Poetry in games + hiring poets


#1

So I saw this retweeted by N. K. Jemisin: https://twitter.com/HarryGiles/status/933712327421067267

It struck two aspects of me: first, as someone who was also appalled by the wordcraft on display in Child of Light (admittedly I don’t follow games writing super closely, but this is the first person I’ve seen who had an equally negative reaction); and second, as someone who mostly plays games by small or lone devs (including a lot of text-based games).

When I read this thread, my main point of disagreement was that only a professional poet (rather than any kind of writer) would be suitable for such a task. For the occasional bit of flavor-text-level poetry (as opposed to an entire game based around rhyming verse – looking at you, Child of Light), I thought that have a general writer handle the poetry was no worse than a sound designer doing some voiceover effects or something. As the OP says, it’s not about some kind of amazing artistic achievement – just basic, “oh good, this isn’t stabbing my eardrums” competence.

Then I wondered whether this disagreement was a bias from mostly being exposed to indie games – and whether I was overgeneralizing my own experiences. Maybe triple-A games have specific experts for pretty much every other task under the sun, and maybe basic rhyme and meter are actually extremely difficult for most writers who don’t specialize in poetry. Or some less exaggerated version of those, you get the idea.

What do you all think?


#2

Friend of mine and Tower of Guns/Mothergunship dev Joe Mirabello posted this thread the other day on this subject (though I didn’t know what thread he was subtweeting until reading this post), and I think he’s kind of along the same lines of thinking as you, and I tend to agree. It’s absurd to expect developers to blow money on hiring people with expertise on every tiny detail of a game. Obviously I can’t imagine doing a game focused on poetry without the game’s writer being like, an actual poet, but nitpicking the fact that the little flavor text in a game doesn’t conform to your expectations about poetry is silly.

More broadly, though, I’m skeptical of the whole “hire experts” mentality, it’s become a common refrain in certain circles that you should hire someone to do anything that you aren’t an expert at, especially things in the broad domain of the humanities. When invoked, the examples used are typically AAA games that could perhaps afford to hire some really specific expert to work on flavor text, but that is in my experience almost never specified. It’s put out as a broad call to literally everyone who makes games that they should be hiring huge teams to work on every minute detail if they’re not 100% sure that they’re qualified, which is absurd.

Anyway I agree with Joe that threads like the poetry one tend to come off as ignorant of the realities of game development. I’m fine with criticism of even the most specific elements of a game, but suggesting specific solutions suggests a knowledge of the behind-the-scenes on any given project that you don’t actually have.


#3

I do think that in some cases it’s pretty clear that a non-expert was used, like in the CoL case – where it’s not about “is this good?” but “does this demonstrate any grasp at all of basic mechanics?” And the OP of this particular Twitter thread does specifically say that he’s only talking about AAA games. I think it is worth asking whether people are more inclined/less inclined to hire domain experts for certain types of expertise, but it doesn’t seem as if the OP has that information.


#4

Interesting topic! Out of curiosity, are there any games you would say use poetry well? The only time I can remember liking a poem in a game was Starseed Pilgrim and some indie game where you had to rearrange the words in a poem to change the outcome. Granted, I played both of these before I started to actually read poetry so they might not hold up.


#5

I understand what OP is trying to say, but I don’t think they made their case very well. There are 5 games cited, which are called “decent games with big budgets”, but only one of those games (Dishonored) fits that category. Braid literally was a one-person garage band of a product.

I think what I would find a more reasonable argument isn’t that designers need to hire a poet, but that they need to do some research and have at least a passing understanding of the theory around poetry. Assuming that anyone who can count syllables and use a rhyming dictionary can go off and write acceptable poetry is obviously wrong-headed.

Having said that, there is a tendency that seems particularly strong among writers to believe that only Professional Writers can write. Aside: I don’t remember who wrote it, but I vividly remember a tweet from a professional writer along the lines of “If you can be happy doing anything in life besides writing, you shouldn’t be a writer.” That was some of the most condescending bullshit I’ve ever seen. But writing, like 99.9% of human activity, isn’t something you need to do professionally to be good at. It takes work, effort, and at least some level of innate talent, but just like it’s entirely possible for an accountant to be a competent, non-transcendent cook, it’s also entirely possible for a graphic designer to be a competent, non-transcendent poet, if they put in the work.


