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Sidekick at the National Videogame Arcade and Five Leaves bookshop in Nottingham

Dr Fulminare’s empire expands by increments! You can now buy Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge from Nottingham’s National Videogame Arcade while you’re dropping by for Minecraft parties, and a whole medicine bag full of Sidekick titles at independent counterculture bookshop Five Leaves, also in Nottingham. We can heartily recommend a visit to both – the poetry section in Five Leaves is bountiful, and I came away with the new Matthew Caley title under my arm.

Many thanks to NVA writer-in-residence Abigail Parry for the snap.

The Sidekick Advent Calendar: Days 17-23 Bonanza Catchup!

Dr F’s eager (read: terrified and on precarious contracts) elves have been busily Twine-ifying some of the old alchemist’s favourite poems, making them interactive and, frankly, semi-sentient for the Sidekick Play-Poem Archive. On top of this, Fulminarian minions Jon and Kirsty have provided commentaries on the poems, so now you get to see what we really think. Here’s a roundup of the most recent additions this yuletide, with extra giffitude:

Day 17

Day 18

Day 19

Day 20

FREE VERSE: The Poetry Book Fair

After being in absentia last year, Sidekick will be back at the Free Verse book fair this Saturday, held at Conway Hall in London from 10pm onwards.

At least three new books will be available there for the very first time (we’ll be publishing them all later this month). Two of them are as follows:

Follow the Trail of Moths, the best of Wayne Holloway-Smith’s literary salons, with illustrations by Sophie Gainsley …

… and Angela, an illustrated team-up pamphlet by Chrissy Williams and Howard Hardiman. Want to know more? Come see us this Saturday! Or else stay tuned for further details and announcements.

Poetry Guest-Appearing in Games #4: Grim Fandango (Part I)

Over the coming weeks we’ll be publishing a series of articles investigating the existing crossover  – and the further potential for crossover  – between games and poetry.

This week, Rebecca Wigmore is your guide to the smokey jazz clubs that skeletons inhabit in GRIM FANDANGO.

When Grim Fandango was first released in 1998, I was a mere slip of a girl, amped up on almost a decade’s dedication to LucasArts’ point and click adventure game empire. From the zombie-beauty-queen antics of Day of the Tentacle to what I regarded as the nigh-on-flawless Monkey Island trilogy1 LucasArts were the beginning and the end of the adventure game genre. The beauty part was this: you could not die2. Freed from the tiresome burden of mortality, you could guide your archetypal nerd, gumshoe dog or wannabe pirate around what were, in the best games, fully realised worlds. You could look at anything, touch anything and be rewarded with a snappy piece of dialogue, a subtle clue and, often a great gag. The puzzles were labyrinthine and ingenious, but the biggest pleasure for me was wandering around a world.

This is the legacy of Tim Schafer, who started at LucasArts co-writing Day of the Tentacle and the first two Monkey Island adventures before being handed sole creative control of his own projects, including his masterpiece, Grim Fandango.

You might want to watch this. It establishes tone. I don’t have the wordcount to establish tone. I’m busy.

The quality of the writing and the thrill of incidental discovery was the reason these games had such a powerful replay factor – a sort of novelistic pleasure in inhabiting a wholly authored universe, coupled with what David Lynch calls “space to dream.” There is a deeply satisfying tension between the driving narrative force of the puzzles and the more abstract pleasure of wandering about, luxuriating in language and incidental space. LucasArts adventure games were certainly what the immersive theatre/tech crowd call “on rails”, in that the player had one route to one ultimate goal (solve puzzles, progress the story) but the experience of playing was so leisurely and ambulatory in nature it’s little wonder that Grim Fandango is often heralded as the pinnacle of the form. For it is here, in this world, that the gamer encounters the ultimate expression of LucasArt’s adventure gaming philosophy: they play as Manny Calavera, a jobbing grim reaper cast in the Día de los Muertos mould; a literal undead flâneur.

Baudelaire would have made an excellent skeleton.

“Well, I have a poem I wrote just for you. Pay attention because it’s pretty short. Here it goes: Ch-ch-ch-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-mp.”

As Jon said in the first post in this series, inserting poetry into games seems to have a function that sits outside of the purely ludic: to give a sense of narrative texture, a sort of shorthand for folklore and history.

