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Life of Demosthenes as a Video Game

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by Stephen Dusel


To begin this Project, I must first mention what the goal was and how that shaped what I discovered. One of the tasks (the one I chose) was to take an author’s work and transform it into a modern medium. I felt that if Plutarch were to try to tell the story of Demosthenes in a modern form, he would be drawn to video games. While I still feel this is true, I have changed my opinions about the message that Plutarch wanted to get across about Demosthenes. Reading the text closely and comparing it with games that I felt would be able to translate over to Demosthenes’ life, I found that my initial impressions were not necessarily correct. This results both in my adjusted thesis statement and the form my paper will take. The proposed form was that we begin with, and spend a majority of this project on, making claims and elaborating on insights about our ancient texts. This would be followed by an explanation of how the author would use the new medium and what it would look like, finishing off with new insights and claims about what our biographer is up to. My form will use the first and third part combined in the beginning, followed by the middle section about the video game for of Life of Demosthenes, finishing up with more of the third section. As such, I propose that Plutarch had a complex goal in Life of Demosthenes. At first glance, it appeared to me that he wanted to make Demosthenes look like a bad person. However, by comparing it with games such as Mass Effect and L.A. Noire, among others, I found that he was simply trying to present as immersive and human a story as he could.

When I first read Life of Demosthenes, I got the opinion that Plutarch found Demosthenes interesting, but didn’t think of him as a very good person. It appeared that the picture being painted for the readers was a bad one. We weren’t supposed to like Demosthenes. This opinion was caused by certain sections of the biography that seemed to jump out as more important. Right in the beginning of the story, Plutarch tells of the unfortunate start to his life. He lost his father as a boy, but his father left him a fortune. However, his guardians took it all, leaving him with nothing (p. 535). This left him a weak, sickly boy with little proper schooling. Very soon after, though, Plutarch tells us that Demosthenes became infatuated with the honor that oration could give and was “moved…to give himself to eloquence (p. 536).” As soon as he finished his wardship, “he began to put his guardians in suit, and to write orations and pleas against them (p 537).” I felt like Plutarch was trying to create a first impression of Demosthenes in the reader. It seemed that he intended to make Demosthenes look like he was driven by all the wrong reasons; that he was vengeful and selfish. It looked like he only got into oration at all because he wanted the honor, not to defend people or create good with his words. Also, the first orations he ever made were to get his fortune, or at least some of it, back. These intentions were, to me, dishonorable. It was an immediate dark lens through which to view the rest of the story.

The second point that I felt Plutarch tried to make about Demosthenes repeatedly was that he was cowardly. On four occasions, Demosthenes hid from his duty to save himself. First, after persuading the Athenians and other Grecians that they ought to go to war, he flees from battle. “Until this present time, Demosthenes showed himself always an honest man: but when it came to the battle, he fled like a coward, and did no valiant act answerable to the orations whereby he had persuaded the people. For he left his rank, and cowardly cast away his weapons to run the lighter…(p. 550).” When I first read this, it seemed obvious what Plutarch was trying to do. He uses the word coward more than once, as if to try to emphasize the point. In addition, the description is not just that he fled, but that he also threw away anything that might slow him down. He wanted to leave his fellow soldiers behind as quickly as he could. In comparison, it makes the beginning of the quote seem sarcastic; almost mocking the idea that he was honest in his doings. He couldn’t even fight the battle he started. Later, he stops orating in public when Alexander’s armies are doing well, and he even refuses to go speak with Alexander and persuade him to peace when he is called upon by his fellow Athenians and Grecians (p. 553). This is all again after he fired up the people of Greece with his orations. Once again, it Plutarch seemed to be trying to demonstrate that Demosthenes was a cowardly phony who couldn’t get behind what he said. Finally, Antipater, who was an enemy of Demosthenes, ordered that Demosthenes be killed. Archias was sent after him, as he was one of the best hunters of men. When he finds Demosthenes, Demosthenes promptly insults him and then lies, saying he wants to write to his friends before he dies. However, when he gets into the temple to write, he picks up a quill with a poisoned tip and swallows the poison to commit suicide. “Archias’ soldiers seeing that, being at the door of the temple, laughing him to scorn…called him a coward, and beast (p. 560).” Once again, Plutarch uses the word coward, and the whole scene seems to reinforce Demosthenes’ negative qualities. Instead of facing his death like a man, he uses insults and lies, and then takes his own life like a coward. He ends his life like he began it, selfishly.

