Path of Honors: First Response

Angus Mol
Received 2018-03-05
Citation: Mol, Angus. 2018. “Path of Honors: First Response”. Epoiesen. http://dx.doi.org/10.22215/epoiesen/2018.4

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Angus A. A. Mol is one of the co-founders of VALUE and an Assistant Professor at the Leiden University Centre for Digital Humanities (a.a.a.mol@hum.leidenuniv.nl).
ORCID ID:0000-0001-5448-3712.

This piece is a response to McCall’s Path of Honors

In his think-piece, Jeremiah McCall asks: “Can a historian make an interactive historical text that fulfills some of the desire for precision and citation while allowing for interactivity and perhaps even systems-based environments?”

To my mind, this question can only be answered with a straightforward “Yes”. To arrive at a similarly swift response, you only need to click on this link to “Path of Honors” and spend some 10-15 minutes with the Twine-powered experience. In it, Jeremiah convincingly weaves together interactive text, RPG-like systems, nicely styled passages, and well- referenced historical knowledge into the career history of a young Roman aristocrat. Before I continue my much less interactive piece of text, I urge any of you reading this to play Path of Honors. If you do so, please consider responding to Jeremiah’s thoughtful game and accompanying piece yourself (e.g. via his website or Twitter or here on Epoiesen via the Hypothes.is toolbar at the right).

A quick answer is possible, but following the question to its immediate conclusion does not do it justice. Instead, I read in it the basis of an inquiry with a much broader context: that of the role of the interactive past in contemporary society and science. Interactive digital media are now one of the most important ways that (younger) people come to experience and think about the past (Cook Inlet Tribal Council 2017; Chapman 2017; Hughes 2017; Mol et al. 2017; Morgan 2016). Yet engagement with the past via these media falls largely outside of the scope of the institutes and individuals that traditionally produce and disseminate knowledge about the past — forward-thinking teachers like Jeremiah excepted.

The question for all of us (certainly those of us reading Epoiesen) is thus: how can we use interactive and other digital media to democratize access to the past, while ensuring that the knowledge that is disseminated through these media is founded in a careful consideration of the past? In short, the larger project to which McCall’s think-piece and Path of Honors speaks, may be one of the most transformative questions for the sister-disciplines that study and teach the past (cf. Copplestone 2017).

Path of Honors vs. the Disco Tour

I think the idea to use Twine for interactive history-telling, which McCall as well as some others like Tara Copplestone and Neville Morley are pursuing, is one of the best answers to the above question. To provide a bit of background to this enthusiastic claim, let me contrast it with an (at the time of writing) new initiative in interactive history, Assassin’s Creed: Origin’s Discovery Tour — quite a mouthful, let’s abbreviate that to the Disco Tour.

The Disco Tour is an exhibit of the rich cultural and geographical setting of Ptolemaic Egypt. It is by far the most interesting historical playground AC’s developers have given us in some time. Its careful construction and multi-layeredness are the mark of a team of developers that absolutely love the period and people. This passion for history and attention for detail is pushed to the foreground in The Disco Tour. In this aspect, Path of Honors and The Disco Tour are comparable and it is really a welcome addition to the interactive past. I’d urge all of you to go check it out right now, but unfortunately you will have to shell out 20 euros as price for entry. In that aspect, Path of Honors and The Disco Tour are worlds apart.

Where Twine games are based in Open Source and Open Access philosophies, The Disco Tour is a typical for-profit, software-as-license proposition. You’ll have to install either Steam or UPlay before you can even pay for and start downloading the game. Of course, for most of us reading this, such a process is business as usual - we may have even gotten The Disco Tour as a “freebie.” Yet, as someone whose mother has worked in primary education, I can easily picture the aggravated sense of exasperation with every step the classroom teacher needs to take before she can show their pupils around ancient Egypt. What’s more, If I would want to use The Disco Tour in my university classroom, I’d have to go through a very lengthy IT software application process or lug my own PC or console into the classroom.

In fact, reading through the EULA of The Disco Tour, I am not even 100% sure it is legal to use it in classroom or other non-personal use contexts. Ubisoft (so far) has not gone on record to clear up this matter (and due to copyright protection rules, probably cannot). Obviously I’m out of my depth here as I am not a copyright lawyer, but the fact that I am not sure whether I can legally play this with my students is part of the point. In contrast, Path of Honors is easy: I open the html file, hosted gratis at philome.la , and start playing. One fair point of critique is that it is not entirely clear if Path of Honors is Open Source. If so, this could be flagged in the game’s introduction.

Both Path of Honors and The Disco Tour are highly informative and will have something new to teach all but the most ardent student of their subject matter. Yet only Path of Honors presents its history interactively. For all its audio-visual fidelity and enormously rich world, The Disco Tour is ultimately just a walk-by experience: a living diorama that we move through with an audio-tour. At specific points (and unlike any museum audio-tours I ever had) your gaze is even forcefully directed to a piece of scenery. I frequently needed to really work to connect the image to the information I was hearing. In Path of Honors, although quite a repetitive game at this point — I understand why e.g. the military campaign is limited, but I hope McCall will make the choices feel more unique in future iterations —, I feel in control of the history that I move through. Until I am eviscerated by a Gaul that is.

