Here’s a new approach to interactive poetry: write the poem in advance, and then create the game as a sort of adaptation of the poem. I’m reading lots of Dickinson these days, and that’s what I tend to think of when I think about poetry — short, rather abstract verses, capturing an image or making an observation in compact, dense language. This sort of poem would be ill suited to the adaptation approach, but there are other poetic traditions, one of which is the grand narrative poem, as practiced by Renaissance poets like Spenser, as well as Pope, Tennyson, and more modern versifiers such as, well, Dr. Seuss. This sort of poem tells a story, and presumably that story can be adapted to an interactive form using the same techniques one might use to adapt a prose story.
Of course, the danger of adapting any story is that it’s difficult to inject interactivity into an already extant plot structure, since plots are full of dependencies that are weakened every time a choice is given to the player. Consequently, the temptation is to give the interactive form nearly as rigid a structure as the non-interactive one, and that’s certainly what happens here. Because the game has the poem preconceived, the player has no choice but to follow its path. Consequently, what passes for interactivity is a series of one-choice nodes, where the player keeps trying various things until she hits upon what the game wants her to type. When the magic command is found, the game rewards the player by displaying the next section of verse.
The verse itself is more or less doggerel, a mock epic in Seussian meter, though without the nonsense words or moral messages we tend to associate with Dr. Seuss. The story it tells is a brief one, almost like a fable, except that its rogue hero is never redeemed, and the moral is muddy at best. Still, not every poem needs to be sublime, nor every story uplifting, and the poem (as a poem) had its pleasures. There were some rather clever rhymes, and some nice bits of characterization. The meter mostly kept a pleasant, singsong pace, though there were times it stumbled quite badly, usually on the last line of a stanza.
The illustrations, similarly, were not of the highest quality but some of the better ones definitely made a positive contribution towards enhancing the game’s mood. One well-used feature was the way the game changed to centered text and a monospace font when displaying the poem, but stuck with left-aligned proportional text for the actual interaction. This formatting choice set off the poem nicely, though it did emphasize the schism between poem and game, thus making it plain just how much the latter was grafted onto the former.
That’s basically the problem with A Night Guest. It’s an amusing poem (what there is of it, anyway — the whole thing is quite short), but it’s very clear that the game was built around the poem rather than vice versa. Thus, it feels rather like reading a book that forces you to say a magic word before you can turn the page. The “puzzles” (really just figuring out how to respond to the game’s cues) don’t add much, and I was left with the feeling that the whole thing would have been much more pleasant had it been just an illustrated chapbook rather than a narrative poem pretending to be interactive. Of course, I recognize how amazingly difficult it would be to create a game that actually expressed itself in verse but was a game first and foremost. No doubt that’s why it hasn’t been done yet.