Spotlight: ROLL AGAIN

The call for submissions for our latest books, the Hipflask Series, is open until 25th October 2021. These are unusual titles, even by Sidekick standards, so we’ve put together a series of short posts, one for each of the four books, breaking down the ideas and influences behind the book and what we’re looking for from you. Today it’s the turn of our Puckish playbook, full of rules and misrule…

Book cover for Roll Again, showing a dice rolling along a game board path that turns into a snake.

What’s the big idea?

“Not only does God play dice, but… he sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen.”
– Stephen Hawking

Games are not just pastimes or diversions. They allow to us to bat about ideas, meet and overcome resistance, come together with others (or find new ways of being with ourselves), and create new works as by-products of our play.

Games and poetry cross over in these goals, and this book gathers together new games with creative, poetic elements, in a jostling, joyful compendium for rainy days, holidays – all days, really.

Who and what gave us the idea for this book?

Instructive, or didactic, poetry has been around for centuries. Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata and even Mary Schmich’s ‘Wear Sunscreen’ speech (later set to music by Baz Luhrmann) all offer guidance on how to progress. This book gathers similarly instructive work, but instead of life, we want to know how to play games. Your games.

What are we looking for in submissions?

Send us the rules or explanations to your own invented games – up to three per individual submission. No game is too simple. They should be at least theoretically playable by readers, and as accessible as possible (i.e. not requiring expensive or exclusive equipment or staging). They can be reimagined versions of existing games, physical or mental, tabletop or outdoor, but the submission should consist mainly of a description of how the game is played.

You can include diagrams for illustrative purposes, but bear in mind that the book will be printed in black and white, and please take into account the page dimensions (see template in call). We’re looking for pieces not longer than 600 words for prose/prose-like text, 50 lines for verse, or three pages (again, check the template for the page dimensions).

What are we not looking for?

Brand names, fleeting trends and adult content. We want the Hipflasks to be as enjoyable 20 years from now as they are today, and we want to take them to as large an audience as possible.

Where to look for inspiration?

• Adam Dixon’s Gamepoems are a great place to start. Find simple ways of slipping poetry into your daily wanders.

•Sidekick’s own interactive Headbooks series includes puzzle and play pages linked to the poetry in the books.

Holly Gramazio has created a treasury of digital and analog games. Among her many projects is a website with accompanying book called New Rules, exploring modes of play during the pandemic.

House: Some Instructions by Grace Paley is a ladder or staircase of a poem, ushering us into the emotions of the house in question and guiding us in its care.

How to Make Stew in the Pinacate Desert by Gary Snyder takes the form of a recipe, seasoned and peppered with environmental details.

Any further questions?

Check the call for submissions in case your answer lies there. If not, email contact[at] or find us on Twitter @SidekickBooks.

Sandsnarl: new pamphlet from Sidekick’s Jon Stone!

Sidekick editor Jon Stone recently launched his pamphlet Sandsnarl with the ever-excellent Emma Press.

Sandsnarl cover - yellow swirls on a white background

Sandsnarl is a settlement steeped in sand – though where it came from and how long ago is a matter of tall tales and steely whispers. The sand itself makes accurate record-keeping impossible. It is drug, ore, plague and delicacy. The inhabitants of this region (or is it a fallen kingdom?) talk and think through its haze. Some alter their shape. Others fizz and seethe with the habit of resistance. These poems eavesdrop, extract and sift. Together, they make a brief impression of a time and place, a Buñuelian musical without the music.

Click here to view sample poems and buy your copy!

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

Coin Opera II custom poems #5: Fallen London for Claire Trévien

As top-tier rewards during our Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing of video games poetry anthology Coin Opera II, we offered backers the chance to have their own custom poem written on a game of their choice. In the run-up to our Seven-Player Co-op event on Thursday 6th November at Four Quarters Bar, Peckham, we’ll be revealing the finished poems, now in the hands of their wonderful backers.

Poet and storyteller Claire Trévien selected Failbetter Games‘ steampunk text adventure Fallen London. Kirsty used the familiar refrain of the game to bring the narrative swinging back around each time.

