Poems by Heart (inkle/Penguin)

Screen Shot 2013-03-24 at 5.15.03 PMPoems by Heart is an interactive text game created by inkle for Penguin. The idea is to make a game of learning poetry: you can play through an individual poem over and over, at different levels of difficulty, until you have all the words by heart. At the first level, a few words have been removed from the verse and you must fill them in from the selection of options at the bottom of the page. The blanks are marked up to show how many syllables are needed in the blank space. At each new level, more words are removed, until finally you’re assembling an entire stanza from bits, with a timer going. If you miss a word, or let the time run out, firm red handwriting marks in the correct version: your invisible English teacher intervenes.

The words you’re offered are not random, either. Often the right choice is accompanied by many close-but-wrong options, things with similar sense or sound. Learning poetry this way draws attention to repetition, syllable count, and rhyme, because those elements become active helps in filling in the missing words.

If you turn on sound, male or female voices will read the lines aloud as you complete them, helping teach the words aurally as well as visually. I find this useful, though it isn’t suitable for some of the times I use a tablet device. There’s even a mechanism to do a timed recording of your own, once you’ve mastered the words. I see the point of this, yet dread it; I recoil from the sound of my own recorded voice, and would like to be able to master spoken poetry without ever having to hear the results from the outside. This may be a personal quirk.

Playing repetitive poetry madlibs might sound not very fun, but it is, in fact, entertaining, in a slightly virtuous, Concentration-y way. There are scores, and achievements, and the whole presentation is polished and slick, in the way inkle has proven to be very good at. Still, the app pitches itself not just as a game, but as an educational tool for people who want to master poetry.

A couple of free poems are offered to start with, and you can buy more from the poem store, in “packs” arranged around themes: love, odes, Elizabethan, etc. The selection covers a number of crowd-pleasing standards: Shakespeare and Donne, Wordsworth and Whitman, the inevitable Poe. Very long poems, like the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, are broken over multiple sections — and, cunningly, sold piecemeal in different packs, to encourage expensive completionism. (I say expensive, but each poetry pack is $.99, so buying several is not necessarily going to break the bank.)

Because the app is not just about being fun but also about teaching something, the selection is going to be particularly important. People will vary in just which poems they want to bother committing to memory. I would have picked a little differently, had I been selecting purely the things I’d like to have memorized myself: some Pound, some Yeats. Perhaps some other modern favorites, though I realize for recent poets copyright may have been an issue. Bits of Chaucer and Beowulf. Other pieces by Donne and Dickinson that I happen to prefer to the pieces they picked. Perhaps some Chinese and Japanese poetry in translation. I’d even go for some untranslated Latin or Greek, but I accept that there may not be such a sufficiently large number of people clamoring for an in-app purchase of the opening of the Odyssey, or a selection of Horace’s odes, to make the effort worthwhile. Still, I think foreign language poetry readings would be great from a language-pedagogy perspective.

I wished at times that the gameplay engaged more than it does with the sense of the poems. Possibly what I’m imagining would be more like, somehow, an interactive game enactment of Le Ton Beau de Marot, playfully trying out multiple metaphors for the same concepts, offering translations and comparisons. Skinning sonnets to show the structural bones beneath. Contrasting a poem with the text or texts to which it is an answer. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” has meaning because of what it reacts against, after all. Perhaps this kind of play would not be so good at teaching the exact words of a poem, but there are different ways of knowing poetry.

This is not really a fair criticism of Poems by Heart. I found the app slick, pleasurable, and effective at its aims. It would be a lot to demand that it also function as literary critique by way of gameplay. I suppose what makes me wistful is that it sort of approaches more sophisticated pedagogical territory by forcing the player to think through the verses again and again, ask what fits, remember what goes where, and so internalize certain structural rules. But I think it does not really contribute new aspects to the experience or comprehension of those poems — not the way Gregory Weir’s Silent Conversation does, not the way a literary commentary or an illustration does, not the way The Waste Land app does, not the way a translation does.

I want a game that is a translation of a poem.

I want to write a game that is a translation of a poem.

This is my own problem.

Poems by Heart is pretty cool. If you want to do the things it teaches you to do, you should check it out.

GDC: Me at Indie Soapbox, Ranting about Text

At GDC 2013 I was onstage three times — twice to speak about Versu, but once also at the Indie Soapbox, which is a session in which ten indie game developers get five minutes each to talk about whatever they want. The soapbox topics were extremely varied and covered everything from the pleasures of writing indie games while traveling the world to publicity challenges to how to make interactive music that changes as the gameplay changes.

I talked about interactive text. Actually, I kind of ranted about interactive text.

The gist of my rant was: text is not just cheap. It’s not just the medium you use when you have no resources and no high-end software. It’s a very powerful medium for communicating nuance, viewpoint, interiority, motivation, the experience of the outsider. It’s an artistic medium with its own beauties. And because language is all around us, embodying cultural norms and politics, word-mechanics can address big issues.

Sometimes in the game industry you encounter people who don’t respect text, or don’t respect the craft of writing, as though creating good text were less expressive than creating good art, or less challenging than creating good code. That’s their error.

Sometimes people assume text games must be ugly and have low production values. That isn’t true either. It is possible for text games to be visual feasts.

Here are some of the pieces I talked about or didn’t get time to talk about, and one or two more that I might have talked about if they’d been out at the time.

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