Stay on this road here, past Dead Man's Curve, you'll come to an old fence, called The Devil's Fence. From there, go on foot till you come to a valley known as The Cathedral Of Lost Soap. Smack in the center is what they call Forgetful Milkman's Quadrangle. Stay right on The Path Of Staring Skulls and you come to a place called Death Clearing. Cabin's right there, can't miss it.
Every intrepid RPG player has done the dungeon crawl. Poking around ancient ruins looking for treasure or an important item while dodging the many monsters that make these places their home is the bread and butter of RPGs.
Close examination of those ruins, however, raises some interesting questions as to what these structures were originally built for. Ruins weren't always ruins but many dungeons look like some contractor was tasked simply to build a vast labyrinth of dead end corridors under a mountain and then cover the walls with creepy carvings. There is little to no evidence that people ever lived in these structures or used them for any practical purpose.
The game designers, of course, are simply trying to create an interesting immersive environment for the player. Little thought is given to the backstory of the structures you're looting. Practical concerns like living spaces, easy navigation and easy access to the rest of the world are sacrificed for fifty foot ceilings and walls that grimace and moan.
The explanation is thus Rule Of Cool: the ruins are supposed to add to the atmosphere of the setting, either by being visual impressive or proding the player into wondering about their purpose and creating the backstory themselves.
See also Malevolent Architecture and Benevolent Architecture. Sometimes used for Scenery Porn. Compare Landmark of Lore and Temple of Doom, which may overlap.
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We see numerous ruins throughout the film version of The Lord of the Rings, most memorably after the Fellowship sets out from Rivendell, but we're never given any indication of who built them. In the book, we're told that they're watchtowers from the old kingdoms of Arnor and Eregion, but the movie doesn't explain that.
The world of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time novels is littered with ruined palaces, ruined monuments, ruined cities, and huge mysterious magical artifacts from bygone ages, and almost all of them exist solely so protagonists can see them while traveling from A to B and reflect philosophically about how much that once was is lost.
Or to occasionally act as Chekov's Architechture.
Justified since this takes place After the End — the Age of Legends had such amazing technology that pieces of their civilization remains over three thousand years after their annihilation.
Keys to the Kingdom averts this trope. It has ruins that were built as ruins for the purpose of training soldiers to fight in various terrains.
In the Doctor Who New Adventures novel Theatre of War, Bernice grows increasingly frustrated at a super-computer's inability to reconstruct what a ruined Roman-esque amphitheatre would have looked like before it fell into ruins. Turns out that there never was a real amphitheatre, it (and all the other glorious ruins on the planet) was built as a pile of ruins as part of a trap.
In The Belgariad, Arendia is described as being littered with ruins as the result of a millennia-long Civil War. After being razed by their neighbours, the ghost-haunted valley of Maragor only contains enigmatic ruins. The city of Ulgo actually lies in the mountain beneath the ruins of the original city. Nyissa contains ruins partly as the result of being invaded several times and partly because they are often soo spaced out that they are really bad at actually finishing a job.
In The Tamuli the country of Arjuna is describes as being littered with ruins left over after a punitive expedition by a Proud Warrior Race.
Live Action TV
An accidental example can be found in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The City on the Edge of Forever". The Guardian was supposed to be surrounded by "rune stones". However, the set designer didn't recognize the word "rune", and in the dictionary "ruin" precedes it. The Guardian set was therefore full of "ruined stones"—the broken columns we see. What purpose did they serve? Who knows?
Dungeons & Dragons may be the Trope Maker: while the earliest dungeons had the justification of being wizards' laboratories (and thus full of traps, guardians and escaped monsters) later ones did not. There were some good exceptions, though.
If you look at maps for some of the current adventures you will notice there are dungeons where the only entrance is a hole that was recently blown through a wall from a natural cave tunnel. Who built these things?
The source book Lost Empires of Faerun actually encourages the DM to consider the history of his dungeons, though.
Averted in Earthdawn, where the civilized races spent a few centuries hiding in underground cities called "kaers" while Cthulhuoid monsters called Horrors ravaged the Earth. The PCs are from kaers that survived, and most of the dungeons they explore are kaers that didn't.