Here’s what a mysterious stranger dropped through Claire’s door:

And here’s the poem to read (simpler text below, as the author was a scrawler):

Hmm. This might be a bit easier on the eye:

Delicious Friend
For Claire Trévien

The Embassy is quiet tonight.
No lesser imps by sulphurlight.
You could go home and pour a tot.
Perhaps not.

No, you have business. Old acquaintance.
A scent of debt and smoking incense.
“I thought I’d have to have you caught.”
Perhaps not.

She welcomes you with blazing eyes.
“I do hope you can help,” she sighs.
“Perhaps you’ve never been this hot.”
Perhaps not.

She tells you that she’s burning up
and can’t be quenched by any cup.
Your legs are weak. The candle’s squat.
Perhaps not.

You hand her now the blotto youth.
“He’ll do quite well,” she purrs. In truth,
you nearly ask, “Do well for what?”
Perhaps not.

“Your hand is empty. Stay awhile.
I’d like to see that thieving smile.
You know, we both might learn a jot.”
Perhaps not.

“Well, I’ve jawed on for eons, kitten.
Tell me of your expedition.”
Rapt, she wants to hear the lot.
Perhaps not.

You tell her of the rubber men
who flubbled through the laudanum dens,
and nearly mention what they sought.
Perhaps not.

The Carnival. The iron knives.
You tell her you live many lives.
“With many souls? Now there’s a thought.”
Perhaps not.


Thanks once again to all of our amazing backers.

Coin Opera II custom poems #4: Civilization V for Helen Lewis

As top-tier rewards during our Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing of video games poetry anthology Coin Opera II, we offered backers the chance to have their own custom poem written on a game of their choice. In the run-up to our Seven-Player Co-op event on Thursday 6th November at Four Quarters Bar, Peckham, we’ll be revealing the finished poems, now in the hands of their wonderful backers.

The fantastic Helen Lewis chose Civilization V for her custom poem, and the finished piece ended up being excavated by Kirsty from many sediments and centuries, with just a dusting of Coleridge left behind.

Here’s the readable text for you to enjoy.

Thanks once again to all of our amazing backers.

Coin Opera II custom poems #3: GTA Vice City for Angela Cleland

As top-tier rewards during our Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing of video games poetry anthology Coin Opera II, we offered backers the chance to have their own custom poem written on a game of their choice. In the run-up to our Seven-Player Co-op event on Thursday 6th November at Four Quarters Bar, Peckham, we’ll be revealing the finished poems, now in the hands of their wonderful backers.

This time it’s the turn of the talented Angela Cleland, who requested a poem on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. This was huge fun for K to write, and began with Cleland’s memory of a particular song playing on the in-game car stereo: Toto’s Africa.

Here’s the physical poem Cleland received, done up as protagonist Tommy Vercetti’s prison-confiscated belongings. Well, it had to catch up with him sooner or later.

And here’s a postcard for you to read.

Thanks once again to all of our amazing backers.

Coin Opera II custom poems #2: Shenmue for Carly Lightfoot

As top-tier rewards during our Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing of video games poetry anthology Coin Opera II, we offered backers the chance to have their own custom poem written on a game of their choice. In the run-up to our Seven-Player Co-op event on Thursday 6th November at Four Quarters Bar, Peckham, we’ll be revealing the finished poems, now in the hands of their wonderful backers.

This time, it’s the turn of the splendid Carly Lightfoot, who chose 1999 action-adventure game Shenmue.

Here’s the physical poem she received:

And here is a readable version, just for you:

Thanks once again to all of our amazing backers.

Coin Opera II custom poems #1: Ecstatica II for John Clegg

As top-tier rewards during our Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing of video games poetry anthology Coin Opera II, we offered backers the chance to have their own custom poem written on a game of their choice. In the run-up to our Seven-Player Co-op event on Thursday 6th November at Four Quarters Bar, Peckham, we’ll be revealing the finished poems, now in the hands of their wonderful backers.

First up, it’s Ecstatica II, chosen by John Clegg. This piece was unique in being the only poem in the series written jointly by Jon and Kirsty as rivals for the protagonist’s attention. Here is the physical poem John received, in the form of a glorious medieval-style scroll (and here’s a video of him receiving it):

And here is the poem itself:

Thanks once again to all of our amazing backers.

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.