Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Getting Literal, in More Ways Than One

I read somewhere about an upcoming game from Asmodée called Iliade. Apparently this is based on the poem by Homer, as cards representing Achilles and Hector and the rest of their posses were mentioned in the post; however, also mentioned were cards representing elephants and catapults. Now, here's the thing: there aren't any elephants or catapults in Homer. No mention of any siege engines are made, and according to Wikipedia catapults did not come even into use until 400-300 BC, whereas the events in the Iliad are supposed to have taken place some 900 years earlier. Meanwhile elephants are pretty much out of the question. One can conceivably imagine Homer forgetting to discuss ballistas and whatnot, as the walls of Troy are not actually stormed in the time frame of the poem, but one would have to think that an elephant was worth a mention. Three entire pages are devoted to an argument about whether or not charge the Trojan lines before or after breakfast; you'd have to think that an elephant stomping around the place would rate an entire chapter. Moreover, even assuming the bronze-age Greeks knew where to get their their hands on an elephant, how would they bring it to Troy? Surely the sleek, black-hulled ships were far too small for that sort of thing. You could maybe bring some baby elephants over, but I'm guessing that the military applications of a baby elephant are rather few in number.

So here's the question: what was Asmodée thinking? How did they manage to know enough about the Iliad to include all the major characters and yet not know that there were no pachyderm charges? On the other hand, maybe they just figured no one would ever know the difference? It may even be that that degree of faithfulness to the source is beside the point. It is just a game, after all. "We've got Achilles, we've got Hector, good enough." Hell, why not have Agamemnon driving a tank? Athena would have been all over that.

What started it all: Paris must choose between the three hottest chicks in Ancient Greece. Ring a ding ding! Note the conspicuous lack of catapults.

Speaking of random weirdness on the web, I just read a very good article about the history of gaming, but it includes the phrase "the immortal Sid Sackson." Now, I certainly hope that the legacy of Sid Sackson will live on throughout the ages, but isn't "immortal" going a little too far? I mean, the man is dead, after all. As long as the guy still had a pulse you could hold onto a glimmer of hope that he would be the one human being to somehow manage to elude the grim reaper, but when he hasn't been breathing for this long a time you have to start facing facts.


Chris Farrell said...

Funny, in my recent contemplation of Beowulf, I was trying to think of what other classic stories might be suitable for turning into games (real games, that is, not just suitable for applying as a stick-on theme). The most promising idea that came to mind was The Iliad.

(It was then that I found out that, like, the Iliad doesn't contain 90% of the stuff I associate with the Trojan War. No giant horse, no arrow-in-the-heel, no apple, no Iphigenia ... I guess I had better read the thing)

If I did such a game, though, it wouldn't have Elephants. Or Catapults.

Of course, I guess it's generally thought that Homer was writing at least a couple hundred years after the actual event, whatever the real event was like. It's possible that maybe the Trojans had a couple Elephants and that the Greeks found the experience so traumatic that it was completely repressed in their racial memory.

My game still wouldn't have Elephants.

OzGamer said...

Well, I'm pretty sure that the Syrian Elephant was still extant at this time, but I agree that the chances of anyone in the Aegean even having seen an elephant are pretty small.

I think general perceptions of the pre-classical epic stories are similar to the Arthurian legends in that they are highly glamourized. I suspect that the attack on Troy was a bunch of peasants, most of whose boats sank, attacking a little hill mound, mostly with clubs.

Scuba Steve said...

Canon doesn't mean much to a marketing team when it comes to pushing their product.

Chances are a few people know the Iliad wasn't written by Homer Simpson and that there is no mention of catapults or elephants in that work. But the target audience isn't that small niche of well informed people.

In addition, special characters are nice but if one went soley by the exact text of the Iliad, what cards would be available? There would be spearmen, more spearmen and archers and maybe a chariot or horse equipment card. Sounds exciting!


Joe Gola said...

As Scuba Steve says, the only military units that are mentioned in the poem are spearmen, chariots and the occasional archer, and really all the chariots seem to do is act as jeeps for the champions. The Iliad could well be adapted into a game, but the granular bits would need to be the heroes and the gods rather than military units. There are some battlefield landmarks, though, namely the Achaean ships, the Achaean wall, the trench, a central ridge, and of course Troy itself.