One of the first dungeons in Blue Dragon is a hospital ruins. Other ruins seem to exist only to provide an easy introduction to the no random encounters concept, and to house the hardest Bonus Boss in the game. Who the hell builds a device with the purpose of sawing a planet in two?
Arcanum: The majority of the ruins do make sense - most of the old castles, the Vendigroth ruins - but others are clearly examples of this trope. The Bow and Throwing master quest dungeons are probably the most obvious.
Averted (mostly) in The Legend Of Zelda Twilight Princess, where the dungeons are prisons, mansions and mines, all looking fairly realistic and practical, even if they were just as malevolent as the more traditional dungeons. Averted further in Wind Waker where there's a very good reason for all these ruins. Arguable if they're ruins, the dungeons in Zelda II The Adventure Of Link are stated in the manual as tests for the legendary Hero.
The Fire Temple is a jail and the Water Temple is an Atlantis-like city.
The bottom of the well was holding an Eldritch Abomination before you break things and is where the Eye of Truth is stored. Besides that, the prison cells and crucifix directly above a hole seem to suggest it was a torture complex, jail, execution room or some combination thereof related to the Sheikah and their Shadow Temple. Considering the inscription in the Shadow Temple is "Here lies Hyrule's bloody history of greed and hatred"...Yeah, a real messed up place is probably the best description we can get without an M rating.
Dodongo's Cavern is a rock mine, and the Deku Tree and Jabu-Jabu are inherently nonsensical Womb Levels. Which leaves the Ice Cavern, which is a cavern, not ruins.
Used in Eternal Darkness: The Forbidden City, Cambodian Temple, and Eng'ha are all clear examples of this. Amiens Cathedral and the Roivas Mansion are more sensible, however.
The Elder Scrolls II Daggerfall had a lot of randomly generated dungeons to visit. You could go to the ruins of some farmstead, enter a cellar door and find yourself in some absurdly extensive cavern/dungeon complex. In fact, most dungeons were more complex than the majority of regular buildings, and this was never justified in-game.
TES: Oblivion offers a partial aversion, with a few dungeons and supposed prisons actually containing the expected cells. Other than that, it generally falls into this.
Often, the ruins are referred to as abandoned elvish cities, despite being unnecessarily mazelike, full of traps, etc. No wonder the elves aren't ruling anymore.
They're the catacombs of the abandoned cities - there's generally the remains of some suitably monumental building sat on top of them which was probably the Ayelid temple.
Also, the Imperial Legion has seen fit to allow every fort in the province to fall into disrepair and serve as shelter for all manner of monsters and villains. Some of these forts are built dangerously close to major roads, including one built directly on top of the road now infested with goblins. In addition there isn't a single working mine in the province, they're all described as "deserted", "forgotten" or "haunted". All Aleyid cities only ever make sense if you take 'city' to mean 'necropolis', because burying people and treasures is all they do. They also suffer from Blatant Item Placement in that you find 3rd Era currency in a 1st Era ruin. It makes sense when you realize that, since the ruined forts, abandoned mines, and Ayleid cities are currently being occupied by bandits, rogue mages, necromancers, etc., they'd bring whatever (modern) money and other goods they have with them and stash them there.
The question in Oblivion tends not to be so much "What were they for?" but rather "Why aren't half of them still being used (besides by goblins/brigands/etc.)?"
TES: Morrowind has lots and lots of ruins. Most of them seem to have some purpose behind them. The Dunmer Stronghold ruins were used as outpost during wars. The Dwemer Citidels were homes/factories/science labs to Dwarves and the Daedric Ruins are relics from the time that the Dunmer worshipped Daedra (and are usually filled with angry Daedric Minions and daedra worshipers).
Skyrim's dungeons occasionally fall into this, but abandoned forts are now mixed in with working ones, and the Nordic Ruins were deliberately full of traps to hide the treasure within. Most of said Nordic ruins are also in fact burial crypts, if you go into pretty much any random dungeon there's a very high chance that there will be undead inside.
In Angband, every level except for the town is a randomly generated maze of rooms and passageways, and there are no symmetric staircases.
