Spinning James Joyce's epic novel Ulysses into a virtual reality game
By Charline Jao
"For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal." -James Joyce
Irish writer James Joyce once said if the entire city of Dublin disappeared, we could recreate it with only his writing. References, monuments, and street art dedicated to the writer's works fill one of the most literary cities on Earth immortalizing Joyce, who lived in self-imposed exile from Dublin—yet never stopped writing about it. Soon, Joyce fans and curious readers will be able to experience Joyce's modernist masterpiece Ulysses in VR form.
Joycestick presents an imagined Joycean landscape in VR
Joycestick, an academic project at Boston College led by Professor Joseph Nugent, pairs an immersive virtual reality 3D game with the iconic novel. Players are put into scenes from the novel, earning points and rewards as they move through the game. Touching certain objects trigger sounds, narration and other significant interactions.
"Instead of using virtual reality as just an extension of video games, we're trying to use it as an entirely new medium of storytelling," says senior Ryan Reede, a computer science major. "There's interactivity, there's audio, there's text, there's music, there's all these different elements to Joycestick, but at the end of the day, it's more of a new form of storytelling."
Nugent and a team of undergraduates, years earlier, created a multimedia virtual tour of Joyce's Dublin titled JoyceWays, which you can find on iTunes. Over several years, they combined archival research, mapping, and camera work to render almost 100 locations in great detail. Joyceways also included literary criticism, fact, and narration from a number of prominent figures like Senator David Norris and BBC host Frank Delaney. JoyceStick takes this another step forward, laying out the VR possibilities of narrative.
Ulysses as imagined in virtual reality. Would James Joyce approve?
The VR project is one of many ways that the digital humanities are transforming the way we engage with literature and storytelling. While some might think of English Literature as a field that's older and extraneous, the truth is that it's a living discipline that's highly compatible with new technologies.
Professor Nugent, who is from Mullingar, Ireland, notes that the game "...has entirely transformed my career, and led me to a whole area of creativity and possibility," he says. "As much as I love literature, my traditional training hadn't offered me the kind of fulfillment that comes from the kind of cutting-edge research technology has made possible."
Joycestick is a perfect example of how VR can be a vehicle for valuable historical and literary work. The developers hope to open up Joyce's text in a completely new way that's both faithful to the adaptation and accessible to first-time readers. While that's a difficult tightrope to walk, the team puts a great deal of effort into the details to make sure everything is period-appropriate.
You can see some of the settings they've created in this video, which brings the viewer to oceans, dimly lit interiors, and Joyce's Martello tower. Significant objects to be discovered include Leopold Bloom's bowler hat, Plumtree's Potted Meats, and a phonograph, all incorporated to "recreate the immediacy of Joyce's prose." The team painted their image of Dublin through research, making sure objects reflect the time period and by filming and photographing sites in Ireland. "There's art imitating life" writes the press release, "and then there's art taking on a virtual life of its own."
Liam Weir, one of Nugent's students from the modeling team, knows that while Ulysses is often seen as unadaptable, virtual reality is possibly the best way to illustrate the nuances and details that Joyce invented.
"Joyce created a remarkably detailed world rich with sound and color, and VR is really the only way to convey that effectively," he says over email. "It has also allowed us to play with some of the more surreal passages in the book by having words fly around the scene, and other things like that. It's been really fun."
While there have been a number of Ulysses adaptations over the years in film, television, and on stage, this VR adaptation feels like an ideal marriage for entering the mind of Leopold Bloom. And Weir points to the number of VR games that don't make full use of the medium's "immediacy and multi sensory immersion," which he says is ideal for Joyce's modernist novel. Why VR and why Ulysses? Because each brings out unexplored potential for the other.
With a text as elaborate and extensive as Ulysses, readers can come away with a vastly different reading or focus. Combined with the afterlife the book has had as a literary classic in media, literature, and other influences, there's an understandable skepticism about how any piece of work can fully capture Joyce's world.
Some people cite the novel as their favorite book precisely because they'll find something different each time. There's no way to make the definitive adaptation, because everyone's experience with the book will be different. As a result, the interactivity of a VR game feels like the closest an adaptation can get, giving each reader their own experience through choices. Does Weir believe the project had changed his way of seeing the book?
"Absolutely," he says. "With a novel as dense as Ulysses, there are always things you're going to miss—even if it's your third or fourth read through. The act of making the game has forced us go back through the text and ask, okay, what exactly is Joyce trying to say here? How do we visualize and gamify that intention?"