Pandora’s Box — Choices and Depictions of Divination in ‘Rise of the Argonauts’

by April Tyack (October 27, 2016)

Video games, like other media, often use seers, oracles, or other fortune-telling people as plot devices. These non-player characters largely exist to offer one-time insight into the game’s plot through prophecy, providing cryptic or fragmented information about your character’s destiny as a way to encourage your own predictions about the story. The somewhat less common alternative is for these characters to act as wayfinders, providing information about how to complete current quests, often in the absence of complete quest logs. This probably fits into how you think about divination in general — something an old Romani lady does with Tarot cards or by reading your palm. You go to a fortune teller to get your fortune told. Pretty simple.

In Rise of the Argonauts (2008), you play as King Jason (famous for his quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece) in what appears to be an original story using people and places from ancient Greece, on a quest to bring back your recently-assassinated wife from the underworld. At the very beginning of the game, on Jason’s island home of Iolcus, you encounter a seer named Pandora (no relation to the mythical figure, famous for opening a box) who offers to tell your fortune. Since CRPGs (Computer Role-Playing Games) normally reward — or at the very least, avoid punishing — you for talking to people, you’ll probably take her up on her offer.

Incidentally, the density of this map makes her house’s position at “the edge of the village” a roughly ten-second walk from anywhere else on the island.

But she provides neither prophecy nor guidance. After all, you’re heading to the Oracle at Delphi for those. Instead, Pandora asks a series of personality test-type questions to gauge your affinity to four minor gods. These gods, by their positions on the conversation wheel (Mass Effect was released a year prior) are themselves tied to some of the more well-known deities, whose associated conversation choices throughout the game are loosely tied to their mythic virtues (e.g., picking “Ares” responses usually mean you’re insulting someone or picking a fight) and a skill tree. If you recognised any of the minor gods, it would be trivial to simply pick the one you felt most aligned with. There are five questions, four paths, and their positions on the conversation wheel remain static across the conversation. If you actually felt an affinity with Pygmalion, you could quite easily rig it that way. But you probably don’t know anything about Pygmalion, or what being aligned with him would mean, and the effectiveness of the scene relies heavily on that point.

The tone of the conversation — the seer, the paths representing gods you’ve never heard of — is secondary to the questions themselves. Indeed, the entire game relies on using ancient Greece as a vaguely-defined, historically inaccurate backdrop to generate interest. The answers you provide in this scene, and the god with whom you align, have no effect on the rest of the game. The presence of a seer is a reminder that these questions should be important to you as a person. The fact that they’re centred around common *human* themes, rather than explicitly Ancient Greek ones, punctuates this. There is no way to game this conversation to earn a better reward. Your answers matter here only because they are yours.

You are a poor guard, as is your closest friend. You learn that someone has stolen the devotional offerings from the local temple. You discover it was your friend who did this. His wife is very sick and requires medicine he cannot afford. He offers to split the money with you if you keep his secret. A large reward, and a likely promotion, await you if you arrest him. What do you do?

- Split the money

- Arrest him

- Return it anonymously

- Let him keep all of it

(A question posed to King Jason, and the choices available for response)

Rise of the Argonauts gets a lot of things wrong about ancient Greece, including its conceptualisation of the seer (or more accurately, the mantis). Manteis, unlike oracles, were mostly men. Although some lower-class manteis existed, with divination only one of their jobs, many came from more wealthy families and probably did not live alone in huts on the outskirts of villages. Their purpose was generally to explain the will of the gods — you went to a manteis to make decisions: what to do during a personal crisis; when to attack in battle. Divinations were performed most commonly by reading animal entrails, though a number of other methods (bird interpretation!) were practiced.

The game’s inconsistent relationship with historical accuracy is frankly embarrassing. The first hour of play, in which assassins assault Jason and his fictitious wife immediately after their marriage, frames the story in service to making a fun game — that is, to justify the slaughter of hundreds of largely identical enemies. Jason, and more obviously, Hercules, have vastly exaggerated physiques. Enemies’ heads literally explode when hit with a club. These aspects stand in sharp relief to the quiet, almost reflective tone of conversations, which often serve to convey accurate information about the game’s context. You can discuss how Apollo is served through poetry (and politely listen to an eye-rollingly tiresome verse), or explain your role as Zeus’ representative on Iolcus to some visiting noblewomen, in detail clearly at odds with the lack of seriousness or historical accuracy in the broader plot.

King Jason, triumphant in his destruction of yet another skull.

Being forced to second-guess the information presented during play certainly limits any historical value that Rise of the Argonauts may claim to express. Instead, the value of this conversation piece emerges from how it uses accessibility to convey meaning relevant to a wide audience. The game’s depiction of Pandora in this scene is interesting because it blends the setting of Ancient Greece (the common act of consulting a manteis) with more contemporary, muddled ideas of divination or fortune-telling (the wizened Romani woman in a hut on the edge of town) and even pop culture (the personality test, which so many of us complete just to confirm their in/accuracy). We can make a kind of sense from the scene despite its incoherence.

The conversation with Pandora likely reflects an (understandable) unwillingness to depict animal sacrifice. Distilling the manteis’ role in more familiar terms paints with broad strokes; in knowing that, what remains? The manteis asks questions key to understanding our relationships with different social groups. She provides insight into who we are (or choose to play as) interspersed with details of Ancient Greek history. Although many aspects of this representation are absolutely wrong, the way we conceptualise a seer — one whose knowledge and advice are respected even by kings — remains intact. The game’s disrespect of the culture it claims to depict is to its own detriment. But in this scene, Rise of the Argonauts presents a fiction just as interesting as the truth, and that has a different kind of value.

References:

Johnston, S. I. (2008). Ancient Greek Divination. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell Pub.

Antero, H. (2016). The Videogame and the Oracle. Retrieved from http://sufficientlyhuman.com/archives/1461

Al-Aaeser, A. (2016). Exploitation is not Awareness. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@siegarettes/exploitation-is-not-awareness-de5455f9ccb2

April and her work can be found on Wordpress and Twitter.

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An archive of contributions made to the short-lived writing collective/blog/website The Ink Well, originally published in 2016.

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The Ink Well

An archive of contributions made to the short-lived writing collective/blog/website The Ink Well, originally published in 2016.