Grim Fandango‘s universe is alive with poetry, where it functions as a way to give the game’s universe a rare texture and history, build character and puncture pomposity, a conceit that is set up early on in the game (indeed this puzzle formed the game’s demo way back when PC Gamer had corporeal giveaways on its cover) when Manny has the option to ask the balloon artist to make him a balloon in the shape of a cat, a dingo or a famous poet. The puzzle requires that Manny pops that balloon to scare away some aggressive pigeons. Now, if you can get through life without enjoying the phrase “Run, you pigeons, it’s Robert Frost!” then I admire your austerity but ultimately, I pity you. This puzzle sets the game’s tone: knowing but willing to prick any pomposity, whether it be from the Old Guard or from phony anti-establishment types.

You can see the likeness. Balloon pipe and everything.

The War on Beat Poetry

Let’s look at the this segment now, which is just under halfway through the game’s four-year structure. Year Two: Rubecava.

In a brief bit of scene-setting, Rubecava is a maritime town that functions much the same as Casablanca, with Manny adopting the persona and suave white dinner jacket of Humphrey Bogart. Unlike Bogie, however, Calavera is going to give it all up and pursue Meche, the virtuous woman, who should have got a free ride to The Other Side but, for reasons way too Byzantine explain here, Manny doomed to walk a treacherous path to salvation alone. The noirish mood of Rubecava is very much Casablanca, Chinatown and On The Waterfront whizzed up in a blender, in a temporal space that seems to occupy about four decades at once (a move which seems appropriate for a game set in Purgatory). However, in the scene that we are looking at, it is very much the 1950s, with the spirit of Ginsberg hanging in the air. Manny must visit The Blue Casket, a beat poetry club where – surprise, surprise  it’s open mic night.

The game has a lot of fun with the club’s beatnik audience  “Hola, trust-funders!”  but one of the true pleasures of this segment is your interaction with Olivia, the owner of the club, and her subsequent performances.

You can watch the performances here. They are accompanied by very excited gamer commentary, 
which adds to it, somehow.

Olivia’s first two performances are exemplars of the kind of performance poetry that often infuriates: lotta poetry ‘voice’ and vague aphoristic-sounding half-jokes that barely scan:

I called my cat “Boney.”
‘Til she said it wouldn’t do
I said, “Why?”
She said, “Sister
‘Cuz that’s what I’VE been calling YOU!”

That extra syllable that ‘Cuz’ provides in the final line is maddening, although the spoken delivery of the poem means that the player glides fairly easily over it. The voice acting in Grim Fandango is uniformly excellent and the work of Paula Killen, who voices Olivia, does a lot to elevate the poem’s stature. Olivia’s cat poem was never intended for the page  the transcription is from the game’s subtitles, the capital letters functioning as performance note more than anything else  direction that Killen thankfully ignores. The rest of Olivia’s poems are the same kind of beatnik pastiche until we reach her final poem:

With bony hands I hold my partner,
on soulless feet we cross the floor,
the music stops as if to answer
an empty knocking at the door.
It seems his skin was sweet as mango
when last I held him to my breast,
but now we dance this grim fandango
and will four years before we rest.

I want you to understand how much this thrilled my 15-year-old self and, in truth, how it delights me still. This is one of a handful of poems in Grim Fandango that have a function beyond character-building and laughing at how lame bad performance poetry can be3. This poem, which serves no function from a gameplay standpoint, is the only point in the entire game in which the title is mentioned at all. It would be easy to bypass it entirely if you were focused on beelining through the puzzles. “Grim fandango” is a wondrous phrase, an iambic delight and one of those rare titles that seems to contain more the more you consider it – yes, it’s literally a dance of death, which calls to mind the herky-jerky climax of The Seventh Seal, the rhythmic contradiction of this frenetic and joyous couples’ dance being invoked in a poem with a slow, thunking heartbeat of a meter. For the first time there is imagery that extends beyond a punchline or narrative set-up. There is something sensual and vaguely upsetting about skin-as-mango-flesh: exotic and heady, yes, but also something that drips with moisture, easily rent from the body. There is a pun and palpable despair in the “soulless feet” that cross the floor.

Ludologists Are Vomiting Mango Chunks As They Read This.

The ease with which Grim Fandango manages the drastic tonal shift from beatnik comedy bits to the mortal wrench of the final poem is one of the arguments I can make for this game as art. You could make a similar case for Portal 2, although that rather worryingly betrays my origins in the traditional humanities department. Non-ludic narrative world-building is only an aspect of digital gaming and one that is certainly not essential to the artistic success of any given number of games. Yes, poets have embraced him but Pacman does not have a richly imagined in-game social history. There is no moment where you can instruct Pacman to ‘use’ the moon, as you do Manny in Grim Fandango, and be surprised by his recitation of a simple, Poe-ish verse. There is no purpose to this action another then that shock of pleasure at uncovering what appears to be a moment of shared folklore as the NPC sailor joins in with the final gothic couplet:

This isn’t Pacman’s schtick at all. Its pleasures are visceral as part of a carefully designed and programmed feedback loop of input from player and output from game. There isn’t the poet’s space to dream in this kind of game, unless it is created externally. Indeed, if you start reading old-school academic analysis of computer games, it often reads starkly irrelevant. Like using the same aesthetic criteria to evaluate Jaws as you would Moby Dick – they might have a crossover but dude, they’re different animals, always.