Path of Honors is well-referenced and, in addition, the design choices and development process is discussed at length in several places. The Disco Tour sometimes gives “behind the screen” information, but it references its sources (except for its images, because of copyright) poorly. Although I know there is a crack team of scholars behind this meticulously crafted world, I think — and I am not alone in this — that, as with any good knowledge dissemination, they should have flagged much more clearly where the font of all this wisdom is located. As it is now, The Disco Tour presents a very old-school approach to learning with a set of literally disembodied voices telling us what to believe (which is a history based on a mix of legends, myths, archaeology, and highly subjective textual sources).

This response to McCall seems to simultaneously have become a response to Ubisoft. Yet whereas I am positive this response to Jeremiah’s work has the potential to become a dialogue, any feedback I would have for the developers of The Disco Tour would almost certainly fall on deaf ears. It is frustratingly difficult to get in touch with any triple-A publisher. Believe me VALUE (the foundation I am part of that organizes conferences and other activities for both academics and members of the creative industry) has tried. Jeremiah McCall is a very busy but still very accessible person. If I contact him to let him know I think it may be more interesting to keep the RPG stats in Path of Honors hidden to the player, he’d likely have a response ready. If I am upset that statues are nude in the base game but covered up in Disco Tour, I can have a little rant here, or on Twitter, but I’d have more chance getting an answer from Ramesses II than from a Ubisoft dev.

Aspect Path of Honors Disco Tour
Fascinating History 👍 👍
Open Access 👍 👎
Ease of use 👍 👎
Interactive 👍 👎
Solid references 👍 👎
Communicative Developer 👍 👎



Although neither Path of Honors nor The Disco Tour are flawless experiences, if I had to choose which of the pieces of interactive media I think is better at providing a balanced and democratic access to the past: I’d choose Path of Honors. That is not to say I think The Disco Tour is not to be valued for what it is or that media like it should not be developed. What I mean to say is that, even with high fidelity, high production value experiences like Assassin’s Creed, we need more work like that of McCall. This is why it is a good thing that Jeremiah teaches Twine to his students - and a great idea that I have shamelessly (and to the delight of my students) copied for the course I am currently teaching. The community of Twine storytellers is growing, and I am very excited to see which other interactive narratives like Path of Honors will be created in the coming years.

P.S. for those who wish to know or do more with Twine.

It’s commonly accepted that, if you want to write well, you should read a lot. It logically follows you should play interactive stories if you are interested in writing them. Beyond the area of history, heritage, and archaeology, there Twines of every make and description. I suggest you start with the absolute classic Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn. Also be sure to check out Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World or any of the other quirky, intriguing, silly, or just plain good stories in places such as twinehub or itch.io. Many of these creators provide their work for free or through a “pay what you want”-system, so consider supporting them however you can.

Beyond Twine there is a wide world of interactive fiction and, although I have not yet found the time to delve into it myself, I think Inform7 may be as interesting a tool for interactive history-telling as Twine. If you are interested in reading more on interactive storytelling and keeping up to date with the latest releases, Emily Short’s blog is a great place to start.

Finally, you maybe would like to share your own works but, for whatever reason, do not yet want to publish them in the “wild of the internet” where all can read and comment on it? Don’t hesitate to get in touch and send your Twine story to me. I’d be glad to provide you with constructive feedback or a small review.

References:

Chapman, Adam. 2017. Digital Games as History: How Videogames Represent the Past and Offer Access to Historical Practice. London: Routledge.

Cook Inlet Tribal Council. 2017. Storytelling for the Next Generation: How a non-profit in Alaska harnessed the power of video games to share and celebrate cultures. In The Interactive Past: Archaeology, heritage & video games, pp. 21-32. Leiden: Sidestone Press.

Copplestone, Tara Jane. 2017. Designing and Developing a Playful Past in Video Games. In The Interactive Past: Archaeology, heritage & video games, pp. 85-98. Leiden: Sidestone Press.

Hughes, Gabrielle. 2017. Tradigital Knowledge? Indigenous video games, copyright, and the protection of traditional knowledge. In The Interactive Past: Archaeology, heritage & video games, pp. 33-52. Leiden: Sidestone Press.

Mol, Angus A. A., Csilla E. Ariese-Vandemeulebroucke, Krijn H.J. Boom, & Aris Politopoulis. 2017. Tutorial: An introduction to archaeology, heritage, and video games. In The Interactive Past: Archaeology, heritage & video games, pp. 7-18. Leiden: Sidestone Press. Open Access download from http://www.interactivepasts.com

Morgan, Colleen (guest editor) 2016 Video Games and Archaeology: Part One [Special section]. SAA Archaeological Record 16 (5):9–37

Cover Image “Image taken from page 36 of ‘Voyageurs anciens et modernes, ou Choix des relations de voyages … depuis le cinquième siècle avant Jésus-Christ jusqu’au dix-neuvième siècle, avec biographies, notes et indications iconographiques, par M. E. Charton’”British Library

Masthead Image “Image taken from page 343 of ‘Cassell’s Illustrated Universal History.’”British Library