Saturday, May 31, 2008
Why do the in medias res thing I was talking about last time, though—besides that it’s a fun way to tell a story, and perhaps even that it “grabs” you? There’s actually a much more important reason for the beginning in medias res, and there’s a word for it that’s so important in gaming culture right now that it’s more or less a buzzword, and even a bit of a cliché by now: the word is immersion, and it would be fair to say that immersion is the phenomenon of gaming culture that I believe holds the key to understanding what games do, and what they can do.
Let’s approach it first from the broadest perspective. As in the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, so also in Halo: the audience is thrown into the narrative, and left to follow the story’s clues about what part of the story they have come into, and what's going on. The effect is to make the participant more truly part of the story, whether the participant is holding a controller or a lyre, or just listening to a bard sing a story they feel like they already know, or watching a friend play Halo, because they’ve been put into the midst of it.
That was the way with ancient epic, and indeed I would suggest that Halo accomplishes this insertion of its audience even more effectively than ancient epic could, by waking you from sleep.
In Halo, too, what we might call the “moment of immersion,” when the story sucks the audience into itself, stands out very clearly, because at that moment, suddenly, the player’s controller actually controls the character. When we observe that the story-telling isn’t entirely in the first-person—that the cut-scenes have an essential role in telling the player what’s happening, and in giving meaning to the player’s actions as the character—it seems at first that the moment of immersion moves the player from what we might call “regular old storytelling” into the completely new, completely immersive form of storytelling of the adventure video-game.
But the point of this blog is to say that that moment of immersion is actually the same as the moment when the bard of the Iliad says “From the time when the two stood quarrelling, the son of Atreus, lord of men, and godlike Achilles.” At least that’s one way to put my big idea. Just to hang it out there, I’ll also put here in a single sentence the reason I think that claim is true: at both moments, the one in the Iliad and the one in Halo, the participants in the occasion, whether of gaming or of epic, take part in the creation of their own version of a story that for that very reason comes to be about them.
I think it’s fairly easy to see how the story of an adventure video game comes to be about the person playing the game—especially when we think of the sort of game called an RPG (role-playing game), in which a player creates a character over whose make-up he or she has a great deal of control (in that he or she chooses the character’s class and abilities and these days can even customize the character’s appearance to a very great degree). The moment of immersion is perhaps simply a very striking line of demarcation between a story about someone else and a story about the story’s actual real-time participants, in the telling of which those participants have, yes, a role to play.
It’s less obvious, of course, that the storytelling of the Iliad and the other ancient epics have something like that moment of immersion, and so to make this comparison clearer it’s necessary to go into some detail about the strange way those epics came together, and what that meant for the later epics that came along, and were created in a way that’s more familiar to us (that is, a writer like Virgil writing down the Aeneid on the Roman equivalent of paper).
Next time: the interactivity of the Homerids (yes, for reals). Also, what the heck a Homerid is.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Here's the planned range of course activities for the course. I'm incredibly excited not just about the cool individual items (in-game labs and discussions, interviews with designers and community-managers, internet forum observation), but by the way they're all going to fit together in the matrix for the course, so that every unit (the next post in this series will have the specific units) is going to have a mixture of enlightening and fun stuff to do.
Readings: Homeric Iliad, Homeric Odyssey, A. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambrdige, MA: 1960); G. Nagy Homeric Questions (Cambridge, MA: 1996)
Lectures by podcast and video podcast
In-game labs in Halo, Fable, Lego Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings Online
In-game discussions in The Lord of the Rings Online
Internet forum discussions
Internet forum labs through observation of discussion on gaming web-forums
Designing, conducting, and analyzing interviews with developers’ personnel (incl. community-managers) about what it means to be an interactive storyteller
Visits by proxy (video podcast) to developers’ studios
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
I'm not a big fan of paradigm-shifts in general, because it seems to me that they're always in the eye of the beholder, and that much, much more often they actually represent swings of the pendulum. In the case of Huling's article, as I commented over at the mag, I think it makes more sense to see RPG's as a swing back towards improvisation from scripting. The nice thing about such a quibble, though, is that it doesn't really vitiate Huling's point at all, and also gives us lots of new ground to explore.