There is much more to say about Grim Fandango‘s use of poetry – we haven’t even gotten to the player-created in-game performance poems – and I will continue in PART TWO.

1. Let us gracefully draw a veil over subsequent instalments. Very few things were meant to have quadrilogies. The Fast & The Furiousseries is a notable exception to this rule, Vin Diesel more than anyone understands the profound, self-replicating beauty of a fractal.
2. There are exceptions to this, most notably the Indiana Jones game series.
3. Both entirely worthy aesthetic pursuits.

Poetry Guest-Appearing in Games #3: Trine 2

Trine 2 is a delightful co-op puzzle platformer which will burn out your PC’s heart with its gorgeousness. The plot makes a little more sense in single-player (the Trine itself is a device used to explain why the player can switch between three characters) but it comes into its own when played with two friends. The Knight holds off the goblins with sword and shield while the Wizard alchemises an unstable bridge out of thin air and the Thief lights the way with flaming arrows. Something like that.

The poems in Trine 2 are written on secret scrolls hidden in various places throughout the span of the game, much like in Mark of the Ninja. And like in Mark of the Ninja, they form a complete narrative when pieced together, gradually revealing the history of the game’s antagonist. Because it’s set in a fantasy land ablaze with colour and sunlight, however, the narration is somewhat more direct, the style of telling sharply reminiscent of children’s fairy tales. The first ten are all simple quatrains with an ABCB rhyme-scheme. Cleverly, they use repetition to telegraph the conceit of alternating narrators: two sisters taking it in turn to speak about their relationship, each with a different outlook. There’s little in the way of subtle metaphor, but that’s fine – they fulfil their intended purpose of innocently leading the reader down an ever-darkening path.

The writer’s grasp of meter does slip a little, unfortunately, as in the last two lines of the sixth piece:

My sister is silly,
Insipid and dim.
Yet everyone still loves
This golden girl prim.

It’s another case, I feel, where even waving it under the nose of a poet would have resulted in a superior edit.

The last two poems in the game are longer. The sisters are finally named and Isabel gets a song, Rosabel a lament. ‘Isabel’s Song’ is the better piece:

The ABBA rhyme-scheme is refreshing in this context, and there’s just enough variation in the rhythm for this to feel like a ‘song of innocence’ in the style of Blake, even if it’s rather clichéd. The fourth line being one less metrical foot long is surprisingly effective. If it only it were repeated in the eighth!

‘Rosabel’s Lament’ is hamstrung by at least two absolutely clattering lines: “And grief and pain are my hopes” and “My failures ever let me mourn”. “Failures, may I mourn?” “Yes, you ever may!” “Oh thanx.” Maybe there’s something deliberate in the way the sinister nursery rhyme has segued into bad teen angst poetry as the sisters have grown up.

You can read all the poems here, although in this case in particular, I would recommend discovering them through playing the game. More so than in the two previous examples in this series, I would say the effect of the poems is enhanced by their gradual accumulation while the ‘present day’ plot unfolds. It’s a very effective form of narrative parallelism that feels less forced than threading flashback sequences through a story, as is often done in television drama. The fact that the saga of the sisters is told through poetry is an important factor; their story at once has the chime of legend and the tangibility of a recovered artefact, since it’s presented on weathered parchment. It leaves the reader in a position where they can make their own mind up about its significance.

Fads and Aftershocks: what can poetry and gaming do for one another?

Open mic poetry night in Grim Fandango

This article asks, and attempts to answer, three questions:

1. What can poetry do for gaming?

Electronic gaming culture is expansive and continues to expand, with indie development in particular burgeoning at a phenomenal rate. It’s become almost an umbrella term, in that it covers everything from teenagers playing mass-marketed war simulators with film-quality CGI to commuters idly thumbing through Temple Run on the train to work, to the activist inclinations of the interactive fiction community. Many game-making tools are now freely available on the Internet, and it seems as if every few months a new lone gunman developer surfaces with a breakout hit, earning him enough to quit his job.

