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.

Sunless Sea and the Long Voyage

Alone at sea

Steaming into the Unknown

Over the last week, I’ve lost at least five captains (maybe six) to the dangers of the Unterzee (a term that I imagine being pronounced with an absurdly harsh German accent). One ran out of fuel just off the coast of Fallen London and was too incompetent to successfully escape from the derelict vessel. Several have been sunk by pirates. One perished in an engine fire that was the result of a whim (how fast can this boat really go?). These are the few harrowing stories that have already developed from my time with Failbetter Games’ recent release Sunless Sea. What I’ve found remarkable about the game over the first week and half of playing is its unique capacity to communicate the precarious nature of lengthy nautical voyages.

Sunless Sea defies traditional game genres, and offers players a mashup of the top-down perspective of an RTS with the text-based narrative of interactive fiction. Sunless Sea is set in an alternate Victorian history in which London has sunk into a massive cavern called “The Neath.” According the game’s complex lore (which ties in with Failbetter’s web-based game, Fallen London), the “Traitor Empress,” sold the city to save her husband’s life. Readers of The Chronicles of Narnia will immediately recognize resonances with The Silver Chair, in which the children and their marshwiggle companion journey underground to find a civilization on the shores of a great subterranean lake called, you guessed it, the Sunless Sea. The video game’s interactive take on a subterranean ocean has all the magic of Narnia (there is one island on which warring clans of guinea pigs and rats are locked in a desperate conflict) with all the fantastic technology of steampunk literature.

Now, Young Captain, You Will Die

The game begins with a curious word of encouragement, which states matter-of-factly: “Explore. Take risks. Your first captain will probably die. Later captains may succeed.” This statement is quite true, as my introductory list of untimely deaths indicates. Sunless Sea‘s entire approach to nautical peril is encapsulated in this opening text. A famous phrase from Joseph Conrad’s The Mirror of the Sea appears in the opening as well, “The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.” However, I think a later line in Conrad’s book offers a better encapsulation of how Sunless Sea creates its sense of ephemerality, “As if it were too great, too mighty for common virtues, the ocean has no compassion, no faith, no law, no memory.” In either case, Sunless Sea presents ocean voyages as both dangerous and foolhardy.

Sunless Sea and the Abbey

At the same time, the rhetoric of the game works to alleviate the typical associations between death and failure. Indeed, the Steam version of Sunless Sea includes achievements for the numbers of successive captains a player has lost, making such losses goals to aspire to. This combination of constant danger and constant pressure to venture further captures an aspect of the economic and industrial development that typified the nineteenth century. Industrialization in Britain was a powerful force that both revolutionized commercial development while also serving as a breeding ground for some of the most destructive labor environments. Likewise, for players of Sunless Sea the consequences for losing a ship draws our attention to the sea’s paradoxical position as a site of both financial bounty and financial ruin, while mitigating the human cost itself. While each steamboat can be outfitted with more personalized officers, the majority of the crew are represented only numerically–making their positions not unlike those of faceless factory employees.

The Sea is Vast

The world of the Unterzee is remarkable for its scale, and also because the supernatural aspects of the ‘Neath include islands that move. This means that the map is randomized each time a captain dies, leaving players with a knowledge of what islands they might encounter, but all knowledge of their specific locations is lost. This particular design choice (which was introduced while the game was still in development and available to play as an “Early Access” title) increases the sense of uncertainty and despair that could accompany a long voyage. Travel has always been an area where video games have had to cut corners, temporally speaking, so that players stay engaged with the game. It wouldn’t work for a voyage between two islands to take hours (or days!), so times and distances are often compressed in video game worlds.

The Map in Sunless Sea

But how can a game place everything closer together without making players feel like they’re just playing with toy boats in the bathtub? Sunless Sea‘s map randomization offers a compelling solution to this problem. My exploration of the map has progressed farther with my current captain than any of his predecessors. But if tragedy strikes, then I’ll be reduced (once again) to a map of complete darkness. Chris Breault recently wrote a nice breakdown of maps in video games over the last year, and Sunless Sea also provides a helpful model for using a predominantly utilitarian device (the map) as a way to elaborate on deeper concepts that the game raises. Maps are typically indicative of progress and exploration–to place something on a map is to give it a static position relative to other known locations. Furthermore, maps are a vital method of transferring knowledge.

