“Bioshock As Profound As Iliad”

By Jim Rossignol on June 21st, 2008 at 9:22 am.


University of Connecticut Associate Professor of classical studies Roger Travis has started a blog comparing videogames to the classic tales of the ancient world. His latest post, “The profundity of Halo and Bioshock (and the Iliad)”, puts our favourite first person shooters up there with the greats of Ancient Greece.

Am I saying, a critic of video games might ask, that Halo and Bioshock are capable of the depth of artistic-philosophical expression reached by the Iliad in the Choice of Achilles? After all, when the Homeric bard has Achilles say that maybe the undying glory isn’t really worth it if you lose your life, he’s doing an artistic thing that we’re not used to thinking video games can do.

Here’s the answer: Yes, I am saying that.

Duke Nukem is more like Odysseus, you see. (Or is that Serious Sam?)

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80 Comments »

  1. Jochen Scheisse says:

    Man, gamers always get the nutjobs.

    The profundity of that moment, or of corresponding moments in Halo when you absolutely must do something or the game won’t proceed, comes from the interaction of the necessity of doing that thing with the meaning of the thing you must do. The most obvious example in Halo is I think the end of the game, when the player must drive a jeep through a hostile landscape in a short enough time that the Master Chief can make it off Halo (the ring in space) before it explodes.

    What exactly is an Associate Professor? Is that when you have been drunk with a real Professor once And he told you you can use his first name?

  2. Pidesco says:

    Is the University of Connecticut crap or is this guy just the exception?

  3. Okami says:

    Well, this guy is leaning a bit too much out of the window BUT comparing games to the classical legends of greece and other ancient cultures isn’t as stupid as it may sound at first.

    After all these legends were mainly about people killing loads of other people (and sometimes laying their moms) often for really ridiculous reasons. There wasn’t a whole lot of character development going on, the protagonists were unsympathetic brutes as often as not and over the top power ups were handed down left and right.

    But of course the guy’s wron, because video games are really like operas!

  4. Billy Ogawa says:

    “Here’s the answer: Yes, I am saying that.”

    Here’s me saying that I really wish you weren’t saying that. Where was this fool when Planescape: Torment came out? Certainly that game had more going on intellectually than games like Halo and Bioshock.

  5. Al3xand3r says:

    Has he even ever read the Epics he speaks of (via a decent translation that conveys the same feelings with detailed notes, or better yet the actual original Ancient Greek pieces) or did he just watch the Hollywood editions to save time?

  6. Matt says:

    Well clearly he just blogged it in his lunch break or something I don’t know if it is fair to be too hard on him. It is also worth noting he says that these games fail to achieve the complexity that the quote used above suggests, he only states that they can do so. Which as a statement isn’t really news to anyone.

    Also I don’t think it is fair to question whether a professor of classics has read a good translation of the classics he talks about or not.

    But then we here are PC gamers, that guy freely admits he is an Xbox gamer! So what can we expect, we should thumb our noses at him and walk away. Your PC is for gaming professor not writing blogs about Xbox gaming!

  7. Albides says:

    Okami,

    Word. Probably the most remarkable thing of all is that our heroes haven’t changed all that much. Hell, Master Chief even wears SPARTAN armour, doesn’t he?

    This guy is just mad, though.

  8. muscrat says:

    HALO? Why…. HALO? Even Bioshock fell to pieces after meeting andrew Ryan…… Besides the comparison is just…. *sigh*

  9. Al3xand3r says:

    Actually, Matt, I can question him all I want when he says stuff like Halo can compare to them.

    Especially with quotes like “corresponding moments in Halo when you absolutely must do something or the game won’t proceed”.

    Seriously, is there ANY (non sandbox I guess?) game, simple or complex, with or without any meaningful storyline or characters, where you DON’T have to do something very specific to proceed?

    Super Mario sure was as good as studying the Odyssey then. Going on a lengthy journey through foreign lands in order to save his beloved princess. Such self sacrifice, dedication and willpower he displayed as he endured the harsh conditions and all those lethal attacks without once thinking of quitting. And let’s not forget the apparent divine interventions of extra lives and continues, as well as the fact Mario possibly thought he was going through his journey alone when in fact a God-like (player) entity was helping and guiding him throughout, unnnoticed.

    Having that kind of self boasting title and banner created for that blog alone suggests it was more than a rushed lunch break brainstorm, you know? This guy clearly wanted our attention so let him have it.

