on ________, on the classics

Cartridge Lit is a wonderful new lit mag that’s devoted exclusively to publishing new literature about video games.  Back in June, they published three of my poems that didn’t make it into But Our Princess, largely because they were (heaven forefend) lineated, not in prose.  They also explore characteristics common to many games, rather than any particular title:  invincibility, extra lives, and levels.

It’s great to see video game lit starting to attract a larger audience, and more legitimacy as a subgenre of sorts.  There have been others before us, though, and while it’s weird to think there are “classics” in video game lit, it seems important to recognize some key literary texts that choose video games as their theme.  As I worked on But Our Princess, I kept returning to two:

Blue Wizard is about to Die! by Seth Flynn Barkan (2004).  Notable for being the first book of video game poetry.  Blue Wizard has a strong small-press vibe to it.  The poems are uneven and are often carried by the author’s energy than any literary merit.  Still, there’s something genuine about the ethos here.  “No matter what, my premise while writing this book was to portray these games as being something other than the insipid and pointless rot-your-brain-ruin-your-eyes-waste-your-life-away-whydontcha entertainments that many of the adults of my youth saw them as, but as the works of art that they truly are,” Barkan writes in the introduction, and he’s committed to that premise throughout.

Lucky Wander Boy by D.B. Weiss (2003).  A novel about the protagonist’s quest to track down the titular video game which allegedly has hallucinogenic, psychoseizural properties.  I’m not sure the book has aged well, as it’s firmly set in the late ’90s dot-com boom era.  (Hey, remember ICQ?  Anyone?  Anyone?)  But the protagonist’s nostalgia for the early days of the arcade,  as well as home systems like Atari and Intellivision, is well-rendered, as are the dangers of such nostalgia.

Obviously there are others out there, but these two served as my vade mecums for Princess, which I begin writing in late 2004.

And the subject continues to grow.  I’m excited to read Leave Luck to Heaven by Brian Oliu, a collection of lyric essays about a range of NES games.  And Cartridge Lit has just released its first digital chapbook:  Prepare to Die by Jess Jenkins.

To end on a personal note, Princess received a recognition of legitimacy of sorts as well.  I’m honored to have it chosen by the Wisconsin Library Association as an Outstanding Achievement in Poetry award for 2014.


Memento Mori

brogue screenshot

I’m pleased to announce the release of my first-ever video game, Memento Mori.  You can play it right here.

By virtue of writing But Our Princess, I played a lot of video games and read plenty of books and articles about them.  And I teach an annual course about the culture and theory of video games, so I guess I get paid for thinking and talking about them, too.  But analyzing and playing others’ games is very different from creating one of your own.

Since I was young, I always thought it’d be cool to make my own games.  I knew how to do some programming in BASIC, but how to create a complete game experience was beyond me.  So I grew out of programming, and forgot about the possibilities until very recently.  Unfortunately, my programming knowledge remained stuck in the 1980s–BASIC and a bit of Pascal.  I certainly wasn’t going to learn something new just to throw what would likely be a dinky game together.  Fortunately, since I last set about trying to program a game (from what I remember, a maze game strangely reminiscent of Memento Mori), there have been a lot of game creation tools made that target people just like me.

I used Stencyl.  It claims to allow you to make games without knowing code, which is technically true.  Instead of typing in code, you snap together preconfigured blocks.  But you still need to know and understand computer logic, such as if-then statements and loops.  Fortunately, BASIC served me well for that.  It’s intimidating to start a blank project, but once I got some of the basics down, the game progressed well.  Stencyl was a great tool for me to build a Flash game with zero knowledge of ActionScript.

I had no idea how to create a random maze.  The irony is that I actually wrote a BASIC program to first test that I understood what was going on.  The maze was created via an algorithm charmingly named the Drunkard’s Walk.  The below screenshot is from that BASIC program, and the maze looks remarkably similar to the final product.


But just building a little maze game didn’t seem worthwhile.  I’ve been very interested in the rise of art games–video games that purport to do something other than “merely” entertain.  (The linked Wikipedia article has a huge list at the bottom, but the archetypal example is Passage.)  Since there’s no way to win Memento Mori–the enemies get progressively nastier, until they will literally break down walls at the end to destroy you–a theme of death seemed appropriate.  I’ve also always been intrigued by simplistic aphorisms for ways to live (“Live each day to its fullest!” et al.), so I figured they might be a nice counterpoint in a game where the only outcome is death.  I culled many from online, then wrote a bunch more of my own, often with dubious or impractical advice.  When I was testing the game, I frequently caught myself mentally arguing with an aphorism that I myself had written expressly as bad counsel.

The brief description I wrote is “A game about affirmations, mazes, ASCII graphics, and death. Mostly death.”  And that seems about right.  I’m pretty pleased with how things turned out, and happy to have finally achieved my goal of making a game:  I figured out the programming to make a maze and five different types of enemy behavior, I wrote the little square-wave soundtrack in A minor, and I figured out how to make 2014 technology look and behave like 1984 technology (which was more challenging at times than I had hoped it would be).  And now you can play the game on Kongregate (again, right here!), alongside a bunch of other games by people who know far more about what they’re doing.

So give it a try!  What better way than to live today to its fullest?

Roundup: Splinters, picnic tables, and ninja turtles

Happy to have a few new things online:

  • Clarion published a short little poem I’ve always liked about splinters.
  • Stoneboat published a longer but still wood-themed poem about picnic tables (scroll toward the bottom of the page).
  • And I’m grateful for a review of But Our Princess up at Alternating Current, where Eric Shonkwiler says:

While it’s impressive to have this collection structured as it is around video games, its greatest victory, its highest score, lies in Best’s ability to make the reader positioned as the player, the poems the games, and to convey still the fullness of life in that 2D format.

