by Bryan Lufkin WIRED Magazine
Videogames and poetry haven’t always gone hand in hand.
We’re still a long way from Master Chief breaking into a Coleridge soliloquy. But game developers Ichiro Lambe and Ziba Scott have edged us a bit closer to that day with Elegy for a Dead World, a game they Kickstarted in October and released on Steam last month.
Elegy lets players write prose and poetry as they explore distant planets and dead civilizations. The player faces 27 challenges in three worlds, each riffing on a specific British Romance-era poem: “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be” by John Keats, and “Darkness” by Lord Byron.
The different challenges find the player in various roles: an emperor rallying his troops before a doomed battle, for example, or a schoolgirl evacuating a city being bombed. Players travel through beautifully designed backgrounds, while on-screen text narrates the story. But much of the text is left blank—that’s when players tap their inner Wordsworths, finishing the tale with their own imaginations.
Throughout their adventure, players are tasked with using several writing styles: Plugging in blanks in prompts like serious Mad Libs, writing poems in rhyming couplets, or going totally freeform.
Elegy got started one day when Lambe and Scott were sitting at a conference table in their Cambridge, Massachusetts workspace, drawing visual interpretations of poems on long sheets of construction paper. (As you do.)
Afterwards, they called in a buddy and asked him what he thought was happening in their pictures—and found his interpretation was completely different from theirs. That, says Scott, was the eureka moment: “If we could make something that [brought] out people’s stories like that, we’d have something really interesting. We pivoted right there and chased it for the next year.”
The colorful, sweeping backgrounds, which seem to recall a little of thatgamecompany’s meditative PlayStation 3 game Journey, were meant to invoke the works of Romance painter J.M.W. Turner.
The real challenge was convincing players they could write. Someone might be a rocket scientist and member of Mensa, but freeze when asked to write creatively. Not to mention the fact that, upon completion of a level in Elegy, you have the option of publishing your work for thousands of other players to read—or build upon.
“The biggest challenge was making people feel safe and comfortable, but motivated to write at the same time,” says Scott.
Lambe and Scott figured out what it took to keep people from freezing up once they began to take an early version of Elegy to trade shows. In the early stages of the game, there were no prompts—just a blank slate. Players would be terrified, have no idea where to begin, and would feel helplessly uncreative.
This early version was, Scott says, the “nightmare situation. We made a game that makes people feel bad about themselves.”
Simple prompts, he says, helped players express themselves. For example: “I went to school today, but they ______.” Or: “Papa didn’t go to work today. I asked why he and Mama were arguing about ______.” These prompts are training wheels that eventually disappear and grant the player more freedom.
Scott says that some of the prompts aren’t even written very well, and that’s by design: It’s less intimidating, letting more players feel like they can participate.
Once you’ve completed an Elegy story of your own, you can actually make your tale a printable, readable reality.
“I have a 20-page, full color, glossy coffee table book of an Elegy for a Dead Worldstory,” Lambe says. “You can print it out, and suddenly it becomes a piece you and your friends can talk about. It’s something that you created.”