Monday, January 10, 2005

The poetry of video games

This year's Game Developers Conference offers an artistic challenge:

Last year, the Game Design Challenge asked three veteran designers to present a concept for a game that told a love story. This year, returning Game Design Challenge champion Will Wright returns to face off against two new competitors. The theme? Design a game around a highly unusual "license" — the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

Now, I've never been much of a Dickinson fan (oh, the horror!), and a lot of (most) poetry leaves me cold (egads!). In fact, my attitude toward poetry is very similar to how I feel about video games: Too many clich├ęs, too many shortcuts. A sense that something interesting is going on, but lacking focus and depth. Ambitious but uncontrolled.

But when they're good, they're awesome.

I first read about the above challenge at Collision Detection, where a commenter pointed to a review of Mojibribon:

I've never seen a game before that made aesthetic harmony the goal of the game.

The Heian/Nara period saw a flourishing of refined elite culture among court aristocrats. Men and women of rank judged each other on their skills in poetry, dress, and calligraphy. Mojibrobbon draws from that culture, not only implicitly through the leveling-up conditions but also through the storyline, which is written in an old-fashioned classical style and references Japanese mythology.

It's a kind of Pillow Book.

I've wandered through videogame stores in recent years, wanting to spend money, wanting to be sucked into a virtual world. Sadly, the genre of game I best like is losing its audience, or more than likely never fully found it. A role-playing story-driven puzzle-solving adventure game, with a bit of action thrown in.

There are very few standouts in this tradition as it's not possible to camouflage game flaws with body counts. You can only look at a pretty picture so long if it's narratively empty.

(None of my favourites perfectly fits my ideal. Mix Gabriel Knight and The Longest Journey with Silent Hill 2 and American McGee's Alice, and you might interest me.)

Neither of the above newfound examples of game design exactly meet my criteria, but they may satisfy an element that I've found lacking. They're literate. They look to literary devices to guide their design, to strike a balance of form and content. They stretch beyond their box consoles to imagine the marriage of art and science on a new platform. A modernity that embraces old traditions in a world that is the antithesis of poetry, romance, honour.

There can be poetry in high technology.
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