“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. RichPowers says:

    I question the relevance of 20th century “classics” 200 years from now. Will people be able to play Bioshock or Deus Ex on future PCs due to different architectures or whatever? Will Disney still have copyrights on its works 200 years after the fact, or will it allow them to enter the public domain? Will today’s artistic works be easily accessible by future generation? Or will constantly evolving media formats, copyright restrictions, never-ending royalties, DRM, and closed standards keep them out of people’s hands?

    Not trying to turn this into a DRM/copyright/”information must be free!” spiel, but a modern classic is fairly worthless if future generations can’t be exposed to it. Everything should enter the public domain after 50 years (or even less), but that’s for another topic.

    But going back to your point: the work can still be an artistic achievement even when locked down with DRM. Citizen Kane would still be Citizen Kane even if I needed my SSN, fingerprint, and DNA to watch it.

  2. Dracko says:

    Also, Bioshock *does* have some literary cleverness going on in it

    Such as?

    Modern Warfare tells a far better story, and is much cleverer than BioShock even hopes to be. And it does so effortlessly (accidentally?).

    But these are the guys who haven’t played Marathon, right?

    P.S. The guy has a point about the Halo games, but those could just as easily be seen in so many other games, shooters or otherwise, he may as well concede the point to an entire genre.

  3. capital L says:

    The Iliad and the Odyssey offer a profound view at the way in which the ancient Greeks viewed the world and their place in it. As the stories grew out of an oral tradition they came to represent generations of thought coalescing into myth and common heritage. For thousands of years these two works were of monumental importance and they’ve been disseminated and analyzed by each successive branch of western civilization. No video game has come anywhere close to this–nor has any TV show or movie. Indeed there are not all that many other examples of literature that carry such weight. To say that Halo, Bioshock, or even Planescape: Torment is as profound as the Iliad because they both explore some themes and advance some plot is like comparing the human mind to a computer because they can both solve math problems–sure they can both add and subtract, sure the computer can do some things quicker than the old brain 1.0, but there’s something substantial about the brain that the computer doesn’t begin to emulate, not yet at least.

    For that matter, no video game has “profundity” of Greek tragedy as written by Sophocles, Aeschylus, or Euripides; which is, I think, a more realistic (if equally unlikely) standard to strive for.

  4. Bjørn Stærk says:

    Roger Travis: “Out of curiosity, what’s contrived and silly about the parallel you mention?”

    When I read the passage you quoted from Homer, I just don’t see a description of a video game. Isn’t it more likely that when the bard talks about a hero controlling his own tale, he is thinking in terms of a medium that actually existed in x00 BC, namely storytelling? So I’m not convinced that there are any more interesting and noncontrived paralells between Homer and Bioshock than between Homer and Michael Jackson.

    RichPowers: “Will people be able to play Bioshock or Deus Ex on future PCs due to different architectures or whatever?”

    Yes, because of virtual machines. But will they want to? Probably not.. Btw, copyright just means you have to pay to play it, something that big companies are generally eager to facilitate, it doesn’t mean locking it all away in a vault, never to be released, (except for the Warner Brothers and their sister Dot, and those racist Disney cartoons).

  5. Roger Travis says:

    I really want to continue to be a part of the discussion (obviously :D), but I’m going off line for several hours right now, and then am headed out of town tomorrow. I’m going to try to keep up at my blog as much as I can over the next week, so I’d like to invite everyone over there if they feel like it; Flaming Homers are on me.

    Thanks for the discussion here!

  6. Q.W. says:

    I concede I’m not the person to critique Homer, haven’t read it in 10 years. But regarding:
    “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”
    Halo does the same thing better, it uses various (pseudo-)scientific and military ideas and terminology in its battles and is on a considerably grander scale, the destruction of planets being at stake.
    I don’t think this makes either one good, epicness is fundamentally empty spectacle and something I imagine most of us got tired with during the Star Wars trilogy.
    P.S. Just because something is good for the time doesn’t make it good today.

  7. john says:

    Of course, the Iliad and the Odyssey don’t hold a candle to Portal.

  8. Al3xand3r says:

    Bigger isn’t better. All you prove is that the ways Homer found to express his stories are still used today, which means they were and still are good ways to do such.

