Ulysses as an RPG

Alistair Brown


“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles,” Joyce famously said of Ulysses, “it’ll keep the professors busy for centuries” (Ellmann 521). Having reinvented the novel, Ulysses continues to reinvent itself depending on the period in which it is read, each of which offers different keys to its decipherment. For the modernists it confirmed consciousness itself as the great subject of literature. For postmodernists it collapses the ontological boundaries between fiction and history, an autotelic text that mockingly eludes definition. As hypertexts and video games dominate our own age, it is perhaps legitimate to revisit Ulysses once again in the light of these latest models of narrative.

It might seem a trivial – and trivialising – exercise to consider Ulysses via a medium that Joyce could not have anticipated. On the other hand, new media always lead us to re-evaluate established ones in ways that reveal both their strengths and limitations. To ask about the ways in which Joyce’s novel might be like a video game helps to draw attention to the materiality of its original medium and the constraints within which Joyce, for all his semantic innovations, was operating. Conversely, thinking about the experience of reading a novel like Ulysses might also help us to understand what it is that makes games so appealing.


Keeping the professors busy: Joyce's Ulysses lends itself to ludological game theory [Image by Bet0 under a CC-BY-NC-ND license]


Whilst ludological game theorists such as Espen Aarseth have made us aware of the fundamental structural differences between a game and a book, Joyce’s novel may be said to be more ludic than most. As Jay David Bolter and Michael Joyce have suggested, modernist writers like Joyce “were trying to set up new relationships between the moment-by-moment experience of reading a text and our perception of the organizing and controlling structures of the text. In this sense, hypertextual fiction is a natural extension of their work, redefining the tradition of modernism for a new medium” (Bolter and Joyce, 45).

In terms of the organising structure of Ulysses, most readers will need to flick back to earlier points in the narrative in order to remind themselves of an issue or detail that is only picked up many pages later. We may also need to navigate the text through footnotes, and of course there are the links to the other domain of The Odyssey itself, along with numerous other intertexts, such as the Catholic mass. Ulysses requires an unusual degree of input from its reader who is tasked with navigating the text in a non-linear way, and in this sense it could be said to be a loosely ergodic work, according to Aarseth’s definition: “The ergodic work of art is one that in a material sense includes the rules for its own use, a work that has certain requirements built in that automatically distinguishes between successful and unsuccessful users” (Aarseth 179).

Applying this definition to games, a player may not possess the requisite degree of mechanical skill to advance the narrative beyond a certain point – hence an ergodic work marks out a failed user “automatically.” Most games include some sort of correlation between erroneous mechanical inputs on the controls, and temporal punishments represented on screen. Most obviously, failure at a particular task causes a character or world to reset to an earlier space and game state which is also, effectively, an earlier moment in the game. A temporal setback thus denotes an “unsuccessful user” both formally, through the visual representation, and physically, as the player has wasted time in trying and failing to perform the required action. Ulysses includes a comparable temporal feedback mechanism through the non-linear, ergodic reading strategy that it requires of us. We are aware that the time it should take to read Ulysses is roughly correspondent with the duration of the day experienced by the characters represented within it.[1] In this sense, Ulysses is the ultimate realist work. Yet its literary self-consciousness requires us continually to break its realism by pausing, re-reading, or cross-referencing in order to follow both the forward momentum of the plot and the sideways significance of its intertexts. In this sense, it defines our own failure as readers of the potentially day-long text, much as a game challenges us through setbacks which reverse the onward flow of time, or progress through levels.


Is reading Ulysses like playing a video game? Re-reading and cross-referencing function like a game which challenges players through setbacks [Image by un singe qui parle under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]


As well as requiring us to navigate the space of the text, Ulysses is game-like because of the emphasis it places on space in the novel as the primary plane of development. Whilst in a conventional bildungsroman a character grows historically over a long period, in the single day-in-the-life of Ulysses, Dedalus and Bloom develop mainly through their movements through space. The advertising agent, Bloom, for example, registers the language plastered on walls and bills throughout the streets, yet Joyce also uses this language metaphorically to link Bloom to everything from cannibalism to Judaism. The spaces he moves through and the objects he encounters become inseparable from who he is in a more rounded and historical sense. 

Further characterising through the representation of space, Ulysses keeps two characters in play simultaneously. We are made aware that the same material city appears differently to the consciousness of the bourgeois Jew-turned-Catholic and the aesthete Catholic-cum-agnostic. Thus Joyce’s Dublin is the apotheosis of the modernist city as something never completely knowable – or in this case, differently knowable depending on one’s point of view (the effect of Joycean parallax). The city serves as the backdrop for a bewildered and lonely self, whilst at the same time eliciting a sense of vital exoticism, acting as the stage for the making of a modern myth with contemporary heroes correspondent to Homer’s Odyssey. Joyce’s intertext encourages us to see that the quotidian experiences of his humble and at times humiliated characters in everyday Dublin are not limiting but can be extrapolated to a heroic scale. The two heroes’ unawareness of their own status as ciphers of Telemachus and Odysseus is ironic but also empowering, celebrating the bourgeois everyman.


