The Cyclops and the Cheat Sheet: Gaming the Odyssey

‘I don’t read.’

As a professor of video game design, you’d be surprised how often I hear that sentence. Or, ‘I don’t like reading.’ Or even, ‘I don’t have time to read anymore.’

My students all play games, of course, and watch movies, and even read graphic novels and comics, but many of them just never manage to pick up a book and read. Other students come to us with huge libraries and a love of reading, but have missed out on the classics, or only read in a narrow genre: nothing but Star Wars novels, sword and sorcery fantasy or supernatural romance.

My current title is Assistant Professor of Computer Game Design in the Arts and Technology program at the University of Texas at Dallas. Most people assume that my education is in computer science or 3D graphics, but I received my first university degree in English Literature, a field that has more to do with game development than one might think. I teach my students that video games are primarily an interactive medium, not a narrative one, but that games have incredible potential for storytelling – and that if they want to design heavily-narrative games, they need to understand how narrative works in other media. In short, they need to play great games, but they also need to read great books. (This becomes a graduation requirement for anyone that says the words ‘I don’t read’ in my office.)

That said, my students are usually in their twenties and thirties, not young children. Much of my current research is focused on developing impactful educational games, of which there are perhaps two major types: the game that teaches you the basics of, say, organic chemistry or physics; and the game that inspires young people to become scientists. The ‘Reading the Book is Cheating’ project falls into this second category, and while it was developed for college students, what we learned is applicable for educational games across the board.

