‘Playful and iterative’ Ian MacLarty Interviews Gemma Mahadeo

By and | 1 August 2021

IM: The game, If We Were Allowed to Visit, is set in a rural, isolated location. It reminds me of a farm I lived on for a few years while growing up in South Africa, or any number of dilapidated rural dwellings one might see driving through South Africa, or even outback Australia. Location and interpretation can be similar in so many means. Gemma, I wonder if you could talk about your interpretation of the game’s setting and what it means to you?

GM: For me, I imagined the backyard of a specific place where I did a housesitting stint, outside Castlemaine, for the writer Adam Ford. The backyard was about an acre, and there were lots of fruit trees, and lots of fauna I wasn’t always prepared for! There were lizards, and frogs, and I felt like this useless city kid tiptoeing around a place where I hoped I didn’t disturb dangerous spiders or snakes. It’s a bit silly given I spent over a year living in a rural Filipino village (my mother’s hometown) and as a child didn’t have the same sense of fear. When thinking of the game we were making, I kept in mind the curiosity and child-like fearlessness I had when living in the Philippines, and merging it with my experience of places outside urban cities in the land we know as Australia.

Can you talk about some of the technical constraints of the game and how that meant that some of my poems couldn’t be rendered in the way I had imagined (e.g. the tumbleweed poem shown below).

IM: One of my goals with this work was for every frame to be its own generative poem. That meant that in each frame the characters had to be whole, lined up, and run together in a readable way, as if they were typed out in a word processor or typewriter. That implied the use of a monospace font with the letters arranged in a grid. The character at each grid cell is determined by the 3D object at that point on the screen and its associated poem. Poems like the ‘tumbleweed poem’ you wrote with rotated characters that don’t align to a monospace grid simply don’t work with this system. While it would’ve been easy to do a more conventional rendering of the objects where each poem is simply a texture mapped to the object’s surface, then we’d lose the generative aspect of the work. Without this generative aspect, the poems would appear stuck to the surface of the 3D models and the screen wouldn’t read as one changing poem. So, for some of the poems I reworked them to fit in a grid using a monospace font.

IM: I’m curious about the pictorial aspect of the poetry you made for the game. How did the very visual arrangement of the poems fit into your process?

GM: For those, I’d often think of objects or a particular phenomenon I’d want to occur in the space of the game (e.g. rain, or the act of raining is a process, rather than an object), and work with language focussed more on my initial emotional response, rather than writing a poem in a fixed form (e.g. a sonnet, which would make no sense to choose just for the sake of it). I wanted the reader to read text that could transport them to this dream-like space and feel comfortable daydreaming too.

IM: Why did you decide to make your poems so pictorial, when the game itself was designed to rearrange your poems and generate its own pictures? I myself was expecting more conventionally laid out poems, but I quite like the extra layer of obfuscation the visual layouts bring, when combined with the game’s rendering. It’s very easy to get disoriented and lost in the text if you’re not constantly moving, which is what I appreciate about the poetic form.

GM: Moving away from sophisticated poetry and thinking more about words and letters as if chosen to create a puzzle was more what I was thinking in terms of poetics. If you read the text, it’s pretty easy for anyone to connect to in that you definitely don’t need a literature degree, or even experience reading poems. I felt it would help to reassure the reader that the text wasn’t supposed to be intellectually inaccessible. It also helps the player feel like they’re more part of creating the poem by committing to the act of reading the text. Being more pictorial I guess was my way of being playful and also not putting pressure to write poems that were conventionally publishable. No one would accept these poems as sole entities to publish, and the way I laid out words and letters on the page helped me move away from the mindset of writing something polished. Also, it was fun! If a player/reader could see how much fun I was having shaping text and laying it out on the page the ways I chose, it could encourage them to take a chance on poetry? Given this project was going to be aimed at folks familiar with independent games, fostering a sense of inclusivity and collaboration was pretty important.

IM: Yes, I certainly felt that reading your poems. I would find myself reading them the way I’d look at a piece of visual art, not from left-to-right, top-to-bottom, but letting my eye wander and be led by the visual composition.

How do you feel about the way the game we created reorganises and mixes your carefully laid out poems? It’s pretty much impossible to view the poems in their original form in the game.

GM: I actually love this! I thought I knew what the poems would look like because I did go into a more ‘visual poetry’ route, but quickly found out that I couldn’t predict how the poems would look once I sent them to you, till I saw the revised builds (builds, I learnt, were ‘versions’ of the game in progress but not the actual finished game itself. They were playable and allowed me to see how my poems were rendered in-game) you provided in the process of responding to my own poetry within your own form of poetry. The death and constant rebirth of the author(s)? It’s almost as if the poem text is a guideline, and how it’s rendered into the game is a further step to its completion, but without the player/reader, the endless readings or interpretations aren’t available. I’m the kind of poet that doesn’t mind being told to delete suggested lines, and I think that’s also why it’s so exciting to hear that people love playing our game: they are literally part of the process of the poem/s being written.

IM: The game that first connected us, Catacombs of Solaris has a lot of generative elements and relies heavily on the player projecting their own interpretations onto the resulting images. I feel like our collaboration of If We Were Allowed to Visit is similarly open to having player’s interpretations projected onto it with the way words are seemingly randomly arranged as you move around. It’s almost as if the player is writing their own poetry by moving around. I’m wondering if this kind of reader agency plays a role in your writing process?

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