#6

I think, in the context of big budget games, sure, yeah. Give poets job opportunities! Hire poets to work in your games! Yes! Do it! Expertise is valuable! Go go go go!

But, as @WastelandHound said, it’s pretty ridiculous to use Braid as an example of a “decent game with big budgets” when that was made with the entirety of Blow’s life savings (if I recollect) and was entirely a passion project (and with a section that wasn’t even written in verse god fucking dammit) along with three other independent games. And then to go on to say “I’m not actually snob” but at the same time critique, well, independent games for their poor use of tense is a pretty tough pill to swallow. It’s been addressed but it’s also weird to view “bad poetry” as something literally

God, this line of thinking really fucking agitates me. Why does someone have to be a poet to write poetry? Why does someone have to pass a “bar” of “being a real poet” to write some goddamn poetry? I write poems all the time. I write them on napkins and in my phone. I don’t call myself a poet. I don’t write it in my Twitter bio and it isn’t my minor. Is that not poetic enough? Am I not allowed to then go and write a poem in a game I make? Why do I have to be a poet to write poetry? Fuckinghdhhh sorry the mention of “not laying into one person homebrew outfits” was like an afterthought especially when addressing Braid which was literally a one person homebrew outfit

I probably shouldn’t care this much but I just woke up and boy o boy o boy o boy


#7

Nothing springs to mind for me either, unless you count song lyrics (which the OP sort of does, I guess?) In that case I can say that Zulf’s song in Bastion punched me in the heart, not because of being particularly transcendental, but because of its use of deixis (in word choices like “coming home” and “I’m here” as well as the second person address) to reinforce the narrator/singer’s mental state/imagined transposition. It’s a tiny thing, but it worked for me.

Oh, yeah, that was the other odd thing. On top of being pretty clearly an indie game, and setting aside my qualms about flavor text, I wasn’t sure that those particular segments were meant to be poetry, even though the OP clearly was evaluating it as an attempt at prose poetry.

[edit: @vehemently has (vehemently!) made this point after I started writing this post at snail’s space, haha – good to know I wasn’t imagining things.]

Right. It’s certainly possible for a graphic designer to possess the “poetry” skill as much as it’s possible for a poet to possess the “graphic design” skill (people can multiclass!). I will note that being competent at [skill] may not always translate to being appropriate for a product or experience that, after all, is intended to be professional, but again, I feel that scope and context matter a lot here – get a florist or a garden designer or something for your hundred-foot-tall Flower Festival centerpiece arrangement, definitely, but who is going to begrudge an enthusiastic host or waiter putting together a pretty vaseful for the counter?

Though having typed out that hypothetical, I guess the other side of it is, is it fair to the graphic designer (or waiter, etc.) for them to be asked to do something not in their job description?


#8

I do wanna clarify: I think expertise is super valuable and often necessary, regardless of the field, and should be made use of, especially when you are a large enough company that can afford to both give jobs to people in need of them and to put money into creating a better art! It’s often a problem, especially in the tech field, to disregard years of field development. (I got really annoyed and creeped out by things like Soylent and Kasita, which treat a history of refinement as an afterthought.) I also just feel “hire a poet for poetry” is an over simplification of the nature of literature! Hire poets! Make art! Aaa!


#9

I mean, there’s two points to be made here.

Point one is that language skills, unlike coding or graphic design, are treated like a basic human bodily function instead of a thing people go to school to learn about, and it results in even giants like Blizzard leaving typos and grammatical mistakes in their million dollar games for years, to say nothing of a broader sense of contexts, traditions, styles, character development, storytelling, cultural awareness, etc. I feel frustrated about this as well, because it’s pretty much my biggest asset on the dreaded Job Market, and I don’t feel that it’s very valued. If you’re in a similar situation, I find it hard to believe that you haven’t yelled “HIRE ME TO WRITE THIS BETTER FOR YOU” at the screen in frustration at least once in your life. So I understand the sentiment.

Point two is that, in my experience, poets are some of the most elitist people on the planet, because of the centuries of cultural weight that adhere to the form in western culture. This is also why games that aspire to be taken very seriously – Braid is a good example – will employ poetry, in addition to vaguely classical-sounding music, to tap into that cultural capital. In the light of that, I read the thread as frustration that people who aren’t ordained priests of Calliope have the temerity to do a rhyme. Obviously this isn’t something that I consider very valid or important to address. I think point one still stands, though.