  10. Rob says:

    The most obvious example [of profundity] in Halo is I think the end of the game, when the player must drive a jeep through a hostile landscape in a short enough time that the Master Chief can make it off Halo (the ring in space) before it explodes.

    I just … I … and this isn’t parody? The mind boggles.

  11. Alex says:

    What a strange man.

  12. Matt says:

    Well I didn’t say you can’t question him just it isn’t a strong point to contest. And your post is not revealing any flaw in his knowledge of the classics just implying a questionable connection between their narrative and that of a game. Which incidentally I agree is not a point he makes well.

    I’m not saying it is a good article just he probably does know something about the subject he specialises in, even if he doesn’t know much about games. It would be better to focus criticism on the flawed aspects of the article than supposition.

  13. Valentin Galea says:

    I initially wanted to make a comment but all the guys above really spoke my mind out!

    Go go RPS zeitgeist!

  14. Al3xand3r says:

    Matt, his posts don’t reveal any deep understanding of the classics either (so why assume there is such?), I can’t prove his lack of knowledge by quoting when he never attempts to delve into them in any meaningful way, just as he can’t prove his understanding of them with his idiotic rants, which are enough of a reason to question him. Besides, I think his posts at the very least prove he doesn’t understand the actual games he tries so hard to relate to the classics.

    Anyway, obviously, ancient told stories like the Iliad or the Odyssey have become the archetypes of modern story telling, especially given their depth and wide range of themes and situations which make most any modern day story able to be pointed at as using this or that pre existing element.

    That certainly doesn’t mean that mere copycats or wannabes or non wannabes that happen to exploit some of the same elements or themes are actually as good, or “close” as he specifically says. Far from it. Just look at Hollywood’s editions of parts of those specific stories for simple proof that using similar themes doesn’t make a story as grand as the originals in any way shape or form. They’re only sad caricatures messing with them in ways they should not feel the need to given the original quality.

  15. rob says:

    Sorry Matt but your argument is ridiculous and without merit. I am going to have to disagree.

    Well clearly he just blogged it in his lunch break or something

    How could you possibly know this? Maybe he wrote the post of an evening when there was nothing good on TV. Maybe he wrote it during a tea break to take some time away from his difficult work of reading books. To begin your argument with such baseless speculation does not bode well for what is to follow.

    It is also worth noting he says that these games fail to achieve the complexity that the quote used above suggests, he only states that they can do so. Which as a statement isn’t really news to anyone.

    Your sweeping statement is as wrong as it is stupid. What about those of us who are a bit thick? Do they factor into your narrow world-view even slightly?

    Also I don’t think it is fair to question whether a professor of classics has read a good translation of the classics he talks about or not.

    Again you use the word fair. That is twice you have used this word. Twice.
    I didn’t read the rest of your post but if it is anything like the bit I did read it was probably a good decision.

  16. Matt says:

    All universities have profiles of their staff unless it is an elaborate scam he is a professor of classics, you can read his CV and everything.

  17. Matt says:

    As for you rob, clearly there is no need to respond as you are the inferior rob in this thread, you have no capital letter at the start of your name and no picture of a horse.

  18. Al3xand3r says:

    Maybe, but that was the least of my points which is why I removed it from the post as it broke its flow. But it means a lot that it was the only bit you bothered commenting on.

  19. Matt says:

    Well it was the only bit I thought I didn’t agree with. And really in my posts I have been responding to your subsequent posts where you continued to contest the issue.

  20. rob says:

    Don’t take it personally Althreexandthreer, he didn’t bother commenting on my post at all.

  21. Al3xand3r says:

    Yeah, well, since you agree with those posts… In regards to your original points then, I think it’s actually pretty fair to completely humiliate and trample this guy’s blogs because this kind of thing is not what he should be polluting his students’ minds with, even outside class. Besides, he’s not being fair to the classics with such comparisons, I’d expect more respect, not half assed comparisons with subjects he clearly doesn’t understand enough to draw such comparisons to in the first place.

  22. Jim Rossignol says:

    I’m inclined to think that this guy isn’t so far off the mark. He’s being a bit wacky, but that seems deliberate. The Halo remark is a little peculiar, but, well, the classics are essentially classic because they’re like basic benchmarks for story-telling. And Halo just retells stories we’ve seen before, right?

