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Play is excavation: the search for game poetry

From early arcade games to recent indie hits, the disparate forms of the video game and poetry have displayed a surprising amount in common.

Dylan Holmes, Blogger

November 14, 2012

13 Min Read

In 2004, a little-known Nevadan writer published the first book of video game poetry. The collection – sporting the lengthy title Blue Wizard is About to Die: Prose, Poems, and Emoto-Versatronic Expressionist Pieces about Video Games (1980-2003) – contained 47 video-game-centric poems, the majority focusing on the arcade games that defined the medium in the early ‘80s. In the introduction, author Seth Flynn Barkan lays out the larger purpose behind his work’s publication. “My premise while writing this book was to portray these games as being something other than the insipid and pointless rot-your-brain-run-your-eyes-waste-your-life-whydontcha entertainments that many of the adults of my youth saw them as, but as the works of art they truly are.”

  If only I could save you
                                  from the blondes in the black
                                 Duesenbergs; hold you back,
                                 grab your fucking handle-bars,
                                 shaking my head, preventing
                                 your insane ride into traffic
                                 saying “it’s not worth it, kid;
                                 whatever they’re paying you,
                                 it’s not worth it.”

                                -Seth Flynn Barkan, "Paperboy"

Flynn Barkan couldn’t have known that his little book would be part of a movement. 2003-2004 saw a wave of books that sought, in one way or another, to take video games seriously, ranging from cultural and genre histories to analytical essays to art books. But while a small number of these books have continued to be released year after year, the video game poetry book was a dead-end; it wasn’t until this year that a second (Gregory Sherl’s The Oregon Trail Is the Oregon Trail) was published.

This is a shame. Flynn Barkan’s focus on ‘80s games may simply have been a result of what he calls “a lifetime worth of research into the seedy realm of the video arcade,” but he struck on a synergy between two forms that, at first glance, seem to have very little in common. While both modern poetry (defined here as poetry from the twentieth century onwards) and early arcade games are diverse enough that no catch-all claims can be made, there are some common characteristics that emerged from shared constraints.

Arcade Poetics
The first commonality is a tendency towards abstraction. Modern poetry typically employs metaphor, simile, and fragmented sentences to draw novel connections and highlight a greater, experiential truth at the expense of the more concrete, linear narratives found in other mediums. Arcade games took things a step further by having only the most basic of narrative underpinning, often contained in the title (think Space Invaders or Missile Command). Others lacked even that basic grounding: why Pac-Man needs to eat dots in a maze, or why Dig Dug can only fight monsters by inflating them, is anybody’s guess.

This abstraction is a natural product of size limitations. While there’s no formal limit to a poem’s length (one of the oldest known poems, the Ramayana, is seven books long), modern poems typically range from a paragraph to no more than two pages. An author writing a short poem will find that describing a series of events in exacting detail becomes difficult, and even undesirable; it’s working against the restrictions rather than with them. The result is a density of language rarely found in prose.

Arcade games faced technical rather than stylistic caps on their size. Subject to stringent limitations on memory, the arcade game could use only a small set of systems and graphical elements in each game. The graphical limitations prevented these games from portraying anything other than lines and blocky shapes that were more symbols than models of defined objects or characters, adding another layer of otherworldliness. Lengthy play sessions were achieved by repetition of dozens of levels, with only slight variations between them. Arcade economics also pushed the form to offer short play sessions; unless the player was willing to spend a small fortune to finish the game, or was particularly skilled, she would die after only a few minutes of play. Finally, most developers – and those who funded them – weren’t yet aware of the potential of the medium. At the end of the day, they were making toys, not art, and full-blown complexity was antithetical to the goal of easily accessible entertainment for youth.

These abstract narratives needed something concrete to anchor them. While recent decades have seen “free verse” poetry grow in prevalence and stature, poetry (both short and epic) has traditionally been dominated by forms which specified the meter, rhyme scheme, and even syllable count of works. Poetic forms are as diverse as game genres, ranging from the seasonal simplicity of the traditional haiku, to the twisting repetition of the pantoum, to obscene humor of the limerick. The interplay between the form’s overtly mechanical structure and the often ephemeral content is one of the great pleasures of poetry - a contrast that is mirrored in video games, though less obviously in modern titles, whose many layers of content can draw attention away from the software’s algorithmic guts.

It’s no great revelation that, as computer programs, video games are elaborate systems constructed out of thousands of hard-coded rules and if-then statements that ultimately determine that nebulous experience we call “gameplay.” As poetry was restricted by word count, these games were restricted by the limited series of actions the developer could assign to the protagonist; the typical arcade game featured nothing more complex than a directional stick and one to two buttons. Jumpman could jump, spaceships could shoot, and Pac-Man couldn’t do anything but eat. The best arcade titles were rhythm games long before the advent of Dance Dance Revolution; weaving amongst enemy fire in Galaxian or dodging barrels in Donkey Kong were designed as a test of reflexes, sure, but these challenges also tested pattern recognition, the ability to view the game’s cadence and engage in mirrored counter-movements. The arcade game was poetry in motion.

If the similarities between poetry and video games went unnoticed in the age of the arcade, it was only because no thought to compare the classical high art with the noisy entertainment machines. I suspect we would have caught on eventually if these mediums were static; but of course they aren’t, and by the mid ‘90s the two bore little in common.

The Second Coming
The early 1980s were considered the golden age of video arcades. Their fortunes rose and fell afterwards, including a brief resurgence in the mid-‘90s, but ultimately it was a slow trek into obscurity. By the late ‘90s, the relatively detailed 3D graphics of home consoles allowed a sort of realism to replace the abstraction of arcade games, and best-selling games like Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid were actively emulating cinema – a practice that was already well established in computer games, with developer Cinemaware releasing graphically spectacular, narrative-focused genre games as early as 1986. The abstraction of the poem-game has been replaced by an obsession with detail; its short, self-contained levels replaced by large, contiguous game worlds; and its simple controls and limited actions replaced with an increasing number of buttons mapped to an array of commands.

