Critique of the Conversation Surrounding Lyric Games

"What is a lyric game?" Wouldn't we all like to know!

There might not be much use in trying to define something that, for many, is best left undefined. In their recent article for Dicebreaker [1], Linda H. Codega offers the following heuristic for how to determine if a work might be considered a lyric game:

While the genre often defies definition, typically lyric games embody one or more of the following aspects: a removal of the distance between the ‘player’ and the ‘character’, the gamification of everyday experiences, and the reversal of assumptions to impact play. “Lyric games” as a term was coined by John R. Harness in late 2019 but, as it was a definition meant to encompass an emergent genre, many games published before 2019 are now considered lyric. Many lyric games are sold and distributed with anti-capitalist and community-forward priorities - often there will be community copies (copies donated by the author for those experiencing marginalisation or hardship) or games will be on ‘sale’ forever, allowing a pay-what-you-want model via itch. But these are just guidelines. Lyric games are a lot like porn: hard to explain, but you know it when you see it.

To pick apart this heuristic, it is worth noting that a chunk of it describes the way in which lyric games tend to be sold on the itch.io platform, which is not inherent to the works as texts nor is it unique to the way in which those works are distributed (given that it is a feature of that very platform). The bits Codega offers that are useful to understanding lyric games as textual works are as follows:

  • "a removal of the distance between the ‘player’ and the ‘character’"
  • "the gamification of everyday experiences"
  • "the reversal of assumptions to impact play"

The first point would seem to some to be designative of role-playing games in general as something distinct from (e.g.) board games, in that players will identify with and appropriate the subjectivity of their characters to participate in the game. In fact, it can be a statement in this context for someone to play as a character with whom they do not identify, because it forces the player to appropriate the desires and perspective of a persona that is alien to them.

Perhaps the second point lends some clarity to the first. If it is our everyday experiences that are gamified, then the lines between player and character are blurred insofar as it is the player's own persona that the rules of the game latch onto. The game Have I Been Good? [2] instructs the reader to gamify their relationship to their dog to better understand that relationship. The player does not become the character, but the character becomes the player insofar as the player's life becomes structured by pretend rules and then reimagined by the fiction imposed by the text:

Within the construct of this game dogs think of humans as ageless, near-immortal, untouched by sickness or death except in rare confluences of time. You know this is not true; but it does not matter.

These games are interesting, especially insofar as they are games. They are not, however, my focus in writing about the discourse surrounding lyric games. Codega's third point echoes sentiments surrounding lyric games as a topic of conversation, that they subvert one's expectations of what play is. This is the aspect which Adira Slattery emphasizes when she discusses reading as a form of play which lyric games facilitate [3]:

Lyric Games are games which embrace some specific mindsets, here's a few!!
1. Reading is a form of play.
2. Games do not need to be playable, unplayability is fine
3. Ritual Mindsets [4]
4. Lack of definition between player and character
5. 💕
6. Extemporaneous descriptions
7. Direct discussions/disections of theory or philosophy or trauma
8. Reverant attitudes
9. Break the fourth wall
10. Include poetic asides
11. EMOTIONS

She elaborates in an earlier thread on the nature of reading as play [5]:

That is not including the original patterns that were observed when this label was being created, which are very much present in the lyric games I'm seeing. Reading being a form of playing (sometimes the main one), disregard of a general audience, embrace of unplayability

We see here an understanding of lyric game that is distinct from (though, of course, not mutually exclusive with) lyric game qua LARP framework. A lyric game in this case is a text written like the rulebook of a game, but it is not meant to be 'played', i.e. put into practice at the table. Slattery asserts the lyric game as a literary genre that uses the conventions of game rulebooks to create meaning; as games they are often unplayable because you are supposed to read them, not play according to them.

This is the definition of lyric games as a phenomenon that I am interested in. That is, I don't care if there are lyric games that don't meet this definition, because a rose by any other name is just as thorny. Given this, I want to offer a critique of this particular phenomenon and the discourse that constructs it.

