The Poetry of Created Space

A close look at Percy Byssche Shelley's sonnet and the beauty of thoughtful design.

By: Lana Polansky

Filed Under: Art Criticism Industry Mechanics


The red sun beats down mercilessly on an arid sea of sand, the horizon a desolate line punctuated by a few dunes from end to end. You can hear the crunch of tiny grains under your feet as you lurch forward, parched but motivated by your mission to reach the marked spot on your mini-map. You would be lost completely in this unrelentingly, discombobulating, monotonous environment—if not for this convenience. Finally, you reach it.

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

You walk around it, inspecting, kneeling, exploring. As expected, a prompt finally appears. Press X to wipe the sand away from the wind-worn pedestal. These words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The “lone and level sands” all seem to center onto Ozymandias, or Ramesses II, as many know him. This is the center of the universe for a broken statue. This is the golden burial place of a dead civilization.


Percy Byssche Shelley’s 1818 sonnet about the Egyptian pharaoh, was not, we can safely say, intended to be thought of in game design terms. However, that hasn’t stopped it from popping up in several places in the video game world, including Call of Duty: Black Ops, Civilzation IV, and Fallout 3 – Point Lookout.

In Civ IV, lines 10-11 of Ozymandias are quoted when the player discovers the Construction technology in the Classical Era. In Black Ops, the entire poem is available via an encoded file found in a user account in the Central Intelligence Agency Data System.

But interest sits in what the Fallout 3 add-on, Point Lookout, dedicates to the poem. A mission entitled “An Antique Land”—a reference to the poem’s first line—not only borrows directly, (perhaps somewhat obtusely), from the poem, but manages to cleverly mirror its central theme through how gameplay operates within the environment.

Ozymandias is a poem partly about hubris. It tells us the story of a fallen empire—and really, of the inexorable decay of all human endeavour—through the use of this classic symbol. It does this not just through diction or metaphor, but through a kind of environmental storytelling. Shelley’s description of the “antique land” paints a lonely, existentially terrifying picture. We can feel our mouths drying up thinking of the desiccated boundlessness. We can see the once-mighty statue, its legs sticking absurdly into the air. We can see its face and torso jutting out of the ground, almost scowling, surrounded by a wasteland which has reclaimed the stone from which it was once carved. It is this imagery, this juxtaposition of nature and human creation, which makes the theme tangible.

Fallout 3’s “An Antique Land” mission works with a radically different setting and formal framework, but conveys many of the same ideas. Unlike the desert in the poem, the outcrop in which the mission is set is not empty save for one statue. Rather, the environment is full of reminders of the old world.

It begins with the player finding a beached research ship named USS Ozymandias, in which a key-locked safe sits waiting for the player to open it using an adjacent terminal. To accomplish this, the player must navigate the environment to find soil samples kept on three different holodisks, to be found in three muck holes spread out across the map.

Essentially, the short mission rewards the player with loot, including stimpaks, radiation suits and bio-gas canisters, as well as 50 XP—this is more or less the superficial gameplay goal. But it’s in exploring the environment, and observing the artefacts within, that this mission earns its namesake.

The desolate land populated by feral ghouls and swampfolk begins and ends with the USS Ozymandias, to which the holodisks must be returned. When the player switches on the terminal, the Bysshe Energy Company is named in a missive as instrumental in probing for natural gas resources in Point Lookout.

This is not just an obvious reference to Shelley’s middle name, but an example of human enterprise. This pre-War company is remembered only in corroding artefacts: a rusted ship docked on a pile of rocks, excavated muck holes full of lingering chemicals and forgotten junk.

“Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things”

These lifeless things indicate where the muck holes are, whether they are a trash heap, a rotten old playhouse or a jet crash site. They tell us so much about the world Point Lookout used to be—one inflected by a system of business and consumption and growth.

We know this is a fallen civilization full of torpedoed aspirations. The placement of the muck holes by these artefacts forces us to confront the inevitability of decay, and the inhumanity of an environment only populated now by feral ghouls and swampfolk.

