Bloomsday assassins: Playing Ulysses

Senior Lecturer Dr Miriam Ross likes to subvert what people are expecting within film.

This summer, Dr Ross from the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies, and her Summer Research Scholar Helen Perkins are reading a large book and playing a long game. They are using the Story Creator Mode to place the events of James Joyce’s Ulysses into the popular video game Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey to create a mini-game—and filming the process.

The technique is called machinima—creators use a computer game engine to create a film work, using the characters in the game to create their own mini-narrative.

“There’s a long history of this type of film-making stretching back to the 1990s, and I had taught in this area, but never created anything myself,” Dr Ross says. “Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey’s Story Creator Mode gave me this opportunity to do a forking-path narrative type of machinima.”

The most difficult task they’ve had so far in creating their machinima melding has been engaging with Ulysses in a way that is true to the novel, while working within the rules of the Assassin’s Creed framework.

“For a normal player, it frustrates expectations, because you’re not asked to kill people, you’re not asked to engage in normal dialogue, and you’re in this Joycean world, having to give the answers that Leopold Bloom would give to continue your quest. We want people to experience something quite different from either the game or the book” Dr Ross says.

“We want to retain that feeling of meandering, of not really being sure what’s going on, and trying to work that into the restrictions of the game engine itself. Also: in Ulysses nobody is killed, but the only way for a certain quest—in this case to retrieve a book for Molly—to end, is to kill somebody, due to the game’s parameters.”

Part of the inspiration to use Ulysses was the link between Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses. “Assassin’s Creed is set at a different time from the Odyssey, but still in that ancient Greek world. One of the characters you meet is named as being Odysseus’ great-great-granddaughter. So there are overlaps: they’ve both got the Greek connection,” says Dr Ross.

There is a huge community of players creating these mini-games in Story Creator Mode already: the mode was only released in June 2019, and six months later, 9,000 mini-story game plays have already been published. “It’s interesting being part of community that is really excited by this new technology. To be able to go into a game as an everyday consumer, and create your own little gameplay is still novel. And the appetite is there.”

Helen has already created the draft of their game play, now the pair are finetuning it before they upload it to the forums. “Part of our big job will be how we encourage people to learn how to play it,” Dr Ross says. “You need to know the right answers, but Ulysses has been dissected across enough online forums that if you haven’t read the book, you can still use Google to play the game.”

They will complete a short film documenting their experiences while creating this new game and there is a forthcoming research article based on their work. “Helen has done a really good job of reading up the literature on interactive narrative. There’s a long history of that, and actually when hypertext became popular in the late 20th century, everyone said ‘If Joyce was around, he would have used this,’ so it’s nice that this project links back to him in this way.”