Looking ahead to 2021, no game has me as excited as Axiom Verge 2. I’m a sucker for Metroidvania-style games, and Axiom Verge is easily one of the best around. The combat, story, music, and level design all compelled me to explore every inch of the ruined Sudran world. But it was something else that really cemented it as one of my all-time favorite games. See, I’m a history nerd. I especially love learning about the rise of urban civilization. My love of Metroidvanias is rivaled only by my fascination with the history and mythology of Sumer and the wider Mesopotamian world. As it turns out, developer Tom Happ shares that interest.
Sumer: Cradle of Civilization
Axiom Verge 2 will be full of sci-fi goodness, but all that futuristic tech is lying in the ruins of something ancient. Those ruins are inspired by our own planet’s cradle of civilization. That would be the region of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), and especially its first major urban society, Sumer. The inspiration is front and center, with a massive Sumerian Lamassu statue taking up most of the title screen.
And it’s not just the sequel. The first game isn’t as obvious about its influences, but it’s crawling with references to Sumer. These references are extremely cryptic, and most of them have to do with the in-game Sudran language. This makes them easy to miss, and difficult to understand, leaving most players unaware. Axiom Verge is a plot-heavy game, and unraveling the mysteries is a key part of the experience. That’s why I’ve long thought that it would be great if all this confusing Sumer stuff was neatly gathered into one place and explained. So I set out to do exactly that!
Turns out, it’s no easy task. Sumerian is the oldest known language in the world, and it has no relatives. This makes translating it quite difficult, and there’s still much we don’t know. The internet is also overflowing with errant “translations” and nonsense about ancient aliens. Relying on online dictionaries can also result in mix-ups between Sumerian and Akkadian, a different language from the same region.
Calling in an expert
It’s a tricky subject to navigate, and I’m certainly no expert. It was time to bring in the big guns, so I reached out to a professional. Megan Lewis is a trained Assyriologist with a B.A. from Birmingham University (UK) in Ancient History, an M.Phil. from the same in Assyriology, and an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
Megan carefully pored over my notes to fact-check me and provide additional insight. She confirmed translations when possible, helped differentiate between ancient languages, and provided valuable etymological information. Armed with her notes, I reached out to another expert: Tom Happ himself. Happ helped clear up some remaining definitions and provided more background on some of the choices. With their help, I was finally ready to put Axiom Verge into its Mesopotamian context.
The world of Sudra
The events of Axiom Verge take place in a world called Sudra. The Sumerian language influence is immediate, kicking off with the planet itself. While ‘Sudra’ isn’t a standalone word, it can be read as deriving from the verb ‘sud.’ This can mean to be profound, distant, remote, or long-lasting. I think you’ll agree these are all perfectly descriptive of the planet.
Beyond that, Happ chose the name due to its relation to an iconic Sumerian myth. Most people today have heard of the famous flood of Noah, but there’s an even older version of this story in Sumer, and it stars a hero named Ziusudra. In this version of the flood myth, the hero is granted eternal life by the gods after weathering the storm. This idea of eternal life makes Sudra a fitting title for a world where technology can cure all diseases and even resurrect the dead.
Beyond the planet as a whole, each region name in Sudra has ancient inspirations. Thanks to the artbook that came with the Multiverse edition of the game, we have additional details to make sense of these connections.
After the game’s opening cutscene, Trace awakens inside a healing chamber in the region of Eribu. In fact, this whole region is known as the “Rebirth Labs.” The meaning of its name, however, is much simpler than that. In Akkadian, ‘Eribu’ (or more properly, ‘erebu’) simply means ‘enter.’ Accurate, if unexciting.
Changing one letter gets you to ‘Eridu,’ the name of a famous Sumerian city. Eridu was believed to be the oldest city in the world in some ancient myths, and it may very well have been the first great city in Sumer. Enki, Eridu’s patron god, was also seen as the creator of humankind in some myths, which could further connect the region’s name to its life-giving machines.
The second region you’ll encounter is Absu, which contains The Forest and The Prison. This seems a little less fitting, as the Sumerian ‘Abzu’ (or Akkadian ‘Apsu’) is the primeval, cosmic ocean that lies deep underground. However, even further beneath this ocean is the underworld. And as it happens, you pass through an ocean in lower Eribu on your way to Absu. The heaps of dead bodies in the prison certainly make you feel as though you’ve descended into the underworld.
