Last summer, a close friend of mine, an indie game developer, told me about something called “Twine.” Twine is a remarkable, free program which makes it easy to write text-based, choose-your-own-adventure style — games? — stories? — prose-poems? Each word seems partly right. What makes the program so exhilarating is that it allows people who are more familiar with creative writing than coding to produce narratives in a new, interactive form, one with new constraints, limitations, and possibilities. Scrolling through the impressive repository of Twine games on freeindiegam.es suggests the versatility of the medium: authors have created powerful games about social justice, identity, sexuality and body positivity, used the form to critique the conventions of traditional gaming, and produced works that channel interactive weirdness into a delirious kind of beauty.
Two of my favourites are Tower of the Blood Lord and Mastaba Snoopy. The former comes from Michael Lutz, who describes himself on his blog as follows: “I am a graduate student in English literature at a midwestern university. Principally my interests are Shakespeare and early modern drama, and historical and contemporary theories of (post)humanism.” As an early modernist myself, I was excited to learn that this excellent piece came from one of our own. Without giving too much away*, the game begins with a text-based reconstruction of the beginning of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, but, if a player explores the stock landscapes of barracks and storerooms diligently enough, they will find themselves on an altogether different quest – an exquisitely-written tale incorporating fantasy-fiction courtly intrigue, Lovecraftian horror, confessional monologue, and even a sweet and totally unexpected love story with a bashful amphibian. At the end of the game, one is jettisoned back out into Call of Duty, which naturally seems paltry by comparison.
Mastaba Snoopy, the work of gods17, operates on the brilliant conceit of a horrific alien world created by a metastasizing sentient entity who erroneously takes a Peanuts book to be a manual for “proper protocol for interaction with the human world.” gods17 writes with a confident poetic seriousness (different from mere “deadpan,” which is always itching for the joke to be recognized) that resembles a Borges or a Barthelme story :
“End result: There exists an infinite, nonsensical world with all locations, living things, and social interaction based on half-remembered dreams.
Thousands of years to fester and the memory is going bad, the original book having been long since lost in the constant churning reshaping. This new, living world has been dying for millenia.”
This world should remind us of all text, all narrative or poetic “reshaping.”** Walter Benjamin’s well-known formulation that “[t]he work is the death mask of its conception” is entirely applicable here; we create new poetic life out of the death-vapours of inspirations we no longer really remember. That which Mastaba Snoopy describes – a voracious consciousness that reworks everything it can into a blossoming, rotting organic whole – is also what it effects in the world. After reading/playing, I immediately wanted to write something of my own.
Both Tower of the Blood Lord and Mastaba Snoopy are works which engender more works.
I do not want to belabour the semantic distinctions between “games” and “poems” too much today, but I do at least want to suggest that the collapse of the two terms need not be bad thing, and that it has a longer precedent than we might think. Naturally a contrary, more traditional view exists. T.S. Eliot, writing of Milton’s style, states, “I can enjoy the roll of [there follows nine lines of Milton’s verse] and the rest of it, but I feel that this is not serious poetry, not poetry fully occupied about its business, but rather a solemn game” (264). Gamey poetry, for Eliot, presumably fails to resonate at some crucial emotional or intellectual level, and simply “rolls.”
I am not sure what Eliot would make of the Elizabethan poet Arthur Gorges’ poem, “Her Face.” Jorie Graham very perceptively includes it in her Earth Took of Earth anthology, and I believe it deserves to be widely known. I quote the first “two” “stanzas” to give a sense of its structure:
Her face Her tongue Her witso fair so sweet so sharpfirst bent then drew then hitmine eye mine ear my heartMine eye Mine ear My heartto like to learn to loveher face her tongue her witdoth lead doth teach doth move
One may read left to right, as usual. One may also read each of the three columns independently. Even more excitingly, one can read only the pairs of words one wants to use, and build an entirely new poem. This poem is a game in the fullest sense, a kind of textual LEGO. Yet I am nevertheless convinced of its seriousness. To play “Her Face” is to learn how to write poems of its kind (specifically, Elizabethan love-lyrics) and to realize the put-togetherness of all verse, all utterance. But to play is also to learn to be at ease with such assembledness. There is no reason why a reader cannot extract something that resonates with them emotionally from the constituent parts Gorges provides for us.
* I could very well devote another post to the relationship of the Twine game to notions of narrative surprise, “spoilers,” and replayability, and whether this relationship inhibits (or should inhibit) critical practice.
** Is it especially or distinctively true of digital text?