#10

Wu Tang is for the children. Nothing elitist about that.


#11

I can sort of relate to that subject, because the game I’ve put out this year kind of generates poems while you play it. I’m not a poet by any stretch. I like writing short stories and some people even like those, but I haven’t really tried doing actual poetry.

While I was working on the game I just realized that it’s structure (five random levels and on boss fight) has a certain rythm to it that could be very similar to the way poem can be structured. I realized that I could use it for a certain other thing, that is secret (most people actually don’t know that the game generates poems), so I sat down and wrote lines for each level the game has.
While I was writing those lines I was more concerned about their content than about their structure, because again I’m not a poet.

I’m still happy with what I did (it’s at least somewhat interesting), but seeing that tweet got me thinking. Honestly I would’ve love to see what someone who actually knows what they’re doing would’ve done with this type of project. It’s unlikely that I would’ve been able to afford them, but it’s something I wish I had thought about back when I came up with the idea.

I can’t really judge the quality of videogame poetry, so I have no idea how accurate those tweets are. However I do take them as a reminder to not completely ignore what other people’s talents might contribute to your own work.


#12

You misspelled “elitest.” :wink:

If the only FPS I had ever seen was Duke Nukem and then I tried to write Call Of Duty, it probably wouldn’t work out that great - there’s a sliver of hope that chance or genius could weight things in my favour but, practically, it’s profoundly improbable.

Anyone can be a poet, or a musician or a game developer, but to be good at it you have to care enough about it to learn how to be good at it. Unlike musicianship or game development there aren’t necessarily years of extra skills you need to write poetry, because it comes from writing ( in that sense it should be super-egalitarian ) but you still need to care about it. You need to read poetry, have some grasp of how it works and why you enjoy some poems more than others. I suspect what irks people isn’t that someone claims to make the jump into some higher realm to which they aren’t entitled, it is the attitude of “I can write good enough poetry” without really knowing or caring what poetry is or what it can do. As others have said, just learning enough to understand poetry at a basic level is probably enough to avoid this, but people in technology tend to consider knowledge coming from the humanities as somehow low-value.

Poetry has another place though, which is that it is part of the world, at best it can be a highly distilled snapshot of the culture that created it. This is where it can really do some lifting in terms of worldbuilding or storytelling - if it is casting a light on the world or culture you are describing then it can show the player something important in a relatively simple way. If that is the way you want to go then maybe you would benefit from hiring someone with a good knowledge of poetry because that could make something unique and different.


#13

The irony is that, for their purposes (writing for an audience of similar background to themselves), they might be right in thinking so. I.e. if they think to themselves “this is good enough” then it’s reasonable to expect that someone similar to themselves will agree. The problem, of course, is the fundamental assumption that their games’ audience is (or could/should be) similar to themselves.

The wrinkle in this is that the world is full of bad poets, so poor poetry, too, is useful for this kind of world building. I don’t have specific examples, but IIRC some books in the elder scrolls series get away with this to a certain extent.


#14

Yeah, I know next to nothing about poetry theory, but even I can tell when someone decided what they wanted to say, then arbitrarily cut syllables to make a rhythm or switched words around to get a rhyme, before declaring it “good enough.”


#15

It’s a hot take that leads me to an interesting thing that I think is important in all art, especially in games because they touch so many different arts together: hire someone who cares. It doesn’t have to be an expert, just hire someone who’s going to do the work and care enough that they are willing to expand their scope and not stop short of doing something with the quality it deserves.

I constantly notice careless sound design thrown in by developers on games big and small. Horribly short music loops, also… this feels to me like though these assets might have been created with care, they eventually ended up in the hands of someone without as much care or sense for how they should fit into the game, leading to their poor quality.


#16

I’m curious about where this is coming from because you seem like someone who knows a fair bit about writing, but I interact with a fair amount of poets and they come across as pretty much the opposite of this. They’re generally self-deprecating to a fault and fully aware of the fact that, out of every possible creative or artistic path, they will get least attention from anyone outside their extremely small community, the fewest readers of any type of written work, and basically no money from actual sales of their art. Instead, that elitism sounds very much like the cultural image we generally have of poets and poetry, but the only poetry that really has weight in western culture is old poetry—from what I’ve seen, few people really care about the new stuff or the people that make it.

