From Oral Tradition To Video Games: Epic Poetry in the Realm of Player-led Digital Storytelling


Thanos Makris, King’s College London

Abstract

This paper aims to demonstrate how a digital-born medium, the video game, can be used as an epistemological tool to study the oral tradition. Video games, in contrast with other media, combine storytelling with play. For Alexander R. Galloway, “Games exist when enacted” (2006), and as a result of player agency, gameplay becomes a non-hierarchical system of outcomes of multiple kinds and qualities. In such an agential medium, storytelling cannot conform to the norms of conventional media. Drawing on Game Studies, Postmodern Philosophy and Homeric Studies, I developed a video game in which the player assumes the role of the Homeric audience. By utilizing the affordances of the medium, I will try to convey the very essence of an orally transmitted story: its mutability. I will also demonstrate how play can be perceived as the performance that is taking place between the Homeric aoidos and the audience, and lastly, discuss how randomized and procedural-generation algorithms allow for a reimagination of the stories in the Epic Cycle, in a non-hierarchical and non-linear fashion.

Introduction

The very first line of Homer’s Odyssey presents an interesting concept that is inherent in epic poetry and which Fitzgerald consciously includes in his translation: “Sing in me” the poet asks the Muse, and “through me tell the story” (1961). It is evident that this line describes a moment of inspiration during which the poet requests to be transformed into the medium the Muse will use in order to transmit her song. However, this sense of transcendence is not implied by other standard English translations of Homer.

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways […]
Lattimore, 1965
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
Fagles, 1996
Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
Wilson, 2018

The difference between these translations and Fitzgerald’s version lies in the way they communicate the role of the Muse. While all others portray her as an external factor that influences poetry, Fitzgerald instead describes a process of incorporation. In a sense, the poet needs to internalize the Muse in order to be able to sing; medium and message become one. “Sing through me” describes a live process—a performance, as the story unfolds through the poet’s song. However, since the development of writing and, subsequently, literature, the “oral” aspect of epic poetry has been hugely disregarded by scholars, and text has been placed at the center of attention. Ong writes:

Texts have clamored for attention so peremptorily that oral creations have tended to be regarded generally as variants of written productions or, if not this, as beneath serious scholarly attention. (2012)

Of course, while orality and textuality are considered two discrete modes of communication, we need to point that the former precedes the latter both from a chronological, as well as from a developmental perspective. Myths were circulating ancient Greece way before the arrival of writing. In addition, Ong (2012) mentions the Greeks’ fascination for the art of rhetoric, “the most comprehensive academic subject in all western culture for two thousand years”, that acted as “the paradigm of all discourse”, but again, in our case, “after the speech was delivered, nothing of it remained to work over.” (ibid). That is to say, there is no way we can study the oral practices of the past without using textual sources. All we are left with is the written record. Now, regardless of the two ends of a communication channel, the conventions of the medium itself can obscure the clarity of the message’s meaning. I clarify: what “mediates” between a sender and a receiver is what eventually affects the type of the message being sent, gives it new characteristics and influences a whole new way of thinking and acting. In McLuhan’s words, “The medium”, as an extension of ourselves, “is the message” (1964), therefore, choosing to examine a cultural activity through the lens of a particular medium over another will definitely bear epistemological consequences that will dictate the nature of our observations. How people receive the stories from the Epic Cycle will depend—among other things—on the medium that is transmitting these stories.

Fast forward to the present day, this era is characterized by an ever-growing, digitally literate culture that is emerging almost inevitably from a proliferation of the New Media, a widespread internet access (more so in the Global North), and effortless, digitally-mediated communications. What is more, ubiquitous computing, wearable devices and the Internet of Things materialize the notion of technological pervasiveness. When Henry Jenkins mentioned the rising phenomenon of participatory culture, he was referring to what he considered a shift from “passive media spectatorship” to active engagement (2006).
On this fertile “digital ground”, I considered the video game as an appropriate medium to communicate the content of an—originally—oral format. Thus, I created my own version of the Odyssey and placed it in the digital world. The next part will explore the reasons why I chose this specific format.

Video Games

The most obvious, as well as the most important affordance of video games would be agency. For Game Studies pioneer Janet Murray, “agency is the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices” (1997). When engaging with a video game, players’ activity ranges from the visual, to the auditory, to the kinaesthetic mode of perception (see also Swink, 2009). After considering their options assessing both diegetic (e.g. story elements) and non-diegetic (e.g. HUD states) conditions, players are required to physically act, and, after doing so, to evaluate their action’s outcomes and begin planning for the next iteration. Roger Travis described games as “occasions of player performance” and views the player as a modern-day aoidos. “The formulas and themes (in the sense of recurrent element) were available to the bard who elaborated them the same way the materials we usually call the “content” of a videogame are available to the player” (Travis, 2011). Both cunning Odysseus and sniper rifles are formulas used to shape a performance, he adds (ibid).
Referring to the dynamics that emerge from player agency, Michael Nitsche writes that: “Ultimately, it is up to the player to drive the exploration of the video game world […] The spacemaker sends players into the game world not to follow a predefined tale delivered through a linear medium but instead stages them in the center of the events that come to life through their participation.” (2008). In a sense, the player is acting as the equivalent of the post-structuralist reader: he/she is co- and re-creating through play the work of the designer. What designers present to players, according to Nitsche, is a “possibility space”. From now on, player’s behavior operates in a chaotic fashion, and, here, we can draw parallels with the postmodern notion of the rhizome (cf the work of Deleuze and Guattari, 1980). As a result of player agency, gameplay becomes a non-hierarchical system of outcomes of multiple kinds and qualities. One action can manifest (and therefore be received) differently when taken one versus multiple times / by the same versus another player / on the same versus a different game session and so forth. Agency, then, results in random and arbitrary gameplay rupture as well as reconnection, while its outcomes obtain the element of the Deleuzean “multiplicity”.
Considering the above, I regard the video game format as the most fitting for my experiment.