Another connection to water comes in the form of Elsenova. The guiding voice you hear at the start of the game is finally encountered here in the depths of Absu. She introduces herself as a Rusalka, which she claims means something like “Water Machine.” The term Rusalka is not Sumerian in origin, but instead Slavic, making their inspirations a story for another day. Suffice it to say, Elsenova isn’t telling the whole truth here.
As you enter the game’s third region, you’ll see all kinds of tubes woven throughout the walls. This is Zi, Sudra’s “Circulatory/Respiratory System.” These tubes purify and transport life-sustaining fluids to the Rusalki scattered throughout the game world. ‘Zi,’ the other part of the immortal flood hero’s name, means something like ‘life’ or ‘breath.’ It seems this region was named for the service it performs for the giant machines.
Here the player finally ascends from the subterranean world to the snowy peak of a mountain. It will be the first time they see the sky, the orbiting ‘moons’ of Sudra, and the Breach.
This is how Tom describes Kur in the game’s official art book. That word can mean a few things in Sumerian, but the definition here is clear: Mountain. This region is named not for the caverns below, but for the peaks above.
Once you’ve ascended the mountain, you’ll discover an imposing building, and you may need to return later with better equipment to enter. This is E-Kur-Mah, described in the artbook as a temple. In Sumerian, this phrase means something like ‘Exalted Mountain House.’ There are at least two temples with this name, one dedicated to the goddess Ishtar-Ninlil, and another to the god Nianzu.
‘E-Kur’ by itself was also the name of an incredibly important temple in the city of Nippur. It was the temple of the high god Enlil and it served as the divine assembly in myth. This was the courtroom where the gods would meet and conduct business when gathered on earth. If Happ is envisioning a similar role for his temple, it would likely make it the most sacred location on Sudra.
Speaking of Sudra’s surface, why not head over to Edin? These calm, grassy plains are dotted with the ruins of a long-lost city. Unfortunately, we can’t glean much from the name. ‘Edin’ or ‘Eden’ is a Sumerian word for a plain or steppe. Perfectly descriptive, but not enlightening. However, we’ll see later on that Edin was the site of a pivotal moment in Sudran history.
Back inside the caverns of Sudra, Trace will venture on to discover Ukkin-Na. The descriptive text simply labels this as a “set of cliffs where Ophelia resides,” but it’s also categorized as “Council Rock.” The Sumerian naming convention is right on the money again. Council Rock is a pretty straightforward translation of ‘ukkin-na’ (or rather ‘unkin-na’). I can’t add much insight here, as Council Rock is only mentioned briefly in one note. It must have held political significance, but we don’t really get any further clues.
Once Trace has scoured every corner of Sudra for the necessary equipment, he can head to the top of the map to Mar-Aru. This is the game’s final region and the hiding place of Athetos. This name derives from ‘Marru,’ which is Sumerian for ‘storm’ or ‘deluge.’
This makes perfect sense in the context of Sudran superstition. Sudran writings often refer to Breach, the dividing force between dimensions, as “The Storm.” And the device that Athetos used to control Breach was dubbed The Storm Talisman. As the highest point on Sudra, Mar-Uru reaches up to the heavens, and surrounded by his Storm, Athetos lives as a vengeful god in exile.
Finally, there’s Indi, the central region. There’s not much to do here, but it serves an important function. The floating head of Oracca is a means of fast-travel between nearly all of the other regions. This region derives its name from ‘inda,’ meaning ‘tube.’ Take a look at the map above, and you’ll quickly see why.
The Sumerian influences in Axiom Verge are also apparent in the game’s collectible notes. Throughout the journey, Trace discovers ancient writings that can be translated by a special tool to reveal bits and pieces of Sudra’s dark past. These notes are written in several different languages, but the oldest of these is a tribute to Cuneiform.
Cuneiform is an ancient style of writing which involves pressing a reed stylus into clay to make lines and wedge shapes. This clay then hardens to form a rock-like tablet, which has helped to preserve ancient writings for thousands of years. The Sumerians were the first to use this style, and many other cultures followed suit. The writings of the Sudrans are clearly meant to resemble cuneiform tablets, and not just in looks. If you’ve read famous Sumerian myths, some of Axiom Verge’s texts should sound familiar, and vice-versa. This connection may help us learn more about the Sudran people and government.