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”


Media scholar and Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern Carolina, Henry Jenkins, labelled this particular type of storytelling “Narrative Architecture.”

In his 2004 essay, Game Design As Narrative Architecture, Jenkins describes the special properties that “spatiality” brings to the videogame narrative, writing,

“Game designers don’t simply tell stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces. It is no accident, for example, that game design documents have historically been more interested in issues of level design than on plotting or character motivation. A prehistory of video and computer games might take us through the evolution of paper mazes or board games, both preoccupied with the design of spaces, even where they also provided some narrative context.”

In essence, Jenkins argues that games convey narrative and, by extension narrative devices, more through their designed spaces—and the objects placed within those spaces—than through other means of storytelling like dialogue (or the maligned cutscene).

This sounds like a relatively facile thing to say now: of course we know that games—even text adventures—provoke feeling and atmosphere by making the player feeling situated in a mediated space using a variety of design choices and aesthetics. But reading Ozymandias, or considering Jenkins’ “prehistory” of games, we actually find in games a formal realization of a very old idea—something that we’ve tried to recreate through paint, or sculpture, or cinematography, or text. The power of a sense of place.

Shelley uses the power of a sense of an antique place—an uninhabited, abandoned place, and the discarded and broken sculpture left within it—to make us feel some kind of fundamental, mortal dread. That, no matter the greatness you achieve, it will be left forgotten in the dust someday.


The poem is delivered through two different voices: “I met a traveller from an antique land,” it begins, and the tale of the statue is told in quotations until the end. Shelley is thus relating to us a story supposedly told to him.

This, I think, speaks most directly to our multilayered relationship with history and with the oral tradition of providing account. And this, too, is something reflected in many games whose spaces tell as much of the story as the overarching plot.

There is something archaeological to discovering the broken and corroded waste at Point Lookout, or the markings on the wall and rotting science experiments left in Aperture in Portal 2, or looting the bandit outposts scattered across the map in the Borderlands series. There is emotional power in finding the scrawlings and journal entries and garbage of the people who used to be here, and the relationship they had with their environment.

Ozymandias is, really, an account of someone else’s account. Games too, being mediated experiences, can and often are created to influence a certain range of reactions simply by what the constructed worlds have for us to discover within them. What we find, then, is already filtered through a lens of, perhaps, someone else’s particular thematic vision. And we love to share our findings with others: jokes, secrets, Easter eggs. It connects us to the world and makes us actors in an ecosystem.

But in many of these games: Fallout 3, Borderlands, Portal 2, BioShock—even games like Flower—it’s also clear that we’re acting within something with an established past. We navigate the environment and it whispers to us—through petals in the wind or broken facility pipes full of protoplasmic goop—about the themes and ideas the game wants us to operate with.

Fallout 3 echoes the universal sentiments of hubris and decline expressed in Ozymandias, with every last irradiated ghoul being a part of those sentiments.

Flower, perhaps, uses its environment to warn of the destruction caused by industrial encroachment. Portal 2, on the other hand, tells the story of a family destroyed by one man’s ambition.

These games do with space what Ozymandias does with words: by creating a sense of place and of history, they can use an environment full of various meaningful objects that reflect a pervasive theming also found within Shelley’s use of setting and imagery.

We can close our eyes, and see the desert. We can see the cracks of the statue, the wind sweeping ribbons of sand between the “vast and trunkless legs of stone.” We can see the severity of the pharaoh’s “half-sunk and shattered visage” as it looks on into emptiness. We can almost see ourselves pressing X to touch it.

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Filed Under: Art Criticism Industry Mechanics

About the Author:
Lana Polansky is a game critic and writer peddling her wares at Kill Screen, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and here at Bit Creature. Also, a ludonarrative disco-dancer.

6,876 Responses to “The Poetry of Created Space”

  1. chris

    Beautifully written. I played portal 2 but never connected it with poetry! I should explore broader connections more often… thanks! I am inspired to explore!

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