    The fact we’ve grown so accustomed to such content with the many caricatures and copycats that inevitably keep being created doesn’t make the significance of the originals any less profound.

    Especially when Homer’s descriptions can still have an impact that seeing hundreds of people die in movies and video games nowadays doesn’t achieve because we’ve all become so distilled to such concepts thanks to overxposure to them. Presenting a good story to go alongside such concepts is (now more than ever) more important than the concepts themselves, as is the way the story is told.

    This reminds me of how many people considered western RPGs boring back in the day simply because their stories usually didn’t revolve around the instant gratification of whole world saving missions as loudly as japanese console RPGs attempted. As if the daily life of a more realistic kind of hero was boring because he wasn’t similar enough to a super hero, even though the stories were much better presented and touched on more complex subjects…

    Again, bigger isn’t better. A game that touched on these same concepts that Halo apparently does, but took it a step further by talking about the destruction of whole galaxies, would suddenly be better even if the storyline was sub-par compared or even a direct rip off? Just because it would apparently be talking about things that are bigger than “mere” planetary destructions?

    Somehow, I don’t think that’s the case.

  9. Grey says:

    I believe this is the man who, prior to the release of halo 3, stated that he would have no qualms with placing it next to the Aeneid on his bookshelf if it stacked up. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    If he had dug deeper, he would see that Shadow Of The Colossus, Ico and Portal approach brilliance in any artform. The sole, slightly comparable moment in Bioshock is “would you kindly” (not including the preposterous Andrew Ryan scene – and ignoring the fact that the game itself ignores a huge plot hole arising from this plot twist), and there are no such moments in any Bungie game, or Nintendo game, or whatever commercially focused game developer someone could care to bring up.

    Clearly, as people have pointed out – poor imitations of the basic plots of ancient classics exist everywhere – but none can compare. Halo in terms of artistic merit is total rubbish. Bottom of the heap. As a game, it’s somewhat decent. As a use of the medium, again, bottom of the heap. To compare it or Bioshock favourably to the Iliad is insulting to both the humans who created it, and to the interactive medium.

    It’s not a question of the popularity of the game, it’s a question of not conjuring up links. It’s better to introduce non-gamers to the GOOD in the medium before you show them the total abominations and failures.

    I’ve met people who haven’t heard of The Godfather. While it’s not THE greatest film, many make it out to be, and many references to it should ensure people have at least heard of it, right? Wrong, apparently. Neither should we enforce a stereotype, or adhere to one in bringing up the popular but artistically vacant examples.

    Don’t placate the masses, challenge them. And for the love of god don’t send a message out to developers that they should make their games more like Halo and Bioshock if they wish to have profundity on the level of ancient classics.

  10. Yann Best says:

    The stream of commentary here is slightly intimidating, so I’ll keep this short; ignoring the relative merits of the Iliad, Halo and Bioshock. I would have thought that Bioshock – whose greatest quality is its intertextuality – would be more comparable to the later classics, which similarly valued intertextual values highly (not just in an ‘Aeneid riffing on the Odyssey’ way, but through more subtle quoting and referencing), rather than the Iliad, which is most notable (as already mentioned) for its position as an extremely early text (Achilles being important because he’s effectively the first truly complex character in narrative; the first positive character to perhaps challenge the heroic ideals Homer depicts).

  11. Deuteronomy says:

    Bioshock’s biggest problem was its story. It’s essentially a socialist manifesto masquerading as a FPS. Next up is Atlas Shrugged reimagined as a first person shooter with Levin as the end-boss. But I forget only socialists are justified in the use of violence.

    Now Stalker was a meditation on man’s hubris that actually rose withing sight of the level of art we’re talking about here. If not on the level of the classics, certainly it’s up there with modern cinema.

  12. Al3xand3r says:

    Agreed Grey, that’s exactly the kind of games that should be praised for using the medium to its full extent to express a storyline. We wouldn’t put those alongside the Iliad either but because they’re a far different medium, not because they’re worse. Just like we wouldn’t put Beethoven next to Homer since they do completely different things. Obviously writing a book about SotC wouldn’t be as good as the Iliad because it’s only a good story in the way that it’s told through the medium it exploits and for what it is, it’s certainly a modern classic.