True of most Roguelikes, with winding passageways leading nowhere. If you want a real ruin on any given level, let loose a dwarf or two armed with pickaxes.
The origin, purpose, and use of the various and vast ruins in Shadow of the Colossus are good for hours of fun. Zoos? Cities? Prisons? Temples? Hiding places? Not to get into a lengthy analysis, but most ruins seem built by humans, but rarely cage in the colossi, nor are they designed expressly to help kill the creatures (despite being used that way by the player). In the end, it's a mystery.
Dragon Age: Origins features several ruins and dungeons which are ridiculously sprawling complexes of tunnels and interconnecting rooms (You often have to go through the rooms to get to other hallways, while the hallways lead to dead ends) that are usually much larger than the cities and towns they're located in.
Special mention must be made of a simple orphanage in the elven Alienage; it's nearly as big as the entire Alienage itself and, despite this not being made apparent on the map, seems to wrap around itself non-linearly.
The orphanage may be justified. The Veil (what separates the real world from the Fade) is thin there, and that has been known to do really strange things to a place. See Kirkwall.
One of Sten's random quips is wondering why none of the people inhabiting these complexes have done any work to restore them or make them more livable.
Dungeons in the Ultima games are for the most part accepted as part of the natural geography of Britannia - who built them, if anyone, and for what purpose, is a mystery to all. In the early games it was implied (though not actually possible in-game) that if you traveled deep enough into one you would end up in "the underworld", the opposite side of the flat earth. When the underworld was destroyed, this became impossible.
Some of the games had explanations. Some dungeons were mines, others were prisons. Like other elements of Ultima continuity, the oddness started when these explanations changed from game to game.
The first series of dungeons in Diablo are supposed to be located under a tiny village church, and are a randomly-generated maze of passageways, tombs, and other rooms that go on for several sub-levels with no overall plan. One wonders what madman designed their church's undercroft, or how the people ever held services there.
This was handwaved in the manual. The catacombs were built explicitly to be a maze that would safeguard the Sealed Evil in a Can... that has broken loose and made the deeper levels even more convoluted and filled the place with monsters and death traps.
X-COM: Terror From The Deep had a lot of missions around underwater ruins. This was particularly strange, as the missions took place wherever you shot down the alien craft, anywhere in the world's oceans.
Mostly averted in World of Warcraft, where the labyrinthian dungeons tend to be natural caves, while castles and temples have a fairly coherent plan.
The Blackrock Depths however, are a bizarre blend of worked and rough stone leading off in all directions, full of dead ends. As it is partially a mine, this would be understandable if the areas of dead ends and the rough stone corresponded at all. Then again, the Blackrock Depths is one of the few "evil cities" that we invade as dungeons that actually has taverns, prisons, coliseums, forges and whatnot and looks vaguely usable as an underground city. Also, they aren't exactly ruins because the people who built them are still living there. Not that they will be for very long, given the PCs intentions in going there. It is more a case when an active city has a confusing layout.
To explain the layout (partially): the mountain is entered from on of two fairly understandable (if massive) gates, which lead to a circular pathway. Rather than take a door (like the gates that lead to Blackrock Spire) into the city, one must walk along a chain, through a tomb suspended above a pit of lava, down another chain, then through a small hallway, a stone quarry, a masonry, and a prison (all rough stone, except for a few prison areas). To get to the worked stone section, ones has to go through a twisted hallway, and enter through the arena. To be fair, there is a better-placed main gate that you can not use further in. The entire mountain used to be under their control. The more habitable upper reaches were stolen by the Black Dragonflight, forcing the Dark Iron to carve a new home in the Depths and spread out into the surrounding countryside.
Mostly averted in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune: the ruins at the beginning of the game don't make much sense (*cough* bottomless pit *cough*). Everything at the island averts this completely: ruined fortresses, customs houses, towns, monasteries, libraries and Nazi bases actually look like said things, only ruined.
