Monday, July 7, 2008

The mysterious dual: the smoking gun of epic interactivity

This is a post in a series expressing the essence of my argument about how video games are actually ancient, how they reawaken the anicent oral epic tradition represented above all by the epics of the Homeric tradition, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The earlier posts can be found in the “Living Epic: The Main Quest” post, linked on the right. Note that this blog is aimed at an audience that includes non-gamers; I apologize for boring the gamers in my audience by going over such things as the basics of game genres, but I hope they might want to see that as an opportunity to print my posts out and give them to their non-gaming parents, teachers, and spouses.


When we last left Achilles, he was sitting in his tent refusing to fight, because Agamemnon took his girlfriend away. Meanwhile, Achaean warriors (that’s Achilles’ team; the word “Greek” isn’t really an accurate way to describe them) have been dying in large numbers. That’s the situation when Book 9 starts.

In Book 9 as we have it, bad old Agamemnon sends to the tent of Achilles three “ambassadors” in what’s been called forever after the “Embassy to Achilles”: Ajax (strongest of the Achaeans), Odysseus (smartest of the Acheans), and Phoenix (old friend of Achilles). When they get to Achilles’ tent, each of those ambassadors gives a speech about why Achilles should accept Agamemnon’s offer and come back to the fighting. It makes sense, and it builds to a very nice crescendo in the speech of Phoenix, after which, from an ethical point of view, the audience is in a lot of suspense about what Achilles should do, despite being in no suspense at all over what he will do.

But there’s this one facet of the episode (which, just to remind you of what I said a couple weeks ago, probably would have made a perfect tale to sing in an evening’s epic entertainment 2800 years ago) that doesn’t really make much sense at all: there are these famous dual forms, which seem, in Iliad 9, to refer to two ambassadors rather than the three we actually have.

What the heck is a dual form? Well, some languages have a special ability that English has almost entirely lost, to talk about two, and only two, things at a time. (English does have a vestige of it in our usage of “both,” which can refer only to two things at a time.) The dual is mostly useful for talking about eyes and hands and such, but occasionally it gets a workout in other circumstances, and Book 9 is one of those. Several times, despite our having three ambassadors, the version of Book 9 that we have, in the original Greek at least, speaks, for example, of how “the ambassadors both went along the shore.”

Those forms suggest very strongly that going so far as to add an ambassador and his speech was within the scope of possible improvisatory change by the bards of the Iliad. To spell out what seems very likely to have happened these thousands of years ago: one bard came up with a story about how Agamemnon sent Ajax and Phoenix, and used the dual number, because he was singing a tale about two ambassadors. Then, another bard, having heard the story as sung by the first bard, or perhaps having been a student of the first bard, decided to sing a different version of the same story. Whether as a tribute to the first bard, or because certain phrases had become basically unchangeable, or perhaps simply because it was allowable, and didn’t matter very much, this second bard retained the dual forms despite his innovation of the third ambassador, Odysseus. (The reasons for thinking that Odysseus is the addition rather than Phoenix or Ajax are complicated and not relevant here in the blog right now, though I think they will be soon; feel free to ask in comments, though!)

The bard of Book 9 of the Iliad, as we have it, that is, improvised very significantly in the story. I want to suggest now that that kind of improvisation has a very strong correlation to a kind of improvisation that may at first seem completely different: the improvisation engaged in by the player of an adventure video game.

If you’re a gamer, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’re not a gamer, though, it’s not easy to make clear precisely what I mean on the page, because I’m talking about something books, and movies, just don’t do, but I’ll give it my best shot. Imagine you’re playing Halo (the one about the space marines fighting the religious fanatic aliens). Another of those cutscenes (little movies) has just ended, and the Captain has given you his pistol and told you to find your way to an escape pod and get off the ship. As the movie-type stuff ends, you head out the door, and immediately face a group of aliens who want to kill you. It would be fair to say that the game really begins here, for several reasons, the most important perhaps being that this game is a “shooter,” and this is the first time you actually get to fire a weapon.

Now from the very first moment, you have a great degree of control over what you do (that is, what your character does) in the game. You can choose whether to shoot, and which enemies to shoot. You could play the next minute of the game over an infinite number of times, and no two enactments would be exactly the same.

This facet of adventure video games, the decisive role of player improvisation, arises in their famous, controversial “interactivity.”

My own definition of “interactivity” is “permitting a person to participate in, through a measure of control over, the relevant experience.” (A more basic definition is “accepting user input”; that basic one is completely compatible with mine, I think, but not robust enough for the purposes of the kind of analysis I want to do here.)

If we’re to understand the importance of interactivity, I think we really have to see that the reason for interactivity’s seizing the cultural imagination is not that cultural activities weren’t interactive before—take sports, for one very graphic example, where user input is most certainly accepted—but that certain cultural practices that were previously not noticeably interactive (books, movies, TV) suddenly developed a much greater interactive capacity. Video gaming, to repeat, is the most obvious result, because entertainment, simply put, catches the eye and the imagination more readily than more purely informational practices like browsing a library.

But the trouble with declaring that interactivity is a new thing when it comes to entertainment and information is that it’s not true. The bards of the Iliad were exercising the same control over their mythic material when they came up with the remarkable statement of self-sufficiency that Achilles makes in Book 9 of the Iliad. The story of the “Embassy to Achilles” was itself an interactive improvisation and an interactive recomposition upon the existing theme of the “Wrath of Achilles.” The story of the “Wrath of Achilles” was a recomposition of the story of “The War at Troy.” In the other direction, the moving words of Achilles were almost certainly an improvisation upon the existing theme of “The Embassy to Achilles.”

It’s probably worth noting, given recent discussions on this blog (see here and here), that I don’t think it makes sense even to say that traditional books and films aren’t interactive. The decisive effect brought about by the audience of any work upon that work’s ultimate meaning should make us speak rather of different kinds and degrees of interaction than of interactive and non-interactive media. (Marie Laure-Ryan’s book Narrative as Virtual Reality [here] is at its best on this topic.)

Next time: if the bard is the gamer, what’s the bard’s audience?