Epic immersion, part 1: in medias res, not in mediis rebus
The beginnings of practomimes, whether oral traditional epics or narrative video games, can, I think, tell us a great deal about some fascinating similarities and differences among how performers through the ages–bards, storytellers of all kinds, video gamers–expressed themselves artistically. Such comparisons seem to me to pay huge dividends not only in insights about how culture in general, and our own culture in particular, works, but also in expansion of the range of performances in which we know how to engage in the games we love so much.
The narrative-content-based similarities I’ve noted elsewhere between HALO and some of the most typical works of the epic tradition make that game a very good place to start, as it were. I’m going to try to persuade you that when we consider the true meaning of the famous description of epics as beginning in medias res, in relation both to ancient epic and to video games like HALO, we can learn something very important about where what we might call a cultural signature of these games, immersion, really comes from. In fact, we’ll see that the ancient evidence entirely backs up Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman when in Rules of Play they make their counterintuitive argument that immersion comes not from metaphors of space but from the dynamic operation of rulesets.
In this summary of the opening of HALO, I’m going to describe the game as if to someone who has never played such a game, partly to make this post more accessible and partly to frame the game as a practice–that is, as the sort of cultural activity of which we can make an interesting description. HALO begins with some movie-style atmospheric music, and a very, very long shot of a spaceship, next to a mysterious, enormous ring-in-space (the Halo, obviously). We see a series of animated shots, featuring a spaceship captain and an aritificial intelligence that controls the ship, which look like a badly-made computer cartoon (because they’re created using the game’s engine, the program used to put all the action in the game on your screen); in the story told in these shots, we get a bit of exposition about what’s going on.
This kind of animation sequence is called a cutscene, a part of videogame storytelling that’s of the utmost importance to understanding how videogames relate to other kinds of narrative art. Cutscenes are such an important part of video game narratives, in fact, that they tend to be overlooked as meaning-bearing elements, above all because they seem to betray the unique interactivity of player-control of a player-character in narrative games. I need to call attention, though, to the transition that’s going to be made at the end of this one—from the player not having control of a character to the player performing through his or her character.
At any rate, in the cutscene with which HALO begins, we learn that the ship, the Pillar of Autumn, has been attempting to escape from an alien battlefleet, and has by chance ended up near the Halo. But the aliens, called the “Covenant,” are already there, waiting for them.
Captain Keyes orders the ship to prepare for battle once again, and we see the marines, led by battle-hardened Sergeant Johnson, getting ready “to see Covenant up close.”
We see some technicians receive an order to “unseal the hushed casket.”
Then, suddenly, we are inside what must be the hushed casket, looking out through a window. The cover opens, and we see one of the technicians standing there. He greets us as the Master Chief, and the game tells us, via the HUD (heads-up display, which simulates the inside of the Master Chief’s helmet), to press X to exit the casket.
When we do, we return for a moment to third-person view, and watch ourselves, a magnificent, armored warrior, whose face is obscured entirely by a shining visor, step out of the cryogenic chamber.
Quickly, we return to the action, and, if this is the first time we have played, are instructed in a series of “diagnostics” that acquaint us with the controls—the game’s tutorial. At the end of the tutorial, aliens suddenly blow the door open, and we are told to get to the bridge to see Captain Keyes, as we watch our first friends, the techs, slaughtered by the aliens.
We are weaponless, as yet, so we must dart through hordes of aliens who are trying to kill us, learning a few things, like how to crouch and how to use our flashlight, on the way. It is easy to get lost in the maze-like corridors of the Pillar of Autumn, and so the arrows on the floor pointing to the bridge come in handy. Even so, we need the help that comes to us in the form of a marine who tells us to follow him to the bridge, and finally leaves us at the entrance.
When at last we stand before Captain Keyes, the view changes back to third person for another cutscene, and we receive an update on the situation. Then, having received as a companion the famous Cortana, an Artificial Intelligence who also serves as a a guide and a narrator, the Captain hands us his revolver and instructs us to find our way to the lifeboats. The game now begins in earnest, and as we exit the bridge we must start shooting the aliens who are trying to shoot us, or to blow us up with their glowing plasma grenades.
Let me note that this game is violent, but let me also re-state the comparison that constitutes the main theme of my work on Play the Past and elsewhere by noting that HALO is nowhere near as violent as the Iliad or the Odyssey.
In considering my description of the action at the start of HALO, you’ll notice first of all that we are put smack into the middle of a story. The poet Horace had a name for that storytelling technique in the ancient world, and that name captured the rules of epic so well that it caught on with a vengeance: he called it a beginning in medias res: “into the middle of matters.” Horace, in his Ars Poetica, was describing how beginning in medias res had already been one of the hallmarks of epic, at least since Chryses walked into the camp of the Achaeans at the start of the Iliad.
In medias res means “into the middle of things” not “in the middle of things” (that would be in mediis rebus). What’s the difference? “Into the middle of things” means that the audience and the bard throw themselves from where they are right into the story, and that’s important, because it’s very different from just quietly (or loudly) popping up at the beginning, with something like “once upon a time,” or as Horace puts it in the example of what a bard doesn’t do, “I will sing the famous family of Priam.”
This is how the Iliad kicks off:
Sing, goddess, the accursed wrath of Peleus’s son Achilles,
that hurled many strong souls of heroes down to Hades’,
and made them food for dogs and all the birds,
and the will of Zeus was accomplished:
from the time when first stood quarrelling
the son of Atreus lord of men and godlike Achilles.
Which of the gods set them to battle?
