Jin Sakai is a very busy samurai. The hero of 2020 adventure game Ghost of Tsushima must juggle katana practice with navigating complex family loyalties and the small matter of single-handedly defending Japan from 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 a tatami mat beneath a cherry tree, and compose a haiku. You, the player, are given a poetic theme and must choose from a selection of prewritten lines to complete each verse. In a game that can be tense and gory, these scenes offer welcome opportunities for contemplation.
Poetry and video games might 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 with little artistic value. Yet anybody who looks deeper knows that poetry can be light and funny while games can be intellectual and challenging. The mediums are united in their concern with rules, with creative power sometimes best harnessed by formal constraints.
This overlap is the subject of Poetry Games, a new exhibition at the National Poetry Library in London’s Royal Festival Hall. Writers have long experimented with games as part of their practice, notably the francophone Oulipo group, whose member Georges Perec wrote his 300-page 1969 novel La Disparition without using the letter “e”. Now, however, everyone can participate in the playfulness of writing. There’s a poetic spin on Jenga by Astra Papachristodoulou, where you pull out blocks bearing words to construct a poem, and Jon Stone and Abigail Parry’s Adversary, which asks players to build poems out of word cards. An example in the display case makes for a convincing serenade: “In dreams / the night / is made complete / a bell / betrays / the blatant dawn”. Just try to avoid the “Writer’s Block” card, which says, sympathetically: “It happens to all of us”.
There are also digital games such as Gemma Mahadeo and Ian Maclarty’s If We Were Allowed to Visit, a navigable 3D space where every object is made of words, poetic fragments that shift as you move. Philippe Grenon’s Émile et Moi is a simple platformer in which you jump between words to build a poem. After hopping around for a while, I had made: “another day swells air-bridged and downy / golden the night and glittering my works / dream rain sways alongside.” Not bad, but perhaps not great poetry.
The exhibition’s curator Nick Murray suggests that maybe greatness isn’t the point. “The act of engaging with this generator, this toy, is to see there are different avenues for the playful creation of poetry,” they told me. “The output is secondary to the action of making it.”
Murray continues: “I’d like to bring people in who might not normally feel comfortable going into the Poetry Library but are familiar with the language of gaming. To show poetry doesn’t have to be the inaccessible, stuffy thing you’re bored of at GCSE. They might come in, play these games and then think: poetry is actually pretty fun, maybe I could write something.”
Writers who grew up with games have found within them a rich metaphorical language for poetry, memorably demonstrated in Ross Sutherland’s Street Fighter 2 sonnets. Other published collections of gaming poetry include Hit Points, But Our Princess Is in Another Castle and the Coin Opera series, which includes “multiplayer” collaborative poems, big “boss fight” poems and text experiments based on the layout of Snake and Peggle.
Developers have also brought real-world poetry into game environments. Elegy for a Dead World is a fantasy adventure that takes players into landscapes inspired by poems by Shelley, Keats and Byron, then gives them writing prompts. In EmilyBlaster, you read an Emily Dickinson poem and then try to reassemble it by shooting words that fall from the top of the screen. Writerly 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 game poems based on the seasons. The instructions are written in haiku.
The exhibition shows that poetry can be playful even when it’s not interactive, just as games can be poetic without ever using words, as anyone who’s played Journey or Shadow of the Colossus will know. “Games show that you can still do 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 doing it, too.”
‘Poetry Games’, to January 15, National Poetry Library, London, nationalpoetrylibrary.org.uk