Emergent gameplay, bardic style

There’s a wonderful moment in Book 8 of the homeric Odyssey when Odysseus treats Demodocus, one of the two bards in the Odyssey (we’ll meet poor Phemius, the other one, very briefly later in this post) pretty much the way a gamer treats his or her controller, fulfilling the fantasy that herdsman from my last post has of being a celebrated bard without the long apprenticeship and the bad wages.
Demodocus, I praise you above all mortals.
Either the Muse, daughter of Zeus taught you, or Apollo.
For all too well, in order, you sing the trouble of the Achaeans,
All the things they did and sufered and all the things the Achaeans toiled at,
as if you yourself were there, or heard from another.
But come, change it up, and sing the making of the horse—
the wooden one—the one Epeius made with Athena,
which once heroic Odysseus brought as a trick to the city-center,
having filled it with the men who sacked Troy.
If you tell me this, giving due attention,
immediately I’ll proclaim to all people
that the god willingly awarded you a divine song (tr. Travis).
I want to suggest that what we see in this passage, across the distance of 2800 years, give or take a few, is emergent gameplay, that cynosure of cutting-edge game designers and game critics, of which Trevor gave Play the Past’s readers a wonderful example not so long ago in the context of Bethesda’s Fallout 3. For purposes of this post, I’ll define emergent gameplay as the interaction of ludic mechanics resulting in complex creative affordances for the player, and I also want to suggest that if we can agree to describe the practomimetic system of homeric epic in those terms, we’ll have acquired a new methodological framework to help us understand what gameplay, both emergent and more or less scripted, can do for us in our various communities and institutions (think families, schools, Congress).

In this post I’m going to try to use our knowledge of homeric epic to analyze some aspects of emergent gameplay like the Fallout 3 performance Trevor described. I’m going to suggest that when we consider a performance like Trevor’s in a game like Fallout 3 as a practomime in the same tradition as the Odyssey, we realize that the distinction between scripted and emergent gameplay is not as obvious as we thought it was, and that seeing and describing the fundamental continuity of the two may help us play better, design better, and learn better. All practomime–all gameplay–lies on a spectrum between sandbox and rails, and finding the rails that apply to archeology in Fallout 3 is equally as important as finding the sandbox elements of the Odyssey and of, say, Mass Effect.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility, though it’s absolutely impossible to prove, that the passage above is the origin of the story of the Trojan Horse. If you know the Odyssey, you may instantly be objecting, “But what about Menelaus’ story in Book 4, when he tells of what happened when the horse was inside the gates of Troy, and Helen came down to see it?” The answer to that objection is very revealing: within the framework of oral re-composition of ancient epic, there’s no reason to think that an “earlier” moment of an epic must have existed when a “later” moment was composed. To put it another way and to bring it back to the topic of the post, the living homeric tradition was much more emergent than we, with our notions of authorship and narrative chronology, are used to considering when we read its fossils. A bard could elaborate a theme (“theme” in this context means “recurrent element”) very much as he wished, within the same kind of constraints we find in a game like Fallout 3–for example that certain characters cannot be killed and certain buildings cannot be entered at a given time, or at all.

So if the hypothesis that this passage in Book 8 represents the debut of the story of the Trojan Horse is correct, the bard of Book 4 (who was perhaps that same bard as the one singing the Trojan Horse story) elaborated the banquet of Menelaus with the story about the horse to complement what he or another bard had recently elaborated into the banquet of Alcinous in the land of the Phaeacians. By exactly the same token a player of Fallout 3 or Grand Theft Auto 4 or any other open world RPG or adventure video game can–and almost always does–use information gained about a later part of the game to change his or her play in an earlier part of the game the next time he or she plays. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to help it: if you know that a mutant with a rocket-launcher is waiting around the next corner, you aren’t going to charge in there next time, the way you did this time. Your next time through that level will be much more satisfying—much more artistic, even—then it was when you died, or only barely escaped. This aspect of games, too, is part of the problem of emergent gameplay: how emergent can a game ever be when learning its performance materials–even when those performance materials are entirely procedural, like randomly spawning mutants whose randomness must in the end be predictably procedural–is the essential activity of performing as a player of the game?

Such procedurally-generated, emergent practomime is in fact at the heart of Odysseus’ request to Demodocus. The reason to wonder whether this passage is the origin of the Trojan Horse is that it’s clear that Odysseus is asking Demodocus to improvise a brand new song to celebrate Odysseus’ glory–whether or not the theme of the horse was entirely new at the moment when the first bard elaborated it into the theme of Odysseus at the banquet of the Phaeacians. In Book 1 of the Odyssey, Telemachus, talking to his Mom about Phemius, that other bard, tells us that the newest song is always most popular. Odysseus would certainly want, just on the face of it, to have a popular song sung about him. Emergent gameplay–in the form of emergent epic–is, forgive me, the name of this bardic game.

If emergent gameplay is, as seems to be the current working definition among designers and critics, the interaction of ludic mechanics resulting in complex creative affordances for the player, an emergent re-composition, one that uses the mechanics of the bardic tradition to produce a new and interesting song, is what Odysseus is after from Demodocus. In fact, the kind of emergent practomime Odysseus is asking of  Demodocus is precisely what Trevor is doing when he does archeology in Fallout 3: a new kind of performance, afforded by the ludic mechanics of the practomimetic system.

