Not all game designers are into poetry. Not all poets are into videogames. But the overlap is probably more present than you might think: after all, both occupations generally seem to attract different variations of the same basic type of person, someone heavily involved in their own work with a very particular taste for things most people may find obscure and uninteresting. It’s little wonder that we see so many instances of famous poems being specifically mentioned in games, from Ashley Williams’ love of Tennyson in Mass Effect to the use of an Alan Seeger poem in the trailer for Gears of War 2.
When a game creates its own poetry, however, it’s another matter entirely. Sometimes it’s a simple attempt to convey a clue or plot point to the player, but in many cases it exists solely to flesh out the game’s universe (or maybe give us a cheap laugh). Now, being a self-proclaimed frustrated former English major, I know some of you may not find this as interesting as I do, but I feel it’s worth it to take a look at those moments when videogames try to take part in one of humanity’s oldest artistic traditions. Yes, verily, it’s an easily traced line that runs from Virgil to Keats to Mass Effect 2. Don’t believe me? You shouldn’t. But read on anyway!
9) “Bowser’s Haiku”, Super Mario RPG
You’re quite forgiven for not remembering this little moment from the treasured SNES classic. It’s a quick, simple joke but a funny one all the same, and it occurs as Mario and his squad finally breach the factory of the evil Smithy, who has been manufacturing monsters in an attempt to take over “Mario’s World” (8:55 in the above video). Frustrated that Smithy’s minions don’t take him seriously, Bowser (who has joined Mario as a party member) ventures outside the text box to express his inner turmoil in haiku form and it’s a sensitivity we rarely see in him. As a side note, I always thought this game’s calypso battle music was hilariously inappropriate, especially in the dark and gloomy final levels. Hey gang, we’ve just fought a giant creepy-ass sword with a face and are now fending off angry sentient hammers in an attempt to stop a tyrannical machinist with a shape-shifting head from using living weapons to destroy the world! Dance party!
8) Royal Elegy, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The Composer Brothers of Hyrule, Sharp and Flat (womp womp), are known primarily for their graves, their ridiculous mustaches, and the secret melody they left behind that can change night into day. You may have forgotten, though, that an unnamed memorial poem (not called an elegy in-game) precedes the discovery of those notes. This short piece of non-rhyming verse is said to honor the royal family, but it makes a lot more sense as an advertisement for the powers of the Sun Song. And it’s not exactly a whole wall’s worth of material, is it. Seriously, there’s no way a poem that short requires that much carving space no matter what language it’s in, but whatevers. It is of course revealed later in Majora’s Mask that the brothers may also be responsible for the Song of Storms or are at least aware of it; that has nothing to do with this poem, but it’s a little tidbit you can use to impress any friends you may still have.
7) “The Book of the Blind”, Diablo
We only get to read two verses from “The Book of the Blind”, though village elder and Zardoz fan Deckard Cain knows some related passages, but it is apparently an ancient and heavy tome of some repute, found in the appropriately named Halls of the Blind on level 7 of the catacombs. Aside from some metrical stumbling in the last line, this poem presents us with some of the most abominable trochees since Longfellow (poetry tip: The Song of Hiawatha is a lot easier to read once you realize it has the same rhythm as Cream’s “Tales of Great Ulysses”). However, unlike Longfellow, this poem actually proves useful in that it provides us with a hint on how to deal with the invisible enemies in the Halls of the Blind, the dungeon in which the book is found. Ok, I guess it’s not really a hint so much as a general and vague description, but if you wanted concrete answers you’d be asking Bradygames, wouldn’t you?
6) “Hovering Contemplatively”, Fallout 3
As I pointed out in a previous Daily List, Fallout 3 already has a pretty well-known poem read by a robot, which functions as a killer in-joke for Bradbury fans. But there’s another poem, this one written by a robot, to be found in the Citadel. Yes, the charming Mr. Handy unit known as “Sawbones” apparently has something of a creative streak and has tried one of his many prehensile appendages at a bit of verse. The results fall somewhat short of “There Will Come Soft Rains”. Quite a bit short, in fact, although I suppose the floating metal octopus should get points for a consistent rhyme scheme. The fact that this poem is tucked away on a terminal suggests it may not be something Sawbones was willing to share, as deathly shy as he is. Perhaps this medibot, like Doctor Zhivago, is a strong, tough-looking soul with a secret poetic side (note: as of this writing I have not actually seen Doctor Zhivago).
