‘Selective Authenticity’: Ogham in Video Games and Tabletop RPGs

By Dr Megan Kasten, OG(H)AM’s UK Postdoctoral Researcher

In our April blog, Clara Scholz introduced us to the use of ogham in gaming through an examination of the script’s appearance in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. Although AC:V is probably the most popular game to include ogham in its worldbuilding, it is not the first to do so. The use of ogham is part of a wider practice of incorporating medieval content in modern games (see contributions from The Middle Ages in Modern Games Twitter Conference) but, unlike runes and other ancient forms of writing (de Rougemont 2021), hasn’t been discussed before due to ogham’s lower profile in popular culture more generally. In this month’s blog I will highlight several video games and tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs) that have incorporated ogham and will explore how this reflects ogham’s range of roles and applications through time.

Sense of Place and/or Historical Context

In many of the examples discussed in this blog, ogham is used as a way of conveying a sense of place or time, i.e. as worldbuilding, without requiring the player to direct interact with it. This can be done in a general way or with a higher degree of specificity. An example of the latter is the tabletop RPG Carved in Stone, which is currently under development. Its creators, Stout Stoat, aim to develop a ‘system-neutral setting guide’ designed to be used to set an early medieval Pictish world for roleplaying games or educational activities. Ogham features in many of the illustrations on the creators’ Kickstarter crowd-funding page, though due to time constraints the inscriptions were designed aesthetically, producing a modern simulacrum of Pictish sculpture (the below resembling the ogham stone at Golspie) rather than providing translatable script. Nonetheless they reflect a desire to use ogham authentically: the Carved in Stone team has stated that written and carved language is both a key component of the game setting and a popular area of interest in general for gamers, so it will receive thorough consideration in the final book, with the OG(H)AM team’s input.

Illustrated image of a stone with ogham text along the edge seeming to caption stylised 'Pictish' figures doing modern activities, like making coffee while on the phone, using a computer, and wearing a baseball cap, mixed with some other more standard Pictish symbols, like a fish - though this is speaking with a modern word-bubble containing ogham.
One of the many illustrations incorporating ogham on the Carved in Stone Kickstarter page. Artist: Brian Tyrrell

As we’ve already seen, AC:V utilised ogham in a way that was mostly appropriate to the 8th-10th century AD British historical setting, i.e. on carved stone monuments. The other noticeable use of ogham in the game was as the basis of one of the tattoo sets available for the main character. While there is evidence of tattooing among late Iron Age and early Medieval Celtic-speaking inhabitants of Britain, there is no proof that the designs of these tattoos included the ogham script. However, it is not implausible, and, as the response to the First International Day of Ogham certainly demonstrated, ogham tattoos enjoy popularity in modern times! While the name given to this tattoo set is problematic (see Endnote) the form the script takes is largely accurate, including that it reads vertically and starts with a stylised feather-mark.

In Assassin's Creed Valhalla, the main male character is depicted shirtless to 'try on' various tattoos, including an ogham inscription travelling from the bottom of his spine to the top.
Screenshot from Zanar Aesthetic’s Youtube video, which shows the back tattoos available in AC:V.
A close up of the tattoo inscription rotated to show the ogham in more detail.
Detail of back tattoo rotated, showing the spacing of letters and directional indicator at start.

In other games set in Britain or Ireland, ogham stones can be mistaken to be synonymous with unaltered prehistoric standing stones or stone circles, which is understandable, especially as there are a number of prehistoric monuments that were reused by early medieval peoples for ogham inscriptions. This appears to have misled Deborah Mellamphy in her discussion of Ireland’s representation in video games, where she misidentifies the ‘Standing Stones’ in the horror game Clive Barker’s Undying as ‘Rune-carved standing stones/Ogham stones’ (2015, p 300). The game’s story centred on the Standing Stones, which marked the burial of a ‘Celtic Warrior’ from 871 BC (long predating our earliest dated ogham), whose spirit drove a monastery of 13th century monks to madness; his curse was again unleashed at the turn of the 20th century by five Irish siblings. Given the common reuse of standing stones it is not historically implausible that these might have borne ogham. While the early 2000s graphics make it difficult to positively differentiate between an ogham inscription and texture stretching, the lack of any mention of ogham in the game’s dialogue or journal entries suggests that its presence was not intended by the creators of Clive Barker’s Undying. However, we see this confusion between ogham stones and stone circles elsewhere.

Two screenshots from the Clive Barker's Undying game, one which shows a closeup of a standing stone with a 'Celtic' design on the front, but no discernable ogham, and a wideshot of a stone circle with five upright stones, and a stone covering a central burial. These images show texture stretching along the edges of the stones, where one would expect to find an ogham inscription.
Screen-captures from RetroGameNaut and AlphaYellow’s playthroughs of Clive Barker’s Undying.

