13 May 2009
Poetry in motion?
Can a videogame be like a poem? Well, back in the 1980s, Tir Na Nog and Dun Darach raided the mythology of the Celtic sagas; and Lara Croft has just finished doing the same for Norse mythology. Perhaps the Metal Gear Solid series updates the medieval allegory Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, replacing the Green Knight with nuclear-armed giant robots, which is obviously an improvement. The Zelda saga rehearses the epic, episodic romance quest narrative of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Maybe cracking a particularly tough battle in Advance Wars sparks a dopamine rush akin to that furnished by one of William Empson’s anfractuous, hyper-dense poems, and Killzone 2 is the digital equivalent of the comforting ditties of Pam Ayres.
A poem is a marriage of determinacy and indeterminacy. The words in their unalterable order predictably generate a literal meaning, but also give off a cloud of association and implication whose extent is unforeseeable, keeping ambiguities eternally in play. A videogame, too, runs on determinate code to produce predictable effects, but also allows a larger set of possible outputs that cannot be delineated in advance.
Well, perhaps now we are cheating, having moved from the proposition that a videogame is like a poem, to the more concrete comparison of the videogame’s written instruction set to the written poem, taking advantage of the old saw that “code is poetry”, and noticing the distant din of PlayStation3 developers complaining that they are forced to write The Waste Land while their Xbox colleagues can still get away with scribbling rhyming couplets.
Such speculations arise from thatgamecompany’s PR claim that Flower is “Our video game version of a poem”. It bespeaks simultaneously a cringeworthy medium anxiety (no one respects videogames; poetry is the thing to aspire to) and a fey artistic hubris (look, we are poets!). Well, to me, Flower does not feel like a poem. In fact, it suggests nothing so much a version of Space Harrier customized for the personal pleasure of Alan Titchmarsh. I am just glad that I did not come across the claim that Flower was somehow a “poem” before I had played it, because otherwise I would have settled down to the game saying to myself “Okay, what is this conceited bullshit?”, rather than just downloading it, playing it, and saying “Wow”.
The developers claim that Flower “challenges traditional gaming conventions”, which is disingenuous. For a start, it is blatantly heavily indebted to two games: Okami (the way in which verdure and colour ripple out across the landscape from an epicentre of player success is torn straight from that game) and Rez (for the way aural feedback is incorporated into the musical score).
But those two titles were definitively gamers’ games. You and I might agree that they were more dense, varied and satisfying works than Flower. What the latter has done very successfully, on the other hand, is not to abandon gaming conventions but, on the contrary, to take a handful of conventions and purify them to the point where they seem “natural” even to the non-habitual gamer. A fine example of this is its path indication. Where many games tell you where to go next with glowing arrow that is not ontologically rooted in the gameworld, Flower uses rows of little white plants that nudge you in the right direction without breaking the organic illusion.
The fact that such path indication is even present, of course, points to the truth that the game at heart is utterly conventional in its sequential task-based nature: you basically collect stuff to open doors. What is remarkable about Flower is the illusion of liberation it manages to create within this labour-based structure owing to its extraordinarily pleasurable sense of flight. The developers say that “the player controls the lead petal”, but it feels to me as though my “character” is really the wind itself, and thus that I am playing from an indeterminate perspective: neither first-person nor third-person, but a depersonalized plurality.
Thatgamecompany’s ambitious claims for Flower have already worked, to the extent that you can read countless reviews happily babbling about how it’s like “a Zen poem“, like no other videogame ever made. But this is the wrong way to honour its achievement. A stern critical pragmatism is required. Flower is nothing like a poem, we ought to insist: it is a really interesting videogame, one which does things that many other videogames have already done, but with a more focused finesse, in the service of a clear artistic vision. It does not stand outside the medium’s history but is embedded within it. And it is for that reason that I look forward with interest to whatever the developers produce next, while steeling myself for the inevitable puffery claiming that it is somehow like a Da Vinci sketchbook or a Wagnerian opera.