    I should note the above (imo) applies when discussing games as a means to tell (or better yet, actually experience) a story. I CAN and DO enjoy games that tell stories using other mediums (movie-like scenes for example, I loved Panzer Dragoon Saga) or don’t try to tell any kind of story at all and rely on the gameplay. It’s just obvious such games should never be used as examples of story telling in games since in the first case they use a medium that has little to do with actual gaming and therefor only show the power of that medium, while in the second case it would be as silly as mistaking gamey mechanics for advanced story telling like that bit that made me chuckle about how Halo won’t proceed if you don’t do a specific action, which describes every game and story in existence and really doesn’t bring it close to the Iliad, heh…

  13. Alexander says:

    Grey’s post has the profundity of JJ’s Ulysses compared to the other commentary. Any comparison between the horribly epic shows of inability of commercial game-design in general and the infinitely more complex, intricate classics calls for laughter and flames and rapture right there and shows both a misunderstanding of games and classic literature in general. They are as much classics as man’s first encounter with film and its black and white profundity. I believe as we progress with the medium we will be able to control it, so far most complex works simply fail by the lack of control; understanding the medium.

  14. Andy Simpson says:

    To be honest, I don’t think that comparing games and the classics is too far off the mark. Plenty of the Iliad is just finding new ways to say “Achilles/Patroclus/Diomedes/Hector killed Anonymous Trojan/Achaean with spear”

    That’s not far removed from Halo’s oft-quoted “30 seconds of fun”.

    On the DRM/survival of information issue, that’s a huge problem with the classics! Only a tiny fraction of Sophocles and his peers has actually survived. It’s likely the same thing will happen to our culture – most will be forgotten, but the greats will live on, somehow.

  15. Kieron Gillen says:

    Off topic special.

    Deuteronomy: You’re miles off base in thinking Bioshock any kind of socialist piece, man. They come out of it nearly as bad as the Objectivists.

    Yann: Thanks for the splendid healing.

    KG

  16. sinister agent says:

    Plenty of the Iliad is just finding new ways to say “Achilles/Patroclus/Diomedes/Hector killed Anonymous Trojan/Achaean with spear”

    How long before Counterstrike’s death messages are preceded with a biography of each anonymous soldier and how having their face mashed in with a spear put all that to an end, do you think?

  17. capital L says:

    “How long before Counterstrike’s death messages are preceded with a biography of each anonymous soldier and how having their face mashed in with a spear put all that to an end, do you think?”

    I don’t know but I’m all in favor of it!

    Instead of

    Idomeneus (M-16) (headshot) Othryoneus
    Idomeneus (M-16) (headshot) Asius

    we could have the awesomeness of

    Ideomeneus aimed a M-16 and hit Othryoneus from Cabesus, a basement-dweller who had but lately come to take part in the server, as he came striding on. His vest of kevlar did not protect him,and the bullet struck him in the head so that he fell heavily to the ground.
    Asius longed to strike down Idomeneus but ere he could do so Idomeneus smote him with his M-16 in the throat under the chin, and the copper jacket went clean through it. He fell as an oak, or poplar, or pine which shipwrights have felled for ship’s timber upon the mountains with whetted axes–even thus did he lie full length in front of his clanmates, grinding his teeth and clutching at the bloodstained dust.”

    The downside would be that the pregame would become an unbelievably tedious retelling of how everyone involved in the match came to be there
    “Dogturd, the fleet son of Dave, commands clan [GR33K]. He is a little man, and his mouse is not optical, but in the use of the sniper rifle he excels all of [GR33K] and [TRJN]. He came with 20 ping astride mighty packets from Roadrunner.”

    Sidenote: the Iliad isn’t particularly profound when one is selectively quoting the most awesome violent bits…

  18. Jochen Scheisse says:

    @ capital L: Brilliance! I demand a mod!

  19. Quater says:

    Well shamefully I still haven’t finished Bioshock, or even got up to the ‘big twist’ that everyone always talks about, so I can’t really comment on that. Comparing Halo to even a trashy airport novel, let alone the classics, would be a preposterous and baseless claim, and I shouldn’t have to explain why. So I won’t.

