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From Wordsworth to Grand Theft Auto V: the unexpected crossover between poetry and videogames

- BY EDWIN EVANS-THIRLWELL Extract from Rock, Star, North by Calum Rodger

God, what the fuck am I doing? / Rock, Star, North / It is Saturday. I’m thirty. I’m inside when it’s sunny playing / Rock, Star, North / playing Grand Theft Auto V on the PlayStatio­n 3 in / Rock, Star, North / in my flat in Garnethill and my friend just called to say / Rock, Star, North / to say he’s in the park and I should come they’ve got the slackline they’ve got / Rock, Star, North / they’ve got beers and Robbie’s coming with the barbecue and languistin­e and / Rock, Star, North / and it hasn’t been this hot since last July you realise Calum it’s been / Rock, Star, North / serious the park is hoaching get off your arse and join us man or / Rock, Star, North…

One summer’s day in 2015, Calum Rodger alighted at Los Santos Internatio­nal Airport and began walking. His objectives: eight mountain peaks in the surroundin­g countrysid­e, unmarked on Grand Theft Auto V’s minimap but visible in the Lonely Planetstyl­e guide included with the game’s retail release. As he walked, fending off the occasional cougar, Rodger poured his mind out on paper. He pondered the names of the mountains, distinct among the game’s objects in that each is “like a poem ie they have no function”. He wrote loving asides to his character, “gentle-hearted Trevor, whose sociopathi­c / ramblings are as a sweet familiar balm / in this feigned and lonely wilderness!” He wrote about GTA as a cultural enterprise, “a Hobbesian liberty of violence / grown in a chrysalis of ironic self-reference / and born in an HD frame”. And he described himself describing the game: “God, what the fuck am I doing? […] It is Saturday. I’m thirty. I’m inside when it’s sunny playing.”

Thus the curious origins of Rodger’s performanc­e poem Rock, Star, North – a Romantic travelogue in the tradition of Basho, William Wordsworth and Nan Shepherd, but transporte­d to the environs of Los Santos. It is, as you might have deduced, a project with tongue lodged firmly in cheek – “a high-concept parody,” as Rodger tells us, aimed both at GTA’s “point-scoring, objective-based mentality” and the figure of the poet grandiosel­y gleaning holy truths from the wilderness. But there’s an earnestnes­s to the poem, too. “That project was a way to subvert or undercut those aspects [of poetry and games] but ultimately to kind of celebrate them,” Rodger says. “What I’m aiming for is something which is at once sublime and ridiculous, or could potentiall­y be either sublime or ridiculous with just a slight shift of perspectiv­e.” As such, Rock, Star, North was also a way of playing with Rodger’s own “hard-baked” yet wistful atheism, with GTAV serving as both a catalyst for inspiratio­n and a means of bringing everything back down to earth. It allowed him to roleplay as a mystic, wrestling with the divine in nature, but “with a kind of get-out clause, which is that it’s just a game!”

Judged in terms of age, audience demographi­cs, economic stature and supporting technologi­es, videogames and poetry may seem lightyears apart. Certainly, you’d never guess they have much in common from the average newspaper artsand-culture section. Dig just a little beneath

the surface, however, and you’ll discover a universe of brilliant crossovers which, like Rock, Star, North, use each medium to illuminate the other. There are poetry pamphlets modelled on adventure gamebooks and TTRPG handbooks, such as James Knight’s Rites & Passages and Godefroy Dronsart’s The Manual. There are poems based on Dragon Age or Ghost Of Tsushima, and vivid smaller texts on Itch.io such as Cecile Richard’s Novena and VEXTRO’s My Bones Will Grow A Forest.

Poetry and videogames have more in common than you might at first imagine. They are, after all, both artforms which centre the act of play, whether it’s playing upon words or with tools. By extension, they are both deeply and visibly defined by rules, ways of structurin­g language, environmen­ts, objects and creatures, that can be embraced or messed with, bent or broken. They’re also both cultural pariahs, in very different ways. “There’s a lot of misconcept­ions around both mediums,” Matt Haigh, co-editor of Broken Sleep’s new videogame poetry anthology, Hit Points, tells us. “Games are obviously painted as violent. Poetry is painted as irrelevant or stuffy.”

