Fighting Old Battles Again
Age of Mythology: 20th Anniversary
It is very difficult on this, the 20th anniversary of Age of Mythology, to put everything this little game means to me into words. So I suppose it is easiest to start with the raw facts. Age of Mythology is the third game released in the influential Age of Empires series of real-time strategy games, and the first to be made entirely in 3-D. It was developed during that wonderful growing pains period of game development, where video games were not yet the multi-billion-dollar cultural juggernaut we know and despise today. The first two games in the series had focused strongly on systemizing a combination of dry history nerd facts and history as a subjective experience, as from a film or work of historical fiction, with results that were occasionally discordant. Age of Mythology by contrast takes place in a world of hero, monster and myth. where the Gods reward their worship in tangible and dramatic ways. Although it’s not as well remembered as other titles in the series, it maintains a small but devoted fan base of RTS enthusiasts who, more than 20 years later, still keep a devoted competitive scene alive.
It is not entirely the result of the chip on my shoulder when I say Age of Mythology is somewhat unloved. The other three mainline Age games all received lavish “Definitive Edition” remakes, and a sequel, Age of Empires IV, came out in 2020. (Note: this part is now outdated as in between writing this and it being published AoM did actually receive a remake announcement. The reader may use their own discretion as to whether the chip on the shoulder must also be corrected.) AoM doesn’t have anywhere near the cultural footprint of Age of Empires II, or the nostalgic neolithic RTS experimentation of the original. It’s in an awkward position, sitting somewhere in between the knife edges that define the gameplay of ’90s vintage games and the more refined immediacy of IV. Before Age of Mythology, video games were a niche hobby for enthusiasts capable of putting together a PC. After Age of Mythology, video games were a billion dollar industry as rife with horrifying issues as it is profitable. But to people like me who have been playing this game more or less continuously since release, there is just something about this game, a unique quality to it that has never been recreated or matched. It’s a game I don’t just love but one that has grown in my estimation as the years have gone on, one that is always installed on my computers for when the mood strikes.
There’s a lot that goes into making it my favorite. But perhaps the most important, the one I can’t emphasise enough, is how good it feels to craft and execute a strategy in this game, the back-and-forth based on the strengths and weaknesses of your civilization, major and minor gods, and when and where to use your god powers. It’s a game that, despite being played constantly since it was released 20 years ago, despite two expansion packs and balance patches of varying levels of quality, has not yet been solved. A dominant, unbeatable strategy has never emerged that couldn’t be countered: the balance between the civilizations (a.k.a “civs”) has remained remarkably stable. The metagame, the level of strategy and competition that exists between the players rather than in the game itself, is a constantly ticking work in progress as a new strategy emerges, gets popular, is countered and drops out of the meta. If you play online enough and try to ladder for ELO points, you’ll even hit some builds old enough to be genuinely nostalgic for long-time fans from the early days of the games release.
It’s difficult to discuss the real-time strategy genre without talking about a particular space-themed RTS made by a company everyone hates, so here we go. Age of Mythology owes a little something to it: the base game (or “‘nilla” as AoM enthusiasts call it, short for “vanilla”) has three distinctly different civs that are far more asymmetrical than any game before or since. It’s a much more streamlined experience, one that abandons a lot of the simulationist elements of previous games to be a faster experience. The game is also balanced around the branching paths of major and minor gods when you advance in age, with different technology available and different God Powers that can significantly affect the way you play the game. Playing an RTS can best be thought of as trying to do a dozen tasks and not fail any of them, rather than executing a single task perfectly. So, keeping track of and understanding all these systems is the core of what makes it so good. It’s the confluence of all of Age of Mythology’s various systems, the way they all harmonize together, that keeps people playing this game, despite the jank, despite the small size of the scene, despite better, faster, more modern RTS games coming out.
The first single-player campaign Fall of the Trident (yes, it’s me, the only person on the planet who cares a great deal about the single player experience in an RTS) remains one of my all-time favourites. It’s pretty cheesy, and there’s a British lady doing an African accent that’s … well I don’t even have to go into it beyond that, do I? In terms of level design, however, it’s wall-to-wall your favourite RTS tropes: holdout missions, constructing a thing, getting a unit back to your base. As an adult it’s not quite the entrancing adventure it was to me in 2002, but I do appreciate the scope of it. A grand adventure through the heavens and earth, poetry-reciting cyclops, deserts and oceans and snow-covered forests, heroic stands against impossible odds, and what’s more it takes the story seriously with no snotty Whedon irony. The protagonists are mostly old and tired but unwavering in their heroism, ever ready to dust themselves off in the wake of a defeat and pick up a sword to prevent their world from ending. Although I could play the campaign blindfolded and know every beat I still fire it up pretty regularly to give it a play through. The other campaigns aren’t quite as good, and disappointingly short, but still enjoyable — and still have well constructed maps filled with vibrant crafted vistas and nooks and crannies to explore.
It would be remiss of me (and very unlike me) to not comment on the game's approach to historicity. As I've said a couple of times it’s one of the more laissez-faire Age games, although a better way of putting it would be “unshackled by the pretention of being an actual history text.” Free from the pretext of attempting to systemize actual history, Age of Mythology was able to chase its muse and produce a game inspired by ancient myths rather than indebted to them. But I do think that the game, perhaps unintentionally, conveys something genuine about the role of mythology in human culture. Before history was an academic pursuit, it was (and still largely is) a story, an imagined past that explained the way the world became the way it is in the present. And Age of Mythology presents its civilizations as they no doubt saw themselves: ageless, a world of the Gods’ direct intervention and wrath in everything from agriculture to pottery, and the larger-than-life heroes whose actions reflect life in the present. Indeed, in many ways playing Age of Mythology is the next link in a chain as old as humanity itself, the modern era's own biased and anachronistic view of its past. The inveterate history nerd stuff is still there as well. To this day I love clicking on a unit’s portrait and getting a little history tidbit, especially when it has a pedantic aside about how the version in the game is anachronistic or incorrect. Although I would be lying if I said many of the little details didn't irk me, such as the Victorian-style unpainted white stone temples, the odd mix of various cultural eras, and the lack of cultural or ethnic diversity.
Indeed, it’s probably the history nerd stuff that has stuck with me. As an unhappy child with undiagnosed mental illness, scratching the surface of this game revealed more things I liked. Undoubtedly it helped set me on the path of lifelong pedant and studying history at higher education. Regardless of how terrible my life has gotten, when I boot this game up and hear that music I feel whole. I’ve played the shit out of this game; I’ve made lifelong friends through it.
So what's so great about this game? What keeps people coming back 20 years later? Why should you go out and start playing it right this second? Anyone who has ever spent time with this game knows, it just works. All the different elements combine into a glorious whole that overcomes the awkward jank of early 3-D games. It has some of the best art direction of any game before or since, filled to bursting with beautiful aesthetic touches and vibrant, dreamlike colour, and this in an era when almost every single game was brown and muddy. Every single sound effect is crafted specifically for this game. Maps that are filled to bursting with hidden corners to explore and fun details, new strategies to develop and master, one more map before bed. And I honestly can't see myself getting bored of it any time soon.
There's a small part of me that wishes Age of Mythology could have had the following other games have had, to have had 20 years of a larger, less niche competitive scene. A part of me that wishes that it had been explored and developed as much as other games, been mapped out and strategized and endlessly examined in the same way. But there's a much larger part of me that, over the years, has learned to love things for what they are and not what they might have been. To embrace jank and the relentless march of time rather than deny it. Comparison is the thief of joy, and what it means to me personally will never be replicated by anything else.
Thank you for 20 years, Age of Mythology. 999.