But because the Sunless Sea map is always contingent on the lifespan of the player’s current captain, its transactional value is eliminated. The last map is completely lost, with all its detail. As a result, each successive voyage actually feels longer than the last, precisely because players must fight against all the information that they had gained with their previous steamboat. The game’s penchant for asking players to find certain islands becomes even more challenging if islands cannot be reliably charted. The darkness of the enormous cavern that contains the Unterzee is replicated not only in the typical “fog of war,” the black shroud obscuring the map that players must uncover, but also in this constant reversal–returning the map to a state of veiled uncertainty. For a game that is ultimately about driving a small steamboat around a subterranean lake, the reversion of the map imbues the Unterzee with a sense of vastness that other nautical games struggle to simulate.

Exploring the Obra Dinn, a 19th-century Ship

The style of authenticity almost suggests that the Obra Dinn was an actual ship lost in the early 19th century.

Nothing pleases me more than when I get to write about video games that overlap with my interest in nineteenth-century literature. Just last week Lucas Pope, who also created the game Papers, Please, released an early development build of his new project, Return of the Obra Dinn. As you can see from the promotional poster for the game, it is set in the early years of the nineteenth century and concerns the ship, Obra Dinn, which was lost at sea in 1803.

By putting the player in the role of historian and investigator, Return of the Obra Dinn could provide a foundation for students to think about digital research and the interpretation of evidence.

Simulating Age in Video Games and Poetry

The game is still in its earliest stages, but in this development build players can explore the Obra Dinn, which has mysteriously returned after having been lost at sea. Pope has opted to present the game in a style reminiscent of old grayscale video games, like those available on the original Game Boy. The only difference, is that this game provides a three dimensional vessel that the player can explore; in a way, then, the game marries an older style with contemporary technology, drawing upon the evolution of video games as a medium to suggest the age of the vessel within the narrative. It strikes me that this approach is suggestive of the style in which Coleridge first wrote The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere (as the title was originally written); Coleridge gave the poem a sense of age by spelling many of the words in the poem in a way suggestive of Chaucer’s Middle English. The poem was later revised to more contemporary spellings, but I always appreciated the effect of Coleridge’s original text, because it does give the poem a sense of age and permanence.

As it is now, Return of the Obra Dinn tasks players with deducing the fates of every person on board the ship, most of whom, it seems, have either died on board or been cast into the sea. Even with only the snippet of the game that is presented here, I’m excited to continue exploring the Obra Dinn. The game seems to capture many elements of neo-Victorian narratives, but presents them in a way that is uniquely suited to an interactive medium. The dotted shading alone almost necessitates a familiarity with the history of video games to be effective, since the sense of age that it conveys will be more palpable to those who recognize its gesture to the medium’s past.

"Dublin Bay." (1853) Edwin Hayes, National Gallery of Ireland. via Wikimedia Commons

“Dublin Bay.” (1853) Edwin Hayes, National Gallery of Ireland. via Wikimedia Commons

Students as Digital Investigators

Depending on how the game develops, this would be a great addition to a class on sea literature in the nineteenth century. Students could play Obra Dinn alongside Michel Maxwell Philip’s Emmanuel Appadocca, or, Blighted Life: A Tale of the Boucaneers (1854), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), or William Clark Russell’s The Wreck of the Grosvenor (1877). In many ways, then, the presentation of the centuries old Obra Dinn could be read through the tradition of sea literature that developed during the nineteenth century. By putting the player in the role of historian and investigator, Return of the Obra Dinn could provide a foundation for students to think about digital research and the interpretation of evidence.

Of course, Pope’s project is still a work in progress; so we will have to wait and see how it develops toward its final publication. But at the very least, I’m impressed by how much potential is in this very short demonstration.

Spoiler Alert: A Conference Tale

Walking Dead hug

An odd thing happened at the Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies (INCS, pronounced “inks”) conference that I attended last week: in the middle of Q & A, I demanded that a participant stop talking.

To be honest, it was a moment of panic. I was worried that this participant, one Roger Whitson, was going to reveal details about the second season of TellTale Games’ The Walking Dead. Never before in my professional life has the possibility of plot spoilers worried me so much.

Once you enter literary study as a profession, you’ve given up the right to complain about having the ending of a book revealed.

See, in Victorian or nineteenth-century studies, I’ve always assumed that spoilers sort of go with the territory. There’s no way any one person, especially an early career academic like me, can have read everything, and attending panels and reading papers inevitably results in a few plot spoilers here and there. In other words, once you enter literary study as a profession, you’ve given up the right to complain about having the ending of a book revealed.