But Our Princess reviewed in Pleiades

But Our Princess has been out for almost a year, and I’m grateful for every person who’s chosen to review the book or interview me to see whatever semi-thoughtful things I have to say about the intersection of video games, poetry, and/or art.  I remain grateful for the most recent review in Pleiades by Kay Cosgrove:

The move between ages, between worlds, is as seam­less as it is in our lives and because of this the collection comes across as sincere. So much about this collection has the texture of a real life lived, but ironically, a real life lived through video games. … It is surprising how deftly Best manages to weave the particular human world into the popular video games of days gone by.

Pleiades also first published “Ms. and Super Pac-Man,” which was then picked up by Verse Daily here.

Roundup: Review, breathing, catchy doors, postcards, and more

I’ve been a little lax with the posting recently, but I’m happy to share a few new things that have popped up around the web:

  • Daniel Shapiro wrote a thoughtful review of But Our Princess in Arsenic Lobster. (Scroll to the bottom of the page.)  “He continually reinforces an important notion, that the finest poems are not about what they seem to be, that telling readers how they’re supposed to feel is far less valuable than guiding them through their own game.”
  • An interview I did a while back with KMSU, out of Minnesota State – Mankato, about But Our Princess, which also fetaures the real-life story about how I beat Super Mario Bros. on a pontoon boat, is now available for your listening delight in handy MP3 form.
  • everything about breathing,” a summery poem amidst all this wintery bluster, was published at Gulf Stream.
  • catchy door and sticky drawer,” a poem about weather, thinking about having kids, and a song from 1949, is up at Ascent and subsequently got a little NewPages love.
  • I had a whole series of postcards about weather and thinking about having kids published in Verse Wisconsin.  It includes the word zugzwang.
  • And this person who clearly has abundant time gives “Ms. and Super Pac-Man” a thorough academic dissection.

Looking forward to 2014.  My chapbook, Yes, is forthcoming from Parallel Press in May, and my next full-length book, I got off the train at Ash Lake is also due out from sunnyoutside.

Poe, Dickinson, Neruda, Plath, Yeats, and … “Frogger,” by me

The Internet is a strange place.

I semi-routinely search for myself and But Our Princess to see if anyone’s talking about it.  But recently, I noticed a sudden spike of people searching for a particular poem:  “Frogger.”  So I Googled that myself, and found myself in surprisingly good company right here.  (I’m presuming Yeats got tired of people mispronouncing his last name so instead switched it to something much more common.)

As best as I can tell, this is an academic-decathalon-esque competition, which means a bunch of high school students will be analyzing my poem competitively.  (A delicious thought.)  I’m tempted to post some red herring analysis about the poem here, such as how it rebalances our concepts of masculinity in a twenty-first-century America driven largely by capitalist blah blah blah, but really I feel much more certain about two aspects of the poem:

1.)  It is about imagining a journey that was not actually taken.  (This is evident from the opening sentence:  “… I imagine the journey we didn’t take.”)

2.)  This poem was inspired by the video game Frogger(This is evident from the title.)

On the list, the links to the other poems are from the Poetry Foundation, Writer’s Almanac, Bartleby, etc.  And mine … is from a blog.  (And I was grateful to Jeffery Berg for posting it here.  Perhaps he’s wondering about what I presume is a spike in traffic to that post.)

For better or worse, when you put work on the Internet, you never know where it’s going to wind up.  I’m also posting the poem below.  Partially because clicks on my blog help validate my existence as a person, partially for all of you desperate high-schoolers eager to analyze my deconstruction of the classist politics inherent in the Eisenhower interstate system and U.S.-Canada relations so warm you’d think they were bathwater.

Remember:  It’s all in the wrist, kids, it’s all in the wrist.

* * *


Sometimes, in the closet of 3 a.m., I imagine the journey we didn’t take. The go-kart track in Fargo where we slammed around corners as easily as swinging a stopwatch on its lanyard. The clouds slinking like submarines through the ocean of an Oklahoma sky. Otters in the Snake River. The girl in the sporting goods store in Cranbrook, British Columbia—purple dress, pink hair, a skull-and-crossbones tattoo on her ankle—standing between us and the fishing poles, saying, “It’s all in the wrist, boys, it’s all in the wrist.”

Then I get out of bed, stand on the deck, look at the stars. The bullfrogs glunk their love songs to the moon. The grass blades gather beads for their morning tiaras of dew. Even the highway is done with driving for now.

I go back to bed, try dipping my toes in the river of sleep. I can almost picture the sunset over the Platte River we didn’t see, ripe as a nectarine, or hear water churning like an engine in a ravine below while I straddle a fallen log.

Some things are too dangerous to cross.

But Our Princess reviewed in Verse Wisconsin

I’m thankful for this review of But Our Princess in Verse Wisconsin.  In it, reviewer Lisa Vihos addresses an issue that was always present in my mind as I revised the manuscript:

I must state here and now that I know very little about this particular realm of cultural subtext. I did not spend hours on Saturday afternoons playing Donkey Kong, or shut out the world on the drive to the grocery store glued to my Gameboy with Mario’s fate in my hands. I have never been up until 2 a.m. eating cold pizza and playing Grand Theft Auto.

And yet. And yet. These things seep into consciousness. There is something that resonates here.

I had always intended for the book to make sense, to resonate for people who had never played any of the games in it.  I imagine people who know the games very well might enjoy the Easter egg-like references I’ve sprinkled throughout the book.  But those served as points of departure for me, rather than merely offering in-jokes to the implied readership.  The book, ultimately, is about much bigger questions than the intricacies of Pac-Man, et al., and I’m grateful that the review addresses those issues.