Credentials & Basis of Critique

I am a Classics scholar-in-training specializing in Greco-Roman poetry. I've analyzed the seminal works of Hesiod, Lucretius, and Ovid. Hesiod is the legendary figure to whom we attribute the didactic poem Works and Days, which situates man in a cosmos set up against him by the gods. Hesiod tries to justify the lifestyle of men, i.e. plowing earth and marrying women, by arguing that it is man's cosmic niche which he owes to the gods. Lucretius is a poet and philosopher from the end of the Roman Republic, whose didactic epic On The Nature of Things attempts to persuade the reader to embrace an Epicurean lifestyle. This is especially interesting because traditionally, Epicureans disregarded poetry as a medium of mythology that serves to confuse rather than to shed light on things. I argue that Lucretius is actually successful in appropriating the medium of poetry to philosophical ends despite the opinions of his predecessors, and that he advances Epicurean thought in doing so.

I wanted to share my credentials upfront because I am someone who is not just well-versed in poetry, but well-versed in poetry whose very structure is instructional. I'm not going to entertain anyone who thinks that because I am criticizing lyric games, I must not be equipped to understand them from a literary point of view. In fact, if we are to accept that lyric games should be read as texts rather than practiced as games, then understanding them as literature is the only way to understand them.

I'd also like to take this time to justify my approach to reading texts in general, whether rulebooks or poetry or whatever else. Codega, the author of the article I cited above, posted a Twitter thread where they discussed the difficulties of reviewing rulebooks for games [6]. They attribute these difficulties to the subjective nature of game-texts, where the relationship between player and game is muddled due to the player's experience of actually playing a game in practice. This is absolutely a hurdle to contend with, but I disagree with Codega that this means that (1) the text embodies a pure and unadulterated set of rules and that (2) the principle that the author is dead holds no water because the author's intent as embodied in the text must be respected above one's own subjective experience in practice.

In any medium, we accept that the intent of an author and the work they produce according to that intent are distinct things; hence one avenue of critique is the extent to which the text reflects the intent that the author claims it has. For tabletop games in particular, we can judge the craft of the text as an instructional piece for its clarity and its capability to be understood, which holds true for any technical writing (I am also a computer scientist, lucky me!). One can judge the text of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition for being too wishy-washy just as one can judge the text of GURPS for being too bloated. Hence we can judge rulebooks according to any of the relationships supposed between author and book and play and player. Is the author's intent well-founded? Is the book conductive for play at the table? Are the prescribed rules intuitive for players? Play being another factor in the criticism of rulebooks as texts does not elevate the role of the author any more than for any other medium; in fact, we can judge rulebooks in as much as they can be understood and replicated clearly. The author is not at the table, so they are dead to me.

Nevertheless, if lyric games are literature and not meant for practice, then none of the above applies and we can indeed read them as plain old literature.

Games & Poetry

Lyric games are called 'games' because, as I have mentioned prior, they are written according to the conventions of rulebooks for tabletop games. The exact phrasing implies an equivalence between a game and a text that prescribes the play thereof, which is in itself a bag of worms, but we can understand more simply that lyric games are modeled after rulebooks. This is apparent in Slattery's Making Love [7], which is written in instructional second-person prose:

Take your writing utensil and your copy of the game. Hold the game tightly. How does it compare to the other’s players beautiful skin? Isn’t it so much worse to hold this game when you could be holding them? (Wow, this game is starting with a lot huh?)

When you finish reading this section, look up from the writing and look at everything in your space that is not them. What do you see? You might steal at glance at them, but don’t get caught. Or do get caught. Laugh a little because getting caught looking at someone is kinda awkward. Avoid talking just yet. Smile a little, and then consider resuming reading again.

