Path of Honors — Thoughts behind the design of an interactive history
Path of Honors (here at my Twine site on philome.la) is an experimental interactive history that I am designing in bits and pieces. The plan is to model an aristocratic Roman as he played the game of politics and sought to win election to offices and gain prestige and dignity for himself and his family. PoH is skeletal right now and will likely take years to finish. In the meantime I hope it will provoke conversation and suggest what historians could do with the interactive medium of choice-based texts.
Lucas Coyne, a doctoral student in U.S. History at Loyola University in Chicago, sent me a list of terrific questions tabout Path of Honors (play here). Their depth and breadth encouraged me to write and post the answers as pieces on PlaythePast. These are the first three: I’ll answer more in upcoming weeks.
1. Ideally, what is the audience for this project, particularly in its completed state?
Path of Honors is an attempt to do several things in the realm of developing an interactive historical text using Twine. The first was simply to get myself more acquainted with the specifics of the tool so that I could better teach it to my students and gain more insight into the challenges they might face as they design. Beyond that were two hoped-for audiences. The first, students in my senior (12th grade) elective on the Roman Republic, who could potentially use the text as an interpretation about the Roman political ladder in the Republic. Equally as important, I hope, are those who are interested in seeing an interactive historical text designed by a historian. A number of historians interested in historical games have batted around the idea of a historian as a game designer, using game design as a way to advance interpretations about the past. To my knowledge this has not actually happened that often. There are excellent practical reasons for this. Game design is challenging and it is difficult without significant computer programming and art skills to develop a historical game that could really authentically present some aspect of the past. Twine, with its text format, offers an opportunity I wanted to explore.
2. How did you research the history necessary to put this together? Do you think it’s fully historically accurate, or are there tradeoffs in order to have the game work better?
By training I am a Greco-Roman historian with a specialty in Roman military history and the political culture of the Roman Republic. So for much of what I have drafted, I have relied on what I have learned from my own study. I have in a number of places, cited ancient sources that support the details in the text. I have also researched certain aspects of political culture such as the Roman legal system and the practice of law at Rome. I plan to continue to develop and use a, hopefully inconspicuous, notation system that will enable me to support features in-game with historical evidence.
3. The player takes on the role of a generic Roman, rather than a pre-existing historical figure. Is that a deliberate choice to enhance identification with the character, or due to the particular nature of the history you’re working with, or something else entirely?
A great question, as the approach has led me to all sorts of interesting philosophical puzzles about history systems, contingency, and counter factual history. As a historian, I am most fascinated by the competitive system of politics in the Republic for aristocrats, something I sometimes call the game of aristocratic competition. Not “game” as in played for fun or insignificant, but “game” in terms of having competition, rules, and victory conditions. The members of the senatorial elite in the Republic competed intensely for offices and honors and often seem to behave as if such offices and honors were part of a zero-sum game and all the more intense for that. A distinction for martial courage, virtus, an ancestral dignity, and skill at oratory were all components of what made some aristocrats more successful than others. From the admittedly poor and fragmentary evidence that we have, Roman senators and office holders competed very intensely every step of the way as the politicked, challenging each other’s character, authority, understanding of Roman law and custom, and dedication to the Republic. A few Roman aristocrats, two every year, were successful enough at the competition to climb the ladder of offices, (the cursus honorum that can be translated into “Path of Honors”) and win election to the consulship, for practical purposes the pinnacle of the path. Those few that did had a number of systemic pressures to perform that often drove them into quite militaristic behavior.
I wanted to capture that system of competition and politics. And if it functioned somewhat like a game, perhaps it could make an excellent game, an interactive history around the quest of a young hopeful senator-to-be where the systems encourage one to balance risk and reward and to compete.
So, one reason I picked a player character that was not a precise historical figure was to enhance player identification. But a greater consideration for me was that in order to have a player really experience the climb and struggle for offices and honors and really feel that their choices affect the outcome, it made the most sense to keep the path for any particular play through be wide open. Someday—this will assuredly have to be a long term project—the IH game will, I hope, allow for multiple playthroughs that result in a number of different career arcs.
This has raised all sorts of interesting questions about systems vs. contingency. To give one example, the IH is organized into years, and each year is identified by the names of pair of consuls, just as the Romans did. The pairs in the game are the actual historical pairs and the game begins with the consular pair for 300 BC, M. Valerius COrvus and Q. Appuleius Pansa. So what happens if the player wins the consulship at some point? Should the consular pair change to include the player character? And if so, should the player character automatically be involved in whatever historical wars actually took place that year? Or does the entire phenomenon of a different consul pose a contingency that disrupts everything? And, if that’s the case, does the fact that the player holds lower offices also disrupt the main political and military narrative of the Republic?
I have not really begun to disentangle any of these questions, but this is my approach for now. What I’m trying to say with Path of Honors that, regardless of the particulars of any political or military situation in the republic, there was a system of political competition and office holding at work that persisted.