On the Elegy game

Initially, I thought Elegy for a Dead World would be a game where the player only inserted a couple of words into a skeleton of a text, so that it came with formulas and the final stories would not really be that different from each other. In this scenario, I would not consider the final stories to entirely belong to the player, since you’d only be inserting small phrases into a bigger text that was already given to you and to all other players. The “fill in the blank” format where prompts are fixed would strike me as uninventive and limiting, as we would have to find words that made some sense to the context instead of slightly changing – or completely changing – that context, like real writers do. When you can’t change the words around the “blank”, the sentences tend to sound irregular and don’t flow smoothly because the words aren’t as “connected”; the writer’s thoughts are forced to be broken, and there’s no fun in that.

However, what I did not realize is that we as players are actually able to delete the prompt or contextual text and write anything at all. The prompts are only guidelines that are there to help you move forward with your story, but you could go completely “off script” and write something original and spontaneous, which I guess is what Elegy encourages you to do. Watching players play Elegy on Youtube was hilarious because of the wild imagination many of them have, but it also made me see how players of this game need to keep track of their story’s plot and create new parts that make sense to the bigger story. The tricky part is also saying something about the new settings or objects that appear in the game’s world in each level while keeping the story consistent. For instance, there are icy/snowy settings, space/intergalactic settings, industrial-looking settings, etc., and the prompts that come with each one of these settings normally relates to them in some way.

At the end of the game, you can publish your story and read it all out, as well as read other people’s takes. You can also give them commendations, but I believe there are no number scores involved, which I think is a great thing in the case of fiction writing, where anything is possible.

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The Stanley Parable: A Game About How to Critique the Close Reading of Games

For my close reading of a videogame, I played a game that I am certain is like no other and wanted to share its strangeness and meta-critique of games with the class. The Stanley Parable is an exploration of choice, metafiction, and how our own personal history with videogames defines how we play them. To say you play “as” Stanley would be a stretch. Even by Juul’s gaming role-assumption paradox, the only clear delineation between the “player” and “Stanley” is the keyboard and mouse. The game is aware that youare playing it, and even tells you so. “Stanley” is the merely eponymous vessel of the parable in which you, the player, pour yourself into.

I will back up a bit and try to explain The Stanley Parable. It is a game about videogames that examine other games. And if that does not make any sense, well, it is not really supposed to. To quote the game’s description: “You will play as Stanley, and you will not play as Stanley. You will follow a story, you will not follow a story. You will have a choice, you will have no choice. The game will end, the game will never end. Contradiction follows contradiction; the rules of how games should work are broken, then broken again. This world was not made for you to understand.” The story does not exist, the choices are illusionary, and the game (literally) mocks you while you play it.

The Stanley Parable is rife with little comments on gaming. When you click to open a door for example, instead of the usual sound file of a door opening, the game plays the sound of a mouse clicking. The game pushes the player away from immersion as much as possible, eventually hoping that it can provoke you into thinking about why certain things like menus, controllers, stories, and even gameplay exist in the way we perceive them. Once you achieve this, the stranger endings of The Stanley Parable start to emerge and you are no longer able to have a comfortable experience with the game. It shatters your suspension of disbelief with everything you are doing and forces players to ponder the very act idea of “playing” a game. The Stanley Parable deconstructs methods in which videogames are presented and guides the player into understanding how to identify the ways we identify and conceptualize those ideas. Eventually, you stop playing, stare at your screen for a while, and realize you are just pushing buttons.

 

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Ecocentric Thought in Hopkins’ Ribblesdale

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Ribblesdale” was a superb choice for wrapping up the semester and closing out our discussion on themes centered around the  In Nature’s Wake symposium. The poem serves as an ode, of sorts, to the splendour of the natural world while dually serving as commentary on man’s selfish and destructive actions which put the earth at risk. Hopkins’ deliberate choice of diction does not equate man to nature, nor does it take nature as a stand-in to symbolize the human condition as many poets tend to do as a means of artistic expression. Rather, Hopkins’ makes clear that the earth has “no tongue to plead [and] no heart to feel” and it “canst but only be”.  In lines 5-9, Hopkins further describes that  the earth is mighty yet essentially powerless to the activities of man as he acts upon nature. In saying this, he regards the earth as being wholly passive as it has no means of advocating for its care and reverence. Additionally, by choosing not to describe the earth’s existence in terms of human emotions and experiences, Hopkins also manages to further alienate the earth and nature from humans. In this way, he deliberately others it  and posits nature on the opposite side of an imaginary spectrum to man, where man can no longer relate, and thereby feel sympathy for the degradation of the natural world.