But beyond that, this whole thread is really interesting for me because while I haven’t really felt this with poetry specifically, I do a lot of fiction writing and I have definitely given up on games because I found their dialogue painful to get through. A recent casualty of that was Axiom Verge (which, to be clear, was also a one-person game, and which I am not trying to shit on), where the wooden, emotionless dialogue was kind of a final straw for a bunch of other issues I had. In general, it’s usually pretty easy for me to tell when a game’s dialogue was thrown together by a person/team without a lot of writing experience (hey look, it’s David Cage) vs. a team that had practiced writers who cared about the craft (like Life is Strange or Wolfenstein’s current iterations). And to be fair, I experience the latter far more often than the former.

But that’s not to say people without a ton of writing experience can’t get it right! I think Undertale (probably one of the most incredible one-person achievements in recent gaming) is one of the best written games ever, and Toby Fox started out as (and still is) a composer. I have no idea if Hollow Knight’s team had any writing experience, but that game had a ton of dialogue and flavor text, all of which was fantastic. And in complete contradiction to this Twitter-person’s examples, I really like the writing in Braid. Different strokes.

My pet peeve is that, while sure poetry as an art form might hold a kind of rarefied position in the canon, I tend to come across an atmosphere that any writing can be done by people with no experience whatsoever because hey we all learned how to write in elementary school. That’s not to say you have to be a “poet”—like I agree with @vehemently that that “real poet” bar is terrible and stupid—but to produce writing that will be beneficial and not detrimental to whatever piece of art you’re making, as multiple people here have said, either you have to care about doing it well, or you have to find someone who will.


#17

As I said, this is coming from my experience and I’m not clear on why people are trying to argue me out of it. Would you like me to name names? I don’t think that would be polite. I will say that this included both university professors and young avant-garde online men who claim the cultural identity of “poet” for the prestige it carries. All I can say is, if this is really such an uncommon experience, I’m very glad.


#18

Looking over their portfolio site I see they made something in Twine and that they are proud of that. Would they be okay with someone putting them on blast for having the audacity to not hire a programmer?

If people want to provide constructive criticism that’s fine but don’t walk in and declare everything someone has done is garbage while talking about how you’re so great at it yourself and if only they would have hired someone like you could it have been good. It makes you sound like a pretentious unlikable ass. I know nothing about Harry Giles except for this Twitter thread and I would never want to work with them based on it and I’m sure there’s plenty of others who feel the same.

In regards to a game like Dishonored not paying for a poet I have to wonder why should they? How many people played Dishonored and came away not liking it because of the poetry in it? Seeing as it’s not the main focus of the game why should a studio go out of it’s way to hire a poet when there’s people already on staff who can write decent poetry. I get the impression they know nothing about how budgets work, do they not realize how many things get scrapped already because of a need to not go over budget?

Also if you’re going to put games on blast at least have the decency to actually look them up on Wikipedia before hand so you don’t look like a fool for trying to suggest that Braid had the budget for hiring someone to write the poetry.


#19

Yeah, I don’t know if it’s necessarily uncommon so much as it is that you just had different experiences – if I just think about creative writers in general, for instance, that’s a group which has in my own experience encompassed recurring personalities that range from “supercilious lit snob” to “anthropomorphic personification of Impostor Syndrome” to “It’s Just A Job Like Any Other, Jennifer”. I’m sure others will have come across different compositions of “types” just by accident of er… circumstance?.. or whatever.

Well, the thread wasn’t – ostensibly – about dabblers writing solo games, it was – ostensibly – about triple-A devs. That’s the reason why we’re bringing up the Braid thing as an issue – because it wasn’t a triple-A dev kind of situation and still was raised as an example.


#20

They also point out Mark of the Ninja and Trine2 which I would say fall into the indie category.

I get what they’re trying to say but I honestly lost all respect for the argument when they said these were all games with budgets to spare hiring a poet. At that point to me it becomes painfully obvious they are not qualified to talk about the subject as a whole. They understand the poetic issues with the games but they do not understand the larger ones that come with having to work within a budget and they did not care enough to do basic research on these games before voicing their opinion.

It’s just backseat game dev with poor examples and no real solutions offered like so much of the internet likes to do.

Also if you dedicate a section of your argument to brag about your accomplishments followed by a “hire me”, just ugh.