Intro: Huge thanks to a number of people I’ve bored to death in talking about this without actually writing the blessed thing. Particularly in the past while though, big shout outs to Harry Giles, Ron Villanueva and Heather Parry for kicking some of the bigger ideas around, and deep gratitude to Muireann Crowley and Dzifa Benson for insightful close reading and structural editing. So. Video games and poetry. Here goes.
Recently in a workshop Dzifa Benson asked: ‘what is your cultural life?’ The first answer was easy. Poetry was the reason I was at the workshop in the first place, the reason I’ve travelled all over these islands as a critic, a researcher and a fan. But I didn’t come to it until my twenties, and only through the gates of academia. It took a long time to even begin shaking the prejudices academia insists upon and rewards, and it would be a mistake to think that process is complete. Video games, though, have been with me since I was a kid, and my relationship with them as an art form was practical long before it was intellectual; when the outside world seemed too complicated, confusing, loud and dangerous, games were a controlled environment, a safe space (I was never good at shoot-em-ups). For decades it never occurred to me to think of them as art, much less to evaluate them as sites of meaning as much as tools for play.
Sometimes it feels like the film critic Roger Ebert’s infamous assertion in 2010 that ‘games can never be art’ has haunted the genre ever since. The quest for gaming’s ‘Citizen Kane moment’ has become a shorthand for the often ludicrous results of trying to blend the ‘high art’ of cinema with the pulpy interactivity of games. The military-fetishist series Call of Duty hit a nadir in 2014’s Advanced Warfare: at a fallen comrade’s funeral, the game prompts the player to ‘press X to pay respects’. The game is still held up as a warning to creators attempting to a) arrogate the small, emotionally powerful moments in which cinema thrives, while b) remaining an essentially interactive medium, in which the player’s needs and wishes are prime.
I don’t believe are games art? is an interesting question. Gaming has never been a monolith, and the absurdity and hateful politics of the Call of Duty series are no more representative of the medium than Ezra Pound’s cultural theft and virulent racism: while both are canonically central, and both require more unpacking and critique than either gaming or poetry seem willing to do, they aren’t the only game, or poet, in town. What I want to do here is not so much to draw cultural parallels but to examine the mechanisms of both genres, find where poems play and games make meaning, where the paths through my cultural life intersect.
Sidekick Books published the first volume of their Coin Opera anthologies back in 2009, and more recently I’ve noticed poets increasingly keen to introduce the worlds or experiences of playing games into their work: in Grun-tu-molani Vidyan Ravinthiran uses the buggy surrealism of Fallout 3 as a metaphor; Harry Giles has created a text-based video game, Raik; R.A. Villanueva has cited Mario’s design as a major influence on his artistic practice in Reliquaria; Will Harris uses Halo 2 as an arena for self-reflection in Ten: Poets of the New Generation; another Complete Works fellow, the Ted Hughes Prize-winner Jay Bernard, notes how the falling platforms in the Mario games helped shape The Red and Yellow Nothing, specifically in terms of breaking down hierarchies of register, the ‘high’ poem and ‘low’ game.
But poets have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, and that doesn’t make a poem into a film or a painting. So, let’s quickly take a look from a reverse angle, at the ways video games have drawn on poetry. Here’s the first scene from Kentucky Route Zero (2013), the video is an hour long, but you only need to watch a minute or so, from 6m20s on:
The game draws the player into its dreamy, surreal atmosphere by having the player compose, from a multiple-choice sequence, a haiku. There’s no fail-state; any combination you choose is legitimate and, as far as advancing the game is concerned, successful. The game isn’t ‘beaten’, just experienced; there’s no high score metric, only what the player invests in terms of thought and energy. The game uses poetry as a mechanic (layman’s terms: a way the player interacts with the game) to allow the player to enter the game’s headspace, to assert that there is no right or wrong way to play and that maintaining a state of interpretative alertness is what the game values most.
