Exploring the Potential of Poetry in Games

Insights from GDC 2024

No probllama. Hanging out at GDC 2024.

Last week, I attended the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, a week-long event focused on game design and development. The conference includes a multitude of talks on everything from narrative design (my particular focus) to level, art, and sound design to programming and production and so much more. Outside of the talks, there was the huge expo floor along with meetups, gatherings, and afterparties going on outside the actual event.

I spent the week attending talks, exploring the expo floor, and meeting and chatting with dozens of devs at all stages of their career. I also learned about some amazing indie games in various stages of development — and even got to play some of them. All in all, it was an amazing experience.

I’m happy and exhausted. And I spent most of the weekend (and into this week) recovering from this wonderful experience.

Exploring the Potential of Poetry in Games

Poetic art installation at the Memorial Art Gallery, NY. (Photo by Hudson Graves on Unsplash.)

Recently, I had the delightful experience of joining Syd (aka thechosengiraffe) for an interview on her stream (available to watch here). Together, we played Minecraft and discussed game development, poetry, and the writing life. Syd is a wonderful interviewer and her skills led us in a fantastic conversation.

One of the questions asked by the chat was whether or not I would ever consider blending poetry into one of the games I make — and I answered that I had not considered it. As much as I love both poetry and games, I didn’t have any concepts that made sense to me. And I also could not come up with many examples of games that incorporate poetry on the spot.

After the interview ended, I couldn’t stop thinking about the question. What games did I know off that included poetry? I found a few examples that specifically comprised either an interactive poem or the use of actual poetry in the gameplay. These included:

  • The horse is dead.” by Nico May was probably the first interactive poem I played. It involves clicking between two options to reveal increasingly strange and beautifully unsettlingly imagery.

  • House of Poems” by Kyra Jaeger is an interactive narrative in poetry, which invites the player into an ethereal fantasy and leads them on a journey into discovering witchyness and personal power.

  • Battle Poet is a game currently being developed by Jesse Calder. The game involves battling demons by combining lines of poetry to create certain effects.

  • Doki Doki Literature Club is a horror visual novel developed by Team Salvato. The player joins a literature club at high school and has the ability to write poetry to catch the attention of one of the girls in the club. It starts off seemingly innocent, but quickly grows into a disturbing psychological horror.

I also thought about the games that may not specifically include poetry, but utilize a rich language and style that feels like poetry. For example:

  • Disco Elysium, developed by ZA/UM – Gritty, rich, lyrical language is a vital aspect of Disco Elysium, giving voice to the layers of the Detective’s mind, as well as the various characters that you encounter throughout the game. Even the descriptions of the primary abilities and items in the game are intensely evocative. When I first delved into the game, the poetic nature almost overwhelmed me — so much so that I needed to slow down and allow myself to become immersed in the experience, rather than trying to rush through it like some other games. Once I was in tune with the rhythm and flow of the game, I was able to fall in love with its deep storytelling.

  • The Collage Atlas, developed by John William Evelyn – In The Collage Atlas, the player journeys into a gorgeous and richly detailed, hand-drawn black and white dream world, where text and phrases assemble and integrate into the landscape. The game feels like you’re wandering through a beautifully illustrated poem. Combined with soothing music and the soft sound effects of pages fluttering and wind rustling, the game offers a feeling of immense wonder and calm.

With each of these examples, however, I was thinking of poetry in the terms of text, the specific use of literary language. However, a talk presented at GDC by Jordan Magnuson, an independent designer of experimental video games and interactive media art, opened the door to new concepts on how poetry can be utilized during game design in order to make better games.

In his presentation, Magnuson highlighted some of the unique attributes of poetry — namely its ability to express intimate and personal experiences, to explore subtle and complex emotions that may otherwise be difficult to tackle, to slow down down into the beauty of a single moment, or to transform the unfamiliar into the familiar. He contends that drawing on lessons from poetry can allow game designers to brings a greater emotional impact to their games and even expand our understanding of what a game is and can be.

Magnuson highlighted fives lessons that can be taken from poetry. Though these are just examples, and one could draw many more lessons from poetry and poetic forms.

  1. Quiet Moments

Poetry often creates a space that allows the reader to slow down and experience a pause, a moment of quiet. Magnuson explained that one approach to making games is to strip away all of the inessential and compress the experience into a super sharp focus. One can even ask what a game is and then get rid of everything else. For example, his game Loneliness is comprised of simple black squares on a white background, but nevertheless expresses the feeling of being isolated even in the presence of other people.

Other examples Magnuson noted include Journey (Thatgamecompany), which presents an austere aesthetic that creates a feeling of smallness in the player; Shadow of the Colossus (Japan Studio and Team Ico), which presents a sparse sprawling landscape that reflects a feeling of emptiness and solitude; or Inside (Playdead), which creates an unsettling atmosphere for a focuses emotional journey.

