Poetry and Dwarves: Mining Your Creative Depths.

When I see a couple of Urists and guess he’s meditating on reproduction, drinking with cats or wearing socks, I know this is paradise.

It is, apparently, national poetry month across the pond. I have some relatives and a friend of two in the States and that’s all the encouragement I need to go off on one about Dwarf Fortress. I don’t game nearly as much as I used to, I just don’t have the time any more. Between work, personal projects, interests, and other distractions, my time for gaming is pretty limited. There are, nonetheless, a handful of developers and games that I keep an eye on, and the topmost of those is Tarn and Zack Adams of Bay12, and their ongoing project Dwarf Fortress.

Dwarf Fortress is a procedural fantasy world simulator masquerading as a game. At some point in the future it may achieve sapience. For now it spits stories of madness and death from the Byzantine depths of its multitudinous cogs and gears. Naturally, that’s why I love it. Among the profusion of mechanics working away in the background, Dwarf Fortress has the ability to generate civilisations at world generation – think Minecraft but in ascii and amplified by a factor of a thousand – and one feature of those civilisations is poetic forms.

Have you ever looked at poetic forms? Nowadays we are more or less familiar with poetry only through free verse, though we are aware that limericks and haikus exist. You may or may not know that sonnets and ballads actually have rules that you have to apply when you write them. They’re not just effusive gushing about the focus of someone’s latest lusting. Not quite. These days we’re not too interested by the seemingly arbitrary restrictions of villanelles, sestinas, or pantoums. Still they’re worth knowing about and experimenting with if you’re the sort who sees themselves as a budding poet. I’m going to brazenly take it for granted that those people who are poets already do this.

Dwarf Fortress’ poetry generator was introduced alongside a music form generator back in 2015. It will give you an overall idea of the theme, intention, or tone; an origin, and then a breakdown of the structure of the poem. Number of stanzas, lines per stanza, syllables, feet, weight and metre and rhyme scheme are all accounted for. In addition it also includes other features of poetry such as the use of assonance or how one line must link to another specific line in a particular way. For the musicians amongst you: Yes. The music generator is just as absurdly detailed.

‘Alright, I get it! You’re sad enough to enjoy “playing” a game that resembles that scrolling code scene from the first Matrix film. Why the bloody hell are you involving me?’

It’s tempting, when writing long form fiction, to leave yourself wide open. Less restrictions means you’re free to be as creative as you please. Except the funny thing is that you don’t. In the most counter-intuitive turn of events since the Dwarf Fortress UI, humans take the least creative approach when they have the most creative space. Conversely, it’s when you box them in that they start doing interesting things.

The Vogons would be proud...
Some procedurally generated poetic forms from Dwarf Fortress.

In the same way that Dwarf Fortress’ emergent behaviour stems from the AI trying to work out how to work through a problem with limited resources, humans will do the unexpected when you put obstacles between A and B. While free verse does have its merits, it’s surprising what you can come up with when you force yourself to operate and create something like poetry within a restrictive framework. If you haven’t tried it, I’d recommend doing so. It’s not the most comfortable space to create in, frequently inspiring frustration, but stick with it: the results may surprise you. Unlike dwarves, where creativity is concerned there is no such thing as delving too deep.


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