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Tech by VICE

Virtual Reality Lit Games Are the New CliffsNotes

I may be too dumb and lazy to read "Ulysses," but now I can play it.

by Jordan Pearson
Jul 22 2014, 7:35pm
Image: Ulysses/Kickstarter

James Joyce’s Ulysses is a towering accomplishment of modernist fiction. Or so I’ve been told; I skipped that week of Intro to Literary Criticism. Have you ever tried to read it? It’s impenetrable, but engrossing in a way that makes me wish I had the attention span to digest it.

Much better to play it.

Fortunately for me and all my fellow internet-addled, literary cretins—I admit it, I haven’t read Infinite Jest, either—an Irish filmmaker named Eoghan Kidney is designing a virtual reality video game that uses an Oculus Rift headset to put the player in the shoes of Stephen Dedalus as he meanders through Dublin on June 16th, 1904.

The game is currently in the development and crowdfunding stage, but it already looks pretty interesting, even psychedelic. Its title, In Ulysses: Proteus, comes from the chapter of the novel that it tackles. In it, Dedalus wanders across a desolate beach, closes his eyes, and ponders the shifting nature of reality and the disconnect between his inner self and the external world.

According to the game’s Fundit page, it aims to illustrate Dedalus’ visual journey while narrating the novel to the player in order to help them understand Joyce’s prose. In a way, it’s kind of like an immersive e-book.

Video games based on books have been around for a long time, but they’ve rarely been so sombre and cerebral. Well, cerebral in aim, at least—whether walking around a virtual beach will actually lead to a deeper understanding of Joyce’s infamously dense novel remains to be seen.

Proteus’s scope and mission are noble compared to literary video games of the past. Most older games based on books, like the notoriously bad 1988 NES title Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, ended up being lame versions of actual fun games without adding any understanding of the source material to the experience. I mean, everyone remembers childhood classics like the laughably awful 1989 Super Mario Bros. rip-off Adventures of Tom Sawyer, right? No? Plebes.

VR tech looks like it could make Proteus a more immersive—though maybe not entertaining per se—gaming experience than its well-meaning predecessors. If all goes well and the game takes off, according to the developers, they’re going to start tackling the rest of Joyce’s sprawling opus.

I plan on reading Ulysses one day. I do. I really, really do. I tell it to myself like a daily rite of spiritual preparation. And when I finally do, I’ll be glad for virtual tools like Proteus to help a lazy idiot like me “get” Joyce.

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