Believe It Or Not, This Video Game Poetry Is Beautiful

What do you think about when you think about poetry? Does a 1950s beatnik stereotype come into your head? Do you think of a smoky café where open-mike slams happen every Saturday night? Are memories of Pole Position summoned when you think of free verse? Depending on your tastes, it sometimes might feel like poetry and video games are about as far from each other as two forms of expression can be.

But they don’t have to be. Ian Bogost’s A Slow Year proves that. Bogost’s game makes a point of moving poetry’s occasional inscrutability and emotional imagery into video games. But Our Princess Is In Another Castle—a new collection from author B.J. Best— returns the favor. The book walks readers through a life refracted through pixels. It’s a life journey where dating, heartbreak and parenthood find kinship with the monsters, hunger and striving of classic games like Dig Dug, Pac-Man and Sinistar.

On Another Castle’s pages, a Joust poem imagines the lives of the ostriches. “Doom” portrays a traitorous mind blasting away chunks of remembrance to depict the ruthlessness of fading memory “Maniac Mansion” imagines the horror game locale as a place of love and family, but with swatches of its gothic mood left intact. Some of Best’s poems imagine the interior lives of characters like Pac-Man or Mario. Others sketch out the existences of the people, playing them like the NES-owning grandfather in “Kid Icarus.”


ASTEROIDS

That August we watched the Perseids on the lake. I tried to impress you with the constellations I knew: a teapot, a bumblebee, Zeus with a lightning bolt, a jug of wine.

I was making them up.

You oohed when one whooshed large and low. I knew they were all space junk, God jizz, whore iron, star snot. I knew how much burning hurt.

Now you tell me a story. Tell me again how much you love me.


I had the chance to ask Best, an assistant professor of English at Carroll University, few questions over e-mail. Our conversation follows:

Kotaku: You draw mostly from older games. Do you feel like new games don't inspire as much poetry? Or were you drawing on memory?

Best: The old adage is “Write what you know,” and I grew up in the ‘80s, so the book looks primarily at classic games, since that’s what I grew up with. I definitely think it’s possible to write poems about newer games, but it was harder for me. One reason is that it simply takes longer to play a modern game—you could probably beat Super Mario Bros. in the time it takes to complete the tutorial level of a modern game. But I also liked ‘80s games simply because they were so weird. One of my favorites in that way is Mr. Do!: you’re a clown collecting cherries who can shoot an energy ball at the dinosaurs that are chasing you. It’s easy to pick out the compelling details from a game like that, and leave the rest aside. The other problem with modern games in terms of using them for my own work is that so much of the narrative is already given to you; it can be hard to wrest the game away from its original associations and turn it into something new.


Q*BERT

Cartoon characters needn’t fear ledges. It’s beautiful here in the desert: mesas built up like pyramids, rattlesnakes coiled in cool, a pinyon jay cackling in the pines. All day, our hero has been chasing or chased, as the script requires, overshoots the lip of a cliff, and soon he is skittering on air. He floats long enough to hold up a sign with a funnypage swear—a riot of asterisks and exclamation points—and then comes the descending whistle, the splat. Below, he gets up and shakes the dust from his hair, but otherwise no claw, paw, or bone out of place.

Step right up, folks, into this carnival of life: a cacophony of colors, flashing lights, a juggler with a cascade of rubber balls, spinning things. Step right up to the edge, peer over, contemplate the vastness below and the silver ribbon of a river tied beneath it. Step right up, pay a quarter, win a prize. You sir, yes, you sir. Mister Muscles. You look like a man who could ring gravity’s bell.


Kotaku: How much of the book is autobiographical? Is it pulling from your own experiences or establishing a character?

Best: Most of the poems have autobiographical elements, but none are pure autobiography. The poems were driven by my own memories, but games’ details encouraged me to follow them. For me, it’s more important to write a good poem than to faithfully reflect an actual experience of my life. A few poems, like “Mr. Do!” and “Dig Dug,” are almost entirely fictional.

Kotaku: Is there much bonding with your students over video games? Have you changed how they might look at the medium?

Best: I teach a freshman seminar on video game theory . The students are surprised when we play the games we do, because they were expecting to play things like Call of Duty for three months. I assign a lot of indie games that address different social and cultural issues. Sometimes, the students resist a bit at first, but I think eventually they enjoy realizing that all games can have meaning, or at least convey a message beyond “kill this; don’t get killed by that.” We do talk about games we all have in common, though, so it is fun to explore aspects of those games they haven’t considered—Pac-Man’s obsession with eating, or Mario’s quest to save one type of kingdom from another. Several students have told me that won’t again be able to look at a video game without analyzing it, and that’s when I think I’ve been a successful teacher.

Believe It Or Not, This Video Game Poetry Is Beautiful

If you’re curious about the games Best teaches in class, here’s a sample:

  • Pac-Man (VirtualNES)
  • Ms. Pac-Man (VirtualNES)
  • Tetris (VirtualGBX)
  • The Oregon Trail
  • Passage
  • Super Mario Bros. (VirtualNES)
  • Civilizations Wars
  • Dys4ia
  • Personal Trip to the Moon
  • Wolfenstein 3D
  • Little Wheel
  • King’s Quest I (download)
  • Bloons Tower Defense 2
  • Minecraft
  • Line Rider
  • Doom
  • Zork
  • Samorost
  • Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars
  • Loved
  • Every Day the Same Dream
  • January

CONGRATULATIONS, ENTER YOUR INITIALS

At last, you’ve done it. After years of errors, oodles of maneuvers. You’ve baffled the bullets. Crossed every chasm. Bludgeoned all the bumblers until you became beatified. Congratulations.

When you were born, your mother cast upon you three letters like runes. All along, you’ve scrutinized them like a scholar, wondering when they might start spelling something sensible. Something more than a sweatshirt, an old car that needs new brakes, frozen pizza. Maybe even jealous of those who have Ignatius or Makepeace or Magdalena.

Now think of all the luminaries likewise initialed! Actresses. Philosophers. Explorers. Kings and queens. And Jesus Holy Christ, who has been atop the leaderboard for centuries. Now you are among them, your initials glorious, forever electric in their pantheon.


The prose poems in Another Castle aren’t rhyming couplets but they still manage to evoke hypnotic syncopations as you read them. They feel like they’re able to echo the random specificity of the joyful, painful, sudden of life through the abstract prism of video games. Light goes in, bounces around and comes out changed. The words on the page may not speak to the exact mechanics of, say, Space Invaders or Rampage. But you recognize the feelings that bubble up as you’re reading. But Our Princess Is In Another Castle is published by Rose Metal Press and is available now. Poems reprinted with permission.