Where the Game Came From: Three Conversations

A few years ago, I had two conversations about Homer’s Odyssey in the same week. One of my colleagues, a medievalist and a science fiction scholar, reminded me that one should read the Odyssey every year since it’s ‘good for the soul.’ Not two days later, one of the high school students who was interning in my research lab said that one should never read the Odyssey, as ‘it’s really, really boring.’ His opinion, we discovered, came from two major sources of complaint: the way the Odyssey was taught to him, which mostly involved multiple0choice tests; and the translation he was assigned to read: poorly written, heavily cut and presented in chronological order rather than in medias res. The two conversations prompted me to go back and re-read the beautiful translation by Robert Fitzgerald over a weekend. At the same time, I was wrapping up a project that involved a series of very small, interconnected games. That weekend, I realized how much the episode of the Cyclops’ cave had in common with the structure of classic point-and-click adventure games, and started considering what an educational game designed around the Odyssey might look like: not one that would teach names and dates and places, but one that would inspire someone to appreciate the original text.
A third conversation sealed the deal: I was having dinner with some colleagues and graduate students, and one of my doctoral students – a woman who is now a lead designer at Zynga Dallas on the Castleville team – started a conversation about linking educational games and literature, particularly about helping students find ways to understand difficult or inaccessible texts. She used the phrase, ‘reading the book is cheating,’ and that was all we needed to get started.
This project started as a labour of love between three people: myself, a faculty member and game designer; Bobby Frye, a doctoral student, pixel artist and animator; and Spencer Evans, a Master’s student and programmer. We completed the Odyssey game in the evenings and on weekends, in the time we had between working on our larger, funded projects, as well as either teaching or attending classes. Our initial goal was simply to play with the idea and see what an Odyssey-themed game might look like. Ultimately, however, the project became much more than this, as we realised what games of this kind might do for students like our Homer-hating high school intern. Even the Fitzgerald translation, one of the most beautifully poetic as well as clear translations, is not accessible to the average young person, either because they already see Homer’s Odyssey as the boring, bland story they are forced to read in school, or because they don’t know that it exists at all. I don’t expect that every person who plays our game will be inspired to become a classics scholar, but I hope that it helps to make the text more accessible to a wider audience.
Our new goal is to use games like The Odyssey to get students and young people interested in Homer’s original by doing what game players do best: cheating. In the game, you control Odysseus and are challenged to get out of Polyphemus’ cave alive, with as many of your crewmen as possible. You can do this through trial and error, through logic, or – as many of us do when confronted with a difficult puzzle in a game – by looking up the answer. With this game, however, that doesn’t mean buying a walk-through or heading to it means reading a few hundred lines in Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey. The game itself takes only about ten minutes to play through, and is designed to be replayed two or three times.
What is the Game? Some Design Challenges of Educational Games
All digital games are educational in nature. The question isn’t whether or not they teach, but what they teach. To design worthwhile educational games, I firmly believe that what the player does should be the same as what the player is to learn: that the game mechanics and the educational content should either be the same thing, or at least be working in concert. It’s easy for designers to fall into the ‘Grand Theft Calculus’ trap: to assume that taking a popular game genre or set of mechanics and simply sprinkling in some multiple choice questions will make a great educational game (it won’t). It’s equally easy, particularly for teachers who have some experience with digital games, to fall into what we call the ‘magic bullet’ trap: the idea that creating an educational game, even an excellent game, about a certain topic, will completely solve all problems for that topic in the educational system. Games, particularly digital games, are best used as tools for educators, in or out of the classroom; and the most successful educational games give teachers lots of options in terms of how to use them.
In developing the Odyssey game, we decided early on that it would approach the text as a piece of art, rather than as a subject area to be learned. We didn’t want to, for example, do a study to ‘prove’ that students did better in their English literature classes after playing our game, or find a measurable outcome for whether students were more engaged with the text after playing. We simply wanted to make Homer’s Odyssey feel more approachable by creating an entry point: something small, fun and unique with a clear connection with the original text. By deciding to create an art game first and an educational game second, we gave ourselves a great deal of freedom both in our design choices and in ways the game could eventually be used.
One of the challenges we faced was in designing gameplay that didn’t deviate from the source material.  We hit upon adapting the Cyclops’ cave as a point-and-click adventure game almost by accident, but considered a number of other scenarios that we ultimately set aside. The Lotus Eaters, for example, only take up a very few lines in the text, and we felt that we would be inventing more than translating if we were to give them a bigger role. Both the Aeolian winds and the Sirens involve very little action on Odysseus’ part: in one, he tries not to fall asleep; in the other, he stays tied to the ship’s mast. Both these scenarios could be adapted into excellent small games, but with vastly different mechanics than the ones we were already developing for the Cyclops scenario. We also felt that the point-and-click adventure game, which focuses on mental rather than physical challenges, was most appropriate for The Odyssey, which focuses on the cunning, rather than the strength, of its main character.
Many of the design challenges had to do with achieving balance: we know Odysseus takes twelve men into the cave with him, but putting thirteen characters, plus a Cyclops and a number of sheep into the game screen was too cluttered and made some of our path-finding difficult to navigate. Likewise, we know the Cyclops leaves the cave in the mornings and enters in the evenings, but figuring out exactly how many seconds a game day should take, or exactly how fast the Cyclops should move relative to Odysseus and his men, took a great deal of fine-tuning.
In terms of the game’s aesthetic, we deliberately limited ourselves to one artist, and chose to embrace that limitation by creating art assets in an updated pixel-art style. As Homer’s Odyssey is an ancient story, we also felt that it was entirely appropriate to use an ‘ancient’ style of game art, similar to classics like Space Quest or The Secret of Monkey Island. It’s worth noting that all three of us have development experience with high-fidelity, fully-realized 3D spaces and nearly photo-realistic digital characters from our work on other game and simulation projects. We chose not to pursue this direction because, regardless of our small team size, we felt that the game would be better served by more abstract spaces, and by a style that, in the words of our artist, would let the game’s ‘computer-ness’ show through. The style and simple animations of the characters harken back to older gaming forms and textures, and allow for more imagination than one might find in a fully realized, detailed 3D space.
Where We’re Going Next
While all three of us are currently caught up with other work, the ‘Reading the Book is Cheating’ project is something we would all ultimately like to return to. We’ve considered two major directions for future development. The first and most obvious would be to adapt the full text of Homer’s Odyssey into multiple interconnected games, about five or ten minutes each, which would include a similar art style but wildly different mechanics. We designed two additional scenarios while developing the Cyclops piece, one centered on defeating Circe and the other on summoning the spirits of the dead, which could be implemented immediately, and prototyped for five or six other potential scenarios.  The second direction would be to explore small games that adapt scenes from other works of classic literature, which would allow us to make games that could serve as entry points to many different texts.
One feature that we considered but did not implement for the Odyssey game was the voice of Homer. A player can escape the cave without doing things exactly as Odysseus did by taking more or fewer days to escape, saving a different number of crewmen or doing some minor things out of order. Originally, Homer would score the player based on how closely they managed to replicate Odysseus’ escape as told in the text. This got us thinking about other classic texts in which stories are told by one character to others, in particular the Wife of Bath’s tale from The Canterbury Tales, or the play-within-a-play scene from Hamlet. The challenge here would be to create a series of short games that are mechanically and aesthetically different, but still make up a coherent whole.
Lastly, I am reminded of John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt, in which the second act takes place not on stage but in the conversations you have on the way home from the theatre. Our original high school intern has moved on, but of the hundred high school and college students who have seen and played the Odyssey game since, what I find most interesting is their conversations afterward. A few have said they would like to reread Homer’s Odyssey, which is wonderful to hear, but most of them are more interested in talking about other books, especially the ones they didn’t like. More than a few times, I’ve heard someone say, ‘I hated this book in high school. What kind of a game could you make about this one?’
With that in mind, we hope that the Odyssey game and the ‘Reading the Book is Cheating’ project can help students realize there is more to great literature that what you find in even the best of classrooms. It’s a small start, but one that might eventually help students of all ages discover or rediscover the classics and to recognise that ultimately what we play isn’t all that different from what we choose to read.