Video gaming

Ulysses as virtual reality game – immerse yourself in a Joycean world and gain new insights into hard-to-read novel

VR version created by students in US completes Joyce’s book, says a professor who’s tried it; team behind game, which lets users explore key settings of story, hope for commercial release on Bloomsday, when Dublin celebrates the novel

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 March, 2017, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 March, 2017, 5:37pm

One of the most celebrated – and notoriously challenging – novels of all time is getting the virtual reality treatment by a class at Boston College.

Nearly a century after James Joyce’s epic Ulysses was published, the team behind the immersive Joycestick is trying to expose new audiences to the works of one of Ireland’s most celebrated authors, while offering a glimpse into how virtual reality can be used to enhance literature, says Joseph Nugent, the Boston College English professor who is coordinating the project.

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“This is a new way to experience the power of a novel,” he says. “We’re really at the edge of VR. There’s no guidance for this. What we have produced has been purely out of our imagination.”

Nugent and his students hope to release a version of the game on June 16 in Dublin during Bloomsday, the city’s annual celebration of the author and novel. They showcased their progress at an academic conference in Rome last month.

This is a new way to experience the power of a novel. We’re really at the edge of VR
Joseph Nugent

The effort has been no small undertaking. The difficulties of working with burgeoning VR technology aside, Ulysses can leave even the most ardent of bibliophiles mentally exhausted. It currently tops the list of “Most Difficult Novels” on Goodreads, a book-driven networking site.

Joycestick, in ways, aims to fill in the blanks of the novel, as many of the locales key to the story have been lost to time as Dublin has evolved, says Enda Duffy, chairman of the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who tried a prototype of the game.

“The VR version, in this way, completes the book,” she says. “It makes it real. Ulysses is an ideal book to be turned into a VR experience, since Dublin is, you might say, the book’s major character.”

Over the years, there have been a number of efforts to bring works of literature into the gaming world, including an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that became a viral hit in 2011 as it mimicked the look and feel of a classic, 1980s-era Nintendo game.

But the Boston College project is unique for trying to incorporate virtual reality technology, says D. Fox Harrell, a digital media professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He is impressed that the students are taking on such a complex text.

“It requires multiple entry points and modes of interpretation, so it will be fascinating to see how their VR system addresses these aspects of the work,” says Harrell, who hasn’t yet tried the game.

Considered the epitome of the 1920s-era modernist literature, Ulysses traces a day in the life of an ordinary Dubliner named Leopold Bloom. The title reflects how the novel draws parallels between Bloom’s day and The Odyssey, the ancient Greek epic.

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Joycestick isn’t meant to be a straight retelling of Ulysses, which in some versions runs nearly 650 pages long, acknowledged Evan Otero, a Boston College junior majoring in computer science who is helping develop the game.

Instead, the game lets users explore a handful of key environments described in the book, from a military tower where the novel opens, to a cafe in Paris that is significant to the protagonist’s past.

It’s also not a typical video game, in the sense of the player having to complete tasks, defeat enemies or rack up points, says Jan van Merkensteijn, a third-year student studying philosophy and medical humanities who is also involved in the project. For now, users can simply explore the virtual environments at their leisure. Touching certain objects triggers readings from the novel.

The project represents an extension of what academics call the “digital humanities”, a field that merges traditional liberal arts classes with emerging technology. Nugent has had previous classes develop a smartphone application that provides walking tours of Dublin, highlighting important landmarks in Ulysses and Joyce’s life.

But the native of Mullingar, Ireland, is quick to shift credit for the current project’s ambition to his group of 22 students, who are studying a range of disciplines – English, computer science, philosophy, business and biology – and have also been recruited from nearby Northeastern University and the Berklee College of Music.

“These are ambitious kids,” Nugent says. “They want to prove they’ve done something on the cutting edge. They have the skills. They’re doing the work. All I’m trying to do is direct these things.”