by Kat Sinclair
Hit Points: An anthology of video game poetry (2021), published by Broken Sleep Books and edited by Aaron Kent and Matthew Haigh, is a collection which – should you have ever played a video game – encourages you to bring your own baggage to the table. You have to go back there, wherever there is, in order to pass through here. The anthology is even formally nostalgic, drawing specifically on Nintendo, of which Kent admits to being particularly fond. Reminiscent of Pokémon Blue and Red (Gold and Silver, Sun and Moon…) Hit Points is available in two colour variants, ‘Mario’ Red and ‘Luigi’ Green, which contain different running orders and feature exclusive poems and introductions from Kent and Haigh respectively. My edition is Mario-Kent Red, for transparency.
There is something about Covid-19 and ‘returning’. Everyone seems to have experienced a Homeric journey even if they never left the house. Through the console, or the recesses of memory. Kent writes in his introduction that on reading through the submissions ‘I was hit by consistent waves of nostalgia’. Hit Points was published in May 2021. This is an object released in the midst of something, very much belonging to the present, and to present preoccupations. But ours is a time of nostalgia, even as it is a time of mass preoccupation with the unprecedented present and the sometimes unbelievable future. The popular media landscape is awash with reboots, remasters, sequels, Space Jam 2, reimaginings, retellings, live action remakes, hyper-referentiality. We are always looking back in order to look forward, or to be right where we are.
Aaron Kent begins (my edition of!) this anthology with a personal note on his own recent relationship to video games. I will do the same. My great pandemic activity was Hades, the fourth game released by indie game developers Supergiant.
Hades gives you incentive to die. Every time you are slain you return to the beginning, but stronger and more knowledgeable. Ideas of failure and progress are turned on their head. This is a perfect challenge to normative gameplay structure for a time in which linearity and propulsive narrative seem inadequate. Of course, the mark of many successful games is their replay value, both on a micro level in-game (dying and returning to the beginning of the boss fight a little more capable of beating them this time) and on a slightly more macro level (replaying the entire Mass Effect trilogy but making different choices this time). But it’s a mark of achievement, normally, to make it through without dying. Not so with Hades. It’s fairly easy to think of games with a disincentive to kill, such as Undertale and Bioshock. But with these you find out at the end – if you don’t find out from your friends beforehand – and you are berated for your choices. In Hades this incentive to die is built into the very mechanics of the game.
Getting (back) into games during the pandemic was a process, for many, of retreating from The World into expansive otherworlds, often ones we’ve spent a lot of time in before, and often in order to be reminded of other times in our lives, in our own worlds. It can often feel like not much of a retreat at all, and more like a way of staying tethered to ourselves, to our friends, to our likes and dislikes. This is meaningful action as much as it is (that well beloved word) escapism. When stuck inside, go deeper. Covid lockdowns really messed with the ‘go outside to get happy’ #wellness algorithm. So what now? There is no easy, instant cure for quarantine. But there are sourdough starters, and there is getting into arguments on Twitter, and there are video games.
The poems in this anthology are aware of the world into which they are being published. In both form and content they engage with questions of time and recurrence and interruption and stuckness – questions which video games have always loved to tackle. I am struck by David Spittle’s ‘sleepwalk kid’, wherein the natural rhythm of video game action and choice forces a state of constant interruption with a different quality to typical poetic pause and line break. With every ‘>’, we are invited to press that imagined button, to read on, digest a chunk. I am reminded of the act of outpacing a character’s speech, reading ahead while they are still vocalising, cutting them off but knowing everything they were going to say. There is a jolting poetry to that, too.
‘> see the treehouse on tv > it looks high > like someone else’s story returning again >
and again >
to where > again > it used to be > drifting us > a second
hand > wish’
There is, too, that throughline of return, the spectre of a younger self. This is a feeling that abounds when revisiting a childhood favourite, and I felt it keenly in ‘meatspace’ when recently returning to my university campus for the first time in fifteen months: the younger self and the newer self transposed over each other.
‘> you thought you would grow up > draw the curtains’
It is so much harder to play these games now – in terms of getting a hold of physical copies, and the issue of backwards compatibility, and the simple fact of no longer being used to the controls. I tried to go back and play Tomb Raider 2 fairly recently and I had trouble making Lara move because I wasn’t used to the controller sensitivity, or lack thereof. Muscle memory, it seems, can only take you so far. ‘You can’t go back [to the way things were]’ except you sort of can, again and again…
In a year of great loss and the great mediation of it – the numbers ticking ever upwards on the daily updates – it seems strange that we should turn to video games. The fact of dying and coming back from the dead is inherent to the form, in most cases. It’s inbuilt. We play with that knowledge, we sign up to it. In ‘The Night I Play Tekken 3 Against Death’, Liam Bates writes in the present tense. It is simply always happening, there is nothing conditional about it.
Some contributions make more conscious allusion to the content of poetry, as well as form, like Calum Rodger does with a T. S. Eliot reference in ‘To Be This Good at Nothing Takes Ages’:
‘we were neither of us Sonic, nor were meant to be /
but boy do I envy you not knowing what modernism is’
the grand themes of time and growing older in playful symphony with an incredibly speedy hedgehog, when
‘all we’ve ever wanted
is a diegetic ambience to do sweet nothing in’
Maria Sledmere’s ‘99 Rare Candies’, a list poem, reads like a series of actions or the chaotic chatroom stream-of-consciousness of an MMORPG. The font is nearly as significant here as the content. Again we are led to appreciate the poetry of something already essential to the video game form. Orphaned phrases linger long after the fact, contextless pieces flying about like the linguistic ephemera of the self-identified gamer: the cake is a lie; I took an arrow to the knee; would you kindly; press F to mourn;
‘91. The original deleted creature’
There is formal, gamelike innovation too in ‘Encarta 95 and other animals’ by Sarah Cave. This is a sea of queer association and emphasis, with its nexus of keywords and redaction. It sometimes reads like a choose your own adventure story, one wherein you’re watching the choices for what to say already having been made. Video games can often feel like Greek tragedy, all of us playing along in worlds (open or closed) for a time only to face the old problem of prophecy and fate, repackaged as coding and development. How free are we to choose an ending? How free are we to say anything at all?
Language is a series of games. The act of translating from the preverbal to the expressed is an imaginative form, hoping you pressed the button at the right time to stick the landing rather than fall to your temporary death. This is part of what poetry does too. As an imaginative form it is gamelike, the reader a little purple dragon charging forth and sometimes veering into a wall, sometimes hitting a casket and finding a gem. Hit Points and its contributors are aware of both video games and poetry as active media: sometimes as progression forwards, sometimes as memorial. It seems only natural to me that this collection should exist. I find myself returning, not necessarily stronger but certainly different, and going again > and again >
Kat Sinclair is a doctoral student at the University of Sussex researching the political economy of feminised robots. She is the author of Very Authentic Person (The 87 Press) and The Very Real Prospect (Face Press and Earthbound Press).
Kat can be found on twitter @katmsinclair
'Hit Points' ed. by Matthew Haige and Aaron Kent was published in 2021 by Broken Sleep Books.