Here’s the first thing the player sees in Night in the Woods (2017); again, I’m focusing on the first minute:
Like Kentucky, the player is asked to fill in the blanks in a weird and allusive intro (much of which the game elaborates on in the main storyline), with short lines of left-aligned text with line-breaks, and, right at the end, and honest-to-god full rhyme. The game wants to establish an atmosphere of loss, unease and the occult, and chooses the slippery non-linearity of short-form poetry to do the work. Poetry recurs throughout the game: a major character is Selmers the poet, an important scene is a poetry reading in a library, a few portentous figures speak in riddles and rhymes. Night in the Woods is, in part, a coming of age story in a far more kitchen-sink-realistic setting than Kentucky, but it recognises the capacity of poetry to alter how the reader-player encounters language. The first scenes in both these games are, partly, invitations to the player to engage in a way that games rarely do, with emotional sensitivity and a generative, curious approach to meaning-making.
But games have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, etc. So, let’s take a look at a very well-known piece of level design, the first stage of first Super Mario Bros game, developed by Shigeru Miyamoto and the team at Nintendo. Here it is in action:
How does this relate to poetry? Isn’t the same attention to detail and design present in fiction? It sure is, particularly in short/flash fiction, but what makes poetry and short prose different is their relatively urgent need to establish their terms of engagement. Where a novel can spend a relatively long time acclimatising the reader, for shorter artistic forms like a poem (even a book of poems, which can generally be easily read in one sitting) or a single Mario level, economy of expression is vital. Anna Anthropy has written an extremely meticulous piece of analysis on how the level works. It’s worth reading in full, but the key question Anthropy poses is:
How does the game teach the player what they need to know to play the game, simply by playing the game?
Anthropy goes on to explain how the positioning of Mario – the player’s in-game avatar, the game’s lyric self – relative to the world around him invites exploration and a gradual encounter with the inhabitants and obstacles of the game world. Anthropy describes the sensation as “To the right, hold on tight” – Super Mario Bros was released in 1985, and to this day a huge majority of 2d platforming games hold “the goal is to your right” as a foundational principle. It’s tempting to pun on Mario’s movement across the screen and the rightward movement of words across a page, but this only works for languages that run left-to-right. The important takeaway is that the game equips the player with the necessary skills to beat the game’s challenges immediately before the player requires them.
This, I think, is a decent entry point to discuss how design priorities in poetry and video games overlap. Super Mario Bros doesn’t tell the player explicitly “you are Mario” or “you decide Mario’s movements within the limitations imposed by the developers”, but the player’s experience of other games, combined with the developers’ contextual design, make it an easy step. Poetry’s relationship with its own in-game avatars is somewhat more complex, to say the least, but the assumption “you are inhabiting/witnessing the poet’s point of view”, or “in the act of moving your eye across the page you are responsible for the poem’s progression” is fairly commonplace. The limitations imposed or suggested by the poet are usually much harder to articulate; partly, perhaps, because some of the conventions of lyric poetry’s dramatisation of the self are so common as to be invisible. More on that later.
How many poets have you been? How many strangers’ emotional states have you embodied, and how often have they felt totally alien? How often, though, did the poet explicitly tell you, “hey, time to be me for a second”? The assumption that the speaking ‘I’ will a) correspond to the human whose name is on the front cover, much as Mario’s is on his; b) remain uncomplicatedly in the reader-player’s grasp throughout; and c) demand some degree of empathic communion is as commonplace as a two-dimensional avatar advancing to the right. There are exceptions, beautiful ones, but contemporary poetry in these islands tends to abide by these autobiographical conventions unless clearly indicated otherwise. Work in persona tends to be formally marked, like the speakers from classical myth of Alice Oswald’s ‘Tithonus’, or Sandeep Parmar’s Eidolon, for example.
