‘Playful and iterative’ Ian MacLarty Interviews Gemma Mahadeo

By and | 1 August 2021

GM: Definitely. Like I’ve mentioned, I don’t think the poems are fully ‘written’ or ‘realised’ till the game is played by someone who isn’t you or I, and it’s exciting to see how other players will create their own narrative when playing, especially as the game isn’t linear. You get to choose where you move to, what objects to get close to. It’s kind of terrifying and cool to think that there are an infinite number of readings or interpretations out there, as even with a ‘choose your own adventure’ book, one could mathematically work out the maximum possible narrative permutations and combinations available. Ideally, I want to pique interest in poetry as an art form for folks who would otherwise be intimidated by it. It’s also a reminder to us as humans: art exists as an emotional response to how we see our world, make sense of it, and of our existence. Do you have emotions? Yes (one hopes). Excellent: you’re already qualified to read poetry and no one told you.

IM: The game was developed over about a year, in short bursts. You would write some poems and I would make corresponding 3D models and put them in the game and then send you a build. Could you talk about how seeing your poems in the game influenced subsequent poems you wrote for the game?

GM: After getting over the initial child-like wonder, it made me realise that game-making is very similar to writing in that one feels there’s always something that could be ‘polished’ or perfected. I’ve mentioned that my vocabulary is deliberately not particularly sophisticated, and that the writing for the game should feel accessible and quotidian. After the first build, I started thinking about objects that would be good to ‘plant’ into the game, which of course would tell me what poems I could write. I saw shapes of objects, or scenarios, and then would try to render that through text on a page and it would help to imagine how a game player might feel after coming across a frog pop up through a pipe when it might not be an expected ludic event.

I wanted to ask you, have you found any similarities between game designing and poetry, as a result of our collaboration? I had this notion initially that the ‘finished product’ is the only version of a game that should exist, but even now realising that there can be bad code or bugs within the software, or limitations of hardware, etc. it gives me a sense that games are never fully finished, but that at some stage, you have to decide where or when to stop tinkering. We had enough poems for there to be a playable game after two years, but also had the option of constantly adding poems, if we wanted. The idea of going back and editing a game, as if it were a poem draft was quite a revelation. You can get caught up in the minutiae of syntax – something I was able to avoid when coming up with poems for the game, but not something I can usually avoid with my more traditional poems.

IM: Yes, I can certainly relate to getting caught up in details when making a game. It’s a part of the process I actually really enjoy, though it does get to a point of diminishing returns which is when I usually call it done. I’m also appreciating how the process of writing a poem can be similarly playful and iterative. I’ve never had a fully formed game idea and then made exactly that thing. The initial concept is always just a seed and it’s the act of making that yields new discoveries and directions to explore. I found it really interesting that you prioritised accessibility in your poems. I think game developers can often rely on conventions that might be inaccessible to someone who hasn’t played a lot of video games before. Even in If We Were Allowed to Visit, the controls used to move around might feel strange to someone who hasn’t played any first person 3D games before. It’s certainly something I think about, even if I don’t always succeed in making my games accessible to non-gaming audiences.

I was really blown away by the game’s reception. I felt there would be a niche of people interested in it, but I didn’t expect it to have such broad appeal. I found it really gratifying and encouraging that there was an audience for our little collaboration.

I’m interested to know how you felt about the game’s reception. We released it as I would any other of my small free games, by putting it up on itch.io (a website where a lot of smaller indie games get released) and then tweeting about it. Are there similar sites where people publish their poetry? We discussed beforehand whether we wanted to charge money for it and decided not to, so as to broaden its audience. I feel this was the right call, but I’d love to hear your perspective on that.

GM: With poetry, usually poets publish their work by submitting to publications, then waiting several weeks for the acceptance-rejection (usually rejection) e-mail, where you then go to edit your work, and try to send it out to other places. Poets are constantly submitting and editing work. Self-publishing is more common in zines, but not so much online as many publications will say that a poem is considered ‘published’ if it appears on a personal blog. Sometimes people will take screenshots of works in progress, and post it to Instagram to gauge feedback from friends and colleagues.

I mention this because it felt really unusual to have poems be ‘published’ or accessible so quickly to an audience through the game’s release. There was no fear of these poems not having a use outside the game because they only, to me, had their truest home in the game. I wasn’t surprised at its reception because Ian, you’re well known for creating work which gobsmacks people, which generates interest. I was definitely surprised that as time passed, it did feel like I was a valid co-creator in the game? Especially as I felt that you, Ian, had the bulk of the ‘hard work’, as I’ve no background in coding, or software engineering. The more people that expressed excitement in the game’s existence, the more I realised that it really couldn’t exist without what we both brought to it. To this day, I still get so excited when anyone posts on social media about this game they’ve found, and talks about its uniqueness. I don’t think I’ll really stop being excited whenever someone discovers or mentions it because I’m thrilled it was received so positively. I especially love it when people point out what bits they loved or didn’t expect.

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