In the third stanza, Hopkins seems to take on an almost sarcastic tone as he identifies man’s role as Earth’s “Earth’s eye, tongue, [and] heart”. Because the earth is silent to humanity’s impact upon it, it is man’s duty to act as the earth’s correspondent and upkeeper; however, Hopkins believes that man has neglected this task he has been charged with and, instead, is more of a blight upon the earth than a boon. In a way, Hopkins seems to draw the reader’s attention to the profound potential of man: the earth is unequivocally larger than its inhabitants, however, man, too, possesses a great deal of power in that his actions have a direct effect on the earth and he, therefore, has the capability to shape the earth in whatever image he sees fit. The problem is that man’s actions (i.e. the destruction of nature for agricultural purposes and industrial advancements) have only served to plunder the earth of its precious resources while irreparably destroying the landscape.

I think this poem really calls into question humanity’s duty to preserve the earth as well as bringing ecocentrism to the forefront of our consciousness. By describing the earth in such a passive and helpless manner with all the power to protect it vested within “dear and dogged man”, I believe Hopkins effectively manages to convince the reader to examine his or her own morals and question his or her role in perpetuating the ecological devastation that has slowly been gaining momentum. While I aforementioned that Hopkins seemed to steer clear of personifying the Earth to reflect human ideals, I think Hopkins instead described the earth as being helpless to the point where the reader subconsciously equates the earth with the generally helpless members of humanity (i.e. infants, the elderly, the disabled/injured, etc) to the point where we subconsciously feel guilt at our fellow man’s indifference to the earth’s suffering.

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Scratching the Surface of Ribblesdale

As always with Hopkins, almost every word he has put in Ribblesdale can be taken in many different ways. This results in a poem that can be taken in multiple directions. In general the poem displays a similar contrast between passivity and action to that present in “God’s Grandeur”. Unlike many nature poems which personify the earth in order to respect or appreciate it, Hopkins adheres to the idea that the world can “but only be”, but that it does this just being well. The first stanza in Ribblesdale expresses mostly just this sentiment and does so clearly.

Where the poem begins to fog up is in the second stanza. The first two lines are clear, again discussing passiveness and then addresses God and his control over the Earth, especially rivers. The next two lines are complex.

Thy lovely dale down thus and thus bids reel

Thy river, and o’er gives all to rack or wrong

The words reel and rack can be translated as twisting/looping and rushing/rapidly advancing respectively, which sound appropriate for a river. They can also be thought of as connected to a ship, rack being rope and reel being the spools on which one winds rope. The former interpretation makes more sense especially when one considers that “wrong” can mean “having a curvy course”, which would lend itself well to the description of a river. However, wrong can also mean “rib or floor timber of a ship”. It’s good to keep the ship idea in mind I think, perhaps with the ship being the earth and God being the man at the helm.

In the third stanza Hopkins addresses man’s inability to step away from thinking anthropocentrically and his tendency to plunder (“reave”) our world and give no heed (“reck”) to the destruction we cause after the fact. And then again we have a word “wear” that can mean “cover” as we use it today but can also mean to turn a ship away from the wind.

I struggle to figure out how the ship analogy hangs together throughout the poem so perhaps Hopkins simply wanted to write in a manner that reminded people of a ship instead of wanting to use a ship as a metaphor.

This analysis only scratches the surface of the poem. Just look at the first letter of every line!

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Elegy

Video games present a challenging medium. For many of us the tendency to place gaming into a juvenile paradigm can stifle the ability to see the potential in the medium. Elegy for a Dead World is a great example. By creating an aesthetic recreation of the work of Shelley, Keats, and Byron and then allowing players to explore this space through the mechanism of gaming presents new ways to interact and interpret  these poets works. Writing as a gaming mechanism is interesting, players may choose to emulate the poetic worlds they find themselves traversing or come up with entirely independent responses.