The most Mario poet I can think of from the past few decades (which I say with all love and respect) is Seamus Heaney. Here’s the first two stanzas of St Kevin and the Blackbird:
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
‘And then’ sets the poem in motion. The saint’s posture and location are established in logical order: Kevin appears, then his cell, then the episode’s obstruction. Though I hesitate to draw too neat a comparison, Miyamoto’s design of the first Mario level parallels Heaney’s in its presentations of protagonist, setting, antagonist. In other words, the blackbird as it ‘settles down to nest’ is the poem’s goomba. Also worth noting how Heaney builds the poem’s tension, by comparing a human arm to a beam in a building. It’s a natural progression, given that the only elements in the poem thus far are a human and his building, but the word ‘stiff’ is the poem’s first dissonance: Kevin’s arm is not masonry, he is in pain, and it will only get worse.
This is fairly elementary stuff, (which makes it useful for my purposes, if unrepresentative of Heaney’s oeuvre) but it’s worth noting how the nursery-school tone is already working to prepare the reader. The language is insistently ordinary and the syntax on-rushing and linear. Each clause adds to our ability to inhabit the scene without subtracting from anything that went before. The poet wants the reader to keep moving right: there’s no need to go back up the page, or back along the line.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
Kevin’s motivations and a huge spiritual concept are breezed over. Heaney probably doesn’t want the reader to linger on the implications of being ‘linked / Into the network of eternal life’, not yet at least, and it’s significant that it is contained by the poem’s first subordinate clause, a grammatically optional extra. That the clause sits between such unassuming words as ‘and’ and ‘is’ makes the sentence feel like it’s itching to get on with things. Likewise, the consequence of the blackbird’s nesting is almost parodically plain: Kevin must hold out his hand for weeks, no questions asked. The alternative is so unthinkable the poem doesn’t allow the reader a pause to consider it until the end of both the stanza and the drama’s conclusion; the reader cannot rest until Kevin does.
This is the end of the first half of the poem; twelve lines, only three sentences. Heaney has built a little obstacle course for the reader, in such simplistic language and syntax that it’s nearly invisible. But there’s an asterisk below these lines, a whole second half of the poem:
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
If the first half of the poem has the reader going ‘to the right, hold on tight’, the second allows the platform to fall from under us: if the first half of the poem felt like a tutorial, that’s because it was, and here’s the test proper. The first line undoes everything in terms of drama and presents a whole new set of challenges, but ones the reader has been prepared for. The throwaway note about eternal life, the description of Kevin’s arms as ‘stiff’, the real sacrifice his ostensibly simple decisions imply are all laid out, one by one, more difficult versions of the questions a careful reader will have begun to consider already: the poem demands nothing the reader hasn’t been primed to encounter. Where Mario jumps to a flagpole and receives a celebratory jingle, Heaney rewards the reader with what feels like a truer, deeper insight into the poem’s subject. The triple-repetition of ‘forgotten’ and the chiasmatic ‘on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name’ are a syntactic wrapping-up, a musical full stop. (I hear ‘in the name of the father, the name of the son, and the name of the holy spirit,’ in the rhythm of those last lines.) That conclusion wouldn’t have felt half as satisfying, however, without the poem’s meticulous outfitting of the reader with the tools necessary to handle the poem’s final lines, to make that final victorious leap.
Few poets are as teacherly as Heaney, and few games as intricately designed as the Mario series, but I think the basic idea is sound. Shigeru Miyamoto designed Mario to be beaten, or at least beatable. The joy in the game is that its challenges appear difficult, and sometimes genuinely are, but an unambiguous win state can be achieved by internalising the game’s rules and conventions. Heaney is a more complex artist than I’m presenting him here, but I do think that his poems are often designed with a relatively clear goal in mind, and a relatively clear means of reaching it. I think that’s one of the key reasons Heaney’s work was (and is) so popular; like Miyamoto, he baked into his ludic spaces the tools the reader needed for successful interpretation. His poems often push towards some formal or thematic closure; pay attention to how his metaphors are constructed, how the poem moves, and reach the castle at the end, the rhetorical dopamine hit of a linguistic puzzle completed.