5) “The Gate Riddle,” King’s Quest VI
There’s a good deal of poetry in the fairy-tale inspired King’s Quest universe, particularly if you count the rhyming incantations used to cast spells (King’s Quest III annoyingly made you type out each line in its entirety, which reduces the charm somewhat). The much-praised sixth installment features an optional sidequest where Prince Alexander must journey through the land of the dead to bring his beloved’s parents back to life. He’s confronted by all manner of horrors and obstacles, including handsy zombies, dancing skeletons, and the World’s Slipperiest Death Bridge before reaching the gate to the Lord of the Dead’s chambers. “Gate” is also kind of its name, I guess, because the thing is not only alive but conversational and very creepy, with an appetite for humans which raises all sorts of unproductive biological questions. Anyway, if you’re not stupid enough to actually try to touch it, Gate offers you a chance to prove yourself and earn passage by solving an A-A-A-A rhyming verse riddle. The answer will surprise no one who remembers the ending of The Fifth Element, and while it’s not too difficult to figure out on your own, there’s a torn riddle book earlier in the game to give you a big clue. The correct response pisses Gate off, prompting him to bellow “Burden me not with thy poetry!” (having been through several creative writing workshops in my time, I sympathize). An incorrect response is almost worth it just to see the amusing animation of Alex getting eaten by a giant face. Dying anywhere in King’s Quest VI sends you into the Land of the Dead; dying three screens after passing into it alive is especially shameful.
4) “King Olaf’s Verse,” The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
It’s a pity that with all its customization and emphasis on exploring, Skyrim doesn’t actually let you become a bard, not even after completing the quests for the Bard’s College in Windhelm. I know it’s not up on the list of fan requests but I’d love it if there could be a DLC that allowed you to write and perform songs in taverns for money, thereby making virtual barding as desperate and demanding as it is in real life. As it stands, you only really get one chance to exercise your poemcrafting skills towards the end of those College quests, after you recover the fragments of an ancient ballad and must fill in the blanks. Your job is to portray the king as an evil nutcase but you can do one further if you have a high enough persuasion skill and leave some lines in there about Olaf actually being a dragon. I wish there had been an extra option to write some lines about him becoming a mammoth, but you can’t have everything.
3) “Blue Rose of Illium”, Mass Effect 2
There are examples/implications that all sorts of alien races in the Mass Effect universe have produced poetry, even the Elcor, but this particular piece is the most notable instance. The subject of both an amusing sidequest in Mass Effect 2 and a comic featured on the Escapist, this ode is penned by lovesick Krogan Charr for his Asari beau Ereba. Depending on your actions, she can eventually be won back over, only on the condition that he stops lyricizing. While it’s certainly no “Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning”, Krogan poetry doesn’t seem to show much more promise than its Vogon counterpart (hmm…those names are starting to sound a little similar). The knowledge that the stubborn lizardpeople have a tender side does lend some much-needed color to the warlike Krogan culture, though. Actually, this subplot gets rather poignant in the third game, where you can find the dying Charr and deliver his last message back to his love on the Citadel.
2) “Loveless,” Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
“Loveless” is actually one of the more complex works on this list: it was first an epic poem, then a critically acclaimed stage play so popular that posters of it can be seen all over Midgar. We find out the most about it through the characters of Crisis Core, specifically the tormented Gackt look-alike Genesis Rhapsodos. As you might gather from his surname, Genesis is of a literary bent, at least when it comes to this one poem, and he quotes it extensively. In real life this would make him an insufferable douchebag, but in the game…well, he’s kind of an insufferable douchebag, but you pity him all the same. From what we hear of “Loveless”, it seems to be a little like the Final Fantasy version of the Bhagavad Gita, crossed with the sellsword riddle from Game of Thrones, involving a Hero, Wanderer and Prisoner looking for “the Gift of the Goddess” (spoiler: at least one person ends up without love). The poem holds great meaning for Genesis, who spends most of the game slowly dying and seeking to achieve the Gift to possibly heal himself. The most you can say about the poem “Loveless”, which may or may not also be the name of the larger collection it is contained in, is that it’s just about as impenetrable as most real-life metaphysical poems, and it is definitely the only entry on this list to (indirectly) inspire its own tote bag.
1) “Grim Fandango”, Grim Fandango
It’s actually possible to play through the entirety of Tim Schafer’s legendary Aztec/noir adventure game without running into the moment that give it its name, but you’d be a fool to miss it. The game’s story is a bizarrely agreeable crime drama set in the Mexican Land of the Dead, in which you are a low-level reaper who leaves the fold upon discovering a tangled web of corruption. In the Blue Casket, a jazz club in the seedy seaside town of Rubacava frequented by a host of finger-snapping, beret-wearing skeletons (or “dead Beats”, as Manny quips), hepcat Olivia Ofrenda holds court as the poet-in-residence, complete with a trenchcoat and a long cigarette holder. If spoken to, she can be persuaded to perform a few of her chestnuts (if Manny performs an impromptu poem and then asks her, she will shamelessly steal from him). Her best work is undoubtedly the titular macabre rumination on death and the afterlife. Actually, this and other poems in the game are pretty good: elsewhere, Manny can be made to recite a seemingly impromptu verse about the moon that’s quite haunting. I’m hoping Ginsberg would have at least seen the humor in all this, especially since becoming something of a dead Beat himself.