The final negative quality I felt that Plutarch wanted to emphasize was how corrupt Demosthenes was. On three occasions, we see a weakness around money. The first was mentioned previously, when he gets into oration just to get honor and his fortune back. The second is more mentioned in passing on page 535. “For, though he would never be corrupted with Philip king of Macedon, yet he was bribed with gold and silver that was brought from Susa and Ecbatana, and was very ready to praise and commend the deeds of their ancestors, but not to follow them.” To put it in more colloquial language, it appears to say “Demosthenes couldn’t be corrupted by those he did not support…oh, wait, except for when he was able to be corrupted by those he did not support.” The sarcasm returns, and adds on to the idea that money was Demosthenes main concern in what he did. The third example is when he is supposed to speak against Harpalus. Initially, Demosthenes is the only one who isn’t bought out. However, when he sees a cup belonging to the king, he stops speaking against Harpalus so he may acquire the cup (p.555). As before, there is a sarcastic tone. Demosthenes was bold enough to stand up for what was right, until he got something he wanted more that is.

My picture of Demosthenes was not flattering. However, when I tried to apply the story to video games, I found that I had been looking at Demosthenes all wrong. He wasn’t the bad guy. He was a normal person. He knew that it was right to speak for his own nation and tries to make it strong and unified against its enemies. Like all humans, though, he had his faults. He may have been a great speaker, but he was not brave, and he knew this. He knew his weaknesses were money and glory, and he fell victim to them more than once. However, it may be that Plutarch only brought these up to mention how rare these were. If it was something he always did, the interesting thing to mention would have been the times he was honest. This is not the case though. It was strange to Plutarch when Demosthenes waivered from his true nature, and that is why Plutarch brought it up.

My revised opinion of what Plutarch was trying to do is this: Plutarch wanted to write a complete biography, but also a gripping tale. He knew he needed to attract an audience, so he didn’t simply praise the man as he could have. He presented every facet of Demosthenes’ nature, the good and the bad. It is likely that Plutarch did feel that Demosthenes was a good man with good intentions. However, Plutarch does not want to thrust that upon his audience. He wants us to make our own informed decisions. It is for this reason that I feel even more strongly that Plutarch would use a video game to tell this story.

The type of video game that Plutarch would create would be a sandbox RPG focused around dialogue as the main way to develop your character (Demosthenes) and advance the plot. A sandbox game is one with a large, sprawling map that is very interactive. An RPG, or role-playing game focuses on developing your character and increasing his abilities to make later tasks or missions easier. These factors would create the immersive experience that Plutarch wants us to have. We would be able to feel what Demosthenes is feeling and see through his eyes. Whatever opinion we got about him, we would create for ourselves in a very active way. In regards to dialogue, it sounds like it would be boring and tedious. However, many current games use dialogue to create the plot of the game and make the game feel more real. In the Mass Effect series, players get a dialogue wheel which gives you options of how to answer a question. While each option will usually result in giving a response with a similar theme or point, what you select is how you say it. You can choose between three options: paragon, renegade, or neutral. Paragon is the morally sound response, while renegade is more the selfish and (pardon my French) and asshole-style response. In certain cases, these options can even be used to persuade people to agree with you. In The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, a similar tool is used. The dialogue wheel however is used exclusively for persuasion. Finally, in L.A. Noire, advanced face-mapping and excellent voice acting allows the player to try to determine the validity of what someone else is saying. Combining these would create a style of play that would allow you to try to complete the scenes in Demosthenes’ life in your own way, combining your nature with his. You would feel as if whatever consequences arose from your words were your fault, not just Demosthenes’. You would create your own character as either good or evil, but you would still be the hero.

This medium drastically changed how I read Life of Demosthenes. Not only did I see the message differently, but I began to wonder about what was not in the written biography. I asked question about what could have gone differently and what Demosthenes was trying to do with his various actions. One example is his suicide. While I saw it as cowardly at first, I came to see that he was only trying to maintain control of his own life in his final moments. He didn’t want to go out at someone else’s hand. He wanted to do it his way. He was an icon for people who know they aren’t perfect, but still want to do the best they can. This is what Plutarch wanted us to see.





























Works Cited

Plutarch. Selected Lives. Edited edition. Ware, Hetfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1998. 533-62. Print.

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