that we have reached a point where Marvel’s films have so many Easter eggs that they risk overtaking the main plot. Regardless, Easter eggs are something fun, that help to bring more color to any work, and are an important part of present pop culture; for instance, they are the very backbone of the novel Ready Player One. Thus, I would like to explore here the very first Easter egg in History. But first, let us see when the term was first applied.


The early history of video games is a little more dystopian than most would expect. Atari Inc. was one of the major names in the industry back in the 1970’s. The games it developed and published were very influential, but changes in the company during the late 1970’s led to some critical changes. Anonymity was to become the norm at Atari: programmers would not be credited in their creations anymore, for fear that rival companies would identify and “target” them, luring them away with higher salaries (and maybe a nicer working environment).

One of Atari’s game developers, Joseph Warren Robinett Jr. (born 1951), was then working on a game called Adventure (released in 1979–1980). When Robinett heard that programmers would not be credited, he decided to credit himself in the game. He did so by hiding the message “Created by Warren Robinett” inside a secret room in the game. Or, in Robinett’s own words:

“Atari would not give public credit to game designers. This was right after Atari had been acquired by Warner Communications.  It was a power play to keep the game designers from getting recognition and therefore more bargaining power.  So I created a secret room that was really hard to find, and hid my signature in it.  I didn’t tell anybody (this was a hard secret to keep to myself) and let Atari manufacture a few hundred thousand cartridges and ship them around the world.”

― Robinett (in Conelly, 2003).

Cover of Adventure for the Atari 2600. Image retrieved from MobyGames (

Robinett’s secret room was indeed not easy to find: the player had to collect an invisible item in the castle (a 1-pixel object now known as “the Grey Dot”) and use it to open a secret chamber deep in the catacombs. There, the player would find Robinett’s message, written in flashing text.

After the game was released, Robinett kept his secret, but eventually an American teenager found the message and contacted Atari. The company at first thought of removing it, but this would be absurdly expensive. However, Steve Wright, Atari’s director of software development, had a moment of brilliant insight and pushed for the company to keep the message in the game. By his rationale, this hard-to-find secret would give players an extra reason to play the game, because it would be fun like Easter egg hunts. And just like that, the name “Easter egg” entered gaming culture: Atari decided to include Easter eggs in all their games and, by now, they have become a staple of the industry.

Screenshot of Robinett’s Easter egg in Adventure. Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.


Despite Robinett’s message being the one that gave rise to the name “Easter egg”, it was not actually the first one we know of. The very first Easter egg in gaming history was only very recently discovered: the message “Hi, Ron!” in the arcade game Starship 1 (Atari, 1977), programmed by Ron Milner.

However, given that many arcade games were released prior to Starship 1, it is very likely that even older Easter eggs might be found in the future. But they will not be as old as the very first Easter egg recorded in human History. For this, we need to travel some millennia back in time.

Flyer of Starship 1. Image retrieved from The Arcade Flyer Archive (


Art in Ancient Egypt typically served religious or state purposes and very often, both of these realms were linked. Egyptian art was thus more functional than anything else and several artists were involved in the production of any single piece of art: from draftsmen and carvers to illustrators, painters, and scribes.

Like in Atari, these ancient artists worked in anonymity, never being credited. This was, however, the norm, and was not seen as an affront to an artist’s creativity and personal work (as it was during the early days of video games). Even so, one[1] of these ancient artists decided to credit himself. His name was Senenmut.

Statue of Senenmut (18th Dynasty, ca. 1470 BCE), held in the Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst (Munich, Germany). Photo by Vassil (2006); image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.


Senenmut was born a commoner, but in a literate family, which would put him in the upper 5% of the population. He entered the service of Queen Hatshepsut, of the 18th Dynasty, most likely when she was still the wife of Pharaoh Thutmose II. After the king’s death, Hatshepsut became regent while Thutmose III was still too young to rule the country. She then became de facto Pharaoh (even after Thutmose III reached adulthood) and ruled Egypt from circa 1478 to 1458 BCE.

