It had been a long night, and I was feeling much wearier than my elven minstrel looked. He was apparently tireless as he whipped out his theorbo, played a ditty, and returned it to its infinitely capacious yet invisible holster. I, on the other hand, was literally falling asleep in the middle of battles, hardly noticing when the guardian’s morale dwindled to a hair’s breadth.

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Then, something happened that simultaneously snapped me awake and gave me an excuse to log off. A drop. A page drop. The last page of The Rising Chord, the legendary book I’d been working towards completing for the past month. The one that would give me the legendary trait that would give me the skill that would allow me to mitigate dread for my fellowship. Euoi! Add that to a mirrored shield my friend had crafted for me earlier in the day, and I was ready for prime-time end-game content! Rift, here I come!

What I was feeling – the mixture of pride, relief and anticipation tied to the lengthy pursuit of an imaginary object – is something that players of MMOG’s (and, truth to tell, several other kinds of videogames) know very well. But it isn’t something that came into existence with the current crop of MMORPG’s and their highly developed grinding and loot mechanics, nor even with paper-and-dice RPG’s and the Vorpal Swords that lurked in the pages of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The feeling is probably as old as storytelling itself, but its first obvious appearance in Western Civilization is in Homer’s Iliad.

Here’s Hector, in Book 17, getting the drop of Achilles’ loaned armor from Achilles’ friend Patroclus:

But Hector, when he had stripped from Patroclus the glorious armor,
dragged at him, meaning to cut his head from his shoulders with the sharp bronze,
to haul off the body and give it to the dogs of Troy; but meanwhile
Ajax came near him, carrying like a wall his shield,
and Hector drew back to the company of his own companions
and sprang to his chariot, but handed over the beautiful armor
to the Trojans, to take back to the city and to be his great glory.

And here’s Menelaus, a bit earlier in the same scene, worried that Hector is going to get that drop:

Ah me; if I abandon here the magnificent armor,
and Patroclus, who has fallen here for the sake of my honor,
shall not some one of the Danaans, seeing it, hold it against me?

3-D graphics and tiered chat interfaces may lend an air of novelty to the quest for loot, but classical literature tells us that gear drops – and the strong feelings associated with them – are a very, very old phenomenon.

Think of the Achaean warriors (the ones we usually call “the Greeks”) at Troy, and the Trojan warriors (led by Hector) themselves, as toons at the level cap. The most important gameplay mechanic for the Achaeans and the Trojans is called aristeia. Call it “prowess” if you want, but it really means “best-ness.” In this context, Aristeia is a kind of mini-game all its own. The internal evidence of the Iliad suggests that this mini-game is actually the ur-genre of the epic tradition, the earliest and most basic development of oral bardic convention that ended up giving us the written fossil we know as the enormous, 24-book masterpiece called the Iliad.

To put it in concrete terms: In the period around 1200 to 800 B.C.E., bards traveled from noble house to noble house. In each house where the lord fed them, they sang stories of the glory of heroes. Those stories weren’t very long, and they weren’t very complex. One kind of story that seems likely to have been really popular is the aristeia. The aristeia records a hero’s fighting abilities by telling of a battle in which he killed multiple opponents, usually ending in an encounter that’s identifiably a “boss fight.”

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You can call the aristeia a quest. You know, the kind of quest where you have to kill 10 saber-tooths and then the biggest, baddest saber-tooth of all. (It’s also reminiscent of a level in your standard action game, but remember, we’re looking for loot, not just an afternoon’s diversion.)

This kind of story, where a warrior demonstrates his mastery over his opponents (on a given Sunday, as it were), foretells the development of the Iliad into the masterpiece we know today. When Achilles pulls out of battle, there wouldn’t be any questions about the significance of the act for Homer to ponder unless Achilles was the best of the Achaeans. And Achilles couldn’t be the best of the Achaeans without the aristeia to prove it.