In medias res means “into the middle of things” not “in the middle of things” (that would be in mediis rebus). What’s the difference? “Into the middle of things” means that the audience and the bard throw themselves from where they are right into the story, and that’s important, because it’s very different from just quietly popping up at the beginning, with something like “once upon a time.”
This is how the Iliad kicks off:
Sing, goddess, the accursed wrath of Peleus’s son Achilles,
that hurled many strong souls of heroes down to Hades’,
and made them food for dogs and all the birds,
and the will of Zeus was accomplished:
from the time when first stood quarrelling
the son of Atreus lord of men and godlike Achilles.
Which of the gods set them to battle?
The son of Zeus and Leto, for angered at the king
he sent an evil sickness on the army, and the people were dying,
because the son of Atreus dishonored the prayer-man Chryses.
For that man came to the swift ships of the Achaians
to ransom his daughter and to bring countless payment. . .
You’ll notice that this epic beginning has two spearate parts—first, what’s usually called the “proem” (“proem” is just a fancy word for an introduction in a poem) in which the singer of the epic talks a bit about what he’s doing (specifically in relation to his imagined function as a sort of mouthpiece for the muses—that’s the “Sing, goddess” part), and then, second, the real beginning of the story, when Chryses, the priest of Apollo, walks into the Achaean camp. It’s that second part that’s called the beginning in medias res: instead of telling us the whole story of the Trojan War from the very beginning, the bard (he’s the guy singing the epic when it was in its original form some time between 1200 BCE and 800 BCE; remember that a very nice definition for “bard” is “singer of tales”) starts the story with a minor incident, though that minor incident will soon become a major problem for the Achaean army that’s trying to capture Troy and get Menelaus’ wife Helen back.
I’ve got a bit more to say about what’s going on in the beginnings of the ancient epics, but I want to clarify the kind of comparison I’m making with the beginning of Halo (and also with the beginnings of just about any other adventure video-game you can think of, whether it’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or Grand Theft Auto IV): just like ancient epics, adventure videogames start in the middle of the story. Halo starts when the Pillar of Autumn has just made a desperate hyperspace jump to elude pursuit; Prince of Persia starts in the middle of a desperate battle.
The reason we even have that phrase, in medias res, is that the ancient literary critics noticed that the Homeric Odyssey and Iliad didn’t start at the very beginning of a story, the way your typical folktale, and, really, most novels do, with “Once upon a time” or its equivalent—something like “It is a truth universally acknowledged” or “All happy families are the same,” or even, “Call me Ishmael.” No, epics begin (after that front-matter, called the proem, which features an invocation of a Muse or something like a Muse, where the epic singer asks the divine spirit of poetry to tell the story for him, which is a bit like the moment when you see the big “Bungie” logo on your TV screen, and then the game menu, which says, in effect, “Yes, you’re playing a video game—that video game was made by our cool studio—now it’s time to press a button to get it started”) in the middle of the story. The Iliad starts when the Trojan war is already ten years old. The Odyssey starts when Odysseus has been gone for twenty years, and is finally on the verge of coming home. The Aeneid starts when Aeneas has been journeying for two years already, and thinks he has almost made it to Italy, his final destination.
Halo starts when the Pillar of Autumn has already been fighting a war with the Covenant for quite some time. The action of Halo, and of Halo 2, and of Halo 3, all takes place within a story that the audience is made to feel happens in the middle.
In the middle of what? What’s the point of an in medias res beginning? More importantly, what effect does it have on the audience, and can it tell us anything about a possible similarity between video games and ancient epic? Beginning in medias res doesn’t mean that the epic will fail to tell a complete, discrete story. It means, though, that the epic’s individual, particular story taps into a much larger story, of which it constitutes only a small part. An in medias res beginning makes the audience feel that the story they are to hear, or rather, as we’ll see, to participate in telling, whether we’re talking about ancient epic or about Halo, is part of something bigger—indeed, a story that started at the beginning of the world, and will continue unto world’s end.
