So I just sent a message to one of my undergrad professors (Look! DH networking!). I wanted to consult with him on some of the issues I’m envisioning for the project that Joe and I will be working on for the rest of the semester. I’m gonna post a version of that message here. If you guys have any feedback/gut reactions/whatever, we would be super appreciative.
Recently, a friend and former professor asked me this question: “Could there be a game that allowed you to travel through different literary traditions?” My immediate reaction was “yep, and it would be pretty easy to make, if it were a text game.”
Well, now that I’m actually thinking about how to make the thing and considering what the finished thing would actually look like, my brain feels pretty twisted up.
First of all, here’s what I think such a game should aspire to achieve:
- To allow the player to trace literary archetypes through the chivalric Romance tradition. In other words, the game should try to make players think about where figures like knights and wizards come from and how these figures might change or be upended, according to where they are in the literary tradition. I would try to keep it simple and allow the player to choose “knight” or “wizard.”
- To allow the player to interact with different characters in that tradition.
- To combine literary fiction (by offering its own narrative) with literary analysis (through the archetypal abstraction of fictional characters into playable protagonists and non-playable characters).
- To use a really accessible tool to create a really accessible finished product. No coding or downloads or purchases required. Just a link that can be played in a browser window.
Here are some of the problems I am envisioning in trying to achieve the above goals:
- So, obviously, I need to make this thing interactive, and I also need to highlight how literary archetypes can shift or change. Should this element be illustrated in the player’s choices or in the conversations with other characters that the player meets along the way? Does the player develop into a different kind of knight or wizard throughout his/her journey, or do the non-playable characters reflect different kinds of knights or wizards? Or both?
- How can I make these different literary environments and archetypes distinct from one another without simply copying and pasting from Mallory or Ariosto or Spenser or Shakespeare? What makes an Ariosto knight different from a Spenser knight? How can I illustrate tonal shifts between different literary traditions? How do I tell the player where the characters are coming from? It’s clear how Don Quixote reads differently than Morte d’Arthur, but differences between other Romance works aren’t as explicit. Can I abstract these differences into fictional characters in a way that suggests they stem from specific traditions? In other words, how do I make it clear that I’m not just blowing smoke?
- I kind of view this project as a continuum between how academic/educational (boring?) I can make this game and how subtle/abstract/stylized (entertaining?) I can try to make it. To what extent should I be trying to create a literary piece of interactive fiction? To what extent should this project be a dry piece of academic work that attempts to reproduce or make sense of chunks of literary history? Should there be footnotes? If so, should they be prominent? I hate most edutainment games, so I don’t want that. Ideally, the game would be funny and thought provoking. Ideally, it would make the player think about the origins and development of knights and wizards, figures that are so pervasive in western culture. On the other hand, the game is coming from a place of trying to teach the player, so perhaps it would be disingenuous to try and obfuscate or downplay its educational elements too much.
Sorry if none of this makes much sense. Just trying to brainstorm and move towards something tangible. The finished product would probably look something like a Choose Your Own Adventure Story that you click through. There’s a tool, called Varytale, that would allow us to track player choices in a way that gives concrete feedback on skills and relationships with other characters. For example, one Varytale story I’ve played tells you how good your character is at spelling at any given point in the narrative. This tool would be more difficult to use than Twine, which is used to make straight up hypertext fiction.
If anyone is interested in playtesting whatever we come up with, let me know.