Iambic Pentameter and Epic Poetry: Or How NOT To Build an Immersive Story

Preface: these are just some initial thoughts. Not yet backed by researched.

So, Yesterday I finished playing Ubisoft’s Child of Light, and while the artwork and soundtrack are both aesthetically wonderful, I found the story to be much less pleasing. I’m certainly not alone in feeling that the end of the game was a bit anticlimactic, either. Throughout my entire play session, I struggled to engage with the story but persisted onward with the vain hope that the conclusion could rescue the story somehow. It didn’t. Upon reflection, however, I realized that it wasn’t the story itself that was disappointing me. It’s a pretty boiler-plate fairy (literally) tale, and as a child of the 80’s, I have a fondness for fairytales even when they are boiler-plate. What bothered me was the story’s delivery.

The narrative of Child of Light is delivered in a sort of Spencerian-style poem using iambic pentameter.  This style of poetry is great for weaving epic tales, certainly, but it’s also great for keeping the reader removed from the story, and is, therefore, a terrible choice for a video game – assuming the game wants to immerse players, that is.

Similar poetic forms were used by some of the westerns world’s greatest poets: Spencer, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Tennyson to name a few. These are masters of poesy with whom Ubisoft cannot possibly compete, and yet even if they could, this poetic form seems inappropriate. The use of iambic pentameter builds structural walls that separate the audience from the story. The structure is used to force an “aboutness” of characters which are not meant to enable sympathy or association, but which instead communicate abstract ideals through narrative poetry. The stories of this epic form are, in general, instructional. Of course, fairy tales were first told as cautionary instructional tales too, but there remains a key difference: the main characters of fairy tales are not constructed as abstract ideals but rather as the epitome of human error and flaw. We can associate with fairy tale characters because they make the same silly choices we can imagine ourselves making. In contrast, iambic pentameter, for me, creates a divide and a dissociation. The rigidness of the structure makes delivery of emotional depth from characters hard to express, or makes any attempt feel shallow and forced. This is perhaps why the only character I felt any link to was Ruebella, the female jester, who did not stick to the rhyme scheme.

In fact, I almost wish Ubisoft would have paid more attention to the metaphor Ruebella enacted. Rather than portraying her as an awkward character bumbling her way through the rhyme scheme, I’d like to think Ruebella is rebelling against the terrible bonds of the poetic form in an effort to connect with the audience: the player.

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