Poe, Thoreau, and Dickinson as Video Game Avatars

Henry David Thoreau advised his peers, “Let us first be simple and well as Nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our brows, and take up a little life into our pores.” Thoreau’s contemporaries professed similar emotional, individualist, and idealist sentiments. I respect authors of the American Romantic and Victorian period of literature; however, I don’t always enjoy wading through their sometimes ornate language. I recently discovered a few video game titles that provide a new format to interact with work from this period.

Between 1845 and 1847, Thoreau occupied a small cabin at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He spent time reflecting on the beauty of the landscape and attending to the tasks necessary to live a self-reliant existence (see quote above). After his stint in the woods, he penned Walden; or a Life in the Woods. His reflections inspire many today and last year the National Endowment for the Arts awarded $40,000 to a group of academics at the University of Southern California to “support production for a video game based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond.” The game simulates Walden’s experiment and allows players to discover the landscape that inspired his ideas and attend to tasks that fulfill basic needs. The design team involved in the project believes that the game creates an immersive experience and exposes a new generation of readers to Walden. While I am under the impression that Thoreau might tell the designers to take a hike, I am intrigued to see how the game evolves.

Thoreau’s contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe made Slate’s list of most adapted authors or 25 of Hollywood’s favorite authors. His dark, creepy mystery tales also adapt well to the video game format. In 1995, Inscape Inc. released the puppet adventure PC game The Dark Eye. The game presents three playable Poe stories including “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-tale Heart,” and “Bernice.” The Dark Eye, composed of 3-D graphics and claymation, featuring characters with uncanny clay-modeled faces that exaggerate these sinister tales. Beat and Postmodernist author William S. Burroughs provides voice over for the character of Edwin and sequences illustrating “The Masque of Red Death” and “Annabel Lee.” Last year, Kotaku’s Chris Person explained that Burroughs’ reading of “Annabel Lee” proves even more suspenseful if you know his back story—the author was convicted of murdering his wife and the poem explores the death of a man’s lover. For a less eerie game play experience with Poe, I’d recommend EDGAR, Wrought Iron Games’ forthcoming 8-bit style adventure game.

At the 2005 Game Developer’s Conference, Thoreau and Poe’s peer, poet Emily Dickinson, served as a muse for the Game Design Challenge. Designers Clint Hocking, Peter Molyneux, and Will Wright were tasked with designing a game based on the poetry of Dickinson. During the conference, the designers were each given 10-15 minutes to present concepts. Hocking described a game that required a player to collect symbols, such as willow trees or anguish, that influenced Dickinson’s work. A player would then use those elements to build one of her poems. Molyneux shared a concept that required a player to use “digital clay” to create visual poetry inspired by Dickinson’s life and work. He demonstrated the idea by sculpting a chair and then placing it in a virtual, 3-D version of Dickinson’s room. Wright’s idea involved the player serving in the role as Dickinson’s therapist. The game would be stored on a USB flash drive and Dickinson would live in the player’s virtual world, appearing at random in an email, in a text, or on the desktop. “As you interact with her, you start with a cordial relationship. She becomes romantically obsessed with you, or goes into suicidal depression,” Wright explained. Wright’s dark humor won the challenge. While none of these games were created, Dickinson would make an intriguing avatar. Her name continues to make headlines such as “Emily Dickinson’s New Secret: Life in that Amherst House was More Exciting Than We Knew” and “Emily Dickinson’s Secret Lover!: Why the Big News is Being Ignored.”

The works of Thoreau, Poe, and Dickinson are more than a century-old, yet the themes, plots, and characters continue to inspire modern artists and play. Games such as Walden and The Dark Eye might even persuade readers to pick up a classic text.