Gaming with the Victorians: 2016 Course

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate's Jacob Frye

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’s Jacob Frye

UPDATE: The completed course website for Gaming with the Victorians is now available here.

This is the preliminary course description for my Spring 2016 ENGL 1102 course at Georgia Tech. I’m still trying to figure out how to insinuate Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, which releases later this month, into the syllabus.

Gaming with the Victorians: Narrative and Play

This course will facilitate the continued development of multimodal communication strategies by engaging with both nineteenth-century literature and video games that adopt nineteenth-century and/or Victorian settings to tell their stories. In order for students to hone their WOVEN (written, oral, visual, electronic, and non-verbal) communication, the projects throughout this course will allow participants to design and create artifacts that examine manifestations of nineteenth-century literature and culture in video games.

Espen Aarseth has described video games as “integrated crossmedia packages” that combine a variety of narrative forms into a whole that gets metonymically flattened by the term “games.” Drawing on this understanding of video games, this class will explore how the literary and historical heritage of the nineteenth-century in general, and the Victorian period in particular, have informed a number of contemporary games. Andrew Stauffer argues that “time and technology make plain that our Victorian period will […] always be a simulation,” and video games offer some of the more compelling simulations of the nineteenth century. By highlighting the immense cultural, economic, and technological changes that occurred during this century, such video games encourage us to trace the nineteenth-century’s lasting influence on the present.

Games will include Sunless Sea, Amnesia, and 80 Days, among others. Readings will include nineteenth-century short fiction and poetry; expect to read from authors such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Elizabeth Gaskell. In addition to a semester-long blog project, students will write a multimodal essay, develop a branching video game narrative, and code a text-based adventure game as a collaborative project.

The Literary Heritage of Sunless Sea at Kill Screen

sunless sea
My summer composition course focused on nautical narratives and nostalgia. As part of the final unit, my students encountered a variety of narratives from non-textual media, and the videogame Sunless Sea really seemed to capture their imaginations. Many of them chose to focus on the game for their final projects. Here’s an article that I wrote for Kill Screen on how Sunless Sea draws on its literary heritage to offer a compelling vision of sea narratives.

Read the article at Kill Screen.

Coding Interactive Fiction for Students

Zork Opening LineThis semester, I’ve been team teaching a composition class themed around narrative and video games. My co-teacher, Joshua Hussey, and I decided to have our students create an interactive fiction game for their final project. We considered both Twine and Inform 7 for the assignment; Twine has a low barrier to entry, as it is user friendly and allows content creators to almost immediately begin building their projects. But Twine’s level of interactivity is somewhat more limited as it is mostly built on a multiple-choice style of interaction, in which reader/players are given a list of options from which they select the next path in the story. Zoe Quinn’s well-known game Depression Quest was developed with Twine. Inform 7, on the other hand, has a much steeper learning curve. As a naturalistic code language, the code that it produces is very readable; even someone with little to no coding experience could probably make some sense out of a simple Inform 7 project without too much assistance. However, this naturalistic language can be somewhat deceptive to an unsuspecting novice, as it can make it seem as if Inform 7 can understand whatever English you throw at it. Nothing could be further from the truth; while Inform 7 eschews the brackets and braces that adorn other coding languages, it is still very much a language with clear and specific rules that users must learn and follow. However, Inform 7 allows users to create interactive fiction games in which reader/players have a far greater degree of control over how they interact with the story space. These games are the progeny of Zork and the genre it created.

The basic Inform 7 dual-paned screen, with code on the left and the "skein" on the right.

The basic Inform 7 dual-paned screen, with code on the left and the “skein” on the right.

Considering these two options, we settled on Inform 7 as we felt that the challenge it offered and the creative opportunities it provided would be best for our students. But I had not done any significant coding since high school, and so in the weeks leading up to the beginning of the unit, I created a small game for our students to play. The experience was a chance for me to learn some of the basics of Inform 7, but also to think about puzzle design and spatial dynamics in a textual form. In this case, I thought it would be fun to make the assignment sheet for our students’ Inform 7 Project the “prize” for completing the game. Drawing from our class discussions of textual space and branching narratives (one of the puzzles requires the player to consult Borges’s story “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” which we read early in the semester), I wanted the game to allow students to explore a small text environment while also providing them with an example of what they could accomplish using Inform 7. In all fairness the game is pretty haphazard, but I wanted to share it nevertheless.

In the end, the game may have been too difficult, not because the puzzles themselves are impossible, but because building great puzzles is also about providing the right kind of clues and directions to players. Judging from my website’s metrics, most of the students at least attempted the game, but only a fraction made it all the way to the assignment sheet at the end. Furthermore, the puzzles in my game were really a hodgepodge because I was trying different kinds of functions in Inform 7. Still, when a student says that playing an interactive fiction game was the most interesting way they had ever been asked to find an assignment sheet, I count that a moderate success.

Play my Inform 7 game, “Meaningful Instructions and Where to Find Them”

For more information on playing interactive fiction games, consult Emily Short’s Introduction to Interactive Fiction

Teaching Beowulf and Returning to Skyrim 4

The hall in Whiterun, one of the main cities of Skyrim.

The hall in Whiterun, one of the main cities of Skyrim.

Last year, I wrote an article on why my wife and I had stopped playing Bethesda’s 2012 hit, Skyrim. Part of our difficulty then was related to our decision to create a female character, and after my earlier article came out, my wife admitted that it was a little unsettling when male NPCs leered at or expressed interest in our character. So we completed the Winterhold quests for the mage’s college, but not much else, and then other games supplanted Skyrim in our routine.