Sudra in myth
Note #6 (Proverb) might confuse some with the phrase “When in ancient days the black-headed retreated from the world.” This is taken straight out of ancient Sumerian texts. Myths like Eridu Genesis use the same exact term to refer to the earliest humans created by the gods. In Sudra, it seems these early inhabitants had their glorious kingdom reduced to rubble. Along with Note #1 (Anonymous), this tablet describes a fierce war involving demons, angry men, and scheming kings. Powerful weapons nearly destroyed everything, until they were eventually sealed away.
Note #3 reveals that Sudra is known in myth as The Land of Civilized Kings. This is a phrase that you’ll commonly find associated with Sumer on various websites. That said, Megan could not vouch for this being an accurate translation. It appears on the Wikipedia article for Sumer, but the source they cite doesn’t seem to back up the claim. It may be correct, but she couldn’t find any Assyriological publication backing it up. Either way, Tom is drawing from the fact that many associate Sumer with this phrase. Keep this phrase in mind, because it’s going to play an important role momentarily.
Rise of the matriarchy
All of the above is descriptive of an ancient past. Sudra at the time of the pandemic is a different place, as evidenced by some official government notices. Note #10 is a Security Notice warning the people to stay in their homes, as the pathogen cannot be contained and attempts to negotiate with Athetos have failed. This government guidance is issued by someone named Nin Urunna, and that name continues to appear in important documents. ‘Nin’ is Sumerian for ‘Lady,’ and is often used to describe women of great power, such as Queens, priestesses, and even goddesses.
Context tells us that Urunna is the ruler of Sudra. Based on several notes, it seems the High Priestess Eshinimma serves by her side as second in command and negotiates on her behalf. Another note indicates that a previous ruler was named Nin Turri. None of these government documents make any mention of a king or male priest. There are even notices about the deaths of these female leaders, but no mention of any male counterparts, dead or alive. It seems Sudra had a matriarchal state at the time of the pathogen. What changed since the days of “Civilized Kings”?
The fierce wars of the past were primarily the fault of PatternMinds, special individuals who can manipulate reality. It’s reasonable to assume that these PatternMinds were able to take control of much of Sudra, serving as its rulers. Note #6 (Proverb) certainly implies that “kings” and “masters of patterns” are the same. Here’s how Note #1 describes their fate at the end of the war.
And so the arms of the apocalypse were sealed, the masters of patterns castrated, the old machines returned to slumber.
The end of the war was brutal, and it led to a shift in the Sudran monarchy. The kings of old, male PatternMinds, were castrated and banished. They were unable to continue their dynasties, and the royal lineage shifted to the Queens and their female heirs, making Nin the highest title in the land.
Demons and monsters
As you may have guessed at this point, some of the bosses in Axiom Verge have names with Sumerian origins as well. ‘Gir-Tab’ is right on the nose, as it’s Sumerian for ‘scorpion.’ Happ took ‘Telal’ and ‘Uurku’ from online definitions for ‘warrior’ and ‘larvae’ respectively. Unfortunately, Megan was unable to verify these as legitimate Sumerian translations. Additionally, she couldn’t find legitimate Sumerian definitions for ‘Xedur’ and ‘Ukhu,’ and even Happ’s not quite sure why he chose those names. The definitions aren’t listed in his notes, and over time they’ve slipped his mind.
Note #16 (Transcription) also has a being known as “A3” (later revealed as Telal) saying the phrase ‘Udug Hul’ repeatedly. This translates as ‘evil demon,’ which is how all of the bosses view Trace.
Then there’s the matter of the Kuliltu. This is a phrase that appears in several Sudran notes and nowhere else in the game. From the context, it eventually becomes clear that this is the Sudrans’ word for the Rusalki. In Akkadian, ‘Kuliltu’ translates as ‘fish-woman,’ which ties into the Sudran understanding of the universe. Other notes refer to the sky and outer space as the ocean, so they would have viewed the flying Rusalki as massive sea monsters.
That is, of course, until an unnamed High Priestess summoned The Storm and brought them crashing down. Note #4 (The Kuliltu) says they “spill(ed) upon the plains,” which is likely a reference to the region of Edin. It seems that when the Breach Attractor was activated “a dozen generations ago,” the Rusalki were knocked out of the sky, crashing down onto Edin. This could explain why it’s in such a ruinous state currently. In fact, we even see the bodies of two Rusalki lying dormant in the interior section of Edin.
But while we’re on the subject of various monstrous beings, what about the weapons used to take them down? Most of them have English names, but the most powerful of them has a name in the Sudran/Sumerian tongue: Dingergisbar. ‘Gisbar’ or ‘gishbar’ is currently only attested once in the written record, so its exact meaning is hazy. But it’s related to the divine. The rest of the word refers to fire, which leads us to the flamethrower’s English description: “the greatest of primordial fires.”
