Verses mode
Edge|November 2021
From Wordsworth to Grand Theft Auto V: the unexpected crossover between poetry and videogames
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell
One summer’s day in 2015, Calum Rodger alighted at Los Santos International Airport and began walking. His objectives: eight mountain peaks in the surrounding countryside, unmarked on Grand Theft Auto V’s minimap but visible in the Lonely Planet style guide included with the game’s retail release. As he walked, fending off the occasional cougar, Rodger poured his mind out on paper. He pondered the names of the mountains, distinct among the game’s objects in that each is “like a poem ie they have no function”. He wrote loving asides to his character, “gentle-hearted Trevor, whose sociopathic / ramblings are as a sweet familiar balm / in this feigned and lonely wilderness!” He wrote about GTA as a cultural enterprise, “a Hobbesian liberty of violence / grown in a chrysalis of ironic self-reference / and born in an HD frame”. And he described himself describing the game: “God, what the fuck am I doing? […] It is Saturday. I’m thirty. I’m inside when it’s sunny playing.”

Thus the curious origins of Rodger’s performance poem Rock, Star, North – a Romantic travelogue in the tradition of Basho, William Wordsworth and Nan Shepherd, but transported to the environs of Los Santos. It is, as you might have deduced, a project with tongue lodged firmly in cheek – “a high-concept parody,” as Rodger tells us, aimed both at GTA’s “point-scoring, objective-based mentality” and the figure of the poet grandiosely gleaning holy truths from the wilderness. But there’s an earnestness to the poem, too. “That project was a way to subvert or undercut those aspects [of poetry and games] but ultimately to kind of celebrate them,” Rodger says. “What I’m aiming for is something which is at once sublime and ridiculous, or could potentially be either sublime or ridiculous with just a slight shift of perspective.” As such, Rock, Star, North was also a way of playing with Rodger’s own “hard-baked” yet wistful atheism, with GTAV serving as both a catalyst for inspiration and a means of bringing everything back down to earth. It allowed him to roleplay as a mystic, wrestling with the divine in nature, but “with a kind of get-out clause, which is that it’s just a game!”

Judged in terms of age, audience demographics, economic stature and supporting technologies, videogames and poetry may seem lightyears apart. Certainly, you’d never guess they have much in common from the average newspaper arts and culture section. Dig just a little beneath the surface, however, and you’ll discover a universe of brilliant crossovers which, like Rock, Star, North, use each medium to illuminate the other. There are poetry pamphlets modelled on adventure gamebooks and TTRPG handbooks, such as James Knight’s Rites & Passages and Godefroy Dronsart’s The Manual. There are poems based on Dragon Age or Ghost Of Tsushima, and vivid smaller texts on such as Cecile Richard’s Novena and VEXTRO’s My Bones Will Grow A Forest.

Poetry and video games have more in common than you might at first imagine. They are, after all, both artforms which centre the act of play, whether it’s playing upon words or with tools. By extension, they are both deeply and visibly defined by rules, ways of structuring language, environments, objects and creatures, that can be embraced or messed with, bent or broken. They’re also both cultural pariahs, in very different ways. “There’s a lot of misconceptions around both mediums,” Matt Haigh, co-editor of Broken Sleep’s new videogame poetry anthology, Hit Points, tells us. “Games are obviously painted as violent. Poetry is painted as irrelevant or stuffy.”

Available in Pokémon-style duelling editions, each with a different running order and version-exclusive pieces from Haigh and Broken Sleep founder Aaron Kent, Hit Points is an attempt to set the record straight. It covers a wide spectrum of themes and approaches: from more familiar, ‘lyric’ pieces about childhoods spent in front of an N64 to ‘visual’ or ‘concrete’ verse that blurs the line between word and image. Some poems are key-like in their compactness: consider Mark Ward’s curt distillation of The Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening – “Princeless, a blow-in. / I can be the boy I’ve been threatening / to be. No one knowing.” Others are more experimental, taking compositional cues from the design of the games they describe. Maria Picone’s Four Lists From King’s Quest V, for example, takes the form of an inventory of cultural artefacts and abuses – “some items: pimp cloak, / rotting fish (probably cultural) / heart-shaped golden heart, custard pie”.

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