Elegies are poems written in lament, so the stark emptiness of the worlds you are exploring along with the sense that they had once been populated, builds a sense of enshrined doom. It becomes apparent that your mission is to catalogue the aftermath and a surreal sense of purpose comes along with that. On the other hand the game allows the player to type whatever they want, turning some play through experiences in to debacles of silliness if the player doesn’t take the task of the game seriously. This I think is the challenge of the medium, because player’s have  such an essential relationship to video games there can be a difficulty in viewing the medium outside of the realm of couch-potato opioid. Gamers make active choices in video games in a way that other art-forms simply don’t allow and in some cases this freedom interacts with the gaming medium in a way that ratifies the medium as art and in others it diminishes it.

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Tracing Music

I am told that, at most schools, the gamers are not very high in the social pecking order. Perhaps it was a testament to the weirdness of my school, or at least to my obliviousness towards this order, that I always resented the fact that I had no idea how to play video games. Once, in seventh grade, I won a Halo tournament at a birthday party because I was too lost to be found by anyone else, but otherwise I played infrequently and unremarkably.

I could, however, write. People who were good at writing — and there were few of us in my small evangelical school in Ohio — were generally not the people who played games. Gamers were not the people who wrote well. They basically were good at games involving sports or games involving shooting. I remember once, at a friend’s house, playing a game on the Wii which focused on medical work and, while I thought this was the greatest game ever, he was incredibly bored.

I thus was really confused by the fact that Elegy for a Dead World makes players write with some regularity to advance through the game. While I think I would enjoy this game, I don’t think people who really enjoy video games would get much out of it. And, while if I were to play a video game I would likely choose one like this one, I wouldn’t ever actually choose a video game as a way to spend time, so I also would be unlikely to play this game. I wondered, given these two observations, who the target market for this game might be.

I decided I should do a bit of reading of the game and, while I didn’t play for long and I am still profoundly ineffective at video games, I mostly decided to write about the soundscape. This element of the game probably is an afterthought for most avid players and likely betrays my odd path to the game, but I think a reading of the music in gaming in relation to the music of other media reveals some interesting themes.

The music for this video game is familiar, both in its orchestration and structure. The specific combination of a fairly full orchestra and a melody that seems more appropriate for synthesizers seems to be based on a specific kind of movie or television program. This type of program would almost certainly be one with sci-fi elements, but would also incorporate various scenes of grandeur that would allow for thematic tie-ins to romantic novels. For example, a program featuring a highly advanced alien kingdom that, oddly, seems to be run in the style of, and share the aesthetics of, a 17th century French royal court. I specifically thought of the musical score for the film Dinotopia which sounds incredibly similar to the musical score for this game.

As I got into the workings of the game, I realized that this was actually not dissimilar to the conceit of the game. The setting is futuristic, though more dystopian than beautiful. Despite its imagined modernity, the work self-consciously name checks prestigious historical plot points. For example, worlds are described as belonging to Keats or Shelley. It was conspicuous that the poets chosen were rarely either modern or obscure. In some ways, this made a larger statement about how games work as a new form of media. While they interact with readers/consumers in new ways, they share a literary tendency to build aggressively on existing models, themes, characters, and ideas. In many ways, this video game was a remediation of film works that simply brought to life hard form literature. I found it fascinating that music helped me to trace this lineage.

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The Inevitability of Personifying Nature

In the poem Ribblesdale, we witness Hopkins breaking the conventions of nature poetry in his attempt to not personify the earth. In the first stanza he is already setting this forth when he writes that the earth has, “no tongue to plead, no heart to feel.” This seems to be confirmed in his third stanza: “and what is Earth’s eye, tongue, or heart else, where else, but in dear and dogged man?” Hopkins seems gives us an answer: “dear and dogged” man is the one with the ability to perceive and feel. However, Hopkins chooses to leave the question mark, and the reader is left with a non-answer.

Similar to his other poems, Hopkins uses the act of defamiliarization in order to more fully understand nature and the earth. It is Hopkins non-personification which seems to defamiliarize the way we talk about the earth. This only seems to emphasize how much we actually do personify the earth, and this is perpetuated in the poem itself because in Hopkins’s last line, “Earth brows of such care, care and dear concern,” he can’t avoid but attributing the earth with some human qualities- it seems like an inevitability.

 

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Ribblesdale Interpretation

In my opinion, Ribblesdale is a poem that describes the Earth’s inability to interpret itself as that is only a task that its inhabitants are capable of doing.