Next time: our name for in medias res: immersion!
Friday, May 23, 2008
Goals, Objectives, Assessment
A. Goal: Knowledge of the bardic occasion
Objective: Students will be able to describe thickly the bardic occasion, as portrayed above all in the Homeric Odyssey, so as to demonstrate a strong knowledge of its impact on the culture of Archaic Greece.
Assessment: Exam question
B. Goal: Knowledge of oral formulaic theory
Objective: Students will be able to produce a summary of oral formulaic theory, with reference to the Yugoslavian bards studied by Milman Parry and Albert Lord.
Assessment: Exam question
C. Goal: Skill at applied analysis of epic
Objective: Students will be able to report on a video-gaming experience as an occasion of epic practice.
Assessment: Lab report
D. Goal: Skill at literary analysis of ancient epic
Objective: Students will be able to produce an essay that explores various interpretations of the significance of the Iliad and the Odyssey in Archaic Greece and in the modern world, with particular reference to the culture of video games.
Assessment: Exam essay or on-line discussion evaluation
E. Goal: Applied analysis of gaming culture
Objective: Students will be able to describe thickly gaming culture as a reawakening of ancient epic practice.
Assessment: Lab report
Monday, May 19, 2008
In this post, I’m going to show that the way Halo begins gives us a really good, and really interesting, insight into the similarity between adventure videogames and ancient epic.
Obviously, I would be happiest if I could tell you to go and turn on your XBox and play the segment of the game Halo that I’m going to be talking about in this post; if you do happen to have an XBox, and Halo, and can get to them on such short notice, I highly recommend doing so.
But I don’t think it poses too much of a problem for me to describe the game here, and it will actually serve the important purpose of removing the game, and videogames in general, from the “frame” of the console-and-TV setup in which we’re used to seeing them. I mean “seeing” both literally (that is, sitting on your couch watching your in-game avatar as you play the game) and figuratively (that is, considering and pondering and analyzing).
(Remember that by “adventure videogame” I’m referring to any game in which the player has an adventure through a character whom he or she controls. As we’ve seen, the course of that adventure is partly determined by the designer of the game, and partly determined by the player him or herself.)
Halo begins with some movie-style atmospheric music, and a very, very long shot of a spaceship, next to a mysterious, enormous ring-in-space (the Halo, obviously). We see a series of animated shots, featuring a spaceship captain and an aritificial intelligence that controls the ship, which look like a badly-made computer cartoon (because they’re created using the game’s “engine,” the program used to put all the action in the game on your screen); in the story told in these shots, we get a bit of exposition about what’s going on.
This animation is called a “cut-scene,” a part of videogame storytelling that’s of the utmost importance to understanding how videogames relate to other kinds of narrative art. I’ll be returning to the cut-scene in a future post, but for now I need to call attention to the transition that’s going to be made at the end of it—from the player not having control of a character to the player participating through his or her character.
At any rate, in the cut-scene with which Halo begins, we learn that the ship, the Pillar of Autumn, has been attempting to escape from an alien battlefleet, and has by chance ended up near the Halo. But the aliens, called the “Covenant,” are already there, waiting for them.
Captain Keyes orders the ship to prepare for battle once again, and we see the marines, led by battle-hardened Sergeant Johnson, getting ready “to see Covenant up close.”
We see some technicians receive an order to “open the hushed casket.”
Then, suddenly, we are inside what must be the hushed casket, looking out through a window. The cover opens, and we see one of the technicians standing there. He greets us as the Master Chief, and the game tells us, via the HUD (heads-up display, which simulates the inside of the Master Chief’s helmet), to press X to exit the casket.
When we do, we return for a moment to third-person view, and watch ourselves, a magnificent, armored warrior, whose face is obscured entirely by a shining visor, step out of the cryogenic chamber.