    Now Planescape, on the other hand… that genuinely does stand up as a powerful and profound symbolic literary work in a similar way to something like 1984, perhaps even some of Asimov’s lighter material. But then, Planescape is almost a book anyway.

    I really can’t think of much else that compares. Deus Ex 1&2 come second as an at least thought-provoking examination of the role of technology in the continued process of human evolution, if only William Gibson hadn’t already done it all better. Snatcher would be good if it wasn’t just a Blade Runner ripoff. And since I’ve mentioned 1984, I guess Half-Life 2 is basically what would happen if Luc Besson had produced the film adaptation.

    I’ve been replaying The Neverhood recently (hence my screenname), and that would genuinely have a shot at some real poetic oomph if it actually used its whole semi-satirical creationist theme in any meaningful way, but as it is it’s just a bizarrely subtle, if charming, joke.

    This whole question probably won’t be solved until someone makes a real, concerted effort to, say, make a game adaptation of the Iliad. Would it work? Not unless the developers could resist putting in massive weapons, QTEs and Olympian-grade breast physics. The Iliad was not a story about killing people, it’s a story about wrath, grief, lust and humanity at large which happens to be set around a war. Until someone in games works out the difference and has the courage to set the boundary, we’ll be stuck in sub-airport novel dregs indefinitely.

    Oh and hello, by the way. I’m not usually this pretentious, I swear ;)

  20. Al3xand3r says:

    Well I think even a good adaptation of the Iliad in game form wouldn’t be that great to show the power of games as I think it would end up being more about cut scenes or textual stimulation which is not something that is game specific but rather it’s the use of other mediums within games.

    Games like Portal and Ico and Shadow of the Colossus on the other hand, while they certainly don’t tell so complex stories, they are up to par in artistic expression and show the power of games as a new medium since they offer an experience of a story rather than simply show or simply tell it via other mediums. And while it’s much simpler stories, they have a big impact because you experience them in such ways. I don’t think that’s possible with very intricate stories (without making them drag on and on and boring I guess) like the classics discussed here.

    But like I said, I do also love games that make use of other mediums if they do so well, or if they don’t try to show anything deep and are simply gamey entertainment. So I wouldn’t mind something like say, Metal Gear Iliad (no, I don’t imply it would have stealth). It’s just not what I’d show as an example of the power of games as a medium.

    Anyway, I urge everyone to read the classics in their original language if at all possible, it’s really far better and different to just reading non-poetic translations. Such things are sort of like having a Hamlet with the characters speaking in bland, modern slang or something, a lot of it is lost. Hope that description gets my point across to English speakers here…

  21. capital L says:

    Quater:

    I’m also intrigued with how to deal with the role of the gods in an Iliad game. The recent movie ignored their active role and all but ignored them all together, which is fine but not true to the text. A video game would be at some advantage, as we are already used to mechanisms that could be contextualized as some sort of divine support– saving/loading, checkpoints, invincible NPCs, scripted events, etc. I can envision a Dynasty Warriors sort of “kill a whole bunch of unimportant people” basic structure, punctuated by set piece battles against the chief heroes, with the godly interventions doing what they did in the books: shifting the momentum or tide of battle, making particular people temporarily unbeatable or vulnerable, removing people (including the player character) from combat just before they die.

    You know, the more I think about it, this would be an awesome game! You pick a hero, and the story more or less follows their role in the combat, although if one plans to stay true to the book this eliminates those that died, or perhaps you are able to choose these guys, but when it’s their time you can switch to another character. For my tastes, I reject the idea of altering the story to allow character X to survive or the Trojans to win– one of the themes of the work is fate, so tough titties Troy. I would be in favor of including elements of other classical sources however, especially the Odyssey and the Aeneid as they describe the sack of Troy which actually occurs after the end of the Iliad (which is another of the awesome and intriguing things about the Iliad).

    To wrap up this rambling thing, I think the ending, with the Sack of Troy, could be very kickass. You could be Odysseus fucking shit up all over as Troy burns, or you could be Aeneas trying to scram from the scene with your pops on your back.

    Al3xand3r: I took Latin for years (high school and college), but I just didn’t (and don’t) have the desire or tenacity to learn Greek. It’s a whole ‘nother set of letters for christ’s sake!

