Recommending Game Poetry

My series of browser game reviews continues with another title Markku linked for me.

Small Worlds, according to its title screen, is apparently some sort of casual game contest competitor. This is easy to believe, as the game is certainly pretty casual. It is also exactly the sort of minimalistic, concerned design that I’d make myself if I were in the computer game business. I’d compare this with Hey Wizard! I discussed earlier in that both are platform games with a minimalistic bend; it’s just that this is much more minimalistic than Wizard ever, making it the extremist wing of browser minimalism.

There is not much to say about Small Worlds in terms of content without over-explaining it. The purpose of the game is discovery purely and simply, with no extenuating secondary obstacles or goals. Even this is something you would and will discover through playing the game, so saying it here unnecessary frames the experience. One benchmark of a good casual game is certainly that it can be played with no study (in fact, my brother Jari goes as far as to claim that all video games should be possible to reduce to this stage by interface development; I find that I agree), which is definitely both possible and enjoyable in this case.

Another benchmark of a casual game is that it doesn’t take too long to play. Small Worlds is over in fifteen minutes, has no challenge element and has no replay value, which takes it a good ways towards interactive multimedia. It’s still no worse than many adventure games in terms of game-content, though, so at least in historical terms this is easy to consider as a game.

After playing it, consider

The game uses computer technology conventions for aesthetical purposes in clever ways, which I like. Extremely low-resolution graphics zoom out into more conventional ranges as the world gets explored, making the three-pixel protagonist seem less and less out of place. The graphical elements that seem merely sketchy in local view become parts of a living painting the player discovers through the movements of his avatar. The majestic (yet minimalistic) musical score contrasts drastically with

The player is motivated purely by curiousity, as the game does not explain its goals nor means of progress. This curiousity is transformed into a greater form by the first functional discovery, and it becomes a mission with the second. The mission never replaces the simple joy of painting the small worlds as the game progresses, however, merely accentuates it. And before the player has the chance to grow bored, the game is already over, dodging the sustainability issue of exploration as a motivation.

However, there is more

My brother Jari reminded me quite forcefully that “this sort of wankery has been done before, it’s called game poetry or some such”. He’s right, of course, even if I haven’t followed the scene as closely as I could have through this decade. Jari also linked me to Daniel Benmergui and told me that he doesn’t like this sort of thing because they’re too easy. If we understand a game poem as an interactive multimedia that does not involve a real challenge element, then Jari’s stance is pretty hard to justify. However, if we see it as simple laziness in design – that’s much easier. Which are we looking at when we consider this genre of “game poetry”? Should we even be calling it game poetry, or is it more useful to talk of “concept games” – the latter term would emphasize the game’s role in design discourse between peers over its audience reception; ideas over execution.

I didn’t like everything the aforementioned Daniel Benmergui presents at his site, but Today I Die was sort of impressive in its naivete. It shares the poetic approach of Small Worlds, but has a different gameplay and maybe a tad more challenge in an adventure game sort of way. I find that the design value is situated in both games sufficiently similarly to speak of an over-arching genre of “game poetry” here – both of these titles might be considered concept games in that they proof certain nuanced and rarely utilized design principles, but I’d consider this incidental in the light of the fact that there are plenty of concept games with no poetic elements, and likewise some game poems that are not very conceptual at all – I’m reminded of the Fly Guy, which is so simple a game poem that it may only be considered a concept game if we decide that the whole idea of game poetry needs to be proofed thoroughly.

So, “game poetry” it is. As mentioned above, we might define the core experience of this genre as being interactive, toy-like experiencing of content. The idea here would be that aesthetics are experienced differently when you give the audience the capability of directing the pace, order and context of the material. Looking at it from this point of view, there is much in traditional game design that fits under the label: traditional adventure games in general are often characterized by the lack of any meaningful content except player-directed pacing and ordering of graphics, sounds, plot and other aesthetic elements. I haven’t asked Jari, but I suspect that he might accept that whatever he thinks of Small Worlds and Today I Die, the concept of this genre in general is valid. Then again, good adventure games are hard to find, so maybe not.

(Now that I think about it, of course, I probably wouldn’t use “game poetry” as the name for this genre after all. Poetry implies things like shortness and minimalism, which doesn’t hold for all members of the group I delineated above. Still, it’s good enough for our purposes here, especially as almost all browser games are short and condenced like ludic poems anyway.)

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One Response to “Recommending Game Poetry”

  1. Kaj Sotala Says:

    Just played through Small Worlds. Whoa. That was interesting experience.

    Curiously enough, I’m not sure if I agree with the claim that it has no replay value. As I was playing it and seeing the different landscapes gradually reveal themselves, I found my mind coming up with a number of theories about what the places were and what the whole thing was about. I expect that a few replays, possibly each in a different emotional state, will each give me a new set of interesting theories about the whole thing.


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