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?


Thoughts on Lore and Myth

For my work this term, I’m reading quite a bit about ancient myth as it relates to heroes and heroines. I was thinking today about how odd it is myth exists in a changeable kind of limbo. There is no Bible of Greek Myth (Amazon may differ on that point) that people can go to in order to check authenticity. I can tell a story of Odysseus; you can tell a story of Odysseus; Jimbob C. can tell a story of Odysseus. They do not need to be the same. Some things will not change – he will have a wife named Penelope. He will either be in the process of a journey, homeward or not, or he will be at some point expecting or reflecting on the journey. He will be wily and skilled in rhetoric. Aside from these core traits, your Odysseus and my Odysseus could have radically different lives.

For example, Homer’s Odysseus encounters a whole troop of troubles on his way home, but eventually he gets there. Dante’s Odysseus had no desire to go home and never does. His journey ends in Hell. They are unmistakably the same character though. Odysseus and the Cyclops

Perhaps we can look back now and see the big names of H and D and think they just had special powers for using mythical characters in whatever way they please. This isn’t the case though. Achilles had conflicting stories. Dionysus had conflicting stories. Antigone had conflicting stories. Medea was told in different ways.

Is it like Nancy Drew who has 3,000 adventures all while she is 18 years old? No, because her adventures don’t contradict each other. Is it like the many different Batmans depicted on screen? The many James Bonds? If a character in the Warcraft Universe suddenly did not complete his version of the return home, fans would be in an uproar. “WHAT?!?! Arthas NEVER had brown hair. HE IS A BLONDE!!!!” I can see it now.

What is it about mythical characters that makes them different from those in fictional universes? It feels like a kind of translation. We have freedom to interpret much of it though there is a certain underlying “true-ness” to each character. I may interpret Odysseus in a way that suits my treatise of Hell but his underlying Odysseus-ness is still present. He is more than just a character. He is a multi-faceted variety of ways his character could react with his world (our world?) and still remain him.

Teaching classics through digital media

A friend of mine (Hi, Mike) showed me the blog of a prof at U-Conn today. I’ve been somewhat familiar with his work (his name is Roger Travis) for some time but hadn’t visited his blog yet this term.

Basically, he is teaching Greek history through the format of an RPG. No costumes, just mechanics. It’s beyond fascinating. I really want to try this out here at U-Mich. Imagine teaching the Medea this way – such complexities of character could really be explored through individual experience. Someday when there’s an engine for it, I’d like to do this with interactive fiction, but instead of having the reader and the constructs of the narrative, having the reader, the interactor, and the author. The reader would be one student or team, the interacter another student or team, and the author likely the teacher who would construct the bounds of narrative. Inside this fictive universe (wouldnt’ it be great if CTools or Blackboard had an option to design this?), there could be mechanics for gaining points in class, whether through gear (as could be done with Homer), with charisma, sanity, currency, humor, an endless number of concepts that could be quantified and used as incentive and narrative drive in a pedagogical adventure. (Note how Travis’ students have a weapon, a mask, etc.) Both the reader and the interactor would have their own objectives for the narrative (think Jason and Medea again) but the author (the teacher) would be in charge of guiding it into an experience of how Euripides has created these characters. I get chills thinking about this, I really do.

Well, so there’s this grant program here that asks for student teams to design projects that combine academics and digital media in a way that creates new avenues of teaching and learning. Proposals are due tomorrow but teams don’t have to be finalized for another few weeks. If you are at U-Mich and would like to contribute to a project that involves concepts similar to those above and those outlined on Travis’ blog, get in touch with me!