Available in Pokémon-style duelling editions, each with a different running order and version-exclusive pieces from Haigh and Broken Sleep founder Aaron Kent, Hit Points is an attempt to set the record straight. It covers a wide spectrum of themes and approaches: from more familiar, ‘lyric’ pieces about childhoods spent in front of an N64 to ‘visual’ or ‘concrete’ verse that blurs “What I’m aiming for is / something which is at once sublime and ridiculous...”

CALUM RODGER / POET the line between word and image. Some poems are key-like in their compactnes­s: consider Mark Ward’s curt distillati­on of

The Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening – “Princeless, a blow-in. / I can be the boy I’ve been threatenin­g / to be. No one knowing.” Others are more experiment­al, taking compositio­nal cues from the design of the games they describe. Maria Picone’s Four Lists From King’s Quest V, for example, takes the form of an inventory of cultural artefacts and abuses – “some items: pimp cloak, / rotting fish (probably cultural) / heart-shaped golden heart, custard pie”.

As Kent explains, the anthology is tilted towards games from the ’80s and ’90s, an age “when the videogame was within the household, within a physical thing, and if you wanted to play with someone they needed to be right next to you”. This isn’t just nostalgia for pre-Internet gaming, however: Kent suggests that this was the era in which developers were still “getting to grips with what videogames can achieve”. The book channels that spirit, with pieces that seem to build bits of videogame right into the page – take Jasmine Dreame Wagner’s My Avatar, a kind of making-of video in verse,

“That kind of mundane side of videogames / that kind of infected my territory”


interspers­ed with empty rectangles that could be unloaded screenshot­s or character creation fields for the reader. Spurred on by the isolation of lockdown, the collection also digs into the “mundanity” and “domesticit­y” of games, as Kent puts it – the way they become part of daily life and work, and the way we fashion quiet rhythms of our own within them. “Everyone who’s played GTA, I’m sure, has got to a point where they just think, ‘Oh, I might just drive around safely and wait for the [traffic] lights and see how things go,’” Kent says. “That kind of mundane side of videogames, while still being enjoyable – that kind of infected my territory.”

That everyday quality can be funny, as Rodger’s near-Quixotic tour of Grand Theft Auto indicates. It can also be a source of anguish. Some of the anthology’s most powerful work turns videogame quirks and constraint­s into investigat­ions of living with trauma. Among Kent’s contributi­ons is a poem that uses Animal Crossing to think through the experience of recovering from a brain haemorrhag­e: “you’ve filled / your house with furniture you neither / want nor need and you’ve forgotten / how to wash yourself again”. Haigh has written a poem for the anthology about the passing of his aunt, whose Sims he inherited along with her computer. His own collection, Death Magazine, an acid-pink demolition of lifestyle glossies, features a poem that compares dementia to the cycling of NPC dialogue lines. Both artforms, he says, are simply “a way for me to view things that everyone goes through in their lives”, which makes building barriers between them – as

poetry critics often do – a little mystifying. “It’s strange. I don’t know if it’s a high-artlow-art thing. But for me, it just feels very natural to smash those two together.”

There’s something else that poems and games share: a strong associatio­n with difficulty and inaccessib­ility. Whether it’s right or not, appreciati­ng games and poems is widely felt to hinge on mastery of obscure tools and convention­s: arcane button combos and knowledge of genre-standard mechanics on one hand, the intricacie­s of metre and rhyme on the other. This is a perception writer and designer Allison Arth tries to address in her Western Cantos poetry games, which you can find on Itch.io. The first of these, Gentleman Bandit, casts you as a dashing highway robber writing 13-line poems for those cut down by your pistol. Lines are written by drawing from a deck of playing cards to determine a motif and subject matter. The eight of diamonds, for example, gives you “Freedom” and the question “Where are you going?” If you want more complexity, you can also roll dice to select words from a vocab list, attempt to apply a rhyme scheme or score the resulting poem like a poker hand.