Senenmut obviously gained importance during this time: he was the steward of Hatshepsut and the tutor of her daughter Neferure, a highly-regarded position. He worked as administrator of Hatshepsut’s building projects and was also an astronomer and architect. Eventually, Senenmut would hold more than 80 titles, which included “Only friend of the Pharaoh”. The obvious important position of Senenmut and this seeming favoritism led some archeologists (based more on hopeful gossip than actual scientific investigation) to imply he was Hatshepsut’s lover.

As an architect, Senenmut’s most remarkable project was Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari (in ancient Thebes, modern Luxor), on the West bank of the Nile close to the Valley of the Kings. The temple, also known as “Djeser-Djeseru” (“Holy of Holies”), is one of Ancient Egypt’s most beautiful buildings, designed in several different levels linked by ascending ramps, located against the cliff’s face. It would have been even more awe-inspiring back in Hatshepsut’s day, where a sphinx-lined causeway led visitors from the valley to its grandiose entrance, marked by large pylons.

Mortuary temple of Hatshepsut. Photo by W. Hagens (2010); image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

The curious thing is that, going against the practice of all prior (and later) Egyptian artists and craftsmen, Senenmut decided to sign his magnum opus. He hid his signature behind one of the temple’s main doors: his name and an image of himself.

Senenmut’s signature: a relief with his image and name.

We will never know why Senenmut decided to do this, but we can imagine that, given how remarkable a building the mortuary temple is, anyone would feel inclined to get recognition for it. So there you go, when Robinett decided to hide his own signature in a castle’s secret chamber, little did he know that a precedent had already been set 3,500 years ago: Senenmut’s Easter egg (not that Easter was already a thing back then, but you get the idea). 


Baker, C. (2015) How one man invented the console adventure game. Wired. Available from: ett-adventure/ (Date of access: 13/Nov/2017).

Bogost, I. & Montfort, N. (2009) Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. MIT Press, Cambridge.

Cline, E. (2011) Ready Player One. Random House, New York.

Conelly, J. (2003) Of dragons and Easter eggs: a chat with Warren Robinett. The Jaded Gamer. Available from: gons-and-easter-eggs-a-chat-with-warren-robin ett/ (Date of access: 13/Nov/2017).

Dorman, P.F. (1988) The Monuments of Senenmut: Problems in Historical Methodology. Routledge, London.

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Hague, J. (2002) Halcyon Days: Interviews with Classic Computer and Video Game Programmers. Available from: (Date of access: 19/Nov/ 2017).

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Robinett, W. (2006) Adventure as a Video Game: Adventure for the Atari 2600. In: Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (Eds.) The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. MIT Press, Cambridge. Pp. 690–713.

Robins, G. (2008) The Art of Ancient Egypt: Revised Edition. Harvard University Press, Harvard.

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Tyldesley, J. (1996) Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh. Penguin Books, London.

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Wolf, M.J.P. (2012) Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming. Greenwood, Santa Barbara.


Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a zoologist/paleontologist and was trying really hard to write something more biologically inclined. Instead, he ended up writing his third consecutive article about Ancient Egypt. And now he will be off playing Assassin’s Creed Origins.

[1] The only other artist credited in Ancient Egypt is Imhotep, vizier of Pharaoh Djoser (3rd Dynasty). Imhotep was responsible for building the first pyramid, the “Step Pyramid” of Saqqara (2667–2648 BCE). Later, Imhotep was remembered as a great sage. Many centuries later, during the Late Period, he was worshipped as an actual deity, the patron of Medicine.

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Ancient Egyptian themes in Skylanders

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart; Stuttgart, Germany.

Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen; Tübingen, Germany.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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After seeing how Egyptian mythology is depicted in the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series of videogames (see Salvador, 2015), I now turn to another game series: Activision’s billion-dollar toys-to-life franchise Skylanders. The main series (i.e., discounting spin-offs) currently counts with six multi-platform games: Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure (2011), Skylanders: Giants (2012), Skylanders: Swap Force (2013), Skylanders: Trap Team (2014), Skylanders: SuperChargers (2015), and Skylanders: Imaginators (2016). The games take place in a world called Skylands, a magical realm full of floating islands. Needless to say, this realm is under the constant threat of villains who want to conquer or destroy it and so it falls to the heroes known as skylanders to protect their homeland.

