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.

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.

Long Voyages, or, Venice Bound

In three days, I’ll be getting on a plane for Europe–my first international trip. Like anyone any my position would probably do, I’ve read a lot of articles on the Internet about travelling to Europe, which at times caused more confusion than clarity. But my research was made simpler by the fact that I won’t be galavanting across the continent, unlike many travelers who barely touch their feet to the ground in one city before dashing off to the next. In fact, I’ll be spending the whole of my 10 days in one place: Venice.

San Servolo and Venice International University

San Servolo and Venice International University

I am participating in the supernumerary conference of the three major Victorian studies associations (North American Victorian Studies Association, British Association of Victorian Studies, and the Australasian Victorian Studies Association). The first week will consist of a professionalization workshop for graduate students, followed by the conference itself. Our venue is the (apparently) lovely campus of Venice International University, on the island of San Servolo, quite near to Venice itself. I hope to be posting updates about the conference and the experience overall, but my resolve on this question might wane in the midst of jet-lag and walking (swimming?) about the city.

In addition to the workshop, I’ll be presenting a small portion of one of my dissertation chapters (on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton) as well as moderating a panel on “Ships and the Sea.” I’m particularly excited about the panel on nautical literature, because it’s something I’ve always been interested in, but haven’t been able to pursue professionally (beyond being very excited for the Moby-Dick card game kickstarter). And what a better place to talk about ships and the sea than in Venice?

Newgate Fiction and the Panic of Video Game Violence

Jack_sheppardLast week, Kotaku posted a critique of the use of scare tactics to represent video games in a recent episode of Katie Couric’s new show. The post included video from Couric’s show that featured dark, shadowy images of young men playing fiercely with controllers while a deep, gravelly voice-over described the dangers of video games to children everywhere. While I don’t necessarily think that video game proponents should adopt a reactionary or overly defensive position with respect to the question of representations of violence in video games, it does seem that popular airings of this debate slant toward sensationalizing what is really just a general sense of unease related to video games. As it often is with such programs on video games, the presenters and commentators rarely seem to have played video games on their own. In fact, the criticism is often a criticism of distance–of looking at something askance as much for its unfamiliarity as anything else.

Particularly telling was Couric’s exchange with Jim Steyer, who lamented the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchant’s Association to affirm the protection of video games as free speech (PDF of ruling). Indeed, Couric takes a moment to quote from the majority decision, which points out that “the books we give children to read–or read to them when they are younger–contain no shortage of gore. […] As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers ’til she fell dead on the floor'” (8). Streyer’s response to this argument is simply to say that the justices were wrong to make a comparison between literary depictions of violence and those in video games.

I would not want to go so far as to suggest that representations of violence in literature and video games are precisely equivalent, but I was intrigued by this question about the effect of violence in video games, paired as it was with the dismissal of any suggestion that violent literature could be dangerous. In the aftermath of television, film, and video games, the notion of literature as a dangerous form of entertainment may seem a little ridiculous (despite the annual lists of banned books that circulate the Internet), but of course, this was not always the case. Indeed, the recent renewed focus on video games brings to mind the controversy that rose around a subgenre of adventure novels that appeared in England in the 1830s; they were known as Newgate novels after the famous Newgate prison in London. The novels took as their subject the lives and exploits of famous criminals, some historical, others fictional. The books were wildly popular until the high-profile murder of Lord William Russell in 1840 essentially killed the entire genre.

Russell was murdered by his valet, François Courvoisier, who went to great effort to make the murder look like a robbery gone wrong. It was soon reported that Courvoisier had been reading William Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard (1839), which was one of the most popular and widely read of the Newgate novels. The novel’s eponymous hero was an actual eighteenth-century criminal, and Ainsworth’s apparent glorification of Sheppard’s criminal successes was denounced by many reviewers. But these concerns were exacerbated when, during the inquest into Lord Russell’s death, Courvoisier testified that reading Jack Sheppard had given him the idea of murdering his master. Much of the popularity of Jack Sheppard wasn’t due to the novel alone, however; Ainsworth’s rendition of Sheppard’s life inspired many stage adaptations, which were themselves quite popular. But in the aftermath of the association between Courvoisier’s crime and the fictional representation of a life of crime, the Lord Chamberlain essentially banned all plays based on Jack Sheppard or similar material. While the Chamberlain’s office was tasked with approving theatrical productions, because Courvoisier’s testimony suggested a clear connection between the representations of violence in Newgate fiction and an actual act of murder, the censorship office essentially stamped out the genre.

Of course, the parallels between representations of violence in Newgate novels and in video games are palpable in the history of Newgate fiction. In England, a mechanism for restricting and removing objectionable material was already in place and made the censorship of Newgate fiction relatively easy and immediate, but we are fortunate that such a mechanism is not present in twenty-first-century America. While the conversation about the impact of representations of violence will (and should) continue, we should keep in mind that novel ways of representing (or glorifying) violence are not uncommon. Banning or restricting access to creative works has a dubious history at best, and a longer historical view of such debates would be a welcome addition to the discussions surrounding video games. As it is, though, the divisive rhetoric that characterizes much of political and cultural life these days seems to be mirrored in the video game debate. I would hope that proponents of restricting video games would think twice before trying to establish a contemporary censorship office on the grounds that such restrictions will prevent tomorrow’s tragedy.

Sources: William Harrison Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard. Eds. Edward Jacobs and Manuela Mourao. Broadview, 2007.
Jan-Melissa Schramm, Atonement and Self-Sacrifice in Nineteenth-Century Narrative. Cambridge UP, 2012.