Another feature of the narrative which could be used to good effect in a game is the obsession with plunder and the glory it bestowed. In the book, warriors are constantly taking the risk of trying to pull the armor off an enemy they had slain, even in the midst of heavy fighting, and would often get killed by the opposing force in the attempt. This could be incorporated into a risk-reward system, possibly.

Supposedly Homer writing many centuries after the fact (I think this is what was traditionally believed by the Classical Greeks, though, interestingly, they were just as much in the dark about the origins of the poem as we are), and so for all we know the Trojans and Achaeans had daily elephant parades and wore ball gowns to battle. However, what is both fascinating and maddening about the book is the excessive amount of detail that is related, and so one truly is tempted to imagine that the better part of the narrative is honest-to-gods reportage which was handed down orally from generation to generation. Even the intercessions of the Gods could have real-world origins; supposedly there is some fascinating stuff about this in The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, a book which two very intelligent people have assured me is one of the more mind-blowing reads in the world's library.

Anonymous said...

Catapults would have made the siege of Troy a bit easier, so including them in the game is a bit off, but nothing to brag about.
Including elephants are just ridiculous! Its not, that there wasnt any other way to imploy special units (Fire-Arrows, Heros, Gods, Priests...) which might not be historical also, but at least more plausible.
And it would have been so easy....

(There once was a game about the prirat stortebecker by hans im glueck), where the goods were rum, banana and something else from the carribean. Stoertebecker lived in the 1300s and raided in the north and the baltic sea. So salt, wine and Gold would have been more logical and it wouldnt have made any difference for the game. Why didnt the publisher check before ibncluding it? It would have made the theme a bit thicker...)

Chris Farrell said...

My favorite historically weird product is the movie Spartacus. Almost everything surrounding the plot is historically suspect. But then you get the big battle-scene shot where the Roman legions form up in their checkerboard pattern and do a manipular extension.

The attention to detail required to get that bit right, a bit which is immaterial to the overall effectiveness of the movie as a whole, while the rest of the film is so blithely unconcerned about the historical record, is a strange justaposition to me.

Pawnstar said...

To assume that the public are always less knowledgeable (whether we're talking games,books or films here) and conclude from this that a watered-down and/or anachronistic version of the true history is therefore acceptable ignores the beneficial effect historical accuracy has on educating the unenlightened majority (of which, in this case, I can include myself as one).

If there's one thing I appreciate less than being branded an idiot it's being trained to be one. The real lesson is not to take historically-themed games as accurate in any way; but then why theme these games historically in the first place?

Joe Gola said...

Suddenly I feel that I can't really complain about Iliade any more because I just saw the movie Troy. Now, no one expects a perfect transposition of Homer to Hollywood (even if O Brother, Where Art Thou was a lot of fun), but, like Anthony suggests, at a certain point you have to ask "if there was so much about the original story that bugged you, why did you want to make the movie in the first place?"

I was completely baffled by the film until I realized that if you asked the average college-educated person on the street what the deal was with the city of Troy, he'd say "the Trojans stole Helen, she launched a thousand ships, there was a big war, there was a horse, the end." Everything in between is filler, essentially, and so they took the events from The Iliad to flesh out some details and give the movie a hero (i.e. Achilles, though while he was certainly a hero in the in the oldest sense, he was someone who most people would emphatically not want leading their son's cub scout troop (or even mowing their lawn, really)).

What remains bizarre, though, is that the sceenwriter yet makes little nods to tradition even though the only people who would be able to pick up on these wink-wink moments would also surely notice the forty-seven other ways that the movie blows off the original story. For example, there's this little moment at the end with Anaeas escaping, except they depict him as this green young guy who looks up to Paris, whereas in the story he was just one of the gang, fighting away alongside the rest of them, and in fact if I remember right he was Paris's uncle. Don't even get me started on all the backchat Briseis flings at Achilles. The whole thing about slaves is that they're not allowed to mouth off. That's why they were so popular in the ancient world. Yes, it's true that in Homer Achilles is very, very fond of Briseis, but maybe that's because she didn't give him any guff. He was probably all like "wash this shirt!" and she would jump up and say "yes sir!" and he would think "damn, this one's a keeper."