Formulaic play

This post is about the the way the essential mechanical aspect of the ludic system called homeric epic–the re-composition of heroic tales by the elaboration of formulas and themes, recurrent elements that could be combined in infinite variety by the virtuosic performers who were perhaps called homerids–gives us a compelling mode of description for videogames as occasions of player performance.

Imagine you’re playing Halo (the game about the space marines fighting the religious fanatic aliens–or at least the one I’m usually on about). Another of those cutscenes (little movies) has just ended, and the Captain has given you his pistol and told you to find your way to an escape pod and get off the ship. As the movie-type stuff ends, you head out the door, and immediately face a group of aliens who want to kill you. It would be fair to say that the game really begins here, for several reasons, the most important perhaps being that this game is a “shooter,” and this is the first time you actually get to fire a weapon.

You’re beginning an improvisatory part of your performance, the way a bard might begin, after a highly formulaic invocation to a muse, to sing his own, always new version of the story of the embassy to Achilles.

Now from the very first moment of this sequence, you have a great degree of control over what you do (that is, what your character does) in the game. You can choose whether to shoot, and which enemies to shoot. You could play the next minute of the game over an infinite number of times, and no two of your performances would be exactly the same.

This facet of adventure videogames, the decisive role of player improvisation, arises in their famous, sometimes hard-to-nail-down, “interactivity.” I want to demonstrate that we can see also that interactivity as formulaic, and that by describing it that way we gain resources in our efforts to analyze videogames effectively.

My own definition of “interactivity” is “permitting a person to participate in, through a measure of control over, the relevant experience.” (A more basic definition is “accepting user input”; that basic one is completely compatible with mine, I think, but not robust enough for the purposes of the kind of analysis I want to do here.) What I’m suggesting in this post is that the interactivity of both homeric epic and narrative videogames stems from the way performances in both systems take shape through re-composition of formulas: units like “swift-footed Achilles,” “cunning Odysseus,” and sniper rifles.

The bards of the Iliad, that is, were exercising the same control over their mythic material when they came up with the remarkable statement of self-sufficiency that Achilles makes in Book 9 of the Iliad, as you exercise when you decide for example on a gun you want to take through a level of a shooter or on a dialogue choice in a dialogue-heavy RPG, or on a path to take through a dungeon in an MMORPG. Ian Bogost has described this kind of procedurally-determined performance as “unit operations”; by bringing that description back 2500 years or so I’m proposing another layer for it–a layer full of fascinating things to be compared, like the amazing ninth book of the Iliad.

The story of the “Embassy to Achilles” was itself an interactive improvisation and an interactive re-composition upon the existing theme of the “Wrath of Achilles.” 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; the system itself–the rules (called poetics) of formulaic re-composition–figured the bard’s performance the same way the rules (called mechanics) of Halo figure a player’s performance of that game.

Indeed, the story of the “Wrath of Achilles” must have been a formulaic re-composition of the story of “The War at Troy.” In the other direction, the moving words of Achilles in Iliad 9 must have been a formulaic improvisation upon the existing theme of “The Embassy to Achilles.”

It’s probably worth noting that I don’t think it makes sense even to say that traditional books and films aren’t interactive, or even that they’re not ludic (that’s why I came up with the term “practomime,” actually). The decisive effect brought about by the audience of any work upon that work’s ultimate meaning should make us speak rather of different kinds and degrees of interaction than of interactive and non-interactive media.

But videogames, especially narrative videogames, and homeric epics share a special relationship to their interactivities: they both bring them forward for the performer to make use of in such a way that they challenge that performer to make something new from what he or she has been given, something virtuosic even in its reliance on the old formulas. In turn, I’m hoping to go on to suggest, the designers of videogames get to lay claim to the really amazing part of the ancient bard’s job: making up new formulas.


  1. I think I get it. The choices that a bard makes when telling stories mirrors the choices is a gamer makes when playing through a linear storyline?

  2. Author

    Yeah, with the really interesting corollary that it works wherever the game falls on the sandbox-to-rails spectrum–it’s just a question of how varied the available formulas are. And even in a game most people think of as a sandbox like a GTA or Fallout game, many of the traditional formulas (like sniper rifles and pistols) are there; it’s just that there are multiple other formulas available, which in turn become stereotyped and need renewal.

  3. Ok, so here’s a question: The Embassy… there is improv in assembling the ‘parts’ to that, on many levels of magnification. The bard tells that narrative in the way the Muse inspires them to do on the day. Different pieces and parts get emphasized in different ways and different tonalities depending on many factors. But, in terms of objective plot, the sequence of events, does the outcome of the Embassy ever change?

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