Modern Epic, Modern Odysseus

Sid Meier gave his keynote at GDC yesterday (a nice wrapup is here). At the end, he talks about how the very many genres and styles of games today can all be “encapsulated” in the idea of an Epic Journey. It’s the designer’s job to make this journey an epic (and fun) one.

To a classicist, the words “epic journey” cannot help but bring to mind dear Odysseus. There have been other epic journeys of course, Dante’s or that of Aeneas, but they have their little seed in Odysseus. He is the epic hero of journeys par excellence.

Odysseus is now enclosed in print. His journey, regardless of its many manifestations in sculpture, film, and later literature, is based in an unchanging text. We can read of him as often as we like, but the story isn’t going to change.

He didn’t start this way. Odysseus was a figure of oral narrative. He was a hero of the Trojan War who had his own skills (trickery, oratory, etc.) and his own particular characteristics and motivations as a character, but he was not a finished work, enclosed in a tomb of text. He lived. He was still being created all of the time. Bards could extend his adventures, add details to his character, create new relationships, etc. Depending on whom you heard a story of Odysseus from and which story it was, you could be meeting very different sides of this Odysseus character. In fact, you might only hear of him in passing during a telling of Achilles.

This ongoing oral process of literary creation is seemingly lost to our culture today. We read stories from books. The only oral ones we expect to be surprised by are ones involving monster fish. However, there still are individual representations of adventures that take place in the same narrative framework.

I speak of course of certain kinds of games, particularly RPGs and MMOs. In these, the telling of stories of heroes is not enclosed in text or any other form of media. It has its limitations of course – there is a lore of the world, there are set dialogue options, etc., but the player-author is free to create and tell their version of what happened when Arthas fell, for example, or when the gates of Dol Guldur were breached. It’s not really oral anymore – we use things like Youtube to tell our stories, but the method is very similar. The basic tale of the Trojan Horse isn’t going to change. The Trojans accept it, the Greeks jump out, Trojans die. Yet, you can tell this story from a multitude of perspectives, you can tell it with a myriad of different details, and you can tell the in-betweens of those plot points any way you like. In a game, we have that same freedom. Of course, the Citadel is breached, Sindragosa falls and then Arthas is defeated. But how that happens can vary. The stars of the story can be whomever you like. You get to create the hero. You get to tell his adventures. You are the one who narrates your version of the Epic Journey.

Instead of the designer’s job being to make the journey epic, rather, her job is to provide the framework for an epic journey. Just like Odysseus telling his adventures to his hosts in Phaeacia, the player today is the bard and the hero of their adventures. Homer just sits back and lets his character take the stage. He gave him the ship and the ports of adventure but what happened there was up to the hero himself. In fact, we never here the narrator’s version of these events. Homer tells everything through the mouth of Odysseus. How would someone else have told this story? Would it have been as good if Homer had made Odysseus just the hero rather than the bard as well?

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. rogertravisjr
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 15:24:05

    Lovely post. You know I agree completely!

    One question–do you really think the Trojan Horse had to go that way before the epic got written down? One of my favorite ways to read Odyssey 8 is that Odysseus is making up the Trojan Horse story on the spot as a way to attract the Phaeacians attention to him, so that he’ll get to narrate his (from this perspective) made-up adventures.

    (I wrote a post about this idea, at one point. :D)

    It makes me wonder whether successive iterations on games like the multiple Zeldas are an important part of the narrative process, and also whether parallel storytelling like what the Turbine devs are doing in LOTRO has even more possibilities than have yet been explored.

    Reply

  2. Adarel
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 15:52:24

    I never really thought about the Trojan Horse not turning out the way he says. It’s such an iconic part of the TW story now. But, of course, that’s now or post-Homer at least. As in history so in epic – we only hear the winners’ side of things. I’ll have to go look up your post and re-read the passage. Demodokos tells the story of the Horse at the urging of Odysseus. Perhaps though he embellished the tale a bit for the honor of the guest? I will think on these things.

    I like how Odysseus assumes the story has traveled to Phaeacia and he is right. It reminds me of Robert Jordan again – how all the bards rushed to Illian and wanted to join the Hunters for the Horn so they could have first-hand experiences to tell. (This is in Book 2).

    Reply

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