Contrary to the Persona games, which only use gods and creatures from several mythologies around the world, Skylanders creates its own cast of heroes, villains and monsters. These characters are often based on real animals or on fantastic being from myths and stories from all around the world. There are elves, trolls, dragons etc. A few of the characters were inevitably based on ancient Egypt. As such, I will not analyze Egyptian mythology per se in Skylanders, but the many things based on ancient Egyptian culture that appear in the games.

Some parts of the text will refer to periods of Egyptian history or dynasties of rulers, so the table below gives an easy reference for this, with indication of the dynasties of rulers and approximate dates of each period (according to Shaw, 2004).



Dune Bug is a skylander that debuted in Skylanders: Swap Force. According to the game’s lore, he is a keeper of the secrets of an ancient Arkeyan city. (“Arkeyan” is the game’s catch-all term for an ancient Egyptian/Greek/Roman-like civilization with advanced technology.)


Dune Bug (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Skylanders Wiki.

Dune Bug is clearly a scarab, a type of beetle belonging to the family Scarabaeidae. These animals are also known as “dung beetles”. This name comes from their mode of life: they make balls of dung that are used as brooding chambers for their eggs and as future food source for the larvae. Males roll their dung balls around and eventually fight for them; those that can protect a nice ball will get a good shot at reproduction. In most species, male beetles have huge “horns” on their foreheads that they use in these battles. However, the Egyptian species (Scarabaeus sacer Linnaeus, 1758, or “the sacred scarab”) does not have such horn, so we can say Dune Bug is not very biologically accurate in this regard (not to mention he’s missing two limbs!).


A specimen of Scarabaeus sacer from an entomology collection. Photo by Sarefo (2007); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.

Anyway, why is the Egyptian scarab called “sacred”? The Egyptians observed the ball-rolling behavior of the beetles and considered it an analogy to the sun god Re (may also be written Ra) pushing the solar disk across the sky.


Two dung beetles rolling a ball of dung. Photo by Hectonichus (2014); image extracted from Wikimedia Commons.

The scarab beetle then became a symbol of this god or, more specifically, of one of the forms of this god known as Khepri, which represented the sunrise and early morning. Khepri was portrayed either as a scarab beetle or as a human man with a scarab as a head.


Wall-painting of Khepri in the tomb of Queen Nefertari (Valley of the Queens; 19th Dynasty, New Kingdom). Photo by Waiyenoo111; image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.

As a symbol of the sun-god, scarabs became widely popular imagery for amulets in Ancient Egypt, especially from the Middle Kingdom onwards. These were mainly apotropaic amulets, which means they were used for protection, to ward off evil. Scarabs would protect both the living (people wore them as necklaces) and the dead (they were placed in the wrappings of the mummies).


A solar scarab pendant from the tomb of King Tutankhamun (Valley of the Kings; 18th Dynasty, New Kingdom). Photo by Jon Bodsworth (Egypt Archive); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.


Krypt King is a skylander belonging to the famed group called “Trap Masters” (from the game Skylanders: Trap Team, as one might suspect). According to the game’s lore, he was a knight roaming the world as a disembodied spirit, until he found his suit of armor in some Arkeyan ruins.

The black and golden color combination of Krypt King’s armor was not very common in Egyptian clothing and artifacts. It was occasionally used by Egyptians, though; for instance, in the depictions of the black jackal-god Anubis and in several objects of King Tutankhamun’s treasure. Nevertheless, this color combination became somewhat symbolic of Egyptian stuff in modern times. Perhaps this is due to the above-mentioned treasury of the boy-king Tutankhamun, which has always received extensive media attention.


Krypt King (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Skylanders Wiki.

The armor in itself is very stylized, seemingly made of metal, with broad shoulder plates, bracers and boots. This is definitely not even close to what ancient Egyptian armor looked like. Armors back then were a simple thing. In truth, for a long time there were no actual armors to speak of and only shields were used for protection. Only in the New Kingdom proper armors began to appear, first made of several layers of cloth and/or leather and later covered with metal scales. Of course, this would make Krypt King look rather weak, so in this case accuracy properly gave way to awesomeness.