Odysseus’ request doesn’t come out of the blue. Strangely enough, earlier that day Demodocus has already sung a song that involves Odysseus. That one wasn’t about Odysseus alone, though—it was about how Odysseus and Achilles had a quarrel, and showed the two of them (Achilles is the great warrior-hero of the Iliad, you’ll remember) on a more-or-less equal footing. In case you’re interested in this kind of detail, we don’t have the slightest bit of evidence that anyone other than the fictional Demodocus actually sang such a song, and classicists remain a bit mystified about why the real singer of the Odyssey would have his idealized self-portrait, Demodocus, sing such a song.

Here’s my own explanation: the singer of the Odyssey wants to show that Odysseus himself is smart enough to know he can use a bard like a game-controller, for his own emergent purposes. Those purposes involve getting his hosts, the Phaeacians, to recognize what an amazingly cool guest they have, and redound into the cultural discourse of the Odyssey in the realms of guest-friendship and Greek-Dark-Age economics, but all we have to see here is that Odysseus is using a singer to participate in the making of his own story, through emergent practomime. The earlier story, the one about Achilles and Odysseus, lets Odysseus in on the fact that Demodocus can sing Troy stuff. To make the gaming analogy, he’s got the game Iliad in his disc-tray, and now Odysseus wants to get emergent with it.

So here at the banquet Odysseus is trying to get Demodocus to take the performance materials of that practomime and to engage them in a new way. Demodocus does, and Odysseus weeps, and Aclinous demands that Odysseus tell his own story, and Odysseus begins it by praising Demodocus just as he said he would. Odysseus’ tale is the part of the Odyssey that everyone remembers–the adventures, with the Cyclopes and the Lotus-Eaters and the underworld, itself a new kind of epic, perfectly suited to an audience who live on the border of the real world and the fictional one. Odysseus’ tale, too, is emergent practomime.

But there’s a problem. Just how emergent is this emergent practomime? Like a gamer deciding where to go and what to look at in Fallout 3, Odysseus gets to decide where in the the narrative geography of the story of the fall of Troy he wants to place the character named “Odysseus,” and how he wants to make his player-character approach the ancient equivalent of a boss-fight, or even not to approach it at all and to go off and do some archeology. But if he has “Odysseus” go and look at the drinking-cups out of which the Achaean chieftains are pouring their libations, what will the Phaeacians think of “Odysseus,” or of Odysseus? Will he weep? Will Alcinous stop the bard and demand that Odysseus tell his story?

Imagine that gamer from my last post playing the game “Iliad”–the one Demodocus has in his disc-tray. He’s controlling a character whose name is Odysseus. He’s in the game’s rendering of the Greek camp, with the ships and the tents and the strange wall they build in Iliad 12. From a scripted gameplay point of view, nothing is happening, because it’s time for the Greek forces to get inside. He can wander around doing the wonderful kind of emergent stuff Trevor’s talking about in the case of Fallout 3, or he can try to sack Troy.

There’s some wood, lying off to the side of the scene, and there are some Greek warriors sitting around, drinking. If the gamer knows his Greek epics, of course, he’s going to know what he’s supposed to do, the same way the bard’s hearers know that Troy has to fall—somehow he’s got to get the warriors to build the Trojan Horse for him. What does it mean in that context to wander around examining stuff? What does it mean in Fallout 3 to wander around examining stuff?

The gamer in this game Iliad is in one sense absolutely free to tell his own version of the story, but in another sense, because the game he’s playing is Iliad, any performance he makes is a performance of Iliad. If he fails to sack Troy, and instead wanders around doing archeology, the performance is about how “Odysseus” had better things to do than go home to Ithaca. That emergent performance has a cultural significance that derives from the scripted constraints of the game, just as Demodocus’ emergent performance gains its cultural significance from the existing “script” of the story of the fall of Troy.

By the same token, Trevor’s archeology in Fallout 3 derives from what the creators of the game scripted into the game in the game’s code. Emergent practomime is what gives homeric epic and digital games (not to mention tabletop games of many different kinds) their distinctive power to immerse and even to transform us, as Demodocus transforms Odysseus, as Odysseus transforms himself and the Phaeacians, but I think we oversimplify to our possible detriment if we describe it as wholly separate from scripted practomime–or, if you prefer, from narrative gaming or games that are “on rails.”

Once we see emergent and scripted on that sort of continuum, the homeric comparison can take us even further, because our description of emergent practomime, bardic style, has traction not only over the mechanics that lead to emergence, but also over the factors that determine how a performer (bard, player) elaborates the available themes, and what the emergent performance means in the context of the performance occasion.

If Demodocus, bard of the Phaeacians, has received such a specific request from Odysseus to hear a particular story about a wooden horse, what does it tell us that he is ready to grant Odysseus’ request for this new, emergent song? If Odysseus wants to make himself famous enough for the Phaeacians, what does it tel us that he requests a new, emergent song? If the singer singing this part of the Odyssey to some real audience in ancient Greece wants to eat tonight, what does it tell use that he sings this new, emergent song? If the lord of the house where the singer is singing wants his herdsmen to herd his goats carefully, what does it tell us that he feeds the bard who sings this new, emergent song?

Coming back to the gamer, if a historian is playing Iliad, or Fallout 3, what does it tell us that the performance in which he engages is emergent archeology? As the performances of Demodocus and Odysseus in the house of Alcinous are involved with the culture of bardic performance–indeed with cultural transmission itself–the performance of the historian in Fallout 3 is similarly involved with the cultural transmission to be found in the way players create emergent performances out of the materials (often called the “content”) of that game. When we look at Demodocus’ song, and Odysseus’ story, as emergent practomime, beyond the notion that emergent practomime is really as old as homeric epic we gain a rather interesting set of questions that may help us understand games like Fallout 3, and players like Trevor (and ourselves, whether we hang out at Play the Past or hang out elsewhere), better.

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