ABSTRACT

Anyone familiar with the Old English poem Beowulf who then plays Beowulf: The Game (2007) would be struck by the game’s significant differences with the poem’s narrative shape, its characters’ motivations, and its thematic thrust.1 Some of these differences are the consequence of the gaming environment. For instance, while Beowulf remains the central figure (with the player controlling the actions of Beowulf from a bird’s-eye view as the legendary hero faces hordes of enemies), Hrothgar becomes a constant presence as the narrator. Unlike the poem and Beowulf: The Movie (the game’s ancillary film), both of which present events achronologically, the game’s linear interface presents events in sequential order to players, beginning with Beowulf’s swimming race with Breca, an event the poem and the film recall in retrospect during a feast at Heorot.2 Other differences between the poem and the game have less to do with the mechanics of gameplay and more to do with fulfilling expectations of the game’s target audience. The resulting changes can be classified into three sets. The first set of changes fill some continuity gaps in the Old English Beowulf. As does the film, the game provides a backstory for Grendel and his mother, thereby explaining Hrothgar’s paralysis in the face of great calamity and Beowulf’s insistence that he single-handedly fight the dragon. The adaptations also depict the scops’ early transformation of a flawed man’s exploits into a hero’s adventures of epic proportion. The game builds further on the desire for continuity by accounting for the lost years between Beowulf’s investiture as a king and his final, fatal confrontation with the fire-breathing Wyrm. A second set of changes exaggerates aspects of the tale derived from the Germanic warrior tradition, rebarbarizing the Anglo-Saxons who exhibit much self-conscious sophistication in the poem. These two sets of changes work together to introduce a third, a thematic tension between a flawed, self-interested man and the perfect, selfless hero. The game underscores this tension through a series of choices the player makes for Beowulf. This essay will examine these three sets of changes and make two conclusions, one regarding purists’ outrage over the perceived desecration of the ancient Beowulf, the other regarding gamers’ rejection of a game that so manhandles Beowulf for the sake of pleasing them.