Bioware’s epic style: oral formulaic theory and the recompositional process in three Bioware RPGs

January 20, 2011
2:50 pm - 4:00 pm
Halligan 111a


Several writers, beginning with Janet Murray in _Hamlet on the Holodeck_, have observed the analogy between certain forms of digital game--most notably the RPG--and the oral improvisatory process that gave the world the Iliad, the Odyssey, and countless other works of the Western literary tradition. Briefly, the player of an RPG engages in practices that are highly and interestingly analogous to the practices of the homeric bards, as studied through the comparative materials collected from South Slavic bards and analyzed originally by Milman Parry and Albert Lord. The RPG- player uses the elements given him or her by the game, just as the bards utilized the tradition in which they had been trained; the RPG- player recombines and innovates upon these elements to produce a performance that is irreducibly unique in the occasion as the bard did the same to produce his epic performance. Indeed, as the homeric bard’s performances were later codified eventually to become the fossils we know as the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the singers of tales of other traditions’ into works like Beowulf and The Song of Roland, RPG-players’ performances are these days sometimes codified in video form and shared around games’ communities. In this talk, Roger Travis of the University of Connecticut analyzes key moments in three RPGs by Bioware, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and DragonAge: Origins as instances of the same thematic recompositional process delineated by Lord as "composition by theme."

Bio: Roger Travis is Associate Professor of Classics in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages of the University of Connecticut. He is also the Director of the Video Games and Human Values Initiative (, based at UConn, an interdisciplinary online nexus for online courses and scholarly activities like fellowships, symposia, and the initiative’s Proceedings, of which Travis is the editor. He received his Bachelor’s degree in classics from Harvard College, and his Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of California, Berkeley before arriving at UConn in 1997. He has published on Homeric epic, Greek tragedy, Greek historiography, the 19th C. British novel, HALO, BioShock, and the massively-multiplayer online role-playing game He has been President of the Classical Association of New England and of the Classical Association of Connecticut. He writes the blog Living Epic ( about his discovery of the fundamental connection between ancient epic and the narrative video game. In the 2009-2010 academic year, Travis offered the first courses ever designed entirely as practomimes (see for detail), a form of serious game.