Of the myriad objects in the games, statues seem to be among the most frivolous. You can talk or fight with beings of flesh and blood. You can explore buildings. You can climb or chop down trees, maybe even build a house with its wood. With an ordinary statue, perhaps the most exciting thing you can do on a good day is walk around it. Why then are so many games peppered with statues so intricately and prominently displayed that they distract the eye?
It is perhaps one of the fundamental principles of life that if you really want attention, you splurge on something that has next to no practical value. A luxury sports car is good, but a giant jewel or a triumphal arch is better. “No practical value” of course does not mean that these things have no use in a larger sense. It is precisely the void of any practical finality that opens spaces of meaning. Grandiose but useless things speak; they convey social and cultural significance.
Statues, whether in real life or in virtual worlds, are therefore particularly suited to attract our eyes and provoke the question: what does this mean? What is it doing here, in this particular place? Who put it there, why and how long ago?
In their most basic and fundamental form, statues in games often serve a central function: gently directing our attention to points of interest. In Divinity: Original Sin 2 or Metroid: Dread, statues indicate waypoints and save points. Breath of the Wild goddess statues allow us to trade orbs for upgrades. And in countless games, foremost From Software’s Soulsborne games, a towering statue in the center of a room almost guarantees either a boss fight or treasure (or both).
Another related function of statues, especially very large ones, is as unique landmarks and guides. Two statues flanking a doorway are a sure sign that this is the direction you are meant to be heading. Much like tall buildings or mountains, statues can be a tool that helps make sense of virtual landscapes by dividing them into distinct segments. Since statues usually have easily distinguishable front and back faces, it becomes even easier to orient yourself in relation to them. And if the giant statue is climbable, as in Sable, it also serves as a belvedere.
Statues can also indicate the way. Sometimes they do it literally, with outstretched arms and index finger or the tip of an arrow as in Sable. In this way, statues are often part of the larger architecture of a puzzle; either they provide subtle clues for the solution as The Witness statues sometimes do, or they must be manipulated, moved, destroyed, or knocked down in order to progress.
To do this, statues rely on our unconscious, instantaneous sympathy for images of human or human-like figures: we are conditioned to follow a statue’s gaze, to react with curiosity to a statue’s hands who reach out in an inviting gesture to offer a gift.
Some games find ingenious uses for statues. In Shadow of the Colossus, each of the 16 temple statues represents a colossus that must be slain. After each victory, the associated statue collapses, letting us know how far we have already progressed, and which colossus remains to face.
Statues, however, do more than just point or guide. They are also expressive works of art rooted in their respective universes and their stories. Being (usually) shaped in our image, they are an incredibly effective way to convey moods as well as emotional or psychological states. A whole subgenre of taciturn narrative games inspired by games like Ico and Journey have turned statues into one of their main modes of expression instead of language. Rime, Gris, and Sea of Solitude all use metaphorical landscapes punctuated by abandoned and broken statues. Like a pathetic sophistry, these statues not only convey the central rhythms of a story, but act as monolithic manifestations of the protagonists’ grief and psychological struggles.
If statues can evoke empathy, it makes sense that they can also threaten and bewilder. From the mannequins of Silent Hill and other horror games to the oppressive statues of From Software, games have long embraced the inherent ambiguity of dead objects created to look like living beings. The exact quality that makes them capable of attracting our sympathy can also easily turn them into strange objects and targets of our fear and revulsion. Elden Ring particularly likes to blur the lines between statues and living beings. Its stone-skinned golems and gargoyles, its giant skeletons resting on monolithic thrones, its deformed humanoid limbs protruding from the architecture, its petrified dragons and corpses of rotting beasts fused to pillars of stone; they all challenge our ability to categorize, to distinguish deadly threat from creepy background decoration. This challenges the very assumption that there are clear distinctions to be made.
The Forgotten City uses its statues in a similar way. The city we are exploring is dotted with countless very realistic golden statues. Some of them have been neatly arranged in places suitable for statues, but others can be found in forgotten corners, seemingly frozen in mid-swing in altercations or moments of terror. We hear them whispering, and if we turn our backs on them, some move their heads to follow our movements. Breaking one of the city’s golden rules brings certain statues to life; they begin to hunt down and petrify any living thing not yet turned into gold.
The petrified citizens of The Forgotten City exemplify another task that statues excel at: grounding virtual worlds and anchoring them to societal, religious, and historical depths. Statues provide an easy way to express the values of a place, culture, or ruling class; historical events or myths they use to make sense of the world, rulers, gods or mythical figures who demand respect and veneration. The statues and the values they are imbued with are created to last, preserve, even immortalize a world order by turning it into stone.
The world around them, however, usually doesn’t let them go for very long. Much like in Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, the ironic tension between the desperate and the arrogant clinging to a historical moment and the eventual irrelevance of that moment creates a sense of historical pathos. The crumbling and confusing statues of Dark Souls or Elden Ring signify a world order that has far passed its zenith, a desolate and dying world whose few surviving inhabitants are vastly outnumbered by the stone effigies created in their image. The Eternal Cylinder presents another ingenious moment of fleetingness: in a world so alien it looks like a distant planet, we encounter the stone head of a classical statue. One of the last remnants, it seems, of our long-forgotten human world.
Although motionless and lifeless, statues can do a surprising number of things; they can guide and suggest, tell stories and evoke moods, provide insight into people’s inner lives or the societal and historical strata that make up a virtual world. Moreover, a single statue can perform a number of these tasks at once, even if we are oblivious to all the load it is there to do. The next time you play, say, Elden Ring, try to think about what it would be like if all the statues were removed from play, and what would be missing.