A second note: something video games do better than almost any other genre is embodiment, allowing a player to manoeuvre a body through a three-dimensional environment. Many of the most popular titles in gaming involve some kind of enactment of power-fantasy: with a few inputs you might climb a building, kill an enemy half a mile away, or be an indestructible goat. For the purposes of this essay, I’m more interested in games that refuse or subvert these expectations of power.
In the beautiful, odd and addictive Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (2016), the player-character is the eponymous janitor, a nameless Alaensee girlbeast. Earlier in the essay I talked a bit about how Mario carefully teaches the player the game’s rules with the intention of guiding them to victory; Diaries does not. The player is dumped unceremoniously into the janitor’s (literally) cursed life and must figure out everything from sleeping to eating to avoiding cops by trial and error, working toward a victory state that may never come. Unlike Mario, there is no castle at the end, and the fireworks are for everyone but you. Here’s the trailer:
The game tells you that you feel sick, you feel hungry, you are exhausted: you buy medicine, you eat, you sleep. So far, so human. After two in-game days, however, a new command appears: your body feels weird and itchy, you need to gendershift, and leaves you to it, as the screen starts to wobble and in-game text glitches beyond legibility. Managing her gender is just one more tick on the janitor’s embodied to-do list, something she has dealt with long before you started piloting her through her day, a fact so banal the game didn’t even think to mention it. There is something like an ‘ending’ to the game, but unlike Mario, life goes on as normal afterwards; there is trash to pick up, and you’re the one who’s going to do it.
There are points of reference to the janitor I understand: the feeling of being overwhelmed, confused and dog-tired chimes with the game’s thoughts about (and my own experience of) wage labour. But there are many things that are alien, both literally and metaphorically, and the game waits patiently, if uncompromisingly, for the player to work their way across that initial gap of understanding. The feelings of satisfaction to be had in Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor are not from overcoming a challenge like a skilful jump, but in finding a way to survive, long-term, in a hostile environment; the game isn’t going to let you turn your rags to riches, but you can make a life here, if you are patient and attentive to the world. The game is difficult, but not punishingly so; you might flail around for a while, but it’s a colourful, bright, upbeat place to flail around in, and you’ll almost certainly get there eventually. There are at least a couple of ways of looking at this kind of design. It may be a critique of big-budget games that spell out the means of success to the player, or rely on the player’s familiarity with generic conventions, and in doing so detract from the fun of achieving that success. Possibly, it is about establishing a relationship with the player on much more flexible terms, a relationship based on trust, that the player is an intelligent being who can process something more complex than direct commands.
The first poem of Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby (2017) is ‘Sign of the Anchor’. Here’s the first line:
I stood at the dangerous shore.
Already this is weird. The tense is odd: this action was completed in the past. The heavy adjective ‘dangerous’ feels ungainly, leading, even as the sentence itself is decisively self-contained.
Sleeves rolled up to my shoulders.
My fringe lifted in the wind in a long salute and I pushed it back.
Live your wish, Live your wish, said the sea.
I wanted to be like the shells on the beach, rubbed smooth and cracked open.
This feels something like mock-heroism, bathos: rolling one’s sleeves speaks of defiance, but rolling them up to one’s shoulders is, in terms of meaningful gestures, somewhere between illegible and comic. Likewise, the speaker’s untameable fringe saluting the sea is hard to measure, particularly as the speaker seems to immediately repress it. The degree of irony present in the sea’s wishy-washy speech or the speaker’s desire to be like sea-shells changes every time I meet it. The poem, like the world of Diaries, drops the reader-player in medias res, and its first priority is not making one feel comfortable; for now, there is little to be done but go along for the ride, or, in the poem’s own terms, keep one’s head above water.