Quickly, we return to the action, and, if this is the first time we have played, are instructed in a series of “diagnostics” that acquaint us with the controls—the game’s tutorial. At the end of the tutorial, aliens suddenly blow the door open, and we are told to get to the bridge to see Captain Keyes, as we watch our first friends, the techs, slaughtered by the aliens.
We are weaponless, as yet, so we must dart through hordes of aliens who are trying to kill us, learning a few things, like how to crouch and how to use our flashlight, on the way. It is easy to get lost in the maze-like corridors of the Pillar of Autumn, and so the arrows on the floor pointing to the bridge come in handy. Even so, we need the help that comes to us in the form of a marine who tells us to follow him to the bridge, and finally leaves us at the entrance.
When, finally, we stand before Captain Keyes, the view changes back to third person for another cut-scene, and we receive an update on the situation. At last, having received as a companion the famous Cortana, an Artificial Intelligence who also serves as a a guide and a narrator, the Captain hands us his revolver and instructs us to find our way to the lifeboats. The game now begins in earnest, and as we exit the bridge we must start shooting the aliens who are trying to shoot us, or to blow us up with their glowing plasma grenades.
Let me note that this game is violent, but let me also re-launch the comparison that constitutes the main theme of this blog by noting that Halo is nowhere near as violent as the Iliad or the Odyssey.
In considering my description of the action at the start of Halo, you’ll notice first of all that we are put smack into the middle of a story. They had a name for that storytelling technique in the ancient world: they called it a beginning in medias res: “into the middle of matters.” Beginning in medias res has been considered one of the hallmarks of epic since Chryses walked into the camp of the Achaeans at the start of the Iliad, and so I want to begin this comparison of adventure video games with ancient epic literally at the very beginning, and talk about beginnings themselves.
Next time: in medias res, not in mediis rebus (it takes a classicist, after all!)
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
So how much of a sandbox could ancient epic possibly be? How could it ever be anywhere but far, far down on the rails end of the spectrum, while the best video games are at the opposite end? Haven’t I just created a framework to prove the point I didn’t want to prove—that this blog is crap?
I know you’ll be astonished to hear that I think I’ve actually created a framework to prove the opposite—that ancient epic and adventure video games tell stories exactly the same way. Let’s take another look at what Odysseus says to Demodocus: “Change it up, and sing the making of the horse.” Odysseus isn’t saying “Play it, Demodocus,” a la “Casablanca”—an epic singer isn’t a jukebox, or even a piano player—he’s saying, “Sing me a new song, about the guy whose glory I’m looking to celebrate” (who just happens to be Odysseus).
He’s saying, “Come on, Demodocus, let’s step into this sandbox together.”
You don’t even have to take the extreme position I take on the matter (partly just because it’s fun) and say that before an Odyssey bard had Odysseus ask Demodocus for this story about the horse, this story about the horse didn’t exist, because even if the story about the horse did exist, what Odysseus says to Demodocus is, “You get my vote for Phaeacian Idol if you sing it like you were really there, or like you heard it from one who was.” But Demodocus wasn’t there, and there’s no way he’s heard the story from anyone who was there, because the Phaeacians strangely enough don’t have any contact with the outside world. So Demodocus must make it up, like a kid in a sandbox who’s been asked to build a certain kind of castle, but (obviously) not given the blueprints.
So ancient epic isn’t stuck at the “rails” end of the spectrum. What about video games? Well, as I discussed above, different games seem to have different ratios, but the question that remains is whether at the extreme sandbox end of the spectrum something is happening in the ineractivity-immersion of video games that (we might say) escapes the comparison to ancient epic, and therefore seriously reduces that comparison’s power. To put it in the terms of our friend Mr. Legislator, if it’s possible to pretend do something when you’re playing Grand Theft Auto that you couldn’t do when singing the Odyssey, then video games really are different (and, maybe, worse for society) from other kinds of storytelling.