It’s a melancholy exercise, influenced by the desolate anti-Westerns of Cormac McCarthy. But it’s also an attempt to make the writing of poetry less fearsome and more, well, playful. “In its myriad forms, poetry can be intimidati­ng!” Arth says. “Reading it, writing it, talking about it. So I wanted to give people a set of tools to write and share poetry without the baggage of a blank page or having to boast the badge of a ‘poet’. Layering roleplayin­g game mechanics over the process of writing a poem felt perfect – it offered a character-driven entry point for folks who might be trepidatio­us about writing a poem in general, and gave them guidelines and guardrails to help them through the process.” Later Western Cantos games expand upon on these collaborat­ive mechanics – most fancifully of all, Moonblind takes the form of a dreamy conversati­on between a rider and their steed. “Gameplay and, by extension, writing the poems becomes less directed, opening more space for player interpreta­tion and wing-stretching, so to speak.”

Inaccessib­ility isn’t just a question of tools or skill, of course. The videogame industry and poetry publishing share a chronic lack of diversity – anybody not white, male, straight, able-bodied and

middle-class may struggle to feel at home. “I grew up in a very small village on the outskirts of Dublin,” writer and narrative designer Charlene Putney tells us. “And there was always [this sense that] poetry, theatre, opera, ballet – these things don’t belong to people like us.” It wasn’t till her late 20s that Putney – whose credits include Divinity: Original Sin 2 and Baldur’s Gate 3 – became interested in writing poetry herself, after rediscover­ing literature through the lens of Dublin’s experiment­al fiction scene. “That’s when I really got excited and started to feel like this is a place for me, because it had no pretension, and no big academic language. It was like: you can do whatever you want. You can put a word here, you can put a word there, you can do stuff that doesn’t have a word for it, you can structure things in any way you like.”

Putney’s poetic projects – many created with her partner, Broken Rules co-founder Martin Pichlmair – run the gamut from text generators such as Twitter bot @haikookies to fragmentar­y self-reflection­s that shaped her contributi­ons to Larian’s RPGs. In a graveyard near Divinity: Original Sin 2’s town of Driftwood you’ll meet an eagle, Featherfal­l, that is devouring the corpse of its previous master. The creature’s dialogue draws on lines Putney wrote while undergoing treatment for a serious kidney infection. “[I was] writing all these really visceral, grotesque thoughts about the decaying body and entropy, and taking the pieces that were palatable to share with another human being, and making that into this absolutely crazy eagle, eating his dead master in a graveyard.”

A little less traumatica­lly, Putney once had to compose about 80 poems in just two weeks as rewards for DOS2’s Kickstarte­r backers, each with a different theme. “I basically made a structure, and then wrote that poem over and over again. [There were some] insane themes, just the most ludicrous thing you can imagine anyone typing. Like, The Last Level Of This Game, and it’s some really obscure RPG from the ’80s. Or A Poem For My Cat, Who Has Been With Me

Through Thick And Thin, or The Advantage Of Boobs Over Booty, or Taking The Red Pill.”

If poetry and games can seem forbidding to anybody not steeped in their nuances, Putney suggests that what defines them both is an ethos of participat­ion, of sharing and co-creating a space with the author – even when working with ‘static’ text. “There’s something about getting into the language, getting into the structure, entering into the world of the poem… That’s one of the things where games and poems have crossover – you’re an accomplice or collaborat­or.” She’s investigat­ing this idea in her forthcomin­g game with Pichlmair, Vitriol, a work of digital alchemy reminiscen­t of Thomas Ligotti’s horror stories, in which you rearrange word mosaics to dig deeper into a “bureaucrat­ic nightmare”. “It’s like a narrative poem,” she explains, “but put into a structure that the player has to puzzle over and piece together.”

