Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The sand-box of epic and the rails of GTA (1)

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 through the “Living Epic—the Main Quest” link 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 share my posts with non-gaming parents, teachers, and spouses.


There’s a wonderful moment in Book 8 of the Homeric Odyssey when Odysseus treats one of the two bards in the Odyssey (we’ll meet poor Phemius, the other one, another time) pretty much the way a gamer treats his or her controller, fulfilling the fantasy that herdsman from further down the blog has of being his own bard without the long apprenticeship and the bad wages.

Demodocus [that’s the name of the bard; Odysseus is talking to him here],
I praise you above all mortals.
Either the Muse, daughter of Zeus taught you, or Apollo.
For all too well, in order, you sing the trouble of the Achaeans,
All the things they did and sufered and all the things the Achaeans toiled at,
as if you yourself were there, or heard from another.
But come, change it up, and sing the making of the horse—
the wooden one—the one Epeius made with Athena,
which once heroic Odysseus brought as a trick to the city-center,
having filled it with the men who sacked Troy.
If you tell me this, giving due attention,
immediately I’ll proclaim to all people
that the god willingly awarded you a divine song.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility, though it’s absolutely impossible to prove, that this passage is the origin of the story of the Trojan Horse. If you know the Odyssey, you may instantly be objecting, “But what about Menelaus’ story in Book 4, when he tells of what happened when the horse was inside the gates of Troy, and Helen came down to see it?” The answer to that objection is very revealing: within the framework of oral recomposition of ancient epic, there’s no reason to think that an earlier moment of an epic must have existed when a later moment was composed.

By exactly the same token, it’s interesting to note, a player of GTA4 or any other adventure video game, can and almost always does, use information gained about a later part of the game to change his or her play in an earlier part of the game the next time he or she plays. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to help it: if you know that a bodyguard with an AK-47 is waiting around the next corner, you aren’t going to charge in there next time, the way you did this time. Your next time through that level will be much more satisfying—much more artistic, even—then it was when you died, or only barely escaped.

At any rate, the reason to wonder whether this passage is the origin of the Trojan Horse is that what Odysseus is asking Demodocus to do is improvise a brand new song to celebrate Odysseus’ glory. In Book 1, Telemachus, talking to his Mom about Phemius, that other bard, tells us that the newest song is always most popular. Odysseus would certainly want, just on the face of it, to have a popular song sung about him.

And strangely enough earlier that day Demodocus has already sung a song that involves Odysseus. That one wasn’t about Odysseus alone, though—it was about how Odysseus and Achilles had a quarrel, and showed the two of them (Achilles is the great warrior-hero of the Iliad, you remember) on a more-or-less equal footing. In case you’re interested in this kind of detail, we don’t have the slightest bit of evidence that anyone other than the fictional Demodocus actually sang such a song, and classicists remain a bit mystified about why the real singer of the Odyssey would have his idealized self-portrait, Demodocus, sing such a song.

Here’s my own explanation: the singer of the Odyssey wants to show that Odysseus himself is smart enough to know he can use a bard like a game-controller, for his own purposes. Those purposes involve getting his hosts, the Phaeacians, to recognize what an amazingly cool guest they have, but all we have to see here is that Odysseus is using a singer to participate in the making of his own story. The earlier story, the one about Achilles and Odysseus, lets Odysseus in on the fact that Demodocus can sing Troy stuff. To make the gaming analogy, he’s got the game Iliad in his disc-tray.

Like a gamer starting a new mission in GTA4 Odysseus gets to decide which way he wants to make his avatar go, and how he wants to make his avatar approach the ancient equivalent of a boss-fight.

Imagine that gamer from the beginning of the blog playing the game “Iliad.” He’s controlling a character (his avatar) whose name is Odysseus (if the game follows one of the standard conventions these days, the gamer was given the choice of keeping that name, or of changing it to a name of his choosing; like “Steve” or “Zaphod”; let’s say he kept it). He’s gotten to the final level of the game, where he must somehow find a way to get the Greek forces inside Troy, in order to sack the city.