  22. Deuteronomy says:

    Keiron,

    You have to enlighten me on how socialism was critiqued in Bioshock. I think it’s clear that the forces that destroyed Rapture were rooted in how Andrew Ryan set the society up – which was some kind of weird misconception of the objectivist ideal. Let me know, I’m curious.

  23. Kieron Gillen says:

    Deut: Fontaine’s religious/charity/socialism, mainly. That’s the biggest irony in the story – Ryan was completely right about socialism and charity. In Rapture, it was just the way Fontaine manipulating people into doing what he wanted*. Levine’s standard argument is Bioshock is about the problem with fundamentalist belief in any idea structure, which I can see, and think it actually handle fairly well.

    KG

  24. Deuteronomy says:

    I never made that connection about Fontaine, I understood him to just be a business rival who decided to use whatever means necessary. Damn, now I have to go replay the game.

  25. Deuteronomy says:

    On further reflection, I continue to disagree, although I get where you’re coming from. I see Fontaine as sort of the Neo to Rapture’s Matrix. He is the flaw in the system embodied as a corrupt businessman.

  26. Grey says:

    @Alexanders (both)
    It’s nice to find like-minded people.
    However I will say that I believe complexity is possible (but not necessary) in telling a story interactively.
    I also believe in playing up the medium’s visual strengths, though not to the extent of cutscenes (instead: striking images, backdrops, etc), because it is still a visual medium, even if primarily interactive. And, like Al3x, I can appreciate “cinematic” games or story-less games until they overstep their place and become worshipped for their narrative.

  27. Al3xand3r says:

    Well, it’s nice to see not everyone thought I was being absurd or displaying one upmanship (huh?) with my posts. Anyway, sure, I think we can have complexity also. I just don’t think complexity of the level of the Iliad would be the best thing to happen in a game. I guess I still look at games as entertainment first and foremost so I think that all the slower paced chapters of the Iliad wouldn’t be a very fun game. Of course, if they could actually devise a storyline that is as near perfect as the epics discussed here and at the same time new and exciting all over again I would probably easily reconsider this statement since I could get enjoyment out of the actual story alone even when the gameplay – while everpresent, to fully display the medium’s power – came second in the priorities of some of the chapters. So long as it didn’t overstep the limits either and become a non-game, you know?

    But still the likes of Portal, Ico and SotC you mentioned show that often times, less is more and I guess developers should try to master the medium with such before attempting more complex things, when speaking about showing the true power of the medium at least, since we’ve both concluded games that end up using movies or other such mediums to convey their stories can be enjoyable, but simply shouldn’t be used as what all games should look up to if their more powerful moments come from the use of all the other mediums anyway…

  28. Alarik says:

    To all: Well, Halo and Bioshock and Illias have definitelly at least one thing in common – they are/were quite popular.

    Simple (doesn’t mean bad) stories about war, bloodshed, little drama and so on are pretty popular (and they always were). People like them, and so do I and you :-)

  29. Al3xand3r says:

    Well, not everyone likes them, but liking something doesn’t make it as impacting or important or profound as the clasics anyway, which was what we were mainly discussing against…

  30. Grey says:

    @Al3x – I’m not sure I can agree with you fully on the following topic:

    I remember reading that cinema was spectacle before it was a narrative art. I think there’s certainly place for simple (or complex) interactive experiences – things which cannot be classified by gameplay mechanics. Instead of FPS, the genre would be War for example (based on its content).

    I don’t think that it could find acceptance anytime soon.

    People need spectacle to ease them into accepting a new use of the medium. Perhaps a game which meditates on violence? Violence is a common thread throughout the medium, and one that could provide violence solely for meaningful messages (sounds difficult) could in effect be that bridge. For cinema, consumer demand caused the shift to narrative. For games, which have been around for thousands of years, there is no current desire. Video games are unique in that they seperate themselves from the rest of gaming history with a pre-built, “living” and visual link.
    I’m hesitant to call this new use of the medium “games” not for elitist purposes, but for the sake of shaking connotations which come with the label. A set of rules, objectives, rigid gameplay structure, entertainment value – none are necessary to tell a beautiful story interactively.

    I’m fine with having both in our medium. Neither will cannibalise the other – blockbusters haven’t killed the Coens.