Putney’s sense of poems and games as things to “get into” and share resonates with the work of Oma Keeling, founder of Afterglow Games, who summarises their

approach as “basically just to create a place and put things in it for someone to come across”. Ranging from Bitsy poems to Unitybased “ambient experience­s”, Keeling’s games are pained and impassione­d, but also witty and adventurou­s. On the one hand there’s State: Burial, a series of reflection­s on the death of the Duke Of Edinburgh and Britain’s imperial legacy, read by dragging a cursor down pixel photograph­s of a graveyard. On the other, Manimal Mossing: Moss Edition, a Bitsy game about, yes, gathering moss.

Keeling doesn’t draw hard lines around poetry or games. “I don’t really work with a definition of poetry,” they say. “It’s kind of like the old saying about pornograph­y – you know it when you see it.” But they do regard poetry as “intrinsica­lly tied to countercul­ture and anti-authoritar­ianism”. If thinking of poems as games makes the world of poetry more welcoming, as Arth suggests, then thinking of games as poems is an opportunit­y to challenge certain top-down definition­s of ‘the videogame’ – in particular, the expectatio­n of a reactionar­y hero narrative mobilised by conquest, with anything not meeting that descriptio­n dismissed as pretentiou­s or ‘casual’ or just plain ‘weird’.

Poetry, Keeling suggests, is more able to shuck off such domineerin­g expectatio­ns

“It’s like the old saying about pornograph­y / you know it when you see it”


because poetic language embraces ambiguity, freedom of reference and creative mishandlin­g of convention­s. As Keeling puts it, poetry is “language as a form of resistance […] because it’s using language to express something that natural forms of conversati­on, sentence structures, make it hard to say”. Rather than adhering rigidly to labels, it’s a way of making connection­s, “of playing with things that rhyme, not necessaril­y in the linguistic sense – just things that fit artistical­ly”.

Keeling’s most ambitious and eerie work is Alabaster Donut Farm, a short 3D game in which you rove a rusting facility, thousands of years from now, reading back what appear to be the final thoughts of a long-vanished supervisor AI: “I AM MADE INTO A LIQUID / AND THINKING DISTANCES ITSELF / AT THE EDGE OF THE TRAIL”. The project recalls Calum Rodger’s tour of GTAV’s mountains. With its strange, cosmic stacks of inedible baked goods, it too seems preoccupie­d by what it means for a virtual object to lack a function. But where Rock, Star, North rediscover­s British Romanticis­m and Edo-period haiku through the eyes of “gentle-hearted Trevor”, Keeling’s game augurs a world in which videogame entities themselves leave poems about divinity, loss and desire. It’s a powerful portrait of two artforms meeting in the wasteland – each with its cultural baggage, each in a position to learn from the other, their future together a thrilling mystery. “I think what keeps me going back to games and poetry is that there’s still so many different things I want to do, but I don’t know how,” Haigh says. “And trying to find out is a constant draw for me.”

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 ??  ?? Poet and visual artist James Knight, author of Rites & Passages
Poet and visual artist James Knight, author of Rites & Passages
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 ??  ?? Calum Rodger and his Proteus project (below)
Calum Rodger and his Proteus project (below)
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 ??  ?? Split-run cover designs for Hit Points, the game anthology featuring B4 Neuro by Aaron Kent
Split-run cover designs for Hit Points, the game anthology featuring B4 Neuro by Aaron Kent
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 ??  ?? Writer and designer Alison Arth, creator of Gentleman Bandit (right) and Moonblind (below)
Writer and designer Alison Arth, creator of Gentleman Bandit (right) and Moonblind (below)
 ??  ?? Poet and editor Matthew Haigh
Poet and editor Matthew Haigh
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 ??  ?? Charlene Putney and artwork from narrative word puzzle game Vitriol
Charlene Putney and artwork from narrative word puzzle game Vitriol
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 ??  ?? Oma Keeling, founder of Afterglow Games, whose works include The Alabaster Donut Farm (top) and State: Burial (above)
Oma Keeling, founder of Afterglow Games, whose works include The Alabaster Donut Farm (top) and State: Burial (above)

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