It feels like the sea has directly prompted the speaker’s wish to be ‘rubbed smooth and cracked open’; though it is possibly heard only in the speaker’s mind, the poem’s magical realism means there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have literally expressed itself, though in that case the sea is a deeply unhelpful character. The act of being rubbed smooth and cracked open, meanwhile, speaks of a long process of erosion, of being worn down to a literal breaking point. The somewhat comic lines that have preceded it make it easy to breeze over this distressingly explicit wish for self-destruction, however drawn-out and unspectacular.
And I held my arms out, tipped my head back, pictured my protective symbols.
I opened my eyes and saw the sign of the anchor burning.
I had to go.
If the previous line didn’t alert the reader to something untoward, the poem has very suddenly shifted into something occult and uncanny. The flatness of the speaker’s tone, which earlier in the poem contributed to the archness of their self-presentation, does not modulate as it describes what appears to be a supernatural or magical rite. What was affecting in its apparently subdued manner is now unsettling in its apparent absence of urgency. The poem’s title appears, in flames in the sky: to the speaker, the meaning of the sign is obvious; to the reader, what the ‘sign of the anchor’ means, either in its natural state or in combustion, either does not matter or cannot be directly accessed. This is far from Heaney’s smooth handover of meaning from teacher to pupil, nor the literally straight lines between Mario’s visual cues and the game’s desired actions. The poem, like Diaries, does ultimately want the reader-player to come to some understanding of its world, but the final terms of that understanding are unfixed and subjective, and the poem’s final meaning is no one but the reader’s to determine.
I shouted some words but they were lost when the waves crashed.
And ash rained from the sky.
I was far out, in wet denim, and the shore was a jolt when I looked back.
Suddenly the scene is apocalyptic. The vagueness of ‘shout[ing] some words’ feels like a lost cause when pitted against the force of the sea, while the ash raining from the sky – from the burning anchor? is it an active, physical presence? – sounds almost biblical, a holy plague. The speaker is lost and alone in the middle of a catastrophe, in wet denim.
Again, this last detail is casual, but says so much about what this poem is trying to do, I think. It’s such a humdrum thing to mention when the world is almost literally on fire, and in doing so alters the tone of the poem immensely. It calls back to the speaker’s sleeves and fringe at the start of the poem, their relatively petty discomforts; by bringing them back here, at the poem’s climax, is such a deflation of sea and fire and ash as to be a potent statement. The speaker is still in danger, the distance from shore and safety is still the poem’s final consideration, but the merely unpleasant discomfort of wet denim is of at least comparable importance. The poem has almost come full circle, giving full voice to a state of catastrophic hopelessness but maintaining a grip on the mundane; it leaves the reader poised between the two.
My first encounter with ‘Sign of the Anchor’ was something much closer to pure confusion: the above is a reading informed by a close engagement with the rest of the book. What most closely connects Berry’s approach here and the design behind Diaries is in their willingness to place the reader or player in a state of productive uncertainty, over a fair proportion of the book or game’s duration. Where Mario and Heaney present tools and obstacles in such close proximity it’s impossible to miss their intended function, Diaries and Stranger, Baby first provide a potentially confusing environment, and place their faith in the reader to adapt their strategies accordingly. That the title of the first poem in Stranger, Baby – its level 1-1 – refers to an inscrutable element within the poem (an anchor weighs one down? holds one steady? a ward? a warning?) prepares the reader for a book that resists easy summation, whose difficulty harmonises with its emotional complexity. As Diaries is a game with no real victory state, ‘Sign of the Anchor’ and Stranger, Baby are not concerned with the completed rhetorical circle, the sense of accomplishment many Heaney poems provide. The reader-player’s impulse toward resolution is challenged and withheld.
A fairly recent development in single collections – with such frequency, at least – is the incorporation of relatively straightforward prose sections into the main body of the poetry book. Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular (2017), Sophie Collins’ Who is Mary Sue? (2018), and Inua Ellams’ #Afterhours (2017) all prominently feature critical or narrative prose. These sections make space for the poet to step out from behind the lyric curtain, to communicate in a register much closer to direct speech. The game of lyric interpretation, of the reader’s triangulation of meaning, is temporarily suspended.