Krypt King’s headdress is very Egyptian-like; it looks like a fusion of the nemes headdress with the white crown. The nemes is a yellow and blue striped headdress worn by pharaohs in daily life. It is known from depictions as early as the 3rd Dynasty, although there are some possible depictions of a nemes from the 1st Dynasty. The nemes almost always comes with a uraeus, the stylized rearing cobra on the forehead of the headdress. The uraeus is a symbol of the goddess Wadjet and represents sovereignty.


The golden mask from Tutankhamun’s mummy, shown wearing the nemes headdress (Valley of the Kings; 18th Dynasty, New Kingdom). This particular nemes features both the uraeus and the vulture image of the goddess Nekhbet. Photo by Ibrahim.ID & D. Levy (2014, 2015); image extracted from Wikimedia Commons.

The pharaoh also had a number of more ceremonial and ritualistic crowns. The white crown (or hedjet) represents rulership over Upper (southern) Egypt. The red crown (or deshret) represents rulership over Lower (northern) Egypt. They were together combined as the so-called double crown (or pschent), meaning that the pharaoh ruled over the whole land. The two crowns are already seen in the depiction of King Narmer, the founder of the 1st Dynasty and mythical unifier of Egypt. The white crown can also be seen in kings from the so-called Dynasty 0, i.e., before the total unification of the land.


Top row: The two sides of the Narmer Palette (Abydos; 1st Dynasty, Early Dynastic Period). The red squares mark where the king is shown wearing the white crown (left) and red crown (right). Photo by Nicolas Perrault III (2013); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. Bottom row: Expanded view of the areas delimited by the red squares above.

As stated above, Krypt King wears a headdress that seems to fuse the nemes and the white crown into one. This is actually (more-or-less) seen in Ancient Egyptian art: the nemes is sometimes depicted combined with the double crown.


Statues of Ramesses II from the temple at Abu Simbel (19th Dynasty, New Kingdom), shown with a headdress combining the nemes and the double crown. Photo by Merlin-UK (2007); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.

Last but not least, there is Krypt King’s sword. Needless to say, his large sword is clearly based on medieval European weapons. As with all metalworking in early historic periods, swords in Egypt were not that large. Moreover, the typical Egyptian sword is very unique and more-or-less sickle-shaped. It is called khopesh (can also be spelled khepesh) and is known at least since the First Intermediate Period. Khopesh were first made of bronze (luckily, copper mined in Egypt contains a high amount of arsenic, which makes the final product harder), but later on in the New Kingdom, iron started to be used.

A khopesh found in Nablus, a city near Jerusalem (ca. 1750 BCE); as usual, the hilt was not preserved. Photo by Dbachmann (2006); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.

Krypt King could have had a khopesh; it actually would have made him more unique (not to say more accurate too). This is especially true because there are already so many sword-wielding skylanders (even including another Trap Master!).


The Golden Queen is not your usual skylander. Rather, she was the main antagonist (alongside the ever-present Kaos) in Skylanders: Trap Team. In this game, you can capture the villains and make them work for the greater good; that means you can play as the villains too! She became a full-fledged character in Skylanders: Imaginators, appearing as a “rehabilitated” villain (and with the mandatory accompanying real-life toy).


Golden Queen (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Skylanders Wiki.

By this point, it is very obvious that Golden Queen is clearly based on Egyptian themes. Like the Krypt King, she wears a nemes headdress, albeit very stylized. This is befitting of a pharaoh, but not of a “simple queen”. Queens that later became pharaohs, like Hatshepsut, wore male clothing and regalia, as appropriate for the office of pharaoh. Golden Queen’s nemes aptly bears a uraeus, a huge and very stylized one at that.

A curious feature of Golden Queen is the vertical lipstick-like stripe painted below her mouth. Perhaps the intention of this painting was to resemble the typical “false beard” worn by pharaohs. (To get an idea of what this beard looks like, take a look at the figure above showing the golden mask of Tutankhamun’s mummy). This ceremonial beard was, of course, also symbolical and indicated an association of the pharaoh with the gods. The pharaoh, after all, acted as the single intermediate between mankind and the divine.