Methodology

The game I developed is a first-person exploration game where the player collects fragments of the story of the Odyssey. Upon finding a text, they can click on it to collect it and read the part of the poem. Once all texts are gathered, the level is complete. There is no winning or losing condition.
The game is divided into 4 levels and each of them is referring to one of the Odyssey’s thematic sections, namely:

  • the Telemachy (4 rhapsodies, from α to δ)
  • the Phaeacis (4 rhapsodies, from ε to θ)
  • the Apologoi (4 rhapsodies, from mid ι to μ)
  • the Mnesterophonia (12 rhapsodies, from ν to ω)

As the poem begins in medias res, I needed to consider the distinction between the Formalist fabula and syuzhet.

I wanted to use a first-person perspective as this could act as the player’s “virtual” point of view, reduce additional distractions and hopefully add to the overall immersion. Regarding the design of the levels, I decided each of them to be a small 3D spherical “planet”. The reasons for that are the following:

  • The sphere is the 3D equivalent of the circle, and the latter has connotations of the “cyclic” manifestation of epic poetry (e.g. Epic Cycle, Sagas, etc.).
  • The sphere has no entry points. It does not have a beginning or an end.
  • The sphere promotes non-linearity and a sense of openness. Players are free to choose their own path.

As a result of the above, objects on the level are constantly visible and accessible. Players can get to know the events without reading the story the same way Homeric audiences might know the stories before they would request for a song.

After I had determined the visuals of the game, I moved to the audio. It was my intention not to include ambient, action or music of any other kind, but instead, I decided to add sound effects that trigger every time the player loads a new chapter or finds a piece of text. As a result, sound in an entirely “silent” game acts as an auditory cue that indicates progress. My aim was to disrupt the playing experience every time a meaningful action is taken. I wanted players to get momentarily distracted from playing and to draw attention to the impact of their actions.

Gameplay

In order for the story to unfold, interaction with the text collectibles is required: an interaction that occurs after a fair amount of exploration and observation. In this phase, the gameplay advances like a rhizome. Depending on multiple and contingent factors, e.g. curiosity, emotional state, interest in game design, interest in the actual story etc., the player might prefer to explore one specific area over another, so, every game session would look different. In a sense, the game’s pace and direction is being determined by the player and it is not depended on a top down determinism but rather, on a bottom up, or, more accurately, horizontal rhizomatic behavior. There is arbitrary rupture; then, there is reconnection. As the audience, after they request a song, they might suddenly pause the bard because maybe they have lost interest in it, likewise, the player can go to one place but suddenly decide to explore what is on the other side of the planet.
“The author is dead” we hear Barthes declare; all that remains is the medium that will convey his song. It only needs to be “enacted”.

Observations

While this game mainly highlights the agential power of the medium, there are many more elements video games possess that one can take advantage of in order to offer a reimagination of epic poetry.
Applying randomness algorithms can alter the sequence of events, spawn the player to random locations in each new play session, and even include stories from other epics. 3D animation and motion capture can be used to create believable characters through acting. Sound design can emphasize moments of tension by playing the appropriate sounds. A darker color palette could give off a darker—even unpleasant—vibe, and procedural or even user-generated content could let players add their own stories. Video games allow all of that, because, as Jesper Juul states, games are themeable, meaning that “a set of rules can be assigned a new fictional world without modifying the rules.” and that “a game can be changed from one setting to another” (2005).
This project was an experiment in which one medium was used to simulate the characteristics of another. By utilizing the affordances of the video game, I was able to create a “space for performance” where players can shape their own experiences, and convey a sense of the processes taking place within—and deriving from—an oral tradition.

Bibliography

Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Galloway, A. 2006. Gaming Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minessota Press.
Jenkins, H. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.
Juul, J. 2005. Half-Real: Videogames Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. London: MIT Press.
McLuhan, M. 1967. Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man. London: Sphere.
Murray, J. 1997. Hamlet on the Holodeck: the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Nitsche, M. 2008. Video Game Spaces. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Ong, W. 2012. Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge.
Travis, R. 2011. Formulaic Play. Playthepast, [online]. Available at: https://www.playthepast.org/?p=1291 [Accessed 09 June 2021].



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