As is the relationship between poet and reader: this kind of suspension could not adequately be performed by a poet like Heaney, who – for better or worse – figures the poet-reader relationship in similar terms to teacher-pupil, master-apprentice. However kindly and nurturing Heaney’s work often is, it is predicated on a power differential that is either absent or more fluid in Berry’s work (and that of many of her peers). For Heaney to step down from the lectern would necessitate an abdication of authority or control, which, for Alsadir, Collins and Ellams, is far less of a concern. While they have no fewer ideas to communicate and explore than Heaney, and certainly no less ambition to render them poetically, the means by which these ideas are communicated – plainly, conversationally, without the messy and cryptic apparatus of lyricism – allows the reader to become something more like a collaborator, a co-conspirator. Here’s Alsadir in Fourth Person Singular:
‘Only to this you [a figure that allows the poet to speak into a “social imaginary”] can one speak as (I), in the fourth person singular. You are that indefinite stranger. Can you hear me? I’m writing from elsewhere. This book is for you (whoever you are).’
Ellams in #Afterhours:
‘I chose #Afterhours as a title because it summoned three aspects of the project: 1/ In poetry, the tradition of subtitling a poem informed by another poet with the word ‘After’ and the author’s name. 2/ Turning 30 and approaching the ‘noonlight’ of my years, frames my youth as ‘early hours’, and the subsequent years as after those hours. 3/ For writers, the stereotype of ‘burning the midnight oil’ – working late after the standard hours of work.’
Collins in Who Is Mary Sue?:
‘I note that, in literary fiction, when a female writer’s female protagonist is considered up to scratch, she is often taken to be a thinly disguised version of the author’s non-idealised self.’
For these poets, appearing out from behind the lyric mask (arguably into a lit-crit mask, which is at least a less cryptic mask) and speaking plainly about their artistic goals is no great loss of stature. It’s wonderful to see #Afterhours recognised in the Ted Hughes Prize shortlist; I do wonder, however, whether Ellams’ decision to include exploratory essays and memoirs alongside and in dialogue with his poems counted against him during the rest of prize season, challenging as they do the reader’s preconceptions about what a poetry book looks like, and what it contains.
There are, of course, major differences between how difficulty/accessibility manifests and is encountered in poetry and gaming. There have been plenty of times I’ve read every word in a book and found myself unsure whether any substantial ideas have successfully changed hands, for example: it’s not necessary to understand a poetry book to keep turning its pages. In gaming, the opposite is largely true: a great many games demand a level of technical mastery to reach the conclusion, while the question of whether the player has internalised its core ideas (presuming the game is interested in having core ideas) is decidedly secondary. The Dark Souls series is notoriously difficult to complete, and has a cult following focused on the intensely time-consuming process of mastering it; what this difficulty means, what difficulty is for, however, is not necessarily on the game’s mind. The game is beaten by the player’s internalisation of its rules, conventions and environmental cues, not its thematic threads; identifying even a rudimentary alignment of content and theme like this game is difficult and so is my character’s journey toward redemption/damnation does not make its boss levels any less arduous. Personally, Dark Souls occupies a similar part of my cultural awareness as a few high-profile but obscurantist poets; while I’m convinced that the buzz of finally balancing the equation or gaining a satisfying handhold on the artwork is a true joy, I know in my heart of hearts I will never experience it. The time- and resource-cost of coming round to its mode of thinking – or, maybe, of learning the attack patterns of a Taurus demon – sometimes don’t feel like a fair trade. (Perhaps the difference is sensory: though I didn’t understand ‘The Sign of the Anchor’ at first glance, and perhaps I still don’t, I did enjoy the rhetorical shapes it made, the scene it conjured up. Perhaps I’m a fly that prefers honey to vinegar.)
