From line-end formula to aristeia: how an epic ruleset goes from mechanic to theme
In my last post I discussed the most basic rule of the epic game: kleos. Oral epic developed in such a way as to provide glory to heroes by naming them at the end of the poetic line. Now I’m going to push forward and show how that simple mechanic
When we take a look at a typical section of a battle book of the Iliad, which nearly always revolves around an aristeia of some kind, we can see very easily how the foundational layer of the ruleset of kleos comes into being. An aristeia is simply the story of an individual warrior’s excellence in battle: in it the repetitive killing that characterizes a great deal of the Iliad receives a narrative shape, as the warrior does deeds that invariably culminate in what a gamer will easily recgonize as a boss-fight. The following section comes from Idomeneus’.
Upon this the Danaans drove the Trojans back, and each one of their chieftains killed his man. First King Agamemnon flung mighty Odius, captain of the Halizoni, from his chariot. The spear of Agamemnon caught him on the broad of his back, just as he was turning in flight; it struck him between the shoulders and went right through his chest, and his armour rang rattling round him as he fell heavily to the ground.
Then Idomeneus killed Phaesus, son of Borus the Meonian, who had come from Varne. Mighty Idomeneus speared him on the right shoulder as he was mounting his chariot, and the darkness of death enshrouded him as he fell heavily from the car.
The squires of Idomeneus spoiled him of his armour, while Menelaus, son of Atreus, killed Scamandrius the son of Strophius, a mighty huntsman and keen lover of the chase. Diana herself had taught him how to kill every kind of wild creature that is bred in mountain forests, but neither she nor his famed skill in archery could now save him, for the spear of Menelaus struck him in the back as he was flying; it struck him between the shoulders and went right through his chest, so that he fell headlong and his armour rang rattling round him. (Iliad, bk. 5, tr. Butler)
This kind of scene occupies roughly half the Iliad and even from these few verses the reader can recognize how very formulaic this action is. Of course there is a facile comparison we can make immediately, with the formulaic monotony of long combat sections even of the popular digital games held to be most meaningful—games like BioShock, Fallout and Dragon Age. Just as the bards sang the same pattern of line-end formulas containing the names of heroes along with similarly formulaic phrases depicting their combat and grisly deaths, the player of these games must push the same buttons in the same sequences to make the characters s/he controls win the day.
As often, though, the facile comparison obscures a deeper and more important analogy. The homeric platform, as I will call it to make the comparison as clear as I can make it, is built on the importance of naming the hero and thus giving him glory. This glory-based system of rules for creating interactive narratives leads directly to the higher learning affordances of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, though in fascinatingly different ways. In the Iliad, Achilles withdrawal from battle and subsequent, horrifying return to it, revolve around the aristeia of Patroclus. In the Odyssey, the entire narrative leads to a perverted aristeia in which Odysseus slaughters the suitors. In turn, those interactive-narrative affordances enable the development of the new platforms and rulesets we see in Fifth and Fourth Century Athens, from the tragedians, the historians, and even the philosophers.
The comparison to which we must pay closest attention, then, is between the inherency of the glory-mechanic to the homeric platform on the one hand and the analogous inherencies of foundational mechanics to other platforms for interactive storytelling. Three examples that spring immediately to mind will serve to make the point clear: shooting, for shooters; jumping, for platformers; dialogue choice, for dating sims.
It will be immediately apparent perhaps even to non-gamers reading this post that some of the most highly regarded digital games combine for example shooting and dialogue choice. So too do the Iliad and the Odyssey clearly add to the basic glory-mechanic such hugely important mechanics as sage advice and heroic taunting. To say that the giving of formulaic kleos represents the basic mechanic of homeric epic and dialogue-choice represents the basic mechanic of a certain style of digital role-playing game isn’t to say that countless other mechanics don’t combine with those basic mechanics and with one another to provide the rich set of performance materials that bards and players can use to engage in interactive storytelling.
The aristeia, though, in providing to both the Iliad and the Odyssey the fundamental thematic material that the bards of the two traditions took in strikingly different directions in narratives that nevertheless both treat the frustration of the mechanics of kleos, gives us an invaluable grounding for comparison with later interactive narrative. In the aristeia, the basic kleos unit of the end-line formula finds development into a complex set of mechanics for the performance of heroic narrative, depicting the performance of heroic deeds. Just as a player of a digital RPG avails him or herself of the mechanics of the game to use his or her keyboard in the evocation of the attacks and defenses programmed into the game’s software, performing at the two levels of button-presses and valorous combat, the bard used the mechanics of the aristeia, comprising a range of choices to be made via the dactylic hexameter and the music of his lyre and the Greek language, to bring to life in his and his audience’s imaginations the valorous combat of heroes, performing at the same two levels.
The analogy is fascinating in and of itself, but the true interest in it from the perspective of my argument lies in the way these fundamental heroic mechanics, which provide only a very jejune sort of interactive narrative, of which an audience may become quickly weary—there’s only so much repetitive slaying one can enjoy, though today’s marathon-gaming sessions show that for certain demographics the satiation-level can be quite high—, serve as the foundation of something larger and more productive, in the literal sense of producing more interactive-storytelling. The aristeia, as the foundation of heroes’ claim to honor both in the compositional system of homeric epic and in the cults that notionally preserved their importance and memory into the days of the bards’ audiences, gave the bards the opportunity to do much more than that. Then it gave the bards’ literate successors a similar, though even greater, opportunity: to create Western culture.