The Pharaoh Hatshepsut (from her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri; 18th Dynasty, New Kingdom) is here depicted in male pharaonic clothing, but still shows a feminine form. Later on, she was depicted entirely as a male. Photo by Captmondo (2007); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.

So now let’s analyze all the gold. Why is the Queen golden? Well, according to the games’ lore, she is actually made of gold (and can even regenerate by absorbing gold). This has precedence in Ancient Egypt, albeit on the divine realm. Egyptian myths tells us that the flesh of the gods was made of gold, while their bones were silver. (The exception was the powerful Set, god of the desert and disorder, whose bones were made of iron.) So the Golden Queen appears to be more godlike than a mortal ruler under this light. Of course, it was usual for the Pharaohs to be eventually depicted in a more godlike manner.

Staves and scepters are symbols of power and dominion, and thus rulership, in many (if not most) cultures of the world. This was also the case in ancient Egypt. Pharaohs and gods (and sometimes important members of the priesthood) were depicted carrying the was-scepter or the sekhem-scepter. (Pharaohs could also be depicted carrying other similar symbols, depending on the occasion, such as the mace, the crook and the flail.) The was-scepter represents power and dominion; it consists of a usually long vertical shaft with a forked base and is surmounted by an animal head (commonly the so-called “Set-animal” of the god Set). The sekhem-scepter denotes power and might; it consists of a short vertical shaft surmounted by a fan-like or spade-like structure.

Golden Queen’s staff is strikingly different from both (although maybe closer to the sekhem-scepter), having a pair of wings and a central egg-like structure. More importantly, the Queen can shoot golden scarabs from her staff and summon a swarm of these beetles. The meaning of scarabs for the Ancient Egyptians is explained above, in the section about Dune Bug. She can also use the staff to turn anyone or anything into solid gold. Alternatively, she can do this with a touch, an ability that comes from Greek myths, namely the story of King Midas.


Left: A was-scepter made of faience (its center portion was restored) from Nubia (Late Period). The animal head represents the god Set. Photo by Joan Lansberry 1995–2012; image extracted and modified from http://www Right: Head of a sekhem-scepter, made of wood with gold covering, from the tomb of Tutankhamun (Valley of the Kings; 18th Dynasty, New Kingdom). Anonymous photo; image extracted and modified from

Finally, Golden Queen has a boat in the Skylanders: SuperChargers game. The vehicle is called Glitter Glider, perhaps because the name Golden Glider was already taken by DC Comics. Despite obvious additions (like the motor), her boat is indeed based on ancient Egyptian vessels, especially known by their high curving prow and many oars.


Top: Golden Queen on her boat (screenshot from the game). Image extracted from Skylanders Wiki. Bottom: Reconstructed “solar barge” of King Khufu (4th Dynasty, Old Kingdom), found in the king’s pyramid complex in Giza. Photo by Berthold Werner, 2010; image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.


Grave Clobber is a minor villain, featured as a playable character in Skylanders: Trap Team. He is summoned by the Golden Queen to get rid of the skylanders. By his wrappings, Grave Clobber is clearly a mummy. But that’s where all Egyptian influence stops. Actually, everything else in Grave Clobber looks influenced by Mesoamerican cultures: the geometric patterns, the ugly scary mask and the typical turquoise blue color (the pigment called “Maya blue”, or “azul maya”, from the Spanish).


Grave Clobber (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Skylanders Wiki.


Like for Grave Clobber above, Golden Queen’s stages (The Golden Desert and Lair of the Golden Queen) are all ornamented with reliefs and patterns that are more reminiscent of Mesoamerican cultures than ancient Egypt. This is especially true for the pyramid, which is a step pyramid with a flat top. Such buildings are well known from archeological sites in Mexico, but not in Egypt (although the very first pyramid built, by pharaoh Djoser, was stepped). Golden Queen’s racing stage from Skylanders: SuperChargers (called “The Golden Temple”) also shares a lot of this Mesoamerican style.