But of course, I’m going to say that in fact it’s not possible to do anything even in Grand Theft Auto that you couldn’t do when singing the Odyssey (once you switch all the necessary stuff around, like subsituting drug-dealers for the monsters Odysseus faces, stealing cars for defeating other warriors in battle, etc. ). To make that case, though, clearly I need to explain about Grand Theft Auto, and about where I think it stands in relation to other games like Halo and World of Warcraft.
Before I head forward in that direction, I’m going to need to go back a bit, to take care of some business about ancient epic that would have come first if GTA4 hadn’t exploded into all our lives. So, next time: the interactivity of the Homerids.
Friday, May 9, 2008
If it were actually possible in an adventure video game to do anything you want, obviously I wouldn’t really have any business comparing adventure video games to ancient epics the way I am, because, obviously, the epic singer (let alone his audience, even if that audience is the guy paying the singer) can’t tell any version of the story he wants—he can’t for example, make Odysseus give up on getting home to Ithaca. But if it turns out that in fact the interactive storytelling in adventure video games limits stories the same way ancient epic does, we’re getting somewhere: once we see those limits, we can start to talk about them, and also about the stories that lie inside them—the stories that can and do get told both in ancient epic and in video games.
One of the qualities that tends to be valued very highly in games (though because there are different styles of adventure video game, this quality isn’t something a good game has to have) is what’s often called a sandbox style, or a sandbox feel. Some games that have defined stories also even have a “sandbox mode” in which the player can do whatever he or she likes within the world of the game.
(Like every other term in the gaming lexicon, “sandbox” has been used to describe different things from time to time. I should make it clear that I’m not going to talk in this particular context about how games like “Civilization” and “Sim City,” which can be called simulations or strategy games, and some of which are called “god games,” are related to ancient epic, if they are at all. In these games, the player controls a civilization or a subset of a civilization, and may or may not be required to meet certain goals to “win” the game. The distinguishing features of the adventure video games I’m talking about are 1) playing as a hero and 2) having an adventure as that hero. As you can tell, we actually have a bit of a problem even with the word “game,” though nobody has any good ideas it seems at this point what we should say instead of “game.” I have my own ideas on the matter, and a term I like to think with, "performative play practice," but thats for another series somewhere down the road.)
The sandbox metaphor is of course an evocation of the infinite possibilities presented to a child by a sandbox. Right off the bat, it’s worth noting a big and important difference between a sandbox and a video game: the imaginary possibilities presented to a kid in a sandbox are infinite, but sandboxes don’t have stories, except to whatever extent a kid brings them in with him or her.
To put it in familiar gaming terms, sandboxes don’t have missions, or quests, or campaigns—again, except as a kid brings them in there and brings them to life, enacts them, in the sand. If a sandbox came with a story, kids could still choose whether to play the story, and how to play it, but if they did play that story, they’d automatically be limiting what they could do.
Likewise, there are games that allow you incredible freedom in where you can go in the game-world, but unless there’s some story, whether in the form of a series of missions or any other kind of stronger narrative, they aren’t games, or at least they tend to give people fits as they try to figure out whether to call them games or not. (Remember that the games I’m talking about in this series are the ones I’m calling adventure video games, in which the player controls a character who has an adventure.) Even if you’re not a gamer, you may have heard of Second Life, which has acquired a bit of notoriety for the strange things that happen there. Second Life is an example of a persistent world: it presents like a game in every way except that there’s no story. Because it doesn’t impose a story, even in the form of a particular kind of avatar, Second Life couldn’t be called an adventure video game.
On the other hand, another good example is Disney’s persistent-world offering, Club Penguin. In Club Penguin, kids control penguins and play a wide variety of minigames to earn virtual coins, with with they can purchase upgrades to their igloos. While Second Life can’t be called an adventure game, Club Penguin could be, since the player’s experience is fundamentally configured as the story of an upwardly mobile penguin. The player may also get a job as a secret agent for some traditional adventure game storytelling, but the fundamental experience is of being a penguin in the world of Club Penguin. It’s the limitation that makes for the story. You can do almost anything in Club Penguin except not be a penguin with earning potential, just as (I’ll show as I proceed) you can do almost anything in Grand Theft Auto except not be a character who jacks cars.
