At Lost Levels I gave a five minute talk titled “What Poetry Can Teach Us About Making & Reading Games.” Below are my notes, including points that I accidentally skipped during the talk. There are also some minor revisions for clarity’s sake. Enjoy!
1. In games we have content and rules. Think of this as a reduction of Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics theory (MDA). That is, there are rules governing what the player can and cannot do, and there is content that fills variables.
2. Poetry has a similar divide between form (what the poet can and cannot do) and content (what fills the constrained variables defined by the form). For example, the form may govern that the poet needs an iamb that rhymes with water. Many words work as content for the rules of the form.
3. Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is a good demonstration for how form affects theme. The repetition of the title line and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” create a circularity that is very different from narrative poetry. It is hard to tell a story with a villanelle. Filling in the form with different content would still have this circular quality.
4. This is not the case of most poems. Sonnets and sestinas, which are really strict forms, can be about a ton of things. The form’s thematic constraint has more impact on how it forces the poet to approach the theme.
5. I think of this as a spectrum where on one side we have “no form” (free verse), on the other we have “strict form,” and in the middle we have “invented form.” At both ends, the rules that govern the poet’s choice of content allow for a huge range of thematic expression. In the middle, theme is limited much more by the form. (The villanelle is somewhere between the middle and strict form.)
6. One example of this middle, invented space is T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Try using the form of this poem (yes it has internal logic and constraining rules) to talk about any theme other than what Eliot’s poem talks about. It’s like telling a story with a villanelle: really hard!
7. This spectrum also exists, roughly, in games, stretching from “no rules” (“not-games”) to “strict rules” (“game-games”), and a middle of subjective or biased rules (“art-games”). That is to say, on one hand we have “Press X to Win!” On the other we have “Press X” (if even that). And in the middle we have “Press X to win? What does it mean to ‘win’?”
8. As with poetry, this middle space is hard! The extremes of “not-games” and “game-games” are much more open to variation just by varying content. There is a reason why there were and are so many Doom clones. (Their content has changed a lot while their rules have only changed a little, with each new clone deriving from previous clones, leading to the current “diverse” rule sets of modern shooters.) On the other hand, imagine replacing the trees in Proteus with burning buildings and turning the color palette grey and red. The rules could remain the same, but the content change dramatically affects the themes.
9. But if you’re in the middle, at this intersection of content and rules, the designers have to reinvent the wheel each time. For example, it’s tempting to make a Papers, Please-like (especially after all of the awards it received), or a Braid-like. We know that combination of rules and content are successful. But without stripping their rules down, there is a limited space for thematic expression. A content swap doesn’t work so well here! Without reduction, the rules of Papers, Please are inescapably about bureaucracy. It’s hard to even imagine a content alternative.
10. Conclusion: I don’t have any problem with “not-games” and I have no problems–in theory–with “game-games.” I just want us to be aware of the difficulties we face when we say “I’d like to make something kind of like Luxuria Superbia” (as one example). If that’s what you’re trying for, you’ll have a hard time escaping the original source. Anyway, I hope that next time you sit down to ask yourself “What kind of game should I make?” this talk helps you realize the spaces we can explore and the special difficulties of the middle.
(My fallback plan was to read Jack Gilbert’s “The Rooster.” I recommend that you look the poem up if you get a chance.)