Top: Golden Desert stage, from Skylanders: Trap Team (official artwork from the game). Middle: Lair of the Golden Queen, from Skylanders: Trap Team (official artwork from the game). Bottom: The Golden Temple stage, from Skylanders: SuperChargers (screenshot from the game). All images extracted from Skylanders Wiki.


As we can see by the above discussion, the Skylanders series incorporates some nice elements from ancient Egyptian culture. It presents some things in a sensibly accurate manner, while accommodating other things in a more forceful manner due to gameplay and/or artistic choices. Some things, however, are unnecessarily mistaken, like Krypt King’s sword and the Mesoamerican pyramids.


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Pasztory, E. (1998) Pre-Columbian Art. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Peck, W.H. (2013) The Material World of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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Salvador, R.B. (2015) Egyptian mythology in the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona games. Journal of Geek Studies 2(1): 8–32.

Salvador, R.B. (2016) The overwatching eye of Horus. Journal of Geek Studies 3(2): 01–07.

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Rodrigo Salvador remains fascinated with Ancient Egypt and often stops to ponder about it, even while fending off wave after wave of nasty Chompies.

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The overwatching eye of Horus

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart; Stuttgart, Germany.

Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen; Tübingen, Germany.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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Overwatch, Blizzard Entertainment’s new hit, is a team-based first-person shooter game released on May 2016 for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. In the game, several heroes battle each other in 6×6 matches. One of the heroes is called Pharah (real name: Fareeha Amari), an Egyptian security chief equipped with a jet-propelled combat suit and a rocket launcher (Fig. 1).

Pharah’s character design is clearly related to her Egyptian nationality. However, by this I clearly do not mean present-day Egypt, where Islam is the state religion. I actually refer to the mythology and culture of ancient Egypt.

Pharah - fig 1

Figure 1. Pharah in her full combat suit, the Raptora Mark VI (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from “Pharah Reference Kit” (official Overwatch website).


Let us start with her combat suit. At first glance, any gamer would consider Pharah’s suit a reference to Samus Aran (from the Metroid game series) and call it a day. Or maybe an otaku would say (mainly because of the bird-like helmet) it’s a reference to the suits of the heroes from the anime Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972; Kagaku Ninjatai Gatchaman, in the original). But I would argue that Pharah’s suit, her distinctive eye tattoo and actually her whole personality, are all linked to the Egyptian god Horus. But before discussing Pharah, I need to give a quick primer about Horus.

Horus is one of the most important Egyptian deities and also one of the first we find in the archaeological record. Depictions of Horus are found in objects from the very early Dynastic Period, but he was very likely already present in Predynastic times (that means earlier than 3100 BCE). In his most ancient form, Horus was the “lord of the sky”, represented by a falcon soaring high up in the sky. His right eye was said to be the sun and his left eye the moon. His most ancient cult center known to archaeologists was the city of Nekhen, better known by its Greek name Hierakonpolis, meaning “city of falcons”.

Later on, Horus assumed another aspect and became known as the son of the deities Isis and Osiris. Some scholars actually believe that this was a different deity altogether from the elder sky-lord Horus described above, which just happened to have the same name. If they were indeed two gods, they were fused in the Osiris myths; if not, the younger Horus is just a very elaborate incorporation of the older Horus into the Osirian tradition.

In this new “incarnation”, Horus became intimately linked to Egyptian monarchy. As the son of Isis and Osiris, he was the rightful heir to the Egyptian throne. His uncle Set, however, tried to usurp the throne, leading to a battle that lasted for 80 years. At some point, Set gouged Horus’ left eye out, which was later restored by either Hathor or Thoth. Eventually, though, Horus became the ruler of Egypt. The gods then gradually gave way to the mortals to rule their own land. Henceforth, the ruler of the mortals, the pharaoh, became equated to Horus and was referred to as “the living Horus”.