The additional The Hunter and the Beast Downloadable Content (DLC) for the game Total War: Warhammer 2 allows the ‘Spirit of the Jungle’ faction of the Lizardmen to undertake the ‘Ogham Shard’ quest, which features a battle to capture a glowing Stonehenge-like monument. A cutscene before the battle includes dialogue that suggests the site is ‘Ancient’, evoking ‘Feelings’ and ‘Remembrance’. Unfortunately, the mystical aura is too thick to make out whether there is an inscription on the interior stones. Though represented in the game by the standard ‘amulet’ icon, the reward for the mission is described as a ‘fractured piece of one of the original Ogham Waystones, whose mystical properties keep chaos at bay’ and grants magic resistance, and army and province bonuses. Though ogham appears in name only in this game, some of these traits are those that we ascribe to real ogham stones – they evoked remembrance of a significant individual, and it is thought that some played a role in demarcating territorial boundaries. So while I would not consider this representation ‘visually historically accurate’, this does fall under what Adam Bierstedt (2022) referred to as ‘conceptuality’, which he describes as ‘how a game renders larger political/social processes’. Thus, the bonuses offered by the ‘Ogham Shard’ and the dialogue describing its significance both reflect how scholars think ogham stones functioned socially and politically at certain points in time.

A screenshot from a playthrough of Total War Warhammer 2 which shows several Stonehenge-like plinths in front of three standing stones, the central one glowing with purple and orange mystic flames.
Screen-capture of HeirofCarthage’s video, ‘The Ogham Shard’ in a cutscene before the battle.

The game’s predecessor, Total War: Warhammer also featured ogham stones, though as a special landmark that is buildable and upgradable in the capital of Albion. The landmark’s icon at least looks more like an ogham inscription, though it is placed in the centre of the wide, flat face of the stone like some of our Scottish examples, rather than the more common position along the vertical edge of the stone. In this game, ogham stones also offer a ‘Public order’ bonus to your faction. Given the politico-legal statements ogham stones would have made to their contemporary audience, this is conceptually accurate. So while it is a bit strange to think about how one could restore monuments from ‘Ruined Ogham Stones’ to ‘Ogham Stones’, nonetheless, this first game in the series did make an effort to be both conceptually and visually accurate in representing ogham.

A low resolution icon of the ogham icon used in Total War: Warhammer with two  pixellated ogham inscriptions on standing stones.
The highest resolution ‘ogham’ icon I can find from Total War: Warhammer.

So why did the developers drop or make the ogham inscription essentially invisible in the sequel? Through its graduation from the lowly icon to a 3D-rendered battlefield backdrop, it is possible developers decided that the Ogham Stones required ‘Stonehenge-ification’ to make them relatable to a wider audience.

Cryptography

Invented scripts or languages feature in many games (e.g. Hylian in the Legend of Zelda games, Al Bhed in Final Fantasy X, Unown in Pokémon), and the use of ogham fits into this wider picture, especially when it is used as a cipher, with ogham letters transliterated into Latin letters to spell out hints or secret messages to players. This reflects its actual Medieval use in cryptography as discussed by Deborah Hayden in her June blogpost. Tabletop roleplaying Game Masters have recognised ogham as a ‘very obscure character set’ useful for puzzles or to enhance worldbuilding, and it is accessible to them via existing fonts such as those by Babelstone.

A particularly ingenious cryptographic use of ogham appears as part of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) associated with the video game Heartbound. While ARGs can take many forms, in this case it consisted of a series of intricate puzzles hosted on the developer’s webpage to build up anticipation in advance of the video game’s release. As the Wiki describes, the ogham puzzle takes place on a webpage where viewers are welcomed by an apparently black screen. However, one can search the webpage’s source code and find that there is a background image called ‘Forest Through the Trees’ (in reference to the ogham tree alphabet, see next section of this blogpost). When one downloads the image and tweaks the contrast, the viewer finds that the image in fact contains a series of ogham messages that provide story hints for the Heartbound video game. This is a strikingly original reinterpretation of ogham’s cryptographic uses by game creator Jason Thor Hall that surely would have received the approval of the scribes of In Lebor Ogaim.

The 'Through the trees' image before alteration (left) which appears to be a blank grey canvas. On the right, the contrast has been adjusted to reveal five lines of ogham.
Ogham inscription revealed from the ‘Forest through the Trees’ image, part of the Heartbound ARG.

Magic or Nature

Readers familiar with ogham will not be surprised to learn that the script is often associated with magic and nature in all kinds of games, which is likely because of its popular (poplar?) association with trees. While some ogham letters were given traditional names shared with trees (i.e. the letter ᚁ can be transliterated to ‘B’, but was referred to by the traditional name beith, which means ‘birch’), others seem to have been given their tree-related traditional name retrospectively in later medieval glossaries. The ‘Authentic Celtic Oracle’ tarot cards draw on this association; in this example, each card displays an ogham letter, its traditional name, and an image featuring its corresponding tree. The tabletop roleplaying game Vampire: The Masquerade features ogham not as a script, but instead borrows its name for a type of ‘Blood Magic’ that allows players belonging to the Lhiannan bloodline to communicate with forest spirits within their home territory. Though this latter example removes the script from the equation, this does convey some conceptual accuracy by linking ogham and territoriality.