One game that has nothing but ludic difficulty on its mind is Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (2017). It’s tempting to read some facets of Getting Over It… in terms of a poet/teacher-reader/player relationship; Foddy has recorded his own voiceover for the game, to congratulate or console the player as they progress or regress. It seems appropriate that, in a game so preoccupied with failure, loss and perseverance, that the player’s continual, massive failures are consoled by Foddy reading lines of poetry, by Blake, Dickinson, Rossetti, Gibran and many others:
(Yes, that is a man in a cauldron using a sledgehammer for locomotion. In a lovely twist, his name is Diogenes, the philosopher whose truth-seeking lantern Heaney takes as his symbol in his 1987 collection The Haw Lantern. A coincidence, sure, but a fun one.)
Schadenfreude is definitely in play here, but poetry also seems to have paved a way for the developer to speak seriously and plainly to the player, just as the game speaks to them mechanically. You make a mistake and fall, losing minutes or hours of progress with no choice but keeping going or giving up; Foddy persuades you to try again, with poetic wisdom:
“She smiled in defeat,
With unconquerable eyes.”
The two modes of communication work in harmony, serving the player at least the appearance of equal footing with the artist whose work is the site of collaboration, however frictive the collaboration might be. Throughout the game, Foddy intervenes to, variously, acknowledge and apologise for the game’s difficulty, to comment on the disposability of much of digital culture, to reassure the player that rest is necessary and important, and that the reward will be ultimately worthwhile; he is a deliberately nurturing presence in a game he has designed to be punishing. In the final sections, Foddy narrates how, to get this far, the player must share certain priorities around artistic failure, and about the paradox inherent in how failure, sadness and frustration is something the reader-player avoids in life, but seeks out in art.
Unlike the Dark Souls and poetry’s analogous models of difficulty, in which the player-reader is posed a quandary and left to sink or swim, Foddy, like Alsadir, Collins and Ellams, makes a concerted effort to accompany the player on their journey. The game is still difficult, but it wants to be beaten, the book is still complex, but it wants to be understood; in each instance the artist asserts that there is nothing inherently pure or admirable about struggling alone.
I hope you can excuse a lack of a definitive conclusion here; I’m adhering to the roots of the word ‘essay’ – to weigh something up or test something out – and I think trying to tie a neat conclusive bow around these ideas might ask too much of them. Maybe that approaches to critical reading that overlook poetry’s potential as a space for play miss a lot of what makes art worth experiencing, or that the poet-reader relationship is not necessarily instructional or confrontational. I’m also aware that in focusing on small/indie productions, I’m evading what makes up the gaming mainstream in all its vast toxicity, from exploitative labour conditions to casual indulgence of white supremacist power fantasies. I’ve also, to an extent, avoided the question of how games and poetry are, broadly, unlike. A lot of games are little more than toys designed for pleasure; there is a concept in critical currency called ‘gamefeel’, which tends to be evaluated by how smoothly the game permits the player’s avatar to enact the player’s wishes. Far fewer games are interested in a gamefeel that limits the player’s power, that sets them in context with the world they inhabit, not a king but a citizen. But that’s another essay. If nothing else, I hope they’ve given you a new way of thinking your way into poetry (and video games!), and I certainly hope you’ve enjoyed it.
Thanks for playing.
 Roger Ebert, “Video Games Can Never Be Art”, RogerEbert.com, April 16, 2010. https://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/video-games-can-never-be-art
 Raik by Harry Giles, 2014.
 R.A. Villanueva on Twitter, 8 February 2018. https://twitter.com/caesura/status/959163903505821696
 Jay Bernard, “How I Did It – Ted Hughes Award: Jay Bernard on The Red and Yellow Nothing”, Poetry School, 2017.
 Anna Anthropy, “To the Right, Hold on Tight”, Auntie Pixelante, 2009.
 Seamus Heaney, “St Kevin and the Blackbird”, The Poetry Archive.
 Definition of goomba, Mario Wiki.
 Official Trailer for Goat Simulator, Coffee Stain Publishing, March 24, 2014.