The pharaoh’s duties were to protect Egypt and its people and to uphold maat, which was the ancient Egyptian concept of truth, harmony (in the sense of balance or order), morality and justice. In Overwatch, Pharah (whose name is clearly an intentional reminder of “pharaoh”) somewhat assumes this role too. She is defined as a good-hearted, honorable and justice-inclined person (“Lawful Good” in Dungeons & Dragons terms) and said to be a protector of the people. Eventually, when her ultimate is charged, she rains justice from above on her enemies (Fig. 2D). Scenes of the pharaoh smiting his enemies were a recurrent theme in Egyptian art (Fig. 2E).

Horus’ iconography is one of the best known from Egyptian art: he was depicted either as a falcon (Fig. 2A) or as a falcon-headed man (Fig. 2B). The basis for his avian depiction was a real species, most likely the lanner falcon (Falco biarmicus Temminck, 1825; Fig. 2C). Needless to say, Pharah’s winged combat suit, the Raptora Mark VI, is based on a bird of prey. (Birds of prey are also called raptors, but this is not an actual group in a biological sense; it is rather an “unofficial” category to gather falcons, hawks and eagles.) This is not only implied by the suit’s name, but also by the peculiar shape of the helmet (Fig. 1), which imitates the hooked beak of a bird of prey (Fig. 2C).

Pharah - fig 2

Figure 2. A. Statue of Horus as a falcon (temple of Horus, Edfu; Ptolemaic Era). Photo by Merlin-UK (2006); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. B. Wall carving depicting Horus as a falcon-headed man (temple of Horus, Edfu; Ptolemaic Era). Image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. C. A lanner falcon, Falco biarmicus Temminck, 1825 (family Falconidae). Photo by Peter Pauly (2012); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. D. Pharah’s “Hieroglyph” spray (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki. E. Detail of the bottom side of a scarab amulet from the reign of Ramesses II (19th Dynasty, New Kingdom) showing the pharaoh smiting an enemy. Image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.

Falcons (i.e., the family Falconidae) are arguably the most accomplished fliers of the animal kingdom. The most striking example to achieve aerial superiority is the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus Tunstall, 1771), the fastest animal alive. These falcons skydive in order to chase and catch prey and during one of these stunts a peregrine falcon can reach speeds of 320 km/h (200 mph).


One of the most distinctive features of the lanner falcon is the dark markings around its eyes (Fig. 2C), which also appear in representations of Horus (Fig. 2A). Not surprisingly, these markings became stylized in Egyptian art and the resulting symbol was known as the “Eye of Horus” or wedjat (Fig. 3A). The name wedjat is often translated as “the whole one” or “the restored one”, being an allusion to the legend told above where Horus’ eye was gouged out by Set. The name can also be written as udjat, which is the spelling used in Overwatch.

Pharah has the contour of the wedjat tattooed around her right eye (Fig. 3B; it can be seen more clearly in one of her “sprays” from the game: Fig. 3C). In the Overwatch comics, Pharah says she got her tattoo after her mother’s. Ana Amari, who is now also a playable character in Overwatch, indeed has a tattoo on her left eye, but it is only vaguely reminiscent of an actual wedjat.

The wedjat was considered a powerful protective symbol in ancient Egypt and was used in wall paintings and reliefs, sarcophagi and, more extensively, in amulets and jewelry (Fig. 3A).

Pharah - fig 3

Figure 3. A. Pendant with the wedjat, or Eye of Horus, found in the Tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings (18th Dynasty, New Kingdom). The eye represented is the right one, the solar eye. Photo by Jon Bodsworth (Egypt Archive); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. B. Pharah, without her helmet, showing the wedjat tattoo around her right eye (original model from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki. C. Pharah’s “Tattoo” spray (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki.

In the Overwatch comics, it is correctly stated that the wedjat is a symbol of protection, but then the comics say that it is not meant as a protection for Pharah herself; instead it should mean that Pharah needs to protect others. This is, of course, not true — an amulet is, after all, meant to protect the wearer — but it is a minor slip made for narrative purposes, as Pharah was developing her sense of duty in protecting others.


Pharah’s customization option in the game include other sprays (besides the ones shown in Fig. 2D and 3C above) that are also based on ancient Egyptian themes. The “Statue” and “Stone” sprays are merely depictions of Pharah given an ancient-looking vibe. The “Tattoo” (Fig. 3C) and “Wedjat” (here it is curiously spelled in the most common way, contrary to the comic’s “udjat”) are pretty straightforward to understand after the discussion above.