It is obvious, then, that lyric games are not described as 'lyric' because they are written in poetic lyrics, even if some lyric games are written as such (and even though, for a while, they were even referred to as poem games). It takes its name from modern lyric poetry, a movement where poetry becomes a medium through which to express personal emotions or intimate subjectivity. John R. Harness explains lyric games through this lens in the same Twitter thread where he originates the term [8]:

why "lyric"

because of the emphasis on emotion--maybe sentimentalism?--at tailor-made scale--no emphasis on being made for everyone or for a general audience--emotionally bespoke--borne out by the absolute burst of single-player games/"experiences"

also the idea that some lyric games texts teeter on the edge of playability and sometimes even acknowledge that their primary mode is to be read as literature--that the reading is the playing, is the engagement, next to or even more that table play--again, *lyric*

This is to say that lyric games do not necessarily pull from poetry as such, but they are a manifestation of lyric poetry as a movement in the composition of texts that are written like rulebooks. There are criticisms of lyric poetry itself for how it presupposes self-expression as the primary motive of writing, when such an idea is highly reductive of literature in general whose aims and effects are manifold [9]. However, I think more relevant to lyric games in particular is the way in which the comparison to poetry was readily embraced. Authors of lyric games consider themselves poets not because they compose poetry (even if they do write their works as poetry), but because they, like lyric poets, elevate self-expression to a goal of literature as such and they ascribe this goal to poetry. Hence the comparison to poetry is not on technical grounds, but on ideological ones based in the fetishization of a medium for being prestigious and expressive in itself.

I say this not to denigrate rulebooks that are not meant to be played, but to criticize the notion that these works are inherently valuable or meaningful (is anything?). A fair comparison to lyric games in the realm of performing arts is the Fluxus movement, whose authors composed procedures for performances that are only meant to be read and not performed. So I want to reiterate that there is nothing problematic per se about writing texts that emulate rulebooks to create meaning, but that the culture of the hobby has invested the practice of doing so with significance that is undeserved of the works themselves, or at least without proper analysis. Likewise, I want to clarify that what is at stake here is not a definition of poetry but the interests that lead one to categorize works as poetry or not.

Pretension and self-indulgence underlie the elevation of lyric games as literature qua idealized category. I say this not to gate-keep what should or should not be considered literature (everything is literature, including rulebooks), but because its advocates assert its literary value by speaking it into existence. Lyric games may or may not use actual techniques of poetry, but even worse they do not use techniques of instructional writing either except to write in second-person ("Do this, do that. You feel this." Etc.). The resultant literature relies on the mere conceit that it is a rulebook, even if not meant to be played, for its lack of actual literary technique and engagement. Self-expression is not inherently valuable, and we can judge any text for what it expresses and how effective it is at doing so.

Lyric games often have neither the literary strengths of poetry (or prose) nor the function of rulebooks. To avoid confusion with respect to intent and expression, I ask authors to reconsider what meaning they hope to express via lyric games and how the generic conventions of instructional literature help facilitate that meaning. Does the medium of instructional literature convey meaning you would not be able to convey via other forms of literature, or is instructional literature the genre of writing with which you are most familiar (either as an author or as a consumer)? What do you hope to express and why? System matters, you know.

Lyric Games as Capitalist Innovation

Advocates of lyric games are quick to identify the movement as being essentially anti-capitalist and queer, among other things. The foundations for these associations is clear from Harness' original declaration of the existence of lyric games [8]:

the best descriptive term I've come up with for the current crop of indie-ish, story-ish, micro-ish games like most of what is flooding into itch rn is "lyric," like lyric poetry or lyric painting

The specificity of lyric games to the itch.io platform is echoed by Evan Torner in his article about the genealogy of lyric games [10], along with the association of these games with queer authors:

Lyric games are highly personal, independently published role-playing games –– tabletop (TRPGs), live-action role-play (larp), or somewhere in-between (“freeform”) –– published under the “physical games” category on the itch.io platform, a site for independent games creators to sell their work and find that of others. These games are often created by queer and/or otherwise marginalized designers, conceived of during online game jams, compiled at short notice using one’s own or publicly available artwork, and then sold on itch for $5-20 USD, often amidst a constellation of other games from that particular jam or creator.

