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Student helps reimagine Joyce’s Ulysses for virtual reality

Matthew Harty, CIS/SSH'18, poses for a portrait at The Fens on July 26, 2017. Harty helped design a VR game based on James Joyce's book Ulysses. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Anyone who’s read (or attempted to read) James Joyce’s Ulysses knows that it is a herculean undertaking. The book, considered to be one of the most important works of modernist literature, is dense with references and made-up words. Goodreads, a social media platform of sorts for bookworms, ranks it as the No. 1 most difficult novel to read.

Enter Joycestick, a virtual reality game that presents the text in a whole new way.

Matthew Harty, CIS/SSH’18, who played a key role in designing the game, described the goal of the project as “creating a better way for people to get their feet wet with Ulysses, as well as a way for people who know Ulysses to deepen their understanding of it.”

Joycestick
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At its most essential, the book takes readers through one day in the life of protagonist Leopold Bloom as he travels through Dublin on June 16, 1904. Because of its disjointed storyline, though, the Joycestick creators had to come up with a unique way of translating the book to virtual reality.

Presented with a first-person perspective, Joycestick is equal parts gameplay and cinematic experience, Harty said. It takes the player through a series of scenes—based on those in the novel—that “make them feel as close to being in the book as they can be,” he said.

Picking up various objects in each scene triggers a recorded narration from the book and other sounds that help to explain its significance. Each scene was recreated based on extensive research into the book and the time period.

It’s a concept that’s captured international attention. News outlets, including The Associated Press, Smithsonian.com, U.S. News and World Report, and The Irish Sun have written about it. Harty and the rest of the Joycestick team have presented their work in Ireland, Italy, and Singapore, and this fall, they will add The Smithsonian to that list.

In-game rendering courtesy of Joycestick

“This is supposed to be a literary, immersive experience,” Harty said, “where you’re exploring some of the concepts and some of the thematic elements of what is a very weighty, dense novel. It allows you to pull in some of your other senses to appreciate it.”

Harty first became aware of the project while in Ireland as part of Northeastern’s Dialogue of Civilizations program. There, he took a class on Irish literature by Joseph Nugent, associate professor of the practice of English at Boston College. Joycestick is Nugent’s brainchild.

Though he didn’t read Ulysses as part of that class, it was enough to pique his interest. During the next semester, Harty used his commute to his co-op, and as an opportunity to read a little bit of the book each day.

“I battled my way through it,” he said, laughing. “It’s definitely a book that you keep getting more and more out of, each time you read it. The goal with Joycestick is to give people who only plan to read it once something to help them dig into those layers.”

Initially, Harty was involved on the literary side of the venture—teasing out themes and plot points from Joyce’s original work. As it became clear just how much design would be needed on the game, he jumped over to help with coding.

Northeastern, he said, was the place where he could combine his love for literature with his love for computer science.

“I was able to marry these two things I’m passionate about, and find a place to help on the project right away,” he said.