But the conversation around gaming comes back repeatedly to its legitimacy as an artform, with gamers frequently expressing their desire for the best games to be ‘recognised’ as works of art. What is missed in the deployment of the term ‘recognition’ is the fact that the behaviour of the audience is an immeasurably large part of what defines a practice as an art, and the principle obstacle to games being recognised as art is gamers. I don’t mean that pejoratively, but as long as the bulk of the audience for games continue to express themselves mostly through financial behaviour – buying, then exhausting the product before moving on to the next purchase – gaming will struggle not to be regarded as a form of disposable entertainment. Shakespeare is not held aloft as an artistic genius because hundreds of Elizabethans and Jacobeans flocked to see his plays night after night; his esteem has been managed and sustained by generation after generation of writers and scholars who have provided intelligent assessment and insight into his work and used it as the foundation for creative works of their own.

There is no sense, therefore, in waiting around for ‘recognition’, or indeed for waiting for the Shakespeare of the game development world. How we act and think now will change how other people think about games, and aside from financial behaviour, the vast majority of discourse is journalistic in character. I have read many, many insightful articles about games, but journalistic copy is written to be succeeded the next day by something else – it is incredibly impermanent. Games studies courses are beginning to find a foothold in academia, but academia is, by its nature, secluded and self-insulating. I don’t want to diminish the importance of either of these areas, but there needs to be as much variety in writing about games as there is in games themselves. (I would go further and suggest that the cause of gaming as art has a serious problem when the most vexed and visible conversation of recent months has been a pitched battle between affluent consumers and corporate spokespeople.)

1997’s Snake, now a thing of nostalgia, is revisited by Cliff Hammett in Coin Opera 2

For games and gaming to be acknowledged and discussed in poetry – in the work, that is, of writers who are, first and foremost, poets – is an important step in the way gaming is written about. It’s not quite the same thing as blending poetry into games or making poems more like games, though I’m an advocate of those as well. It’s also not simply a case of putting a badge on games, saying, “You have been deemed worthy.” Poetry has that reputation of being lofty, but has also, of course, had a sideline in reconstituting detritus into art for the better part of century, so to be plundered for poetic content is not necessarily an honouring process.

No; the importance of poetry about games, as with poetry about anything, is that it suggests new ways of considering the subject, new ways of ‘reading’ games beyond the purely evaluative. It’s a creative-critical approach. I’ve been proffering examples from Coin Opera 2 to people for some time now, so here’s just a couple more: Cliff Hammett’s ‘Snake’ works as a reading of the once-popular mobile game Snake as a visual metaphor for the movement of water across the fissures in man-made structures. It suggests this both through its words and through its shape, and might cause us to return to the original game (now long since superseded as casual entertainment by Angry Birds and its sequels) and find something new and remarkable about it. Prompting the return is important; individual games may sell millions and enjoy a brief period in the public consciousness, but if any are to rise above the level of a fad, we need to find reasons to return to them once newer ones with better graphics supplant them.

My second example is Dan Simpson’s ‘Sympathy for the Orange Ghost’, an extract from a full-length show he’s taking to the Edinburgh festival this year. Pacman is already legendary, the main character already an icon. The game has gone about as far as games can go in embedding itself in our culture. Notably, it has already had a starring role in a one-man poetry performance show: Ross Sutherland’s The Three Stigmata of Pacman. But Dan’s work enriches Pacman further by unearthing a further implied narrative in it: the outcast status of Clyde, the orange ghost, whom he lyricises into a symbol of social marginalisation in general.

Poetry about games extends their life and extends their relevance. It is, in itself, a form of the ‘recognition’ that some gamers crave, but operates through an active creative engagement. This is what poetry can do for games.

Ross Sutherland performing The Three Stigmata of Pacman

2. What can gaming do for poetry?

At first blush, the answer seems obvious. In commercial terms, poetry is a dust mite to the gaming industry’s behemoth. In fact, poetry barely even registers as an industry at all, and therefore by infiltrating the culture of gaming, poets might be seen as making some calculated grab at the larger audience.

But it’s a mistake to think in these terms. Poetry is a much wider, older and potentially longer-lasting cultural discipline than gaming, and while it might look sickly in terms of revenue, its health in terms of the number and variety of its practitioners is booming. Money troubles may slow it down, greatly reduce its reach and hurt individual poets and publishers, but poetry will go on in some form, while the unsustainability of Western opulence may still spell an early end for gaming (in its electronic form at least).