It would take another ten years for the poetic game to return to the fore. In 2007, an independent game designer named Jason Rohrer released Passage, an entry in the Gamma256 game jam. The rules of the jam stated that the games could not use a resolution greater than 256x256 pixels, and could not last longer than five minutes – similar constraints to the arcade games of yore. Yet Rohrer took the implicit correlations between this style of game design and poetry and ran with it, producing what may be the first intentional poem-game (or at least, the first to get noticed – the multitude of obscure game jams makes identifying a true “first” more or less impossible). Passage casts the player as a man walking through an empty, ever-expanding world. The game displays as a single horizontal bar on the screen, representing the titular passage as well as evoking the game’s theme of a passage through life; it is the game equivalent of a concrete poem. Lasting exactly five minutes, the player can do nothing but move forward, up or down; the game demands no other response and throws no challenges, forcing an otherwise bored player to contemplate the subtle visual changes and themes of the piece.

Passage got attention from a number of mainstream outlets, including Joystiq and Destructoid. Perhaps because of its influence, similar games started cropping up with greater frequency. Both the games of Gregory Weir (How to Raise a Dragon, The Majesty of Colors) and Daniel Benmurgui (I Wish I Were the Moon, Today I Die) used the same methods of ultra-pixelated graphics, limited playspaces, and strong themes that had been employed in Passage. Today I Die was even more literal that its predecessors, tasking the player with changing words in a haiku in order to guide the protagonist on her journey.

The increasing transparency of these games’ poetic aspiration reached its natural conclusion when game designer and essayist Ian Bogost released A Slow Year in 2010, a book of computer-generated poems packed with four new video games.

A Book of Games
In 2009, Ian Bogost co-wrote Racing the Beam, a book about the marvels of programming and design required to make games on the Atari Video Computer system, the first popular home console with interchangeable cartridges. Featuring only 128 bytes of RAM and limiting game size to 4 kilobytes, programs for the system were even more limited and abstract than the arcade games of the day. While studying these games and teaching himself how to build his own, Bogost struck upon the similarities between Atari games and poetry, particularly the Imagism movement of the early 20th-century, which focused on writing clear, evocative poems that described people or places outside of a larger narrative context. In his introduction, Bogost cites Ezra Pound’s “In The Station of the Metro” as a representation of the form:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

He set out to make his own game poems, and A Slow Year was the result: a collection of four 1 kilobyte Atari VCS games and one kilobyte of “machined haiku,” the product of a haiku-generation program designed by Bogost. The collection’s title describes both the content and the pace of the included games. Each game represents one of the four seasons, and like a great poem, they are easy to complete but difficult to understand.

The first game, Autumn, is almost conventional. The space is composed of a single large tree in a blowing wind, and the player controls a red rectangle (a wheelbarrow?) as she tries to catch the falling leaves. This game poem’s notable feature is how slow it is. I don’t mean that it takes long to complete; win or lose, the game will be done in about five minutes. Yet the moments between a loose leaf appearing seem to last hours; waiting for it to fall is an eternity, even as the wind shifts direction and intensity with startling frequency. Like Passage, the glacial place forces a certain level of contemplation, at least for the players with the patience not to quit outright.

The other three games are less traditional, and far more difficult. The challenge isn’t reaching the win state so much as it is figuring out what to do in the first place. This should be simple, given that – like any VCS game – the player has only a four-direction joystick and a single button for interaction. It is in this struggle to grok the games system’s that they most approach the experience of reading a difficult poem. Each requires careful observation in order to draw unlikely connections, a continuous process of reading and re-reading in order to unravel a riddle.

None of these traits are inseparable from the hardware. Bogost could have made a basic browser-based Flash game with the same pacing, ambiguity, and simple controls. So why tie them to this antiquated hardware?

On the book’s back, game designer Rod Humble writes that “This is a kind of game that could have been created thirty years ago, but wasn’t….Technology is not the limit; A Slow Year proves it never was.” A Slow Year’s insistence on using the systems of the past demonstrates that only the conceptual and economic restraints of the period prevented the poem-game from being one of the earliest game genres. Yet this game collection also highlights the way in which hardware limitations *do* guide game design. Each of the four games takes place on a single screen, an obvious decision when working with such stringent memory limitations. Yet this single screen simultaneously allows for the games to share Imagism’s focus on a single image. This parallel was clearly intentional on Bogost’s part, but for the original Atari designers this was an unintended side-effect, and the resulting products were the video game equivalent of found poetry.

It begs the question: what current uses of video game technology are we missing? If the most prominent poem-games could have been created 20 years ago, what new compositions can we leverage current technology to create? In 2012, we can craft simulative worlds that would have shocked players of decades past, and the biggest commercial games display an astounding level of polish that can make their predecessors look amateurish; yet every gain comes at a price, and as a focus has shifted towards immersive, self-contained worlds, there has been less need for players to fill in the blanks.

The beauty of the poem-game is that it requires a direct communing with the author’s rules. In the conclusion of an essay included with A Slow Year, Bogost writes, “A player is an archaeologist of the lost civilization that is a game’s creator. Play is excavation. To  play with the makers of our games is to play with the ghosts that once animated the systems they leave us.”  Modern game engines provide the tools to construct these civilizations, but do not determine what the creator will build. The poem-game provides the excavation site, but does not dictate what we shall find.

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