That just about wraps up all of the Sumerian references I could track down in Axiom Verge. So now it’s time to ask the big question. Why? What made Tom Happ choose Sumer as the inspiration for his Metroidvania game? When we spoke, he chose to play his cards close to his chest. He was able to give one small hint though.
So I don’t want to get too far into it, but the Sumerians invented the first written language. That’s the main reason they appear in Axiom Verge versus some other culture.
You may have noticed that not all of the references in the game are Sumerian. A few Akkadian phrases are present as well. He explained that while their inclusion wasn’t exactly intentional, he is aware, and he sees it as a plus. Sudra may have begun as some sort of reflection of Sumer, but surely the culture would have evolved over time, just as it did in our world. But it all started with Sumer. And language is the key.
The Sudran Language
Tom doesn’t want to give too much away, and I suspect that’s because Axiom Verge 2 will fill in a lot of blanks. In the meantime, the first game’s Notes still hold more clues. Note #19 (Sudran Translation) drops a bombshell. Sudran is a programming language.
The tablets you find throughout the game are written in the language of the Sudran people. But the author of this note (another version of Trace) seems to be more familiar with the programming language. Did he program in Sudran during his days on Earth? We’ve never gotten a clear explanation for how he discovered Sudra in the first place.
The ancient PatternMinds
The nature of reality itself is a big question in Axiom Verge, and the returning tagline suggests that’s not changing. There are many hints that the world of Sudra isn’t exactly “real.” Some are obvious, like the glitch walls that appear throughout the world. Others are more subtle. For instance, Note #18 (Axiom 1), which concludes “Any algorithm giving rise to cognitive entities will be perceived as reality by the entities described.”
In other words, who’s to say our own reality is anything more than a simulation? This feeds into the concept of PatternMinds. Trace is said to be a PatternMind who can manipulate reality, just like the beings from ancient myth. But how does this actually happen in practice? You use a special device called the Address Disruptor to erase glitch walls or to transform enemies.
There’s also a Passcode Tool that lets you open up hidden passages, among other things. But you’re not just using it to open doors. The item description states that its purpose is to “manipulate reality with encoded strings.” You’re re-programming the game world. Passcodes include Sudran Language commands like ‘Ikkibu-Labiru’ (Old Secret). And the strange symbols that appear when you use your glitch gun are referred to as “Primordial Code” in the game files. The PatternMinds of old, masters of “primordial patterns,” weren’t sorcerers. They were hackers. Whether or not they fully understood this is unclear, as religious reverence toward technology is a major theme in the game.
A new world
The world of Sudra seems to be some sort of simulated reality with connections to Sumer. How did something like that come to exist, and why? Axiom Verge 2 should give us some much-needed answers. The upcoming game has a new setting and a new protagonist, but it still promises to reveal the “origins of the Axiom Verge universe.” On top of that, Happ is marketing it as both a prequel and a sequel, taking place “decades later, or centuries earlier.”
Happ previously revealed that he had ideas for numerous games in the Axiom Verge universe before the first game ever released. In Trace’s story, we dipped our toes into a complex and confusing universe. In the next game, we’ll be seeing more of the “central plot.” Indra, a mysterious billionaire, is the star this time around. And she’s discovered something interesting.
Hiding in a cargo lift in Antarctica is what appears to be an ancient, alternate Earth, complete with mountains, lakes, deserts, and the ruins of a civilization. But you get the feeling that something else is lurking just past the fringes of reality, waiting to pull you in.
Happ has confirmed that this new world is not Sudra, but their shared Sumerian inspiration implies a connection. We’ll have to wait until Axiom Verge 2 drops next year to discover the truth. Until then, I hope this article helps other passionate fans better understand and connect with the universe of Axiom Verge.
Life. Afterlife. Real. Virtual. Dream. Nightmare. It’s a thin line. It’s Axiom Verge.
Happ and Hammurabi
Megan Lewis can be found on YouTube, where she runs a channel called Digital Hammurabi. Along with her husband, Dr. Joshua Bowen, she reads and explains ancient texts, interviews other experts in the field, offers free online Sumerian and Hebrew lessons, and much more. She also operates Humans Against Poor Scholarship, a non-profit aimed at making scholarship accessible to everyone, regardless of race or financial background.