There’s some wood, lying off to the side of the scene, and some Greek warriors sitting around, drinking. If the gamer knows his Greek epics, of course, he’s going to know what to do—somehow he’s got to get the warriors to build the Trojan Horse for him.

You may have noticed that I’ve just opened an unbelievably large can of worms. In fact, it’s so large that we’re going to need a new post to deal with it.

Next: why you can’t go to Mass in GTA.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Niko Bellic, a new Odysseus

Armand Assante as Odysseus

There’s more than a little danger in making assertions about a character (Niko) about whom one knows as yet very little. I won’t get to play GTA4 until at least Tuesday—and I suspect it will take me weeks to get to know Niko Bellic very well. But given the history of the GTA series and the trailers that I’ve caught sight of around the Web, I really don’t think I’m far off in comparing Niko to Odysseus, at least as far as one fundamental characteristic is concerned: their anti-heroism.

It’s something that’s usually overlooked in the eighth grade English classes that almost always constitute a student’s complete exposure to Homeric epic until and unless he or she decides to take a course on it in college, but Odysseus is not really a nice guy. That’s not to say that we aren’t meant to sympathize with him, but he’s a lying, cheating, stealing sonofabitch whose only significant redeeming characteristic is an obessive need to get home and put things right. The fact that his wife and son are there, in bad trouble, means that Odysseus’ return does have a fundamentally redemptive quality, because his wife and son are nice people—in a way that Odysseus doesn’t get to be nice because he had to go fight somebody else’s f’ed up war.

Anyway, the most emphatic expression of Odysseus’ anti-heroism is perhaps what he does to the maid-servants who have been sleeping with the suitors who were trying to get Odysseus’ wife Penelope to marry them. Remember that these maids, as the ancient audience would have been very well aware, wouldn’t have had a choice in the matter: sleeping with the powerful guys hanging out in their masters' house would have just been what happened to them. At the end of the epic, Odysseus has them strung up all together, in a mass hanging, their twitching legs described as vividly as one might expect of a Tarantino flick.

No, Odysseus isn’t nice. And neither is Niko. But if the reviews speak truth, that means that their stories have something very special, very epic, and very ancient going for them. They make us imagine what it would be like to be someone very different from who we are, someone much worse in many ways, but perhaps in a few ways much better than we are. We get the pleasure of being the kind of person who doesn’t think twice about stringing up a bunch of maids, or offing the target we’ve been assigned to off. But it’s pleasure because it’s pretend, and that’s the secret to the anti-hero: our enjoyment of him depends completely on our not being like that, on our being able to see that such measures could never, in real life, be justified.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Is GTA4 a living epic?

The short answer is Yes. A longer answer will take us into very interesting territory, the territory above all of the figure usually called the anti-hero. We’ll also have to stop in the sandbox, to see whether a game can be made so open and free that it breaks its continuity with the epic tradition.


Next time: GTA4 and the Odyssey.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Course activities for "(Gaming) Homer," the online UConn course in Spring 2009

This is a post in a series about my UConn course, CAMS 3208 "(Gaming) Homer." I will offer the course in Spring 2009 in an online, heavily game-enhanced form, and I will have a few spots available for non-UConn students. E-mail me (amphiaraus@msn.com) if you’re interested in getting onto the waiting list. General information on registration and fees may be found here. Note that it's too early to register as of this writing--but I'll be sure to notify readers here when registration becomes available!

How should I teach Homeric epic as a video game? Let me know what you think of what I’ve got planned, and about any ideas you’ve got for gaming-related activities!

I can think of three activities that I think would set this course far apart, and that will illustrate Homeric epic in a really interesting way: in-game discussion sections, gameplay labs, and in-game discussion-interviews with game-developers.

In-game discussion sections on the one hand are only a way to get some kind of synchronous discussion going: to have the whole class in one place at the same time, even if that place is LOTRO’s version of Rivendell. At the same time, it will be possible to demonstrate certain play dynamics and experiment in an informal way with how different facets of the narrative experience of the specific game, and of narrative gaming in general, work. Adventuring together, with the interactions availably with the game and with each other, will give students the ability to analyze things like quest-structure and grinding very closely.