It may sound silly, but I think that recognizing this reality was one of the more difficult moments I experienced as a graduate student. Rather than relishing the delightful mystery that was each new book I read growing up, literary scholarship can become, in some cases, an exercise in reading for an ending that I already know is coming. At times, I must admit, knowing the ending had the unanticipated effect of enhancing the experience, as in my recent reading of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. I was aware (and I suppose now would be a good time to point out the spoilers are imminent) prior to beginning the novel, that Maggie and Tom were doomed. In a way, I found myself relishing the moments of their relationship, always with that sense that this was a familial relationship destined to end tragically.

The Walking Dead's cast of characters

The Walking Dead’s cast of characters

Spoiler Alerts and the Digital Humanities

I think we can all remember a moment when a narrative was spoiled for us–how we so wish we could go back and cover our ears, or at least forget what we heard. While now it may seem trivial considering the direction M. Night Shyamalan’s career has taken, when I was in high school friend inadvertentlyrevealed The Sixth Sense‘s ending. To this day I can feel that sense of being cheated.

I hope that my work will inspire others to pursue their own encounters with videogames, stories, and novels

Years later, some of my recent research has led me to explore the intersections of Victorian psychological theory and videogame narratives. And now, all of the sudden, I feel as if I have a professional responsibility to offer spoiler alert warnings. Because the digital narratives of videogames are more recent, I want people to be able to experience the pleasure of pursuing the story on their own. At the same time, feeling the need to constantly offer warnings about potential spoilers can seriously hamper the flow of conversation and debate.

In the case of my conference presentation, I actively prohibited a contributor from making a point using an example that I had not yet had the chance to enjoy. Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut, but in an academic community where having narratives spoiled goes with the territory, it was a welcome change of pace to have a legitimate reason for arresting a line of discussion that might have revealed narrative details that I still would like to relish free from prior knowledge.

As a Victorian scholar, digital humanities offers a unique connection to the present that is exemplified by this particular (and admittedly minor) conference experience. Of course, academic work in Victorian literature has regularly traced significant movements through to the present. But the issue of spoilers, which seems to have been exacerbated by digital media (many of us have seen “I haven’t seen the new Game of Thrones yet!” posts on Facebook). In the end, I hope that my work on digital narrative will both inform and inspire others to pursue their own encounters with the videogames, stories, and novels I have studied.

Class Warfare: Videogame Classes, Narrative, and Choice 1

I Heart Class Warfare - Occupy Wall Street Protest - 8 Oct 2011 - Zuccotti Park - NYC - USA - BlackBerry Photo

Class Warfare in action

Inspired by the recent call for papers of the North American Victorian Studies Association, which asks for research examining “classes and classification,” I’ve been thinking about the ways in which the notion of classes is enacted in videogame narratives. Recently, a friend of mine who has not played videogames in several years decided to try Skyrim, and while the idea is familiar to longtime fans of the Elder Scrolls series, he was impressed by the fact that the game does not force you to choose a class at the very beginning. Unlike many other RPGs and MMOs, in which a player’s class significantly influences (and often restricts) his or her choices throughout the game, Skyrim’s model allows the player’s actions to determine their strengths and weaknesses.

Class Selection and Narrative Limitation

In many ways, classes have become one of the most common staples of videogames, not only because they were prominent in pen-and-paper RPGs, but also because they offer a convenient way to structure narrative. Take, for example, Star Wars The Old Republic, an MMO that sold itself as a game that would reintroduce narrative as a central component to online gaming. While my experiences playing TOR were satisfactory, there were always those red, translucent barriers blocking doorways in certain buildings. Beyond those barriers were portions of the game limited to players of other classes; and while it makes sense that the game would create these kinds of sectioned areas to funnel players of the correct class into the correct areas, it was suggestive of a limitation.

Mary Barton

What if this had been an early attempt at choose your own adventure?

It was as if Elizabeth Gaskell required her readers to decide, before beginning to read Mary Barton, whether they wanted to enjoy a novel critiquing the crippling inequity in industrial Britain, a murder mystery, or a love triangle between a girl and two young men (a la The Notebook: one wealthy, another her childhood (but poorer) friend (yes, I know, I just compared Elizabeth Gaskell to Nicholas Sparks)). What if, depending on the reader’s choice, certain portions of the novel would then be sealed, unless you agreed to go back to the beginning and start again, this time with a different choice?

