Minecraft sonnets: How the worlds of poetry and gaming are coming together

Interesting things happen when game developers and poets collaborate

Thomas McMullan
8 Oct 2015
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Poetry and video games might not seem like obvious bedfellows. Their stereotypes are hardly kissing cousins: Games clad in khaki, gun cocked; Poetry wearing a beret, staring out of a window at a deer. Yet these two art forms are meeting in new and unexpected ways, with a growing number of developers and writers collaborating, sharing ideas and creating projects that kick up the dust in both camps.

My Mother’s House is a poem. It’s also a Minecraft map. The piece is a collaboration between poet Victoria Bennett and her partner, digital artist Adam Clarke, funded by a bursary from The Writing Platform. Load it up and you’ll find a labyrinth built up of spaces separated by doors. As you move between areas, a disembodied voice reads a poem to you one stanza at a time. The original Italian meaning of stanza is “room”, or “stopping place”, and Bennett and Clarke told me they used this as a way to structure their poem/game.

“We looked at the idea of the stanza meaning, quite literally, a room you could enter,” they said. “We looked at the structure of the poem as being something you could move through and explore, something that could be built and taken apart. We experimented with the idea of the labyrinth, as a movement through a structure that begins and ends in the same place but leaves the traveller changed in some way.”

Exploring the rooms in My Mother’s House feels as if you’re picking apart each stanza, trying to piece clues together – only for that aim to be obscured as you drift into the next disconnected area. When you consider that the poem is inspired by Bennett’s experience of caring for her terminally ill mother, and of reliving half-remembered memories from a loved one’s life, mapping the poem in this way makes sense.

Other games have played with a similar relationship between text and space. Dear Esther by The Chinese Room transports the player to an island in the Hebrides and reveals randomly selected fragments of a letter as they move between areas. Gone Home by Fullbright maps a narrative onto an empty family mansion through journal entries. Irrational Games’ Bioshock tells the downfall of the underwater city Rapture via collected audio tapes. Helping to tell a story with scraps of text is one thing, but when you have a piece that purposefully explores the overlap between games and poetry, how do you justify both sides of that relationship? What comes first, the poem or the game?

“For this piece, the relationship between Minecraft and the poem was integral to the way it developed,” Bennett and Clarke said. “Although the theme of the piece and the final text was not something that was planned, it became apparent as we explored this idea of rooms and movement through the poem that we wanted to create something that held meaning, that did not become derivative of either the game aspect or the poetry.”

Poets and players

While bringing a poem into the world of Minecraft makes Bennett and Clarke’s project stand out from a gaming perspective, to get a better idea of how My Mother’s House holds up as a poem I asked Faber-published poet Jack Underwood what he made of it.

“That was fun,” he told me. “The connection between rooms and poems is as old as the idea of stanzas, and the sense that poems work on the basis of a poet creating a habitation for a reader's imagination appeals to me, so it was nice to see that idea taken further, somewhat literally.”

(Above: Jack Underwood)

When I asked Underwood how he’d tackle making a game of one of his own poems, he made it clear player participation would factor in a big way. He said he’d provide certain parameters, such as the words and shape of the poem, but that he’d also encourage players to manipulate the environment to accommodate their own feelings and experiences.

“I'd want to try and develop the idea that a poem is a dialogue that relies on the reader's participation. Perhaps if the reader didn't do anything the world would go black. […] Essentially I like the idea of exploring a poem or anthology quite literally. I think that a game might actually suit an anthology better: a room per poem. That might be cool.”

As Underwood pointed out, thinking of a poem as an object that relies on participation isn’t a new idea – words on the page need readers to read them, and each reader brings a mind full of individual thoughts and associations. Combine that aspect of poetry with the interactive nature of video games and you’ve got the opportunity to really run with the idea of a poem as a dialogue. Yet there are problems with this. For example, here’s one of Underwood’s poems, taken from Granta magazine.