What I call in-game labs will be more targetted in-game experiences in specific games, some of the single-player variety and others of the multi-player (both versus and co-op). The idea will be to carry out a specific experimental assignment, like “Finish the first level of Halo 2 three ways, and analyze the experience as a story.”

Third, we’ll get a chance to talk to some of the people who work with these games everyday, and ask them questions that we’ve drafted beforehand about how they tell stories and how they think about their task and about their audience. Students will collaborate in small groups to write-up reports on these discussion-interviews.

Another idea I’ve had, but need help fleshing out, is to have students make observations of what goes on on several different internet boards of gaming communities, and write reports about how the storytelling of the games brings about (or fails to bring about) certain kinds of community, just as the Homeric epics were vital in the constitution of the early communities of Archaic Greece.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Living Epic: What about Game Studies? Didn't Janet Murray already do this bard stuff?

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 through the “Living Epic—the Main Quest” link 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 share my posts with non-gaming parents, teachers, and spouses.

On the other hand, I also need to be honest here at the start, and say a couple important things about the relationship between this blog and the books and articles written by the professors in the field of Game Studies (or, as it’s increasingly being called these days, Digital Media Studies). First, I think that using my ancient material the way I use it here, to enrich gamers’ lives and to tell them and their friends that gaming is much more interesting and valuable than it might seem, is revolutionary. I don’t think it can be called Game Studies (and I’m sure all the Game Studies professors would agree with that), but I believe it has interesting things to say to the people who do Game Studies, even though I doubt they’ll listen.

Second, however, and most importantly, the basic application of this ancient material to the study of gaming is not new. Cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die I came up with it on my own, but as so often happens in the academic world, some of the ideas I came up with on my own turned out to have been thought of already.

Thankfully, though, as is almost always the case, I disagree strongly with the way those ideas have been used before, and in fact my treatment of those ideas in this blog owes nothing to previous treatments. Because I’m a professor, though, and professors do these things, I’m honor-bound to say that Janet Murray’s book Hamlet on the Holodeck contains a brief comparison of interactive narrative to oral epic, and that Marie-Laure Ryan’s book Narrative as Virtual Reality analyzes immersion in gaming as a species of the immersion to be found in narratives of all kinds, and that there are many articles that talk about the kinds of stories to be found in video games. That is, there are already works, directed mainly at scholars in the field of Game Studies, that look at the same issues of the relationship between gaming and older forms, including epic itself, I look at in this blog.

Like I said, I hope some of those folks read this blog and profit by it. But I’m not a Game Studies professor, and truth to tell I’m unhappy with the Game Studies professors for not talking to gamers. I don’t think it’s really because they look down on gamers that they don’t talk to us, but it sure comes across that way sometimes. The fact that the overwhelming majority of gamers don’t know that there’s a field called Game Studies is the most revealing symptom of the disease, but the disease is different—it’s called theory, and it means that what the Game Studies professors are doing doesn’t actually have anything to offer people who like “Halo,” because “Halo” is just a shooter, and shooters are theoretically uninteresting, since they look to Game Studies like they’re all the same.

I could go on for a long time, but I think you get the picture: I’ve directed this blog at video gamers, and at others interested in video gaming, who want to think about video gaming in a new (old) way. For the benefit of that audience, I’m going to show that only a deeper—an older—understanding of the nature of video games as storytelling than most people have yet been willing to acquire will help us enjoy them as fully as they should be enjoyed, and help us move them along to the heights and depths of artistic expression of which I think they are capable.

Next: Part 3

Monday, April 21, 2008

My paper trail, so far

If you're interested in the issues I'm bringing up here, you might want to take a look at my two existing articles in The Escapist: this one, on Halo and Virgil's Aeneid; and this one, on the maturation of gamer culture and the birth of the Normal Gamer.

Another piece should be coming out at the beginning of May: a critique of what I see as Game Studies scholars' failure to take up the task of leading gaming culture into the mainstream.

Living Epic: the ONLINE COURSE!

In Spring 2009 I will offer Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies 3208 "Homer" in an online format that will use games and game-worlds as integral course material. Labs and discussions will occur in-game in games like Halo, Fable, and The Lord of the Rings Online.