The son of Zeus and Leto, for angered at the king
he sent an evil sickness on the army, and the people were dying,
because the son of Atreus dishonored the prayer-man Chryses.
For that man came to the swift ships of the Achaians
to ransom his daughter and to bring countless payment. . .
You’ll notice that this epic beginning has two separate parts—first, what’s usually called the “proem” (“proem” is just a fancy word for an introduction in a poem) in which the singer of the epic talks a bit about what he’s doing (specifically in relation to his imagined function as a sort of mouthpiece for the muses—that’s the “Sing, goddess” part), and then, second, the real beginning of the story, when Chryses, the priest of Apollo, walks into the Achaean camp. It’s that second part that’s called the beginning in medias res: instead of telling us the whole story of the Trojan War from the very beginning, the bard (he’s the guy singing the epic when it was in its original form some time between 1200 BCE and 800 BCE; remember that a very nice definition for “bard” is “singer of tales”) starts the story with a minor incident, though that minor incident will soon become a major problem for the Achaean army that’s trying to capture Troy and get Menelaus’ wife Helen back.
I’ve got a bit more to say about what’s going on in the beginnings of the ancient epics, but I want to clarify the kind of comparison I’m making with the beginning of HALO (and also with the beginnings of just about any other adventure video-game you can think of, whether it’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or Grand Theft Auto IV): just like ancient epics, adventure video games start in the middle of the story. HALO starts when the Pillar of Autumn has just made a desperate hyperspace jump to elude pursuit; Prince of Persia starts in the middle of a desperate battle.
The reason we even have that phrase, in medias res, is that ancient literary critics like Horace noticed that the homeric Odyssey and Iliad didn’t start at the very beginning of a story, the way your typical folktale, and, really, most novels do, with “Once upon a time” or its equivalent—something like “It is a truth universally acknowledged” or “All happy families are the same,” or even, “Call me Ishmael.” No, epics begin (after that front-matter called the proem that features an invocation of a Muse or something like a Muse, where the epic singer asks the divine spirit of poetry to tell the story for him, which is a bit like the moment when you see the big “Bungie” logo on your TV screen, and then the game menu, which says, in effect, “Yes, you’re playing a video game—that video game was made by our cool studio—now it’s time to press a button to get it started”) in the middle of the story. The Iliad starts when the Trojan war is already ten years old. The Odyssey starts when Odysseus has been gone for twenty years, and is finally on the verge of coming home. The Aeneid starts when Aeneas has been journeying for two years already, and thinks he has almost made it to Italy, his final destination.
HALO starts when the forces on board the Pillar of Autumn have already been fighting a war with the Covenant for quite some time. The action of HALO: Combat Evolved, and of its successors HALO 2, HALO 3, HALO 3 ODST, HALO Wars, and HALO: Reach, all takes place within a story that the audience is made to feel happens in the middle. By contrast, the HALO novel HALO: The Fall of Reach begins at the beginning, with the recruitment of the boy who will become the Master Chief.
In the middle of what? What’s the point of an in medias res beginning? More importantly, what effect does it have on the audience, and can it tell us anything about a possible similarity between video games and ancient epic? Beginning in medias res doesn’t mean that the epic will fail to tell a complete, discrete story. It means, though, that the epic’s individual, particular story taps into a much larger story, of which it constitutes only a small part. An in medias res beginning makes the audience feel that the story they are to hear, or rather, as I’d much rather put it, to participate in telling, whether we’re talking about ancient epic or about HALO, is part of something bigger—indeed, a story that started at the beginning of the world, and will continue unto world’s end.
Why do the in medias res thing—besides that it’s a fun way to tell a story, and perhaps even that it “grabs” you? There’s actually a much more important reason for the beginning in medias res, and there’s a word for it that’s become so important in gaming culture that it’s now more or less a buzzword, and even a bit of a cliché: the word is immersion, and it’s probably fair to say that many critics think that immersion is the phenomenon of gaming culture that holds the key to understanding what games do, and what they can do.
Let’s approach it first from the broadest perspective. As in the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, so also in HALO: the audience is thrown into the narrative, and left to follow the story’s clues about what part of the story they have come into, and what’s going on. The effect is to make the participant more truly part of the story, whether the participant is holding a controller or a lyre, or just listening to a bard sing a story they feel like they already know, or watching a friend play HALO, because they’ve been put into the midst of it.
That was the way with ancient epic, and indeed I would suggest that HALO accomplishes this insertion of its audience even more effectively than ancient epic could, by waking you from sleep.
In HALO, too, what we might call the “moment of immersion,” when the story sucks the audience into itself, stands out very clearly, because at that moment, suddenly, the player’s controller actually controls the protagonist. When we observe that the story-telling isn’t entirely in the first-person—that the cutscenes have an essential role in telling the player what’s happening, and in giving meaning to the player’s actions as the character—it seems at first that the moment of immersion moves the player from what we might call “regular old storytelling” into the completely new, completely immersive form of storytelling of the adventure video-game.
But the point of my work on ancient epic and video games is to say that that moment of immersion is actually entirely analogous to the moment when the bard of the Iliad says “From the time when the two stood quarrelling, the son of Atreus, lord of men, and godlike Achilles.” At both moments, the one in the Iliad and the one in HALO, the participants in the occasion, whether of gaming or of epic, take part, through the rules of the occasion, in the creation of their own version of a story that for that very reason comes to be about them. In the conclusion of this essay, I’ll explain how the rules of the occasion–whether the ludics of HALO or the formulas of oral epic–accomplish that wonderful feat.