Example poetry

When poetry and games speak the same language


Jin Sakai is a very busy samurai. The hero of adventure game 2020 Ghost of Tsushima must juggle katana practice with navigating complex family loyalties and the small matter of single-handedly defending Japan against a Mongol invasion. Sometimes he needs a break. He’ll find a beautiful spot, perhaps perched on a cliff edge overlooking windswept seas or kneeling on tatami under a cherry tree, and compose a haiku. You, the player, are given a poetic theme and must choose from a selection of pre-written lines to complete each verse. In a game that can be tense and bloody, these scenes provide welcome opportunities for contemplation.

Poetry and video games may not seem like natural bedfellows. The former is one of the oldest art forms, often deemed rarefied or inaccessible, while games are among the newest, regularly dismissed as light entertainment without artistic value. Yet anyone who looks deeper knows that poetry can be light and fun while games can be intellectual and stimulating. Mediums are united in their concern for rules, with creative power sometimes best harnessed through formal constraints.

This overlap is the subject of poetry games, a new exhibition at the National Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall, London. Writers have long experimented with games as part of their practice, notably the French-speaking group Oulipo, whose member Georges Perec wrote his 300-page novel in 1969. Disappearance without using the letter “e”. Now, however, everyone can participate in the playfulness of writing. There is a poetic twist on Jenga by Astra Papachristodoulou, where you take out blocks bearing words to build a poem, and that of Jon Stone and Abigail Parry Opponent, which asks players to create poems from word cards. An example in the showcase is a convincing serenade: “In dreams / the night / comes true / a bell / betrays / the blatant dawn”. Just try to avoid the “Writer’s Block” card, which says, sympathetically, “It happens to all of us.”

The Poetry Library exhibit features a version of ‘Jenga’ in which blocks are removed to make a poem © Astra Papachristodoulo

There are also digital games such as Gemma Mahadeo and Ian Maclarty’s If we were allowed to visit, a navigable 3D space where each object is made of words, poetic fragments that move as you go. Philippe Grenon Emile and me is a single platform game in which you jump between words to construct a poem. After bouncing around for a while, I had said, “another day swells airy and fluffy / golden at night and shimmering my works / dreamy rain swings beside.” Not bad, but maybe not great poetry.

Exhibit curator Nick Murray suggests grandeur may not be the issue. “To engage with this generator, this toy, is to see that there are different avenues for the playful creation of poetry,” they told me. “The result is secondary to the action of making it.”

Murray continues, “I’d like to bring in people who don’t normally feel comfortable going to the Poetry Library but are familiar with the language of games. Showing poetry doesn’t have to be the unreachable, stuffy thing you miss at the GCSE. They might come in, play these games and then think: poetry is actually quite fun, maybe I could write something. »

Writers who grew up with games found in them a rich metaphorical language for poetry, memorably demonstrated in the work of Ross Sutherland. street fighter 2 sonnets. Other published collections of poetry about games include Damage Points, But Our princess is in another castle and the Opera currency series, which includes “multiplayer” collaborative poems, large “boss fight” poems, and text experiences based on the layout of Snake and peggle.

The developers have also introduced real-world poetry into game environments. Elegy for a Dead World is a fantasy adventure that takes players through landscapes inspired by poems by Shelley, Keats and Byron, then gives them writing instructions. In EmilyBlaster, you read a poem by Emily Dickinson, then try to put it back together by shooting words that fall from the top of the screen. Writing games such as Kentucky Route Zero and night in the woods contain sections where you choose words to compose lyrics, while A slow year is sold on a CD inside a book binding containing four play poems based on the seasons. The instructions are written in haiku.

The exhibition shows that poetry can be playful even when it is not interactive, just as games can be poetic without ever using words, like the one who played Journey Where The shadow of the colossus will know. “The games show that you can still do some really surprising and exciting things with poetry, even though the form has been around for thousands of years,” says Murray. “All art forms are learning from games right now. I absolutely think poetry should be too.

‘Poetry Games’, until 15 January, National Poetry Library, London, nationalpoetrylibrary.org.uk

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