What’s more, poetry’s lack of commerciality is in large part down to its effectiveness. That is to say, a little goes a very long way. Consumers burn through games, novels and even sprawling television sagas in days and find themselves hungry for more, while a small amount of poetry is enough for most people for most of their lives. Contemporary poets struggle for attention not through lack of skill or personality, but because poets of past eras successfully remain instilled in the national psyche, nourishing our cultural discourse far beyond their lifespan. We have an excess of good poetry, and in this sense, one sensible argument is that poetry requires nothing, that it is already the survival specialist of the arts, able to live on water and thin air if need be, growing fat in times of plenty or austerity.

What poetry does crave is renewal. Without renewal, entire generations risk coming across as nothing more than an aftershock of those that came before. Renewal is the sign that poets are in step with the present and prepared to attend to it, rising to the challenge of being the world’s ‘unacknowledged legislators’, rather than wallowing in nostalgia or trying to relive past glories.

Gaming provides an obvious opportunity for such renewal. I don’t suggest, of course, that all serious poets should at once turn to games in order to demonstrate an affinity with modern life. Done cynically, this leads to cheap and embarrassing poems (see Wendy Cope’s attempts at text message poetry). But we’re now living in a world where younger people are reading more from computer screens than they are from printed material, and part of the reason for this is the richness of virtual environments, where identity is more fluid and the ways of absorbing information more varied. The opportunities for philosophical and artistic exploration are immense. Thinking, for instance, of identity – a huge preoccupation in contemporary poetry – poets should be interested in the implications of being able to come home from work and role-play as a humanoid plant who can summon the dead until bedtime. Since experience is subjective, is there any reason to believe experiences in virtual environments are less real, less a part of our make-up and a contributing factor to our character, than experiences in the concrete world? Consider this particularly in the light of the increasing amount of social interaction within online communities.

What about how virtual architecture can inform form and rhythm? It’s no coincidence, I would say, that a good number of the poems we took for Coin Opera 2 chose to use shape, space or meter as a way of expressing their engagement with a game. And because the history of game narratives is one of constant, rapid evolution and faltering experiments, often with the reins of authorial control loosened in order to accommodate player interaction, they are, I would suggest, a treasure trove of myth, where ‘myth’ means the opportunity to take elements of a known tale and retell or reinterpret them to explore wider themes.

Games are abundant, often scrambled packages of meaning waiting to be untangled and made sense of. Gaming culture is a cluster of new experiences whose careful evaluation, in any literary form, will help us all make sense of ourselves. That’s what gaming can do for poetry.

3. What else can they do for each other?

Finally, there’s the importance of cross-disciplinary discourse, which I also allude to in my Dr Fulminare interview over at Sabotage. At present, as far as I can make out, there is very little discussion between gaming and literary audiences, much within the bubble of each. Meanwhile, there are multiple issues afflicting both literary and gaming culture wherein both could benefit from sharing their ideas. One example is the problem of gender bias, which I go into more thoroughly here.

There are numerous social and political problems all of us are grappling with in some form or another. There are arguments that poetry can be a constructive force in this respect, and there are arguments that games can be a constructive force in this respect. I believe these arguments, but if they’re right, then both cultures – and both disciplines – could stand to share their ideas a little more freely.

Poetry Guest-Appearing in Games #2: Dishonored

Like Mark of the Ninja, 2012’s Dishonored is an action-stealth game and a shining example of that genre. It’s also credited with introducing gamers to one of the most memorable fantasy worlds of recent times: the plague-ravaged fishing city of Dunwall, a kind of steampunk Victorian East London powered by whalefat batteries (the whales are implied to be Godzillarish mutants with connections to another dimension). Automatic gun turrets and electric ‘walls of light’ exist alongside flintlock pistols and duelling sabres, as the protagonist, Corvo, traverses titanic iron bridges and vast stone fortresses to revenge himself against the corrupt ruling classes.

Taking a design cue from Bioshock, also set in a city gone wrong, the lore of the world is revealed to the player mostly through notes and books he or she finds scattered about the place, often near decaying corpses. Reading them is entirely optional and has little bearing on the plot; they’re there to add flavour to the world, to make it feel inhabited by more than the main characters and a legion of disposable guardsmen. And wouldn’t you know it: out of all the various material I found, two were definitely poems.