Mostly averted in Final Fantasy XI in the Wings of the Goddess expansion, which takes placeduring the Crystal War that ended up making many of the ruins strewn about. The other ruins are all explained in the other expansions (and Windurst's mission line). However, the Temple of Uggalepih may be this. It's implied that it was created before the Kuluu turned into Tonberries, yet it is notably different from the ruins of Pso'Xja and Horutoto and does not seem to have a purpose except possibly as a hideout of sorts.
Final Fantasy games tend to avert this. The dungeons are either natural landforms or structures that serve or once served a purpose. The caves, mines, castles, sewers, and factories are a lot bigger than they probably need to be, but whatever.
Since Gold/Silver, the Pokemon games have included some ruins somewhere in the game world, complete with an Adventurer Archaeologist or two puzzling over them, ancient meaningless secrets for the player to unlock, and the Unown, twenty-eight variations of the same living Lampshade Hanging of a Pokemon.
No More Heroes does this with a modern city. Speed City is the dust-choked ruins of a modern metropolis, with absolutely no explanation as to why it's in that state, given that the game takes place in a modern-day setting.
Presumably, urban decay.
Prince of Persia (2008) is an interesting case: You can talk to Elika where she will explain, in detail, what every single area was supposed to be. However, there's very little actually linking these explanations to the portions of the ruins you actually have to traverse except in very specific circumstances.
All the ruins were functional buildings, cities, and laboratories until mere minutes before the player traverses them. Each had been strategically demolished by the Big Bad in order to lose any possible usefulness, and to be as challenging and dangerous as possible for the heroes to travel though.
Largely averted in Sa Ga Frontier 2, where most of the locations are actual living spaces and the ruins of liveable places actually have functional-looking rooms of different sizes. And an awful lot of stairs.
Assassin's Creed has ruined structures in the bits of game you travel in between cities. Ostensibly the game takes place somewhere in the Israel-Syrian area in 1193, so most likely these are meant to be Greek/Roman ruins specifically, but their purpose, especially given the odd location for some (mostly serving as either travel impediments or useful cover for enemy archers) is rather puzzling.
Lampshaded in Legend Of Kay by one of the archaeologists you meet in the dungeon.
In God Of War, upon entering the Desert of Lost Souls and searching for the Sirens, sometimes you'll come across huge broken statues, and other things that suggest something might have been there, like a city. But you never get to find anything more about it once the third Siren is killed and you move on.
In Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) Kingdom Valley is supposed to be the royal family's old castle (abandoned after a laboratory disaster), but the ruins don't look like anything that someone could actually live in.
Any of the 3D Sonic games stages' somewhat fit in this, or tangental tropes. What is the purpose of a highway that does a loop-de-loop on the top of an office building?
Think of it like songs in a musical; this isn't "really" happening, we're just being presented with something more entertaining than "reality". So in reality Sonic just goes from Point A to Point B with however much fuss you'd like to imagine, and in the meantime here's a level to play which bears a passing resemblance to what Sonic's actually doing.
The Sonic series tends to have a lot of random ruins, given that the type of stage is one of the most prevalent in the series. So far, only the ruins areas on Angel Island (which appear in Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic Adventure) make any sense being there, and even then the island has ruins that range from generic, to Egyptian, to Greek, to Mayan all in one! Other places like the Labyrinth ZoneRusty Ruin or Aquatic Ruin get no explanation beyond Eggman apparently just liking building in that kind of area.
Averted somewhat in both Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic Unleashed. In the former, the ruins you go through are revealed by the Big Bad to have been built by the Black Arms so they could better do whatever they were trying to do. In the latter, the ruins exist as temples to hold the seal on Dark Gaia, and can uproot themselves and become a giant golem. Giving them a purpose however doesn't mean they make any more sense.
Saints Row 2's Stilwater has an inexplicable Greek ruins complete with amphitheater and pseudo-Parthenon buildings on what is ostensibly an island in the American Midwest.
Kirby 64's Rock Star planet. Also The final level was built by Starfish Aliens, so it does not have to make sense, but the other ruins count.
In Guild Wars there are ruins of very large structures and gigantic monuments on the Crystal Desert and the Desolation, the lore mentions that those ruins stand as crumbling celebrations of the short-lived triumph over that harsh environment, one wonders what was the reason someone would want to settle in an inhospitable desert and invest all the resources and labor into those constructions in the first place.