Deciphering a unique world: the exploratory interactions of grinding in RPGs [Image by Stéfan under a CC-BY-SA license]


The emphasis on spatial and metaphorical, rather than temporal, development for the hero bears affinities with role playing video games (RPGs) in particular. In an RPG, a player is typically encouraged to build a unique character as he or she proceeds through an explicit narrative – involving a quest of some kind – whilst also freely exploring a detailed game world which is densely populated with interactive characters and objects. Much of the work of an RPG is known as grinding: pursuing activities which do not develop the main quest plot but which enhance a character’s attributes or equipment through exploiting the world. Examples might include exploring and looting randomly generated dungeons, gathering components for new spells or weapons, and collecting items to sell for money. These exploratory interactions may or may not be essential to the plot, but are always essential to the narrative of self-construction which dominates in an RPG (Golumbia 188-90).

Such a narrative draws a link between the solipsistic self and the heroic individual. One of the motivations behind playing a new RPG is the effort to decipher its unique world. At the mechanical level, players must understand each game’s particular internal rules (the range of possible movements, the effect of actions on a character’s attributes etc.).  At a more narrative level, players are invited to decode the fictitious environment, usually with its own initially bewildering mythology and textual history (such as the books that can be picked up throughout The Elder Scrolls). Although such game worlds are populated by other characters with whom the player can engage in scripted interactions, it is usually the player’s decision as to where to go or what to do next within such a world. No pathway is ever explicitly laid out, or easily followed (even navigating from one location to another in a large open-world RPG can be difficult). Being in such a world is a lonely experience. For example, Fallout 3 initially places the character within a claustrophobic nuclear bunker, with a very limited corridor structure. But when the bunker opens and the player stands, blinking in the bright sunlight, surveying the enormous wasteland that he or she is free to explore, the experience is at once bewildering and liberating. The narrow scope of the corridor may offer less possibilities for self-development, but is also comfortably constrained. The world outside, by contrast, is not unlike Joyce’s vision of the amplitudinous city within which his characters are both insular and unwittingly significant.


RPG games like Fallout 3 situate the player in a baffling world that combines the quotidian and the remarkable [Source] [Image used under fair dealing provisions]


Like Ulysses, then, the RPG places an individual in a baffling world, and the player becomes heroic both in spite of and because of the confusions and opportunities such a world entails. This is why RPGs are often played from a third-person perspective, so that a player can see the visual effects of their exploration, assuring them of their increasing status. Although from an aesthetic point of view the science-fictional or Tolkienesque heroes of RPGs are not directly comparable to Joyce’s realist protagonists, the two types of narrative involve similar binaries: the quotidian and the remarkable, the estranging world and the exploitation of it. It is spatial exploration, not historical development, which defines both types of protagonist. In celebrating the capacities of the common man (that is, the player) or the slightly less common reader of Ulysses, both games and the novel are thus ultimately democratic works. Working through Joyce’s labyrinthine and ergodic text brings its own rewards, just as navigating to the heart of a dungeon may bring a shining new sword to the player, Odysseus of the Xbox.


CITATION: Alistair Brown, "Ulysses as an RPG," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 5 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 October 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.5.02.


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.alluvium-journal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Alistair-Brown.png[/author_image] [author_info]Dr Alistair Brown is an Associate Lecturer at the Open University, teaching courses on the arts and literature, and a Postdoctoral Teaching Assistant in English at Durham University, where he also edits the impact blog Research in English At Durham. His PhD on Demonic Fictions: Cybernetics and Postmodernism was completed in 2009. [/author_info] [/author]



[i] Assuming an average reading speed of 200 words per minute, a reader going strictly linearly without rereading or cross-referencing would take 22 hours to work through the 265 000 words of the novel.


Works Cited:

Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

Bolter, Jay David, and Michael Joyce. "Hypertext and Creative Writing." Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Hypertext (1987): 41-50, http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/317426.317431

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982)

Golumbia, David. "Games Without Play." New Literary History 40.1 (2009): 179-204, http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/nlh.0.0077

Joyce, James. Ulysses, ed. Jeri Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).



Please feel free to comment.

3 Replies to “Ulysses as an RPG”

  1. Alistair, 
    This is a really interesting piece. The flex between old and new and the way we reconfigure readings of past texts from the affordances of newer media is something that interests me. There is a really productive quote on this, I think, from Jan Baetens reviewing Katherine Hayles Writing Machines. Baetens writes: 'The “new” medium does not simply succeed the old; it does not simply “remediate” it […]; it paradoxically “precedes” it, and helps to disclose the unsuspected possibilities of the old medium, of which the complexity and richness remain unchallenged.'  Which I think speaks to the work you're doing here. The review is at http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/mediumtheory/janbaetens.htm
    And now I am going to "jump" across to the android comment….

    1. Hi Zara,
      That quote is perfect in relation to this issue – thank-you. I've just read a recent review of the latest Tom Philips <i>A Humument</i>, and this idea of rewriting with new tools to disclose the possibilities of the old is exactly what Philips' is doing in this work too. 
      Thanks again for point out the review; very pertinent.

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