Love Poem

The streets look like they want to be frying eggs
on themselves. I’m thinking of you and going
itchy from it. I keep expecting to see a nosebleed
on the hot, yellow pavement. Every thought is
a horse fly. When you’re not here I concentrate
on getting somewhere safely; and when I get to
somewhere safe I gnaw the day until you’re home.

If we’re diving into player participation, how could we make this into a game? If, as Underwood suggested, we go down quite a literal route, maybe we’d make a virtual street, lined with yolk-yellow slabs. The poem is read out. What should the player do? Maybe they should concentrate on getting somewhere safe like the poem says, and when they get there the game will end. But what if they don’t? What if the player decides to stay on the street and hunt horse flies? If the experience is supposed to be a dialogue, shouldn’t the player have their say? But if they do, does it change the poem?

(Above: Gone Home by Fullbright)

Words on the page have a certain degree of stability. When you have a poem that can be – in perhaps a very literal sense – moulded, shaped and pulled in all sorts of different directions by players in a virtual environment, how do you keep the poet’s original intent from being pushed out of the game? And if the poem gets thrown out with the bathwater, does it even matter?

Is it still a poem if there are no words?

One developer coming up with answers to these questions is Tom Betts. During his PhD, Betts built a series of projects that explored the relationship between games and the sublime – an idea with its roots in the feeling of awe and terror you get from being close to something much bigger than you, whether that thing is something physical like a mountain or something abstract like the concept of time.

In one of Betts’ projects, In Ruins, the player is placed onto a procedurally generated island, covered in gothic ruins in the manner of the Romantic landscape painters. The player needs to negotiate his or her way around these ruins, reaching a central tower and, as the game progresses, extracts from an ancient Roman poem are read out to the player.

“I was trying to find a poetic narrative or frame to communicate the abstract notions of the game (ideas of the sublime, permutation and algorithms),” Betts told me. “Lucretius’ epic poem, On the Nature of Things fitted perfectly because it discusses the themes of generative creation and unknown purpose that I was investigating with my work. Fragments of the poem are scattered around the game world, and are revealed as the player progresses. This causes the experience of the poem to be a bit like a remix in the same way that the architecture of the world is remixed and rebuilt for each playthrough.”

For Betts, there are two ways of looking at poetry in the game. On one hand, you have the poetry of Lucretius, which looks like a poem, sounds like a poem and smells like a poem. On the other hand, you have the algorithms that make up the game itself. Betts compared the structure of words and stanzas on a piece of paper to the structure of symbols that make up code. “Poetry is concerned with structure in a way that most prose is not, this reflects certain aspects of game design and programming, where entities and actions are repeated and re-ordered to build up an overall experience,” he said.

(Above: In Ruins by Tom Betts)

The player may be able to explore and advance through the world of In Ruins, but the code that dictates the semi-randomised structure of the game’s landscape is ultimately what structures that experience. It’s a way of looking at the dialogue between player and poet that essentially recasts the poet in the role of developer. It puts the poet in the role of architect and the player in the role of inhabitant. The poet builds the house, but the player can move the furniture around.

Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Bloodborne and Dark Souls series are great examples of games that work in this way. There is very little in the way of spoken text, and instead the history and relationships in the world of the game are told through objects, environmental detail and gameplay mechanics. But is telling a story in this way the same thing as telling a poem? The French poet Paul Valéry once wrote: “Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking.” I wonder how that equation works in virtual worlds.

Whatever the case, one thing Bennett and Clarke, Underwood and Betts all seem to want to avoid is a clumsy slapping together of literature and games. If poets and developers want to collaborate it needs more than pinning one medium to the other. “I would like to see [collaboration between poets and developers] in a more integrated way than poets just 'captioning' gameplay or writing intro/outro texts,” said Betts. “There is a rich history of ambiguity and structural experimentation in poetry that I think works well with a certain type of game design.”

By joining forces, learning how each medium works and borrowing from both, developers and writers are recasting the roles of poet and developer, reader and player. Through embracing experimentation, ambiguity and interaction, projects like My Mother’s House and In Ruins are questioning what it means to be a poem and what it means to be a game, and are coming up with something entirely new in the process.  

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