The publication of lyric games on itch.io by marginalized authors fosters the perception that lyric games are economically progressive or even revolutionary, as per Codega's article that I quoted above:

While the genre often defies definition, typically lyric games embody one or more of the following aspects: a removal of the distance between the ‘player’ and the ‘character’, the gamification of everyday experiences, and the reversal of assumptions to impact play. “Lyric games” as a term was coined by John R. Harness in late 2019 but, as it was a definition meant to encompass an emergent genre, many games published before 2019 are now considered lyric. Many lyric games are sold and distributed with anti-capitalist and community-forward priorities - often there will be community copies (copies donated by the author for those experiencing marginalisation or hardship) or games will be on ‘sale’ forever, allowing a pay-what-you-want model via itch. But these are just guidelines. Lyric games are a lot like porn: hard to explain, but you know it when you see it.

However, it is far from revolutionary to suggest that the solution to art under capitalism is to give artists the means to sell their own products, or to suggest that the solution to anything about capitalism is to enable individuals' participation in the free market. Indeed, expanding free market participation is not only a capitalist pipedream, but a textbook definition of liberalism that posits the consensual marketplace as the greatest expression of liberty. This attitude is not specific to lyric games in particular but it permeates the discourse of the independent tabletop role-playing game 'industry' at large.

For example, the emphasis of authorship which the 'industry' proclaims functions precisely to empower its independent producers with ideological power. I have previously criticized the slogan "System matters" not with respect to its veracity, but in how it serves to heighten the ideological stakes of independent producers trying to compete with Wizards of the Coast [11]. The point is not that system matters, but that independent producers can sell you products with a greater variety of scope (or of greater quality) than Wizards of the Coast. If I were worried about Wizards of the Coast having a creative monopoly over the hobby, I would think the most direct solution would be to not purchase anything from them and to participate in the hobby on my own terms. The imperative to instead purchase products from small proprietors does not follow from the imperative to resist Wizards of the Coast; the connection between the two terms is arbitrary, and people stand to gain from it. In this way, the emphasis that some place on the expressive capabilities of lyric games relates to the independent industry's quest for recognition as being worthy of market share.

Products on the itch.io platform also benefit from the parasocial and ideological relationships that producers foster between themselves and their consumer base. In the same post I refer to above, I argue that the function of community events such as game jams and crowdfunding campaigns is primarily to aggrandize the producer of the work that the event is celebrating (if not to directly monetarily benefit that producer). Likewise, the perception that the works themselves are expressions of queer identity contributes to a spectacular performance of brand loyalty that by purchasing and consuming lyric games, you are supporting queer liberation via expression. There is something to be said for how capitalism is the most revolutionary force on the planet, in that it replaces direct social domination with the invisible hand of the marketplace. However, I do not imagine that any industry of independent producers is eager to characterize themselves as the little fingers of capitalism digging into every possible aspect of life. Hence they are content to consider themselves socially progressive, and propagate the idea that they could compete with monopolies and overcome capitalism with capitalism.

Why are minute digital works of literature hailed as the solution to poverty or the disenfranchisement of queer people? At what point are we participating in industry, not charity? Why is it desirable to become an industry? Although it is true that it is better to give money to people who need it than to a faceless mega-corporation or whatever, this is not at all the basis of any anti-capitalist practice. Instead it is the expression of a desire to persist in capitalist relations of commodity exchange, and the belief that the free market will lift the disenfranchised by their bootstraps.

Conclusion

I hope to have developed a good starting point with which to critique the independent tabletop role-playing game industry, with a particular view to the phenomenon of game-texts that are meant to be seen and not played. I have argued that the connection between lyric games and poetry is as arbitrary as the connection between lyric games and rulebooks, except that poetry serves as an empty signifier with which to justify writing rulebooks as works of self-expression. Then, I have tried to show a connection between the emergence of these works and the economic situation of the hobby at large, to show the ideological underpinnings that necessitate that works be intimate expressions of authorial subjectivity.

In short, lyric games in themselves are the expression of an industrial-aspirant culture that emphasizes authorship, and they accomplish this by appealing to superficial notions of poetry as being essentially expressive of the author. Although there is nothing problematic per se about producing rulebooks that are not meant to be played, the discourse surrounding lyric games encourages an output that relies on lyric poetry qua ideal and rulebooks qua medium as creative crutches. This discourse is constructed precisely to produce things for sale quickly and at a minimum cost. I wager that the recent attempts to spread the word of lyric games is to create demand for digital mud pies whose value has yet to be socially determined at large. At least they don’t melt ice caps!