However, one of the best examples of a video game intertwining ogham with its medieval tree associations and magic is Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches (many thanks to @Archaeosoup and @DH_Age for flagging this up!). In this 2008 point-and-click game, you play as the world’s worst house-sitter, Sam, who seeks to defeat a ghostly Llwyd ap Cil Coed from the Mabinogion by magically transforming the homeowners’ belongings into symbols from the stories of Pryderi fab Pwyll. The type of ‘magic’ used to defeat Llwyd ranges from combining specific tree branches with objects inscribed with the corresponding ogham letter, to homeopathy and interpreting auras with a Kirlian camera, to burning flammable chemicals to create specific colours.

A screenshot from the game showing a small toy rocking horse with an ogham inscription floating in front of a beatup car.
A carved horse inscribed with the ‘Q’ ogham letter, which indicates it should be combined with an apple tree branch.

In addition to utilising ogham as transformative magic, an ogham stone sits in the back garden. This stone is central to an early puzzle, which gamifies translating the inscription. After you hack into the homeowners’ teenage daughter’s computer (again, the worst house-sitter), you find that she has been emailing an ogham researcher, Jon Southworth. In one of these emails, Jon explains how to take a rubbing of the inscription and then how to use his proprietary software to translate ‘triplets’ of ogham, at which point the game slips into a cryptographic puzzle to translate the ogham inscription, which reveals the curse Llwyd placed on Pryderi. The ogham stone resembles many of those that survive today, as it bears a clear, well-spaced inscription along a vertical edge. However, when the rubbing is taken, the inscription magically expands and now sports a stemline. Overall, while some story elements are a bit over-the-top, the game does engage with ogham in creative ways and draws the script into both the story and the game design. Uniquely, it represents the academic study of ogham.

Top left - the ogham stone in Rhiannon with an ogham inscription along the right edge, travelling from bottom to top. Top middle - zoomed out from the ogham stone, a piece of paper has been used to create a rubbing, and a magically longer inscription along a stemline glows blue on the paper. Top right, the rubbing is pictured on a computer screen where an academic's software is used to convert the inscription into a message. Bottom - a close up of the ogham stone rubbing is provided.
Screenshots showing the different phases of the Ogam Translating puzzle, from rubbing to software.

Conclusion

By looking at how ogham has been utilised in these games, we learn more about how ogham has been perceived by the modern audience and can point to where these perceptions originated. Most often, we see ogham used as worldbuilding for games set in Britain or Ireland during the medieval period, whether with period-specific linguistic accuracy or as an aesthetic nod. We see ogham stones confused with prehistoric monuments, associated with territorial ties, nature or magic, or employed in puzzles. These depictions reflect different stages of ogham’s long life as a script over the past 1500 years. We can’t expect high levels of historical accuracy in games, as ‘the negotiation between historical detail and the fictive elements of storytelling are at the heart of selective authenticity’ (Salvati and Bullinger 2013, 157). However, this blog illustrates that the best examples of games incorporating ogham show a creative engagement with and appreciation of the script. Ogham is less successfully incorporated when terminology is applied with little consideration, like the ‘Skrælingi’ tattoo set in Assassin’s Creed (see Endnote), or when popular recognition is prioritised over visual accuracy, like the Stonehenge-ification of ogham in Total War: Warhammer 2. We hope that the OG(H)AM project will encourage a deeper engagement and understanding with the ogham script to enhance its future use in all kinds of artistic media, including games.

Are there any representations of ogham in games we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments below!

Endnote

Unfortunately, Ubisoft made a misstep when naming the tattoo set in AC:V. The designer of the ogham tattoo has said that originally the set’s name was ‘Celtic,’ but later was changed by someone else to ‘Skrælingi’, a term used by the Norse inhabitants of Greenland to refer to indigenous Americans, at least in sagas written around the 13th century AD. Some etymological interpretations suggest it did not have positive connotations, and the word means ‘barbarian’ in modern Icelandic. This issue of labelling ‘other groups’ as barbarians and conflating them with native peoples on other continents in popular media could be a whole blogpost in of itself, but I will leave it by saying whoever chose ‘Skrælingi’ made a serious error. Many thanks to Twitter user @MalkKitty for asking the question first!

Bibliography

Bierstedt, Adam (2022), ‘What Makes Crusader Kings, Skyrim, and Golden Sun Similar? Proposing a Descriptive “Character Creator” Framework for Medievalist Games’ in (forthcoming) The Middle Ages in Modern Games: conference proceedings, vol. 3. Original Twitter Thread Available online: https://twitter.com/sagathain/status/1534984411124580362.

Mellamphy, Deborah (2015), ‘Ireland,’ in Video Games Around the World, ed. Mark J. P. Wolf. MIT Press, 2015. 293-304.

de Rougemont, Tea (2021), ‘Medieval letterings – gameplay, argumentum and conservation’ in The Middle Ages in Modern Games: conference proceedings, vol.2, ed. Robert Houghton. Winchester. Pg 71. Available online: https://issuu.com/theuniversityofwinchester/docs/mamg_2021_proceedings

Salvati, Andrew, and Jonathan Bullinger (2013), ‘Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past,’ in Playing with the Past: Digital games and the simulation of history, eds. Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Andrew B. R. Elliott. New York: Bloomsbury Academic. Pgs 153–168.

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