Another version of this is to create quiet moments in the midst of the gameplay that stand in contrast to the activity and energy of the rest of the game. In The Last of Use Part 2 (Naughty Dog), this takes the form of Ellie pausing in the midst of the chaos to play a guitar. In the Life is Strange series (Dontnod and Deck Nine), this occurs when the characters are given opportunities to sit and reflect and watch the horizon.

  1. Poetic Devices

Magnuson outlined several poetic devices that could be translated into games. For example, rhythm in poetry can be reflected in pacing and atmosphere of the game. Stanza breaks, which represent a pause in poetry and tie in with the rhythm of the lines, can be moments of quiet (as described previously) or even just a moment in which a character pauses to reflect on all that’s happened.

Rhyme and repetition in poetry are forms of patterning — and using patterns through out a game can evoke echoes. In The Last of Us (Naughty Dog), the player sees Joel carrying is daughter away from danger game, and later in the end that moment is echoed when he carries Ellie the same way, creating a gut wrenching full circle.

Another version of patterning may include having a character repeat an action over and over again throughout the game — only to take the action away, creating a sudden, shocking staccato. The player feels the absence and this can give greater weight to the moment.

Symbolism can also add layers and deepen the meaning behind the game experience. It lets the player to consider the intentionality of the gameplay, art, and overall experience, to delve into what’s really going on underneath. For example, Gris (Nomada Studio) uses color throughout the game to symbolize the feeling of pain and loss and the feeling of hope and healing when you finally begin to work through those emotions.

  1. Embrace Ambiguity

According to Magnuson, ambiguous meaning is inherently playful, as it invites the player to ponder the questions of the poem — or game — for themselves. It allows players to think deeply, to discuss with other players and to theorize.

Ambiguity can take a number of forms, from moral ambiguity to ambiguous relationships to ambiguous worlds. Both Journey and Inside (mentioned previously) provide subtle narratives that hint at the world story and what’s really going on, rather than explicitly explaining it. Both of these games, therefore, are more nuanced, emotional experiences and create room for a wide range of interpretations.

  1. Reimagine What “Fun” Gameplay Looks Like

Here, Magnuson told the story of Monopoly, a board game originally created by Lizzie Magie (under the title, The Landlord’s Game) to demonstrate the problems of capitalism and how leads to financial inequalities. When Parker Brothers purchased the rights to the game, they changed the title and sought to make the gameplay more “fun,” more marketable.

What if, Magnuson asked, we changed the gameplay of Monopoly to both make it more fun and to lean more deeply into Magie’s original intent? A designer could work within the symbolism of the game structure to accentuate the meaning behind the game. Or they could use stanza breaks (moments of pause) to highlight the uncomfy moments of the experience. Or some combination of both.

“Don’t limit yourself to perfectly balanced gameplay,” he explained. There’s an opportunity to step away from traditional forms of gameplay in order to consider other variations that incorporate asymmetry, rhetoric, etc.

  1. Respect the Poetic Process

Magnuson urged game designers to embrace the journey and incorporate what you learn along the way. Play, experiment, and keep trying new things.

Video games are complex artifacts, he concluded. They don’t have hard boundaries. So, don’t think of games as being limited to only one kind of thing.

Final Thoughts

I came out of Magnuson’s talk feeling incredibly inspired. Poetry is so alive in me and such a vital component of my writer’s journey — and I genuinely hadn’t considered it as being connected to games in any significant way. But this talk revealed so many new perspectives and ways of perceiving how poetry can be integrated into not only with games, but all of the projects and creative endeavors I attempt to make.

More of Magnuson’s concepts regarding poetry as an inspiration for games can be found in his book, Game Poems, which is available for free in the digital version. (I will definitely be reading this book, just as soon as I have the time.)

Good Reads

Theodora Goss shares her process for trying to make a space for writing — both in terms of time and in terms of creating a physical space dedicated to the craft and process of writing. She notes:

The thing is that my brain doesn’t work right if I’m not writing. Somehow I need the activity of putting words on a page to recalibrate my brain, which makes it sound as though my brain is a compass, but not the old-fashioned kind, which doesn’t need calibrating. It’s a modern electronic compass, and sometimes it doesn’t point north anymore. And then my ship gets lost, and there are the rocks . . .

Now I’ve done it again, let the metaphor run way with me (or sail away with me), but honestly there is such a pleasure in writing these words and sailing away with metaphors, because here I am writing again and it feels like standing on that cliff, on a perfectly sunny day, and seeing all the sailboats down below, with puffs of wind blowing them here and there. Somehow, writing is exercise for a part of my brain that doesn’t get exercised otherwise. There is a part of my brain that simply loves putting down words and feeling the flow of them, like a river flowing to the sea or a scarf flowing through my hands.

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