I will have a few spots open for students outside of UConn. The waiting list starts here, and I'll have information available soon as to how to sign-up, and what fees and arrangements will be (it's my hope that I'll have money for scholarships, but that's not clear yet). E-mail me (amphiaraus@msn.com) if you’re interested in getting onto the waiting list. General information on registration and fees may be found here. Note that it's too early to register as of this writing--but I'll be sure to notify readers here when registration becomes available!

Following the example of my friend Michael Abbott, the Brainy Gamer, I want to enlist my readers here in helping to plan the course. Are there games you think are particularly epic? Are there things you'd like to do in-game like labs and discussions? Are there conversations we should have with developers and/or their community managers? Let me know!

“Living Epic”: What the title means, and what it implies

This is the first 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 title of this blog gives a pretty good idea of what I’m trying to do here. I want to announce that epic is alive, and that there are people creating epics like the “real” epics, the ancient ones, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Beowulf, and many others, every day. These people are video gamers, and I’m going to show that their culture is actually not new, but rather as ancient as those ancient epics.

The title is also meant to suggest that you can live epic, too, if you’ll only play more video games.

Imagine a gamer—let’s make him a 16-year old boy—on a couch in his family’s TV room in suburban Boston, his eyes fixed on the screen, a controller in his hands. He is attentive to a story of valiant deeds and eternal glory unfolding not just on the screen but in his mind and through the way he manipulates the action by playing the game. That story, a story he knows very well in its outline, and may know very well even in its specific detail, is unfolding in a way it never has before, because the gamer himself is helping it unfold, and he couldn’t do it the same way anyone else has done it, or even the same way he himself has done it before, if he tried.

Now imagine a young herdsman 2800 years ago, an inhabitant of Salamis,an island off the coast of Athens. He’s at a feast in his lord’s house, and the banquet is nearly over. There’s a singer with a lyre (think guitar) in his hands sitting to the side of the hall, and the young man’s eyes are fixed upon him. The singer is playing and singing an old, old story, but he’s playing it in a way the young man has never heard it before. It’s a tale of valiant deeds and eternal glory, and it unfolds not just in the singer’s words, but in the young man’s mind, and in the singer’s voice and the way he strikes the strings with his plectrum (think pick), made out of bone, or even ivory.

Now magine that the herdsman is so overhwhelmed by the experience that he becomes an apprentice of the singer, and learns to sing and play the lyre himself, well enough to tell his own version of the story. Now he is able to decide how the heroes do their deeds and win their glory, but the storytelling itself remains the same, even if as he sings to his own audience he couldn’t sing it the same way his master did, or he himself has sung it, if he tried.

Through the stories the young men are transported into a world of heroic myth, where warriors fight more fearlessly than real warriors could ever fight, and quarrel with one another, and laugh sometimes, and even cry sometimes. The warriors deliberate, and make choices, and suffer and enjoy those choices’ consequences. For the young men, the gamer and the ancient herdsman, these heroes live.

You can tell that I think there are similarities to be drawn between the two young men, and you can tell what I think some of them are—especially the story about valiant deeds and eternal glory. But there’s a similarity that’s almost out of view in these two pictures that will end up being my fundamental theme in this blog. The immersion of the gamer and the young herdsman in the story—their interaction with the controller and the screen, and with the singer’s voice and lyre—shapes them, even as it shapes the story. They are who they narrate themselves to be, and in the epics they experience, they learn to narrate themselves a little differently than they did when they entered the living-room or the banquet-hall.

So besides showing that the gamer and the herdsman-turned-singer are doing the same basic thing, I’m also going to talk about what I think that means: I’m also going to examine video games as an artistic medium, and to try to persuade you based on that examination that video gaming is a worthwhile cultural pursuit. I think there are still a lot of people around who need to be convinced of that, despite the fact that, unknown to most gamers, there are now professors (I’m not one of them, since my field is the ancient stuff) who teach and write about video games. I hope that some of those people who need convincing will profit from this blog, whether or not they start reading it (or finish reading it) with any desire to read any more of what those professors are writing about video games.

Part 2