The first, found in the second level of the game near a homeless plague victim, is the stronger of the two. It’s called ‘Death in the Month of Songs’, with a notation explaining that it’s both an excerpt from longer work and a translation (from ‘old Serkonan’, if you were wondering). This is a clever move by the writer, as it provides an explanation for the poem lacking the sense of an ending, and also excuses a little of the tinniness, since translations tend to be difficult beasts. That said, it does read like an honest attempt at a decent poem. It consists of four stanzas of three lines, with an implied narrative and use of repetition in the first lines of each: “She was shy in the Month of Hearths” through to “She was dying in the Month of Songs”. It apes the style of the romantics somewhat, and has the odd moment of interesting imagery:

She was wed in the Month of Clans
To her sailor cousin from Cullero
A shrill bird, drilling at my chest

The last line, though, is pretty poor: “A terrible kiss on her distant lips”. ‘Terrible kiss’ has that try-hard vibe about it, and the internal rhyme is heavy-handed. She’s dying from a disease at this point, but why are her lips distant? Distant, perhaps, from the narrator, who is her suitor but who ultimately loses her to the cousin. In fact, I have to hand it to the poem: it does manage to tell a tragic story with very few words. The lady in question marries a sailor instead of the narrator, who loves her, because she has a head for adventure. A cruelly short time later, she dies from a tropical illness.

The second poem is depressingly bad. It purports to be an excerpt from ‘a set of cautionary tales for children’ and is obviously intended as a sort of macabre nursery rhyme or folk ballad:

Here’s the thing about rhymes and ballads though: they tend to scan. The rhythm is such that the lines roll off the tongue. Here we start with:

They say that Jimmy Whitcomb Riley
Was a brawler his mates called Smiley.
He ran around, up and down-town,
Pulling off every kind of crime-y.

Which is all kinds of awkward. And what’s the point of forcing a rhyme with the ending ‘y’ if it’s not even a full rhyme? Two stanzas later, we get ‘a-sleeping’ rhymed with ‘Clavering’. This is as lazy as it gets. On top of that, the rhyming pattern established in the first stanza, which is basically a variation on a limerick, is abandoned in the second through to fourth, presumably because it was too difficult to find more than one rhyme for ‘boys’ or ‘day’.

But the worst thing about this effort is that there’s no real story. If you’re going to half-arse the poetry for the sake of telling a ‘cautionary tale’, you should at least have a tale in mind. This one starts off describing a typical no-good character. Then, in stanza four, he wakes up as a fish! That’s it! Even McGonagall had something he actually wanted to tell us about.

Someone on the Dishonored writing team obviously decided that inserting poetry into the game through these books and documents would help give the world credibility. It’s one of those little details that makes an imaginary people seem real. Indeed, ever since Tolkien, it seems to be an unwritten rule that every fantasy world must have its ballads, tavern songs and poems as a sign of the richness of its culture. This makes sense. But it also leaves you wondering: why, then, don’t games developers hire a poet to write them their poems? Poets tend to come very cheap, and many would embrace the challenge of writing in whatever style you wanted.

I suppose the answer is that for all that the ‘idea’ of poetry still holds sway, the average person’s familiarity with it is so lacking that they can mistake an awful, rushed attempt for a convincing approximation.

Gender / Gaming / Literature

That there is a major issue with gender representation within both gaming and literary culture is now so widely accepted that it’s easy to forget the claim is even contested. But contested it is; the worst that can be said about Anita Sarkeesian‘s Tropes vs Women series so far is that it’s a succession of statements of the obvious, but that hasn’t prevented a wave of antipathy and attempts to discredit Sarkeesian, even to the point of publicly accusing her of fraud for asking for too much money from her supporters.(1)

Even if we ignore this resistance to eminently sensible criticisms, just because a problem is widely acknowledged doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be discussed. One argument deployed when feminist critics like Sarkeesian emerge, or when statistics are released that point to comparable problems in literary culture, is that we’re only seeing a reflection of wider problems with equality in society. Games developers cannot employ more women if women aren’t applying for the jobs and female authors can’t be published if they aren’t submitting work. Similarly, if there is a lack of female protagonists, characters and perspectives in games and literature, it’s because the public aren’t interested enough in them.

Firstly, it should be pointed out that this is a case of neutrality as complicity. The metaphor of the travelator(2) is useful in characterising what’s happening. There is a cultural drift towards inequality – not just to the detriment of women, but to the detriment of minority ethnic groups, the poor, gay people, transsexuals, the disabled and others. We can debate about who is responsible for that cultural drift and whether or not it’s part of human nature; what’s important for now is to understand that if you aren’t resisting – if you aren’t walking in the opposite direction along the travelator – then you’re being pulled towards accepting greater and greater inequality, into a position where you’re more likely to find basic notions of freedom and fairness unrealistic or fanciful. The most common complaint against feminists is that they’re too visible, too attention-seeking, too forceful. This complaint ignores cultural drift and the fact that you can’t create a countercurrent without considerable noise and activity, nor without making demands.