The aristeia itself also looks backward to an even older tradition: the battle books proper, in which heroes kill one another without an immediate purpose beyond stripping their opponents’ armor and giving it to their driver to take back to their tent. It’s worth noting that chariots are a ridiculous anachronism in the Iliad – almost as ridiculous as the idea that you might actually carry all that crap in your bags in an MMOG (or, again, any game with an inventory).

The battle books are the closest the Iliad comes to grinding. Warriors and warrior wanna-bes must have loved these stories. Ancient Greek bloggers with aesthetic pretensions, on the other hand, must have had a love-hate relationship with them. After all, there’s something about grinding that’s incredibly engaging. Far from extraneous, grinding is an unbelievably good way to learn how to play the game. The battle books, and their development into the kind of quest called aristeia, display an amazing quality that comes entirely from an unexpected source: the way the grind and the quest, with their common outcomes of experience and loot, demonstrate the MMOG player’s suitability to function in a group.

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Achilles is the best of the Achaeans at Troy – the go-to DPS guy, with the perfect min-max gear. When Achilles opts to sit out because his guild leader Agamemnon decides to take away a piece of Achilles’ phat lewtz even though Achilles had spent the DKP to get it (see Book 1 of the Iliad – the fact that the loot is a girl just means that even Age of Conan doesn’t really approach Greek epic for adult content), all of a sudden the grind, the quest, and the gear mean much, much more. All of a sudden, we have something we can call ethical critique. All of a sudden, we have meaning.

It’s partly because of the idea of aristeia – of being a really good warrior. But prowess and excellence only finally have meaning – in the Iliad, in games and elsewhere – because they put heroes up against one another. The DPS guy with the better stats gets to go on the raid, get the DKP and get the phat lewtz – it’s as much a fact of life in the Iliad, as it is in WoW or LOTRO.

That’s because there’s something we can call “polyheroism” in the Iliad. It’s pretty much like a five-man group in WoW, or a six-man fellowship in LOTRO: Achilles is the DPS guy, Ajax is the tank, Odysseus is the rogue, etc. To enact a story about the meaning of excellence, you need to be able to compare heroes. Everyone loved Achilles, just like everyone loves a good, well specced champion. But some people like Odysseus better than Diomedes, just as some people would rather have a burglar in their party than a second DPS class.

I’m not saying that RPG classes have the depth of epic characters (though you’d be surprised by how little depth epic characters actually have). I’m saying that one important function of characters in the Iliad and in MMOGs is to get us to think about how different versions of excellence relate to one another.

Gear isn’t quite the fundamental, all-pervasive mechanic in the Iliad as it is in MMOGs. But in its own way, it’s actually much more important in epic tradition. Patroclus begs Achilles to let him wear Achilles’ armor. When Patroclus advances too far in battle, Hector slays him and strips the armor (best epic drop ever). Achilles declares that he will return to battle, so his mother commissions a new set from the god Hephaestus (best crafted gear ever). On the shield is depicted, through the skill of the god and the skill of the bard, the entire world.

With that set buffing him to unimaginable min-max heights and depths, Achilles goes out and encounters Hector (now wearing Achilles’ old gear) and slays him, sealing his own doom and winning the war for the Achaeans. From that perspective, at least, it’s all about the gear. And when we consider Achilles’ phat lewtz alongside the little stories that take shape every day on guild discussion boards, when the tank refuses to go on the raid because the healer is a jerk and refuses to spec correctly, we see the wrath of Achilles played out over and over.

When my minstrel finally got the last page of The Rising Chord, it wasn’t particularly profound. Nor was the mirrored shield an artistic wonder, despite its incredible stats. But knowing that when we venture into the Rift my theorbo will ring out with the greatest possible excellence gave me pleasant dreams of glory. Someday, The Rising Chord may be a book worth reading, but even now I have a better understanding of my worth, both min and max, for playing, and living, alongside my friends and fellow warriors.

Roger Travis is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Connecticut. He blogs about the interference of Classics and gaming at livingepic.blogspot.com. In Spring 2009, Roger will offer an online course on videogames as a reawakening of Homeric epic.

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