    Also, Bioshock *does* have some literary cleverness going on in it, even if we largely disagree with its conclusion, execution, and merit as an game. Bioshock might not have been particularly compelling as a shooter, but it was nevertheless awesome to see Levine’s team able to play around with some big ideas in the context of a videogame.

    Don’t write this chap off because Halo is rubbish. The free will stuff is interesting, I think, even if it’s not particularly insightful.

  23. WCAYPAHWAT says:

    *sigh*

  24. Al3xand3r says:

    Sad caricatures of archetype stories don’t mean games, or at least the specific games he comments on as being “close” are anywhere near as good. Most every story told today has elements of the classics. That doesn’t mean most all of them are “close” to the classics’ quality or impact since they merely rehash them in vastly inferior ways. And yes, you can’t do much more than rehash themes of the classics since they were so all encompassing but he could at least pick examples of well told stories (of which there are very few in video games), not examples where the stories are merely an excuse to drive gameplay and not in ways that are so vague that accepting them makes almost every single game or story ever created just as good. He’s really pathetic in my opinion.

  25. Jim Rossignol says:

    Better than simply ignoring games, as most academics and cultural commentators seem determined to do though, eh?

  26. Al3xand3r says:

    Not really better if they’re ridiculed like this, cos I’m sure no other academics will take such rants seriously. If they do, well, I’ll not have faith in them, their opinions’ ability to impact people in meaningful ways, or their ability to properly teach future generations. I’m equally against both condemning and praising video games in such unfounded ways. Praise them for what they really are, don’t relate them out of the blue to widely accepted as praise worthy things just because you felt like it…

  27. WCAYPAHWAT says:

    A good story doesn’t exactly have to be a ‘classic’, let alone well written. It’s about what you, the reader/player/viewer/whatever, get out of it.

    Just a point to consider, before taking a hard stand on your opinions.

  28. Al3xand3r says:

    No, it doesn’t have to be a classic, especially when talking about video games since the part that really matters is the gaming. If I really believed that all stories have to be close to classics then I’d not have played more than one or two video games in my lifetime or watched more than a handful of movies. That’s not what I’ve been saying at all. But if it’s not a classic it should not be compared so faborably to actual classics. Praise it for what it is, don’t try to say it’s something it is not is all I’ve been saying with my posts. And don’t praise stories that aren’t praise worthy, even if the game or whatever they ended up in is good as entertainment (or just to your liking, since “good” is so subjective).

  29. Heliocentric says:

    This guy sounds like one of the jocks at school deffending the geek from getting bullied because their moms know each other.

    Just as this guy doesnt sound like he actualy understands games. Yes, greek myths had crap stories, so do some popular games. In other news pop music just catchy as birdsongs!

  30. Al3xand3r says:

    It sounds like you haven’t read the classics in question either really… Having a brief description of them through public domain knowledge or some video games or movies or books inspired by them isn’t enough to judge them I’m afraid. It’s like judging LOTR as some Dungeons & Dragons hackjob…

  31. Jochen Scheisse says:

    IMO the art of interactive storytelling is in the interesting aspects not comparable to classic storytelling. As a role player, I see that gaming has already adapted and invented countless niches that have revolutionized storytelling. Of course there are a lot of games that railroad you though a story, and Halo is a prime example for uninnovative and largely also unimaginative storytelling that serves primarily as a vehicle to justify the player repeating the same basic mechanisms over and over again. Most games that really want to convey a strong, coherent and complex story need to railroad. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But Halo is totally devoid of meaningful choices that elevate the interactive story above the classical story that resembles the picture book/novel/film mechanisms.

    The special and new aspects of games that also tell stories is in how far they either stimulate the player’s brain to tell their own story when following the game mechanisms (I remind you of Tom Chick’s awesome review of that ‘Manage Rome’ game) or in how far they adapt to the personality of the player to tell a story related to their choices.

    Now honestly that was a rant that does not really relate to what he said, because as he teaches classics, he’s obviously not searching for innovations. That’s okay, of course he can choose his own field. I just wanted to point out the validity of games as a new medium.