Most of the ruins were cities built by Turai Ossa and the Elonians who followed him to the Crystal Desert on the Great Pilgrimage in a failed search of "Ascension" (which the players achieve) about 200 years before the games take place.
Averted in Thief, where the many ruins and ruined locales visited by the protagonist actually look like places that were once inhabited and served clear purposes. It helps that you can find a lot of old parchments, texts, diaries and notes about various past events in virtually all of these places. On the other hand, the trope is played straight a teensy bit in one or two levels of the series, which have tombs that were built in a deliberately labyrintine and No OSHA Compliance fashion (so their ancient treasures would be well protected from theft).
Dwarf Fortress generally averts this, given that the player is usually the one who built the settlement whose ruins their adventurer is exploring in the first place. (Procedurally generating an Elaborate Underground Base that makes some sort of sense is very much a work-in-progress.) However, some of the more famous succession games leaves the ruins of a fortress that has been ruled by a series of despotic overlords who all have their own unique ideas of what constitutes sound urban planning, rarely care much about the safety and comfort of their subjects and are in many cases completely mad. Combine that with a workforce composed entirely of absent-minded bipolar alcoholics and the results make even less sense to the outside eye than most of the Rule Of Cool-driven examples on this page.
City of Heroes mostly averts this, but there's are two examples which leap immediately to mind: the first is Manticore's house, the secret passage of which leads into a fairly tiny labyrinth. The second is the layer cake of caves, a final room containing six or seven floors of enemies, often separated only by the vertical. Why anyone would sit the center of their operations there is a question for the ages.
Averted in Pikmin in which the world is in fact, a future abandoned earth from the viewpoint of a being the size of an ant.
According to the notes accompanying the paper edition of Erfworld Book 1, "ruins" are a terrain type that occurs in the world's RPG Mechanics Verse. The presence or ruins does not imply the previous existence of an Erfworld city.
Nazi architect Albert Speer developed the "Theory Of Ruin Value", which proposed that monumental architecture shouldn't just look good, it should leave a good looking corpse. His view was the fact that structures like the Parthenon and Colosseum had survived into modern times, with essentially no maintenance, implied that monumental stone construction was inherently robust and long-lasting. He borrowed heavily from classical architecture and worked in stone rather than modern materials wherever possible, with an eye to ensuring that the Third Reich's great buildings would remain symbols of German culture for millenia after they'd been abandoned and fallen into ruin. Unfortunately for fans of Speer's work, it turns out that this only really applies to buildings that predate the gunpowder age; most surviving English castles were either abandoned before the Civil War or located away from the action, and the ones that were attacked didn't leave much in the way of ruins.
In the Romantic era people took an interest in classical/medieval times and aesthetics, and also archeology. The philosophically inclined also liked to visit ruins of ancient constructions and ruminate about Days Gone By. In England, this led to an interesting development of the English park: many of the wealthier gentlemen built authentic-looking ruins in their gardens and estates, for no other reason than adding to the scenery.
The Palace of King Minos and other Cretan palace complexes, inspirations for the original Labyrinth of Myth. While they did serve some practical functions, they do seem to be as deliberately sprawling and labyrinthine and generally RPG dungeonlike as possible.
During Romanticism (starting at roughly 1750), artificial ruins became quite popular in German gardens. They were built as ruins from the outset (often resembling the remains of Greek/Roman architecture) with no purpose other than looking spectacular. The other wiki has more (in German, but there are pretty pictures).
Pretty much any ancient ruin, really, would qualify for this if you didn't have the eye of an architect or the training of an archaeologist. Most buildings don't have any of their original furnishings after they've been abandoned for thousands of years. With the exception of things which have really obvious purposes (like ancient stadiums and race tracks and sometimes bathing areas), most ruins don't give much of a clue as to what they were originally used for.
Possibly the ultimate Real Life example of ruins for ruins' sake: Part of the Désert de Retz includes a summer house in the form of the base of a broken column from an imaginary giant temple. As seen here. Which, amusingly, was neglected and fell into ruin for a while...