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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.

Return to Gaming and Art, part 1

Here I am, in the middle of editing and laying out Coin Opera 2, an anthology of poems about computer games that was originally supposed to come out last year, a book that may be ignored by poetry readers (“Computer games? Please”) and by gamers (“Poetry? Please”) alike. As you might expect, I’ve been thinking a lot about what games are, what poetry is, what art is, what they all have to do with each other, and particular on that vexatious topic: can games be art?

I. Don’t focus so much on thematic messages!

I’ve been spurred on in my thinking by this recent article, posted by Film Crit Hulk, which is a worthwhile read and makes some important points but ultimately comes to, I think, the wrong conclusion. While Hulk has a strong argument about the social responsibility of art (and, more importantly, how most games developers have yet to face up to that responsibility, to put it mildly) his narrow definition ultimately leads him to conclude that games “don’t even belong in the same conversation as movies” and that art in computer games is only a “grand possibility”.

When I say his definition of art is narrow, I refer to this part of the article:


This leads him down the route of (rightly) critiquing the risible Call of Duty series for its thematic immaturity and moral cowardice.

But that is just not an adequate definition of art. People do not parade around the world’s most lavish galleries looking at pieces whose thematic messages are the single most important aspect of their inception and identity.

Hulk is closer, I think, than the author of this article, who brushes this issue aside and argues that artistic achievement is synonymous with technical achievement in a given field, ie. good games are always good art. That strikes me as even further away from the mark.

So too do cruder attempts along the lines of: art is what makes you look at something a different way; art makes you consider the world and your place in it; art is something that is remembered beyond its author’s lifetime. All no good, I’m afraid.

I’m not myself going to attempt a ‘definition’ of art right now. It is the slipperiest of concepts, and we should be thankful for that; otherwise, we’d all be necking government-regulated ‘art’ pills. What I will say, though, is that any definition should recognise that when we appreciate something as art, we are often enjoying and admiring its mere existence, disconnected from its original purpose (if any ever existed). Think of Wilde’s all art is quite useless or Auden’s “poetry makes nothing happen”. We are moved by the medium as well as – perhaps more than – the message.

It’s one thing for Hulk to say art should be socially responsible. There I think I agree. It’s quite another to say that something can’t be art at all if it isn’t socially responsible.

Think of the gallery example again. The purpose of many renowned paintings was to portray the artist’s patrons in a favourable light. When we admire such a painting, we are not concerned that the subject now looks like an overdressed buffoon, or that his death has rendered the art pointless. When we look at Lely’s Portrait of a young lady and child, we don’t shake our heads sadly because a naked Nell Gwynn no longer stirs the loins as it once might have.

No – the work is still admired for its form, for the abilities of the artist working within their medium, for its peculiarity or overall coherence.

I’m going to move on from paintings now because I know very little about them. One related point: much poetry, of course, resists disclosing its practical purpose (if it has one), principally because of the distraction it causes. An overtly political poem is more likely to be noticed/admired/derided for its politics than for its form, for example – whereupon it might as well be a blog post and not a poem at all.

II. You’re looking in the wrong direction

One of things that keeps me coming back to the art/games debate is the persistent belief in what Hulk calls ‘the grand possibility’. Gamers and games critics insist on looking to the future for games to cross the line into art, when they should be looking to the past.

Why? Because what we call ‘retro’ games – games that are antiquated and no longer popularly played – are now, from a modern gamer’s perspective, more appreciable as artifacts than they are as games. As games, their mechanics have been improved upon to the point where many seem crude, frustrating and overly repetitive. What is left is the enjoyment and admiration we might still feel for creativity and technical accomplishments within the confines of a difficult medium.

Anyone who reads the UK magazine Retro Gamer will know that they frequently fill double-page spreads with single screenshots of games from the 70s, 80s and early 90s, purely because they are beautiful to look at – or certainly, at least, the reader takes pleasure in merely looking. Similarly so the countless youtube videos of retro games.

In the same respect, ‘pixel art’ is now an acknowledged subgenre of illustration. What once was a practical solution to severe technical restrictions is now, in an age of CGI polygons and lavish pixel depth, imitated and expanded for its aesthetic quality.

Why does it matter then if we no longer admire old games for their original intended purpose? In one sense, they have transcended the short-term limitations of that purpose.

III. So have modern games lost it?

There are a few odd holy grails in modern gaming which serve to obscure any attempt to assess the artistic merits of a particular game. For one thing, there is the obsession with perfecting the ‘movie-where-YOU-are-the-star’ genre, with its increasing graphical fidelity to real life. These games, as Hulk points out, more often than not want to be as much like action films as possible, and it’s difficult to know what on earth to assess them against except each other, so confused are their identities. Are they a means of acting out a fantasy? Interactive movies? Virtual playgrounds?

Then there’s the enthralment to ‘open-ended’ gaming, where the player is not forced down any particular path and can make decisions that permanently affect the in-game storyline beyond a simple win/lose dichotomy. The latest flag-carrier in this regard is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a game which seems to have temporarily deactivated many people’s ability to think critically at all. I have seen none of what is noted below, for example, mentioned in a professional review:

Interestingly, though, what I’m seeing with Skyrim (I think) is a generation bypassing the flaws in the game aspect because they’re too busy admiring it as a piece of art. The first thing many reviewers remark on, for instance, is the vastness of the in-game world. This reminds me of the reaction you might expect from someone seeing a huge painted canvas for the first time – something like The Night Watch or Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection:

There are appreciative mentions of the story’s length and depth, but not a single actual character named (that I have come across), which suggests, again, admiration without engagement. A good potboiler or thriller delivers the story through a medium that is largely invisible, while what we vaguely term ‘literature’ forces us to notice and appreciate the means of delivery. Skyrim‘s story and characters are apparently largely forgettable, but people seem to be endlessly impressed with the delivery system.

That’s not to say, even if it is art, it’s great or long-lasting art. It could be a flash in the pan, particularly if everything admirable about the game is something that can be done better by larger teams of developers in the future, with even more money and technology at their disposal. And however much there is to admire about a game, it seems to me a problematic sign that something so fundamental to the role-playing genre – the narrative – should apparently be unremarkable.

The anecdotes I have come across regarding people’s experiences playing Skyrim repeatedly emphasise the pleasure of the journey – wandering across tracts of aesthetically pleasing virtual landscape. Or else they emphasise the freedom: kill who you want, rob who you want, collect books, ignore missions, lolligag. None of this, to my mind, sounds like the makings of a great game. Bernard Suits’ definition of playing a game is “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”.  But if the emphasis is on freedom, that connotes a lack of obstacles. So it sounds like the pleasure comes from somewhere else. It sounds sometimes like people are talking about specifically enjoying not playing the game.

Some would argue the primary purpose of computer games is pleasure through interaction, and therefore that a game that delights the player has succeeded as a game, even if it doesn’t conform to the expected conventions of a game. After all, there is Dead or Alive: Beach Volleyball:

But there must be a line in the sand (and DoA:BV surely approaches it), where the pleasure derived from interaction cannot really be called ‘gaming’ or ‘playing a game’, just as there is a point where admiration of an image is no longer artistic appreciation.

I’m not too worried about where that line in the sand is. All I note is that there is at least the possibility that games are already being approached and experienced as art, perhaps in some cases more than they are as games.

In part 2 of this, I’m going to go on to talk about Facade, ‘masterpieces’ and why Portal 2 is an unsurpassable example of a game that is also an artistic achievement.


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