Having a story thus by nature limits what a player can do, just as having a story limits what an epic singer can do, and where he can take his audience in his song.
There’s a term for this limitation, too, in gaming circles: “rails.” When a game is “on rails,” the player has to go in a pre-determined course, like a train on its track. A game “on rails” is thus roughly the opposite of a “sandbox” game. When you think about it, every adventure video game can be described as having a ratio of sandbox-to-rails, because at the ends of the sandbox—rails spectrum a video game ceases to be a game and becomes something else: a virtual world at the sandbox end, an animated video at the rails end.
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
At any rate, I'm in the process of trying very hard to put other people's money where my mouth is, and thereby to keep that mouth flapping. This is as good a time as any to announce that there's a Center for Video Games and Human Values in the works, for which my course "(Gaming) Homer" is actually the pilot. The center will be based at UConn, but its true existence will be entirely online, and it will include scholars of game studies, should they want to participate, alongside a truly interdisciplinary mix of the Humanities, the Social Sciences, Fine Arts, Education, and Business.
I'm pleased to say that Michael Abbott and Jeff Howard are my extramural collaborators on this project. I'm hoping they'll keep me from saying anything quite so provocative in the future, since they're much more sanguine about game studies than I am!
Friday, May 2, 2008
In case you didn’t notice me opening that can of worms I said I opened at the end of my last post (I did try to sneak it in), let me put a label on it for you: “Interactvity and Narrative Freedom.” Here are the questions the worms are asking: if the gamer in this game Iliad knows he’s supposed to build the Trojan Horse, how free is he to tell his own version of the story? if Demodocus, bard of the Phaeacians, has received such a specific request from Odysseus to hear a particular story about a wooden horse, how free is Demodocus the bard to tell his own version of the story? if Odysseus wants to make himself famous enough for the Phaeacians, how free is he to request his own version of the story? if the singer singing this part of the Odyssey to some real audience in ancient Greece wants to eat tonight, how free is he to tell his own version of the story? if the lord of the house where the singer is singing wants his herdsmen to herd his goats carefully, how free is he to request from the singer his own version of the story?
Coming back to the gamer, if the game developer wants to make a million bucks, how free is he to tell his own version of the Iliad, or even of the basic story of “space soldier saves the universe and the human race” or "small-time criminal becomes big-time criminal"? How free, then, is the gamer, really? Why can’t you go to church in Grand Theft Auto?
You can tell I think these worms are fun worms to play with. They’re also very important worms, though. Here’s why: the thing about video games that everyone thinks is so new and so cool and potentially so dangerous—that interactivity leading to immersion thing we’re always talking about, and that I’d suggest makes people like Jack Thompson get mad—comes from the gamer getting to control his or her avatar in the world of the game. If that interactivity and immersion really are new—if the gamer really can build the Trojan Horse any way he wants, or even not build the Trojan Horse, while Odysseus can’t get Demodocus to sing the story of the Trojan Horse exactly as Odysseus wants but must let the story unfold the way it’s supposed to unfold—then this blog is a crock. If that stuff is new, I’m taking what’s maybe a slight resemblance and trying to blow it up into some big-but-silly argument about how gaming is really more than it seems.
So it’s a kind of make-or-break question, whether the gamer’s control over the story is real, and whether it has anything to do with older ways of telling a story, like the Odyssey’s way of telling the story of Odysseus. So figuring out some answers to the specific questions I asked above (the worms from the “Interactivity and Narrative Freedom” can) will mean that we start to understand where the comparison of video gaming to ancient epic storytelling can get us—if anywhere.
Here’s the answer, which I’ll explain more fully next time: you can’t attend Mass in GTA because (despite appearances) whatever else you do, you’re still the main character of GTA, in the world of GTA, and there are no Masses there.