Lisa Dusenberry, a friend and colleague who is a Marion L. Brittain Fellow at Georgia Tech, has developed the concept of a “reader-player” to describe participants in and consumers of children’s literature that isn’t “restricted to a single medium, single source text, and/or a single method of reader interaction” [1]. Her term is useful because it aptly suggests that players experience the narratives of videogames across a variety of media. At the same time, the close connection between reading and playing only exacerbates the disconnect that a videogame creates when particular avenues of narrative exploration are deliberately closed to the player. Of course, many (if not all) videogames are designed around the notion that the player might not experience all of the content on their first playthrough. As early as Super Mario Bros., secret tricks and areas offered new exploratory and (minimally) narrative possibilities. But the best games offer these alternatives in a way that doesn’t impress upon the player that their experience is somehow incomplete.

Choose your class...there's no going back

Choose your class…there’s no going back

The Possibility of (Illusory) Narrative Freedom

Yet with the class selection systems of many games, the game makes it only too clear that your choices will place you into a particular category from which you are rarely allowed to deviate. This argument has been raised recently with the changes between the skill trees in Diablo II and Diablo III; where Diablo II locked players into their choices, Diablo III has allowed more freedom and customization. Opinions on this change vary, but even Diablo III’s options exist under the aegis of a class choice; you may be able to change your character’s abilities, but that character is still limited to being a barbarian, monk, or wizard. The necessity of this choice suggests a longtime difficult with videogames: are they primarily a narrative medium or something more fundamental. As in chess, it seems silly to expect that all the pieces (or characters) could have the same movement (or class) options. So how should videogames negotiate their narrative and gaming aspects in the context of class choice?

The word “class” is itself fraught with all kinds of social, cultural, and political baggage. And while it may seem that the term is somehow shed of these undertones in the context of videogames, I would suggest that in many ways character classes create systems of inequity that have ramifications for how a videogame’s world is presented to players. I was an early purchaser of the first Guild Wars in 2005, and the game appealed to me initially because it had a strong narrative component. Indeed, the entire game world was dramatically altered between the introductory quests and the bulk of the game. But what was fascinating about the way that the class system in that game impacted my experience as a player focused on the Guild War’s heavy reliance on an instanced mission system. In these missions, up to six players could team up to tackle a particular part of the game’s narrative campaign, but in many of the cities, which served as hubs where players could meet up with and join other groups, a resounding refrain continually graced the community chat window. “GLF Monk!!!” In Guild Wars, monks were the healer class, and for whatever reason the game’s player economy, in those early days, was largely bereft of a sufficient number of monks. Especially in more difficult missions, where a healer was essential, an inability to find a monk could dash a group’s hopes of completing the narrative.

Between Star Wars The Old Republic and Guild Wars, it becomes clear how much power character classes can wield over a players experience of a narrative. Obvious restrictions on content based on an initial (and somewhat contextless) class decision fostered a conflictedness within the player. Ignorance may be bliss, but obligatory ignorance often grates, particularly in a narrative medium that often revels in possibility. “Class warfare” suggests the inner-turmoil that players experience as they realize how a game’s narrative is restricted, but it also can point to how particular classes become more or less valued within the game’s social economy. So how might games arrive at a possibility of creating different kinds of experiences for players without relying on classes as a restrictive narrative method?

A game that navigates these difficulties quite well in the single-player realm is The Cave. While players are required to choose only three of the eight initial characters available, the narrative seamlessly weaves the stories of your chosen characters together. Additionally, The Cave, while labeling the characters in a way reminiscent of a class structure, invests their characters with a sense of being that extends beyond their labels. Returning to my friend’s first impressions of Skyrim, I was impressed by his exuberant realization that the game in no way forced him to choose a certain class of character. And perhaps games that eschew classes and classification actually proffer a greater sense of narrative immersion and possibility to their players. On the other hand, in games where class selection are an essential part of the game design, perhaps developers can look to The Cave as a prototype of the kind of game that effectively masks the narrative limitations that class selection necessitates. [2]

[1] Dusenberry, Lisa. “Reader-Players: The 39 Clues, Cathy’s Book, and the Nintendo DS.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 35.4 (2010): 443-49.

[2] Reader’s might note that this article seems to posit a conflict between online and single-player videogames. While I agree that my examples do fall along those lines, I would suggest that there is nothing inherent in online games that requires them to adopt a class structure. While it was a commercial failure, Cyan’s short-lived Uru experimented with an online world in which players were not assigned any kind of class limitation.