The “Scarab” spray (Fig. 4A) is also a simple matter, as it represents the so-called sacred scarab (Scarabaeus sacer Linnaeus, 1758; Fig. 4B), albeit in a rather stylized manner. For the Egyptians, the scarab was linked to the sun god Re (also spelled Ra) and it was probably the most common theme for protective amulets in the country (Fig. 4C), meant to ward off evil.

Pharah’s “Wings” spray is a somewhat more complex composition. It is a solar disc, with rays spreading from it, mounted above the pair of wings from the Raptora suit (Fig. 4D). A winged solar disk (Fig. 4C) was also a symbol of Horus, in special of the “elder Horus” described above. However, the wings are separated in Pharah’s spray (Fig. 4D) and so would be perhaps better interpreted as a distinct thing from the solar disk. Wings were usually attributes of gods when shown in a sort of protective embrace: Horus was commonly shown protecting the pharaoh; Isis was usually shown protecting either the pharaoh or her brother/husband Osiris; the vulture goddess Nekhbet was also shown with outstretched wings as a general symbol of protection. (By the way, the typical winged-Isis depiction is imitated in Pharah’s “Hieroglyph” spray, shown in Figure 2D.)

The solar disk with rays emanating from it was a common depiction of the sun and of any deity associated with it (Horus, Re etc.), but this particular symbol became strongly associated with the heretic king Akhenaten of the 18th Dynasty. During his reign, Akhenaten established the cult of a single god, Aten, which was depicted as a solar disk with life-giving rays emanating from it (Fig. 4E). The rays of the Aten often terminate in hands, sometimes holding the ankh (the sign for “life”). The solar rays in Pharah’s spray terminates in small bulges, which could mean that it was based in a depiction of the Aten’s.

Pharah - fig 4

Figure 4. A. Pharah’s “Scarab” spray (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki. B. A specimen of Scarabaeus sacer from an entomology collection. Photo by Sarefo (2007); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. C. Scarab pendant from the Tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings (18th Dynasty, New Kingdom). Photo by Jon Bodsworth (Egypt Archive); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. D. Pharah’s “Wings” spray (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki. E. Stone block from El Amarna, showing Akhenaten (as a sphinx) receiving the life-giving rays of the Aten (shown on the top right corner). Photo by Leoboudv (2008); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, there are the “skins”, which change a character’s appearance in the game. Pharah’s “Anubis” skin changes her combat suit to black and golden, with a helmet shaped like a jackal’s head (Fig. 5B). Anubis, the god of cemeteries, burial and embalming, was depicted as a black jackal (Fig. 5A) or a jackal-headed man. He is perhaps the most readily recognizable symbol of ancient Egypt today, so it’s not surprising for Pharah to have something related to him. (By the way, the game’s Egyptian stage is called “Temple of Anubis”, but this Anubis is an AI.)

Pharah - fig 5

Figure 5. A. Statue of Anubis as a crouching jackal, from the Tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings (18th Dynasty, New Kingdom). Photo by Jon Bodsworth (Egypt Archive); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. B. Pharah’s “Anubis” skin (screenshot from the game). A white version of this skin is called “Jackal”. Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki.

Pharah’s other skins are based on: (1) the mecha genre of Japanese anime, notably on the classical Gundam (skins “Mechaqueen” and “Raptorion”); and (2) on native North American themes (skins “Raindancer” and “Thunderbird”).


Needless to say, Pharah’s one my favorite characters from Overwatch. The nicest thing about this character is how well the Egyptian theme is built, consistently wrapped around the god Horus (the falcon, the wedjat and the pharaoh stuff) and protection symbols (the wedjat again, the duties of the pharaoh, the wings and the scarab), all of which fits perfectly with Pharah’s personality. The single minor slip, I venture, was to use the heretic depiction of the solar disk in one of the sprays; but a single spray is such a minor part of the game that I can easily let this one slip.

Pharah - fig 6

“Play Pharah” spray (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki.


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