Secondly, literature and gaming in particular should be at the forefront of positive change. Games are spaces where we can play. Books are spaces where we can exercise our imaginations. Creative mediums are where we can take stock of what is unhealthy in our world by imagining a better one, where we can test outlandish theories, and explore our most dangerous instincts in a safe environment. They’re where we can visualise and articulate internal conflict. In short, they’re areas where notions of what is realistically achievable in society should give way to idealism and social experimentation, where everything we think we know should be regularly turned on its head. This already happens; it just needs to happen more.

More importantly, they’re areas where change can occur relatively rapidly because of their accessibility. In most industries, systemic prejudice is so ingrained, so threaded into the system that change is generational at best. Women don’t land corporate jobs, often, because they lack the requisite aggression and competitive edge. They lack aggression and a competitive edge because these are qualities that, early on in children’s development, are identified as masculine, as unfeminine. In other areas, women lack qualification or experience or self-assurance, all because they are undermined at an early point in their lives and placed at a disadvantage. But you don’t need to land a job to become a writer. And with game creation tools like Twine and Construct 2 constantly evolving, you don’t need a job in technology to become a game developer. Best of all, the Internet provides the necessary tools for disseminating the resulting work and building an audience for female critics and creators alike.

Twine is a simple, window-based development platform for text adventures.

So what needs to be done?

One of the most important things to challenge in both literature and gaming is the idea of a type of book or game that is aimed at women, and the accompanying notion that addressing the gender imbalance will mean more of these types of games and books, at the expense of the type that we (men) typically enjoy. The scare story is that political correctness demands an overall reduction in quality.

But these are industries/environments where the full spectrum of what appeals to boys and men has been heavily explored and is collectively well understood, while women’s tastes are very poorly understood, in part due to a deficit of widely disseminated critical writing by women. The kind of games and books that are marketed to girls and women – chick-lit and dolls’ house games – are the result of this poor understanding. That’s not to say women don’t like these games and books, but that it represents only a tiny part of the full spectrum of what they might like – a spectrum which, in all likelihood, overlaps to a massive degree with men’s tastes.

If women’s tastes were more thoroughly explored and understood, what I suspect would come to light is that a multiplicity of minor changes would do much to bring more women on board while sacrificing little of what appeals to male audiences. To take an example from gaming, one of the reasons women can feel excluded by the content of a game is the proliferation of female characters whose sole purpose appears to be titillation. This is frequently misunderstood as an objection to partial nudity or attractiveness, when in fact it’s a complaint about deficit of personality and relatable goals. It would be easily resolved by introducing female characters who fill out a much wider range of roles, as well as genuinely sexy male characters. It does not necessitate censorship.

GLaDOS, one of gaming’s most unusual and memorable female characters.

Although literary culture prides itself on sophistication, there is a similar issue with crude understanding of what women want and what is distinct, if anything, about women’s writing. Famously, VS Naipaul last year attempted to reduce the entire scope of women’s fiction to ‘sentimentality, the narrow view of the world’. If this isn’t a clue as to a greater problem in how we envisage women’s role in literary culture, I don’t know what is. Even within poetry, there is a barely-remarked-on but, in my opinion, noticeable stylistic pigeonhole that women’s writing slots into. Women who write in this way (broadly: confessional, relationship-focused, formally loose) are, in my judgement, more likely to be published than women who write in any number of other ways. I would suggest that there is a subconscious, male-led selection process at work that highlights this style of poem as ‘representing’ women better than some of the other styles women choose to write in.

Let’s address the argument that better representation of women in either medium means a drop in quality, means opting for the poorer candidate to fulfil a quota. Women make up over half the world’s population. There is no scientific basis for the assumption that men are more intelligent, more creative, more individualistic or harder-working than women. If you have two local sports teams who, in totality, are equal to one another, and you make up a national side that is heavily weighted to one of those teams, as a matter of logic, you must have picked the weaker players from one team at the expense of stronger players from the other. In any culture, subculture or industry where the gender balance is skewed heavily in favour of men, the weaker candidates are already being picked. More equality should logically amount to higher quality.

Finally, I want to say a few words about Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge and our approach to gender equality. The final ratio of contributors is 23 male to 18 female, which is 57:43 in favour of men. I consider this not ideal but within the boundaries of acceptability considering our limited resources. During the process of soliciting poems, three male poets approached me with unsolicited poems, while no female poets did. At one point, I did make a concerted effort to get more female poets on board because I felt we didn’t have enough. Not one female poet turned us down on the basis that she didn’t play games, and the games they played ranged from pinball tables to Skyrim. Some found that the games they wanted to write about had already been covered, and so declined. One, whose relationship with games was mostly through her children, specifically bought and played the game they wanted to write about for the first time, in the interests of getting a more in-depth perspective. Some poets of both sexes said they would have a think but ultimately didn’t get back to us.

