One of the problems that confronts us as we try to refine the way we critique videogames is that we can’t seem to agree on how the medium relates to other forms of art. Comparisons to film and television fall short because they’re passive entertainment whereas videogames are interactive, which is the key element that makes videogames so culturally significant, yet hard to liken to anything we’ve analyzed before. Is the medium entirely new, then, or can we gain something by comparing videogames to older forms of art?
In order to answer that question, we have to look further back than movies, television and even books, back to when unraveling a story was nearly as interactive as playing videogames. The majority of myths, fables and religious stories were originally passed down across generations by storytellers drawing entire communities into the plot to create a more immersive, memorable experience for those who listened. Eventually, those stories were crafted into actual books, anthologies of hundreds or thousands of years of verbal history. Virgil’s Aeneid is a great example of this type of historical refinement, and it’s a great place to start if we’re going to draw any similarities between gaming and art forms of the past.
The Aeneid centers on an eponymous hero, Aeneas, who escapes from the clutches of the Greeks during the fall of Troy and travels all over the Mediterranean before he arrives in Italy, gets re-married, and founds a city that will found a city that will found Rome. Bear in mind, the Rome in which Virgil writes the Aeneid conquered Greece and Carthage well before Virgil was born, and now faced newer enemies on its frontiers.
Sounds a bit like Halo, if you relax your ears.
The Halo series centers on a semi-robotic super-marine called the Master Chief, who manages in the first game to save the galaxy by preventing a coalition of religiously-motivated alien beings called the Covenant from destroying it by activating the Halo – a ring in space intended to imprison another alien life-form, the Flood. In the second game, the Master Chief performs more or less the same feat, with the notable twist that he is aided by one of the Covenant (the Arbiter), who the player gets to play in certain sections of the game.
We are to the Flood and the Covenant as Virgil’s Roman audience was to the Carthaginians and the Greeks. Through Halo, American culture is to our real enemies as the Romans were to theirs through the Aeneid: in a ceaseless cultural struggle to imagine them as both alien and destined to be defeated by us. This correlation arises from a deep and important similarity between the interactivity of the epic tradition and the obvious interactivity of the action/adventure game.
Both works arose in cultures that value a specific kind of martial prowess. For Rome, it was the prowess of the legionaries and their generals, prowess bound up – at least in propaganda – with the celebrated Roman virtues that center on honor and loyalty; for America, it is the prowess of the storied United States Marine Corps, memorably bound up in a very similar code, expressed most notably in Rob Reiner’s film A Few Good Men: “Unit, Corps, God, Country.”
Aeneas is a strange hybrid of a Greek hero and a Roman general; the Master Chief is a strange hybrid of a Marine and a battle-robot. Their hybridization presents an interesting correspondence in itself, but more interesting still is the way their mixed mythic provenance affects how we view their struggles with their respective enemies. The Covenant forces in Halo very memorably call the Master Chief “the Demon” in much the same way that Dido, jilted queen of Carthage, demonizes Aeneas as being made of stone when he refuses to show human feeling. In both works, the principal character, with which the audience identifies nearly exclusively, is made semi-human in order to make that character a more perfect defeater of the enemy.
And make no mistake: Both works are about securing the self by defeating the other. Halo is a little more obvious in this regard, as the entire universe is at stake. Even the most cursory glance at the Aeneid and its historical context, however, shows us how similar it is to Bungie’s masterpiece: The Rome of Virgil, and of his audience, and in particular of his audience-member- in-chief, Augustus Caesar, would not exist without Aeneas’ struggle to figure out where the heck Italy was. Both Halo and the Aeneid tell a story about a more-than-human hero defeating enemies who would be too much for ordinary people like us – enemies who nevertheless bear an important resemblance to the ones we and the Romans face in our respective presents.
Even though Joe Roman (or, if you prefer, Publius Romanus) isn’t pushing the thumbsticks to move Aeneas around nor choosing the bits of dialogue to tell Dido that he’s skipping town, Publius Romanus interacts with Aeneas in precisely the same way Joe Sixpack interacts with the Master Chief.
The interactivity of the action/adventure game is actually an illusion developers employ to generate a feeling of immersion: You identity yourself within the scene and therefore become a part of the scene mentally. Additionally, Virgil, like every other epic poet, is reshaping the myth he tells in ways that are unfamiliar to his audience, who therefore interact with the work as their ideas of what’s going to happen engage with what the epic poet has in store.
Are there any closet-gamers inside the Beltway to compare with Augustus? If so, they should note that modern critics wonder if Virgil really was a huge supporter of Augustus (at the end of the Aeneid Aeneas abandons some of his Roman virtue), and that playing as the Arbiter in Halo 2 tends to make you think that maybe the enemy has a point from time to time.
Roger Travis is an Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Connecticut.