    This is why I don’t like his post in particular: Of course you can compare every story to every other story, and of course that’s valid to some degree, because basic storytelling devices apply to every story. But it doesn’t say anything about the medium as such, and in his special case it doesn’t even repeat the basic stuff about storytelling properly. Prince of Persia = MacBeth = Ren&Stimpy is nothing new, and I don’t see why I as a gamer should support people doing that. Of course you can also teach drama by letting people analyze the story of Halo or a Daily Soap. But as a geek, as a connaisseur of games, I don’t see that this guy has proven any insight or any taste. He just proves that somehow, everything relates to the basic mechanisms of storytelling, and he also proves that a person with too much knowledge will be able to interpret a pattern into unrelated things. The escape scene of Halo thing is just a prime example that this guy has through his education aquired a chest of knowledge and is willing to squeeze everything into the drawers, however meaningless the chest and the drawers become through that. That is bad science, and I don’t support it.

    Finally, don’t worry. Knowledge and acceptance follow the impact on society, on history, and they also follow the money. GTA has earned more money that Hollywood movies. It won’t be long until scientists will write positive and clever stuff about games. It’s just that this guy will need to improve a lot to better the image of games in the scientific society.

  32. Bjørn Stærk says:

    This is always a problem when academics bravely venture out to use their analytical skills on “pop culture”. Whether this is a parody or not, there is a genuine desire among academics to understand all that entertainment the rest of the world cares about, but they often don’t do a good job with it. Part of it is because they aren’t all necessarily that smart, (a physics professor has to be smart, a professor of literature may be smart or just good at parroting jargon). Another part of it is that their analytical tools aren’t necessarily all that good. Academics feel that they need something that is a bit more rigorous than subjective opinion, (otherwise what’s the point?), and so they invent elaborate and clever-looking frameworks for analyzing art, but while those frameworks may be rigorous and give the appearance of objectivity, they don’t necessarily give us any useful or interesting insights. This becomes very apparent when these frameworks are applied outside their field, to something a lot of people are familiar with. In this case to an entirely different medium as well.

    In my experience the smartest analysis of a medium or genre is usually provided by its smartest fans, people who live and breathe that world, and not by outside academics, (who may be fans themselves, but haven’t gone deep enough to learn anything that isn’t already obvious). Here’s an example from another medium and genre of something an academic could never have written.

  33. Q.W. says:

    I actually have read the Illiad and the Aeneid (though not the Odyessy) and I have to say they’re decent stories but pretty shallow. Their only remarkable feature is extreme age. I haven’t played Bioshock but I would say that the classics have a better understanding of character than Halo – but given that Halo is about a brainwashed cyborg weapon and a damaged AI fighting a bunch of aliens you wouldn’t expect much humanity from it. Frankly none of them compare to, say, Kafka or even a good children’s writer like Philip Pullman. So, well done videogames, some people think you’re only 3000 years behind the storytelling curve.

  34. Jochen Scheisse says:

    The basic premise of the Illiad is 3 goddesses fighting over who is the most beautiful. They represent power, wisdom and love, and the decision between them necessarily leads to tragedy. I have yet to find something like that in a computer game.

  35. Al3xand3r says:

    Not spelling them properly doesn’t tell me you know enough about them, I’m sorry. How were they shallow? Even with their perfect poetic form lost thanks to being read in languages other than the original they can still offer a lot in terms of story telling with exploring grand themes and characters in (at least for the time) non conventional ways that are often not done succesfully even today (see the use of flashbacks in the Odyssey for a small example). They also combined different sciences to convey the right atmosphere and grandeour of the moment, for example Homer displayed a great understanding of the human anatomy when describing the grand battles. They’re not what defined the word Epos (Epic) for nothing. Also, Aeneid is not Ancient Greek, it’s Latin, so shouldn’t be grouped together with the Iliad and Odyssey, even if it takes from them.

  36. InVinoVeritas says:

    Ayn Rand’s own works aren’t as profound as the Iliad. So to ascribe that status to Bioshock (Ayn Rand “lite” mixed with the Manchurian Candidate) is mind boggling.

  37. Roger Travis says:

    Thanks for the notice, Jim, and for the kind, if hedged, defense of my work. :D

    Two things. First, I’m really glad commenters here are interested enough in my ideas to be debating them so passionately. Second, the post Jim excerpted has a pretty involved context that I think is worth exploring if you want to discuss what I’m trying to do.

    (I think my response to the comments at my place is also worth taking a look at–but YMMV.)

  38. WCAYPAHWAT says:

    @Jochen Scheisse

    Wasn’t that in Zelda: Ocarina of Time? :D

  39. Calabi says:

    Well it sounds to me as if he’s just trying to get attention or to get the kids interested in mythology.