One line that describes the earth’s inability for depth is: “…with no tongue to plead, no heart to feel.” These describe human qualities, as they relate to parts of the human body. Even here, it seems that the only means to interpret is through human senses of perception such as taste, sound, sight, and touch. Hopkins states this is the case when he says, “And what is Earth’s eye, tongue, or heart else, where Else but in dear and dogged man?” Here, Hopkins suggests that man is to be the lens through which nature can be interpreted. Basically, it is to up to mankind to decide how the world should be viewed and defined.

But why is it solely man’s responsibility? Perhaps, it is because we are conscious beings and have the mental capacity to perceive and understand information. Hopkins even refers to us as “heirs,” which denotes a sense of responsibility and entitlement to the earth. It seems to me that he is saying that we have a major influence over the earth as we are the ones who determine what is important in our world and what is not.

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Power’s Out In the Heart of Man

So to break with all the Elegy for a Dead World stuff, I decided to do an explication of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Ribblesdale” for this blog post. And let me tell you something: this poem is good, damn good.

35. Ribblesdale

EARTH, sweet Earth, sweet landscape, with leavés throng
And louchéd low grass, heaven that dost appeal
To, with no tongue to plead, no heart to feel;
That canst but only be, but dost that long—

Thou canst but be, but that thou well dost; strong                        5
Thy plea with him who dealt, nay does now deal,
Thy lovely dale down thus and thus bids reel
Thy river, and o’er gives all to rack or wrong.
And what is Earth’s eye, tongue, or heart else, where
Else, but in dear and dogged man?—Ah, the heir                         10
To his own selfbent so bound, so tied to his turn,
To thriftless reave both our rich round world bare
And none reck of world after, this bids wear
Earth brows of such care, care and dear concern.

As near as I can tell, the first two lines is the standard nature-poem trope of singing nature’s praises in all her beauty. Juliana Spahr would hate this, Hass would love it.

The next two lines shift by non-personifying the Earth’s beauty. Hopkins does not personify the earth per se, but he calls attention to the fact that it has no heart or “tongue to plead”. He thus invites the question: should it? These lines also reminded me of Shelley’s Ozymandias, of how the statue, once obviously a powerful man, simply looks on at the desert.

In the next few lines Hopkins reiterates that nature “canst but be” and may only ever look on at the activities of man.

In lines 9-12, Hopkins introduces that man is the soul of earth and of nature, but is nevertheless destroying it through “thriftless reave”. Here Hopkins keeps a theme of “God’s Grandeur”–that man’s influence is impure and will sully nature for gain sooner than enjoy it.

In the last two lines, Hopkins personifies the Earth as wearing “brows of such care, care and dear concern”. Doing so might be a mildly logical inconsistent–Hopkins has just said that man is Earth’s soul, and men are certainly not perturbed by their own actions–but it is nevertheless powerful.

On the whole, “Ribblesdale” might just be the best piece of eco-poetics I read all semester. Although that’s probably because of the style, I’ve realized I’m a sucker for Hopkins. So as we go into our last day of class, we have to reexamine our role in the environment. We’ve been educated as to the catastrophe we are causing on it; now action must be taken.

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Elegy for a Dead World (Happy Earth Day!)

After watching the Elegy for a Dead World trailer, I had no words. I truly didn’t know how to respond, whether I liked it or not, or if I actually understood what I had just watched. Maybe it’s because I can’t relate anything to it. It’s not purely a video game—it’s more of a mediation between video and book.

I am curious about who the targeted audience/player/customer is. This game, unlike the typical action or sports game requires a certain intellectual curiosity. I can’t imagine the average kid going into the store and picking this game off the shelf over a more mainstream typical game. Maybe the creators behind Elegy for a Dead World are trying to attract a new customer/demographic altogether. There is something extremely appealing about having a role in the creation of a game. The way in which I complete Elegy for a Dead World will be entirely different from any other ‘gamer’. Each player will give a unique story.

Playing a first person shooting game or a car racing game can be done on autopilot. To me, when I think of playing, I would not consider writing a part of that (and I love to write). That is why I believe this video game should be marketed as an educational game. In any case, I find Elegy for a Dead World to be intriguing, but something about the trailer made me feel uneasy—I can’t put my finger on it.

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