Recently I’ve returned to Skyrim, and my decision was largely due to a conversation I had in the British literature survey course that I’m teaching this semester. After we had finished our discussion for the day, a student approached me and asked if I had heard of this game called Skyrim. Always excited to talk video games with students, I gabbed for a few minutes about not finishing it and why. He nodded and then reminded me that the mountain retreat for a group of monk-like sages in the game is called “High Hrothgar,” an obvious reference to the king who is saved by Beowulf in the first two parts of the poem. That single observation, presented in the context of teaching Beowulf helped me to reconsider how I approached playing Skyrim, and it helped me realize that my expectations for the game were faulty.

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript.

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript.

To understand how my expectations were flawed, I should point out that the British literature survey course at most universities is divided into two halves, the first covering beginnings to about 1750, and the second from 1750 to present. In the first half, Beowulf is a staple text that introduces students to many of the components of early medieval cultural practices and poetic narrative style. Students who have read Tolkien’s work often notice how “similar this is to The Lord of the Rings.” While medievalists might groan at the phrasing, the reality is that for many students in university literature classes, Tolkien’s work is a more familiar reference than his source material. But of course, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is still quite different from the middle earth that students encounter in Beowulf. There are harmonies between the two, of course, but the world that Beowulf inhabits is far more vexed than Tolkien’s creation. The Middle-Earth of hobbits and orcs and elves has far less moral ambiguity; Sauron is wicked and the ring must be destroyed. Yes, there are some who are tempted by the ring’s power, but as readers we are never left in doubt that destruction is the ring’s proper end. (And lest I incur the wrath of Tolkien scholars, I do not mean to belittle Tolkien’s vast imagination and literary achievement.) Now, astute readers of Beowulf know that the story seems to be similarly simple: a demonic beast attacks Heorot, Hrothgar’s hall, and Beowulf kills it. The beast’s mother attacks the hall, and Beowulf kills it. Later, an older Beowulf’s kingdom is attacked by a dragon, and he kills it. But under the surface, the text contains is far murkier and uncertain than this simple narrative summary might suggest.

As a text Beowulf does have moments of moral and religious confusion. The characters of the story live in a pagan world and follow pagan religious traditions, but they also seem to praise something like the Christian God, perhaps a result of a later monastic transcriptionist inserting more overt Christian themes into the text. Additionally, Unferth, a character not dissimilar to Tolkien’s “Wormtongue” at first chides Beowulf for his apparent pride and grandstanding. In this first encounter, Beowulf offers a strong rebuttal to Unferth’s goading, suggesting that while he has accomplished many great deeds, Unferth has done little to being himself acclaim. But unlike Wormtongue, Unferth is not consigned to villainy after this encounter; indeed, later in the story, he offers his sword to Beowulf, who thanks him graciously for the gift. In Beowulf, it would seem that human characters who at first seem wicked, are not forever disgraced.

Beowulf’s world is not a place of grand castles and high chivalry; Beowulf inhabits a place where moors and darkness lurk just on the edges of human civilization. Around every crag and crevice new danger might lies in wait, and unlike The Lord of the Rings, there is no Gandalf to show the way or save the day. And this was my realization about Skyrim: it is a game set in Beowulf’s world, not in Bilbo’s. After the previous entry in the Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion, I had come to Skyrim expecting another world of high fantasy. I was taken aback by the harsh and stark landscapes of Skyrim. My return to Skyrim has been ongoing through several hours of gameplay so far, and with this new framework for understanding the kind of world players were meant to inhabit, the experience has been far more gratifying and rewarding.

Trying Something New 5

In a commencement speech delivered at Belhaven University, Makoto Fujimura, the noted painter, discussed and developed an idea that he called “the aroma of the new.” The speech calls us to think of “the world that ought to be,” and to weave that vision into the messy world that is. Of course, as a commencement address, Fujimura’s rhetoric is quite grand, with an inspiring vision for the great things that the new graduates can (and probably will) accomplish. But the reality is that many things that can bring an aroma of the new are quite small, maybe even seemingly insignificant.

Thus it is with the project on which I’m embarking this fall. As a graduate student in English, I have had the opportunity to teach several undergraduate courses over the past seven years. Most of them have been the kind of thing you’d expect: British literature surveys, technical writing, poetry classes, and others. But now I’m doing something new, and for me, completely different. I’m going to teach a class on video games.

Video games are showing up in all kinds of unexpected places these days. Of course there are university programs where students are learning how to create video games, but I wanted to bring video games into the classroom for a freshman composition course. Several months ago I was sitting in a meeting with the director of our University Writing Programs in which he tasked us (teachers for the fall slate of freshman comp classes) to come up with a topic or theme that would unify the content of the class throughout the semester. During that meeting several standard topics like sustainability were brought up, but I wanted to try something different.

Not long after that meeting I began this blog and ventured into writing about video games, something for which I’d had an affinity for many years, and not long after that it occurred to me that video games could be the topic for my course. There was only one problem: I had no experience with academic writing about video games. Fortunately, a former graduate student at the University of Florida who has written for ProfHacker helped me by suggesting that I check out Ian Bogost’s work, and from there I was able to find more material to help me frame out the approach for the course.

My hope is that students will be able to identify with and expand their thinking through this framework. For most people, freshman composition was not a particularly rewarding experience–complaints include boring readings, boring assignments, and boring discussions. In no way do I think that education needs to exist at the beck and call of a nineteen-year-old’s notion of entertaining content, but by weaving lessons about developing arguments, using evidence effectively, and writing persuasive prose into the topic of video games, perhaps my students will find that the learning objectives are more palatable. If so, then I want the class to have the same academic rigour as a “standard” composition class, but with the benefit of appealing to students’ interests.

I also might like the idea of having a good reason to bring a PS3 to class and hook it up to a big projector.