Autumn leaves fall. A cup of coffee cools near a window in the winter. And Ian Bogost has done something risky. He's made four minuscule games for a dead gaming machine. And he's called these video games "poems."
In a world of multi-gigabyte iPhones and video games so technologically advanced they can be confused with blockbuster movies, science fiction or real life, Ian Bogost has created a wisp of counterbalance. The video game developer and Georgia Tech professor has made A Slow Year, a quartet of games sold as poetry, each game based on one of the fours seasons, each one a tiny kilobyte in size and designed for the old Atari 2600, a video game console that was nearing its twilight a quarter of a century ago.
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"This is maybe the riskiest game that I've done," Bogost said in a telephone interview with Kotaku. It's riskier than the games he says he got death threats for, riskier than the ones that produced hate mail, riskier than his satirical games about boredom at Kinko's or airport security or Cow Clicker, his Facebook game that mockingly out-simplifies the simple but ubiquitous FarmVille.
These games were made with the understanding that poetry can resist being obvious, that it can be expressive within tight constraints.
A Slow Year is risky because it is many things that most new video games aren't. It's not just a compilation of four games that are each about six million times smaller than 2010's hit western Red Dead Redemption or the juggernaut Call of Duty: Black Ops. It's that they are slow, gentle, practically inscrutable games.
They are the the first video game poetry Ian Bogost, self-confessed occasional writer of bad poetry, has ever programmed — possibly the first intentional video game poetry anyone has ever made, at least for an Atari 2600.
The games are simple, introduced to us who have no standards with which to judge the quality of video game poems. The A Slow Year games were made with the understanding that poetry can resist being obvious, that it can be expressive within tight constraints, that it can, like a video game, challenge its reader to work through it, that it can be vague but specific, harsh yet beautiful. The autumn game is just a slow game of waiting for a leaf to fall off a tree and catching it right on time. The spring game's goal is to match thunder with lightning in a rainstorm. The summer game is the simple but daunting challenge to take a proper nap, a first-person game seen from behind drooping eyelids.
Each game was made to run on the Atari but will run on Windows or Macintosh computers.
Each is tough and accompanied with only a haiku for instructions.
The Autumn instruction manual:
Magic hour tree
Breeze grows to gust, then recoils
Pile meets falling leaf
Hot coffee slowly turns cold
Savor 'til day break
These games are neither obvious nor exciting in the way video games that are exciting usually are. Their prevailing aesthetic is one of lovely lethargy; their primary mode of play involves watching and waiting for the leaf to fall, for the coffee to cool, for the storm to crack.
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"They're real games and they're hard," Bogost said, who is wary of someone mistaking his creations for concept art or "net art crap" you just stare at. Like many a good poem, he suspects, their reader or player may not have them figured out at first pass. "Maybe these will be things that sort of well up later," he said. "That's kind of the same experience you have with poetry. You read it. You don't know why you're reading it. You're reading it because you were assigned it in a college class or you're bored or you like poetry and you are reading some new poetry, and it doesn't really do its work for you right away. It kind of cashes out later. You see something or have an experience and this line or this theme or this image from a poem kind of rushes back to you and helps you think through this thing you're experiencing."
Bogost looks at the video games he's played and he sees poetry in some of them. Take Tetris, for example. "There's a lot of these abstract games that don't give you a surface level theme but allegorize or use symbolism in order to inspire exploration of some of large possibility space. Those things look a lot structurally like poetry to me." (He doesn't claim to be inventing the idea of video games as poems, a concept that has been ascribed to games such as That Game Company's Flower, Daniel Benmergui's Today I Die and others.)