I would say that, on the whole, the collection is definitely richer for its inclusion of a good number of female poets and gamers and that their work does not betray any notion that there is a strict segregation of tastes or styles between men and women. I don’t think of this as providing a service to women (albeit I hope that providing a platform for more women to respond to games and gaming is helpful) but as something that improves the overall quality, accessibility and range of the book.

Further links

Coverflip: Maureen Johnson on gendered book covers
Jane McGonigal, game designer and games culture activist
Helen Lewis writing in the New Statesman on female protagonists in games


(1) Prior to writing this article, I’d only seen the fraud accusation made in the seething jungle of comments sections on news sites. But I only had to type ‘Sarkeesian fraud’ into Google to find this page in the top two results.

(2) I first stole and redeployed this metaphor here.

Poetry Guest-Appearing in Games #1: Mark of the Ninja

Mark of the Ninja is a 2012 stealth action game developed by Klei Entertainment. It’s a first rate example of the stealth genre, forcing the player to stick to the (plentiful) shadows, glide through vents and take advantage of distractions in order to get the jump on an enemy. The protagonist is a nameless ninja charged with mounting a solo assault on a private military company in revenge for an attack on his clan, although a broader and more sinister picture reveals itself to him as he advances through the various missions.

The game’s writer, Chris Dahlen, blogs here about the research he undertook in order to create a realistic history for the fictional Hisomu clan and the decision to employ poetry – specifically haiku – in the telling. Conscious of the fact that using audio logs to relate a non-interactive potted history is difficult to do well inside a fundamentally interactive medium, and concerned that these audio logs should fit the pace of the game, Dahlen opted for haiku “because haiku are short, and they’re enigmatic”.

The resulting poems can be accessed by finding hidden scrolls, three per level, scattered throughout Mark of the Ninja. After touching each scroll, a poem is recited by ‘the voice of the Hisomu’. Taken together, they fall under the title of ‘A History of the Hisomu Clan as Written by its Masters’.

From the first recital, however, it’s apparent that these are not really haiku in the strict sense:

Five hundred men lie
vanquished before Tetsuji.
Takes off his blindfold.

Dahlen uses the 5-7-5 syllabic form that is commonly taught as a rough approximation of the rules governing haiku in Japanese, but in most of these poems, he misses the most fundamental element of the form: the kigo, or seasonal reference. Without this, the form is much closer to senryū, a similarly structured poem whose subject is usually people, rather than nature.

More arguable is the presence of a caesura or kireji (cutting word), which is used in haiku to implicitly compare two images. This is not necessarily easy to recognise, but Dahlen achieves, at the very least, a similar effect here by ending the second line with a full stop, which suggests we reflect on the relationship between the removal of the blindfold and the dead five hundred.

The second poem is more troublesome:

We snap off a branch
to make a weapon; but the
tree must bear the wound.

Here, the syllabic structure is rather more forced, conflicting with the natural intonation. In the game, the voice actor audibly pauses after ‘the’ to denote the line break, but it sounds odd and adds nothing to the meaning of the poem – the natural pause is after ‘weapon’. Also, ‘but’ makes the intended contrast explicit where it should be implicit. It would be a stronger poem, and more ‘haiku-ish’, if it went something like: “We snap off a branch / to make a weapon / The tree bears the wound.”

This poem is, however, a clever allusion to the role of the player in the story, and Dahlen’s aim here, and with many of the poems that follow, is to provoke the imagination, to get the player guessing at what various strange and slippery images refer to. While some of the poems are blunt and direct in moving the storyline along, others apparently relay no information at all. These, however, are all the more interesting for that, and closest to the effect one might expect from poetry:

On a starless night
an unkindness of ravens
lands along the wall.

A raven, or something similar, signifies a checkpoint in the game. When you pass these points, the raven appears to fly away. Does this poem allude to them being set up beforehand, and consequently the fact that the protagonist’s path through the game – and through his life – is the result of his being manipulated?

The poems in Mark of the Ninja ultimately achieve two things: they are a foreshadowing device within the plot, causing the player to anticipate various revelations and the protagonist’s ultimate fate. They’re also a flavouring device, grounding the story more thoroughly in elements of Japanese culture and creating the illusion of a succession of writers contributing to a generation-spanning narrative.

You can listen to the compiled audiologs here.


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