    Saying games could be like them is like saying UFO’s could land on the Whitehouse lawn, they might, but until they do its irrelevant. I dont see that games are even getting there, most of them are dismissive of humanity and reality. Bioshock totally avoided the ramifications and morality of the girl situation. Death has no consequences the NPCs have no responses(mostly). Games now seem to do everything they can not to mirror reality, not to be offensive, or show consequences, not to instigate any emotions other than aggression or excitment.

  40. Roger Travis says:

    @Calabi: I agree completely that Levine dropped the ball with respect to the little sisters, which is why I agree with Tim Rogers that the artistic quality of Bioshock is “the least we should expect from now on.” The problem with the little sisters, though, doesn’t change what I see as the profundity (though not the great profundity) of the non-choice of killing Andrew Ryan.

  41. Al3xand3r says:

    You know, the word profundity alone implies greatness even if you don’t add the word “great” before it.

  42. Erlam says:

    In Quake, you needed to get special artefacts (keys) in order to defeat giant monsters, and in the end fight the God-monster that has been trying to stop you all along.

    See, Quake is like the Illiad too! And so is Doom! And Wolfenstein 3D! And Marathon!

    Sorry, this just makes me giggle.

  43. Roger Travis says:

    @Alexander: I guess I think works can be compared with respect to their profundity. The Iliad can IMHO be said to be “more profound” than Bioshock, so it makes sense to me to say that the Iliad possesses “great profundity” while Bioshock only possesses “profundity.”

    I would also say that it makes sense to me to attribute “greatness” both to the Iliad and to Bioshock on that basis, though the former has the greater greatness. :D

    @Erlam: Baseball is like the Iliad, too, but it’s not interesting to talk about that in this particular context, just as I don’t find the similarities of Quake and Doom interesting to talk about. On the other hand, because of other features of the comparison, I do think it’s interesting to talk about Halo and Bioshock in this regard.

  44. Bjørn Stærk says:

    Roger Travis: “On the other hand, because of other features of the comparison, I do think it’s interesting to talk about Halo and Bioshock in this regard.”

    It’s still in my view a superficial and irrelevant comparison. Basically what I’m saying is that if you want to do this you need to start at the bottom with fact-gathering, by playing a lot of games (popular and less popular, new and old), and only later, much later, look for conclusions and paralells to other works of art.

  45. Roger Travis says:

    @Bjoern: Why do you think I haven’t played a lot of games? Because I’m a classics professor? Strangely enough, I’ve played many, many games. The reason I’m talking about these reviled popular ones is that I’m trying to change the conversation about games and game culture, and this approach seems to me to be an effective one.

    Above all, I’m trying to reach non-gamers. They’ve never heard of Planescape: Torment or Fallout; they may have heard of Bioshock; they’ve probably heard of Halo.

  46. Bjørn Stærk says:

    Roger: I assumed that because comparing two recent games to the Iliad in that way seems like such a naive thing to do. Apologies about that, but it’s still naive. This isn’t about them being “reviled popular” games – in my world there’s nothing controversial about looking at games as an artform, or even comparing them to the classics. This is about the particular comparisons you’re making. When for instance you say that “like a gamer starting a new mission in GTA4 Odysseus gets to decide which way he wants to make his avatar go, and how he wants to make his avatar approach the ancient equivalent of a boss-fight”, that is to me a very contrived and silly paralell. It confirms in my mind what I wrote above about academics and pop culture. Listen to that or not as you like, but believe me when I say that this is well-intended advise, and that I really am interested in intelligent analysis of games as an art form. So good luck with the attempt, but I do think you’re on the wrong track.

  47. Roger Travis says:

    Thanks, Bjoern.

    Obviously, I’m not writing on the blog at the level approached by the most sophisticated game studies criticism. The blog is intended to be intelligible by interested non-gamers and by non-theoretically-inclined gamers.

    Out of curiosity, what’s contrived and silly about the parallel you mention? The whole context of that post is about a really fascinating passage in the eighth book of the Odyssey where the bard spins a fantasy of what it would be like if a hero could control what bards sing about him. The passage you quote is for me the tip of the iceberg–a hook to draw the reader further into a much more complex comparison.

  48. RichPowers says:

    Did the Odyssey have insidious DRM that limited the number of times you could read it? Did you have to get Homer’s permission to read it more than three times?

    I rest my case.

  49. Rob says:

    @RichPowers

    Would it have affected the profundity if it did?

  50. yutt says:

    I wish I could reread this entire discussion minus Al3xand3r’s petty one-upmanship.