Thank you to my partner for showing interest in this and offering really helpful feedback. Thank you also to fellow members of the MAMR group for their support, guidance, and feedback.



[1] Codega, L.H. 2021. "Experimental lyric RPGs are pushing the poetic power of roleplaying forward," Dicebreaker. Retrieved from https://www.dicebreaker.com/categories/roleplaying-game/feature/experimental-lyric-rpgs/. De-emphasis my own.

[2] https://jeeyonshim.itch.io/have-i-been-good

[3] https://twitter.com/AdiraSlattery/status/1245561644996059136, emphasis my own

[4] I have discussed the obsessive-ritualistic structure of role-playing games in the context of classic dungeon crawl play: https://chiquitafajita.blogspot.com/2021/06/critique-2-old-school.html

[5] https://twitter.com/AdiraSlattery/status/1202594753289826307, emphasis my own

[6] https://twitter.com/_linfinn/status/1453162723345379330

[7] https://adira.itch.io/making-love

[8] https://twitter.com/cartweel/status/1184514002531028993, emphasis my own

[9] I don't think we see poetry being so heavily associated with self-expression until the modern era, and so it would be easy to chalk it up to a bourgeois individualist attitude expressed through antiquated literary techniques.

[10] Torner, E. 2020. "Lyric Games: Genealogy of an Online 'Physical Games' Scene," Proceedings of the 2020 DiGRA International Conference. Retrieved from http://www.digra.org/digital-library/publications/lyric-games-geneaology-of-an-online-physical-games-scene/.

[11] https://chiquitafajita.blogspot.com/2021/09/critique-4-catching-up-to-speed-forge.html

Comments

  1. Interesting and provocative! I enjoyed reading it!

    As I read your argument, you're saying that lyric games are amenable to literary analysis because they position themselves within a space where "reading is play," and thus they are texts intended to be read rather than technical writing intended to guide play. Given that, your perspective seems to be that they, in general, don't pay enough attention to the demands of poetry but instead engage in relatively unsophisticated expressive language use This "empty signification" then lets producers and/or consumers of lyric games position them as a progressive or even anti-capitalist enterprise, when in fact they recapitulate those relationships. Am I reading you right? If I am, I guess I have two questions: (1) where do you see the valorization of lyric games taking place? Is that more a scholarly thing (as the Torner cite kind of implies) or is it taking place in some itch.io-related space somewhere? (2) how is the first critique (the one about whether lyric games are good poetry) related to the second one (about how lyric games are located in a structure of capitalist power relations)? In other words, would it matter if lyric games were more self-reflexive or sophisticated in their construction?

    Anyway, looking forward to any follow-up! Thanks.

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    Replies
    1. hi, thank you for your reply :)

      your reading is right! i mainly see lyric games being hyped on twitter by small proprietors that sell them (that's where most of the itch.io creators congregate), but lately they've been discussed in some online journalist publications like dicebreaker. i didn't know there was any scholarly work until a friend shared that article by torner!

      my intention with the two 'critiques' was in anticipation of backlash. i knew that if i criticized the business practice by itself, people would be angry at me for not understanding that it's actually real art. so the first critique is aimed at the idea that lyric games have inherent artistic merit by virtue of being vehicles of self-expression, and the second is aimed at their cycle of production and consumption.

      my hope is that people do more interesting things with lyric games as a medium! i think that if they made better products with more apparent value as products, creators would not have to shill them so hard. on the flipside, if they made lyric games without worrying about their market appeal (making art for art), they would have the freedom to make something actually meaningful, i think.

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    2. Thank you! Really interesting! I look forward to seeing how this critique ramifies :-)

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  2. As somebody who has just started making lyric games, this article has changed my mind about them in interesting and I think good ways. Thank you!

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    Replies
    1. thank you! 😄 i'm glad it was interesting, and hope you make works that are satisfying for you! that's really the important part, i think.

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