GDC Panel: Tackling the Emily Dickinson license

Hotshot game designers Hocking, Molyneux, and Wright take on the poetry of Dickinson; what emerged was beyond words.


Nineteenth-century poet-recluse Emily Dickinson certainly seems an unlikely subject for video game licensing. But at Wednesday's second annual GDC Game Design Challenge, the outlandishness was all part of the fun.

The challengers: superstar game designers Clint Hocking (Ubisoft), Peter Molyneux (Lionhead Studios), and defending champ Will Wright (Maxis). Their task: design a game around the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

The result, perhaps unsurprisingly, was three designs differing wildly in both form and content. And though the lecture hall's jam-packed audience ultimately crowned Will Wright the victor, the crowd was visibly awestruck by all three designs.

After a brief introduction by panel moderator Eric Zimmerman, three Dickinson poems were read aloud to set the scene. The three competitors were then given 10 to 15 minutes each to present their concept, developed before GDC over a period of several weeks.

"I'm one of those guys who really thinks you can make a game out of anything," began Hocking, creative director of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Hocking went on to propose a game called Muse, in which players act as Dickinson's inspiration. Hocking admitted that he was "taking a page from Will [Wright]," describing the player's Sims-like, indirect control over Dickinson's random needs and desires.

In Muse, the main objective is to piece together Dickinson's 1700-plus poems by collecting poetically relevant "symbols" or inspirations (such as flower blossoms, wisdom, anguish) from a variety of objects and environments. Then, in what Hocking called "a Tetris-like minigame," players assemble their symbols into Dickinson's poems.

Citing his desire to stay true to Dickinson's "seasonal language," Hocking explained that players would progress through a series of five seasons--spring, summer, autumn, winter, and "fancy" (Dickinson's imagination). In order to progress to the next season of Dickinson's life, players would need to complete a certain number of her poems. Moreover, depending on the season, certain poetic symbols might be more effective or easier to find. Hocking even suggested that players could store symbols away in the fancy world, much as poets "store" and revisit pertinent life experiences in their imaginations.

Hocking also described his vision of publishing the game on the Nintendo DS, which would allow stylus-controlled gameplay. Excited that the penlike stylus could convey the "physical feeling" of writing poetry, Hocking revealed that the stylus actually served as one of the primary inspirations for his overall idea. In addition, Hocking noted the potential of trading poems over DS wireless, a process that would aptly mimic the many poem-letters that Dickinson wrote throughout her life.

Molyneux presented a very different vision of visualizing Dickinson's poetry and even showed off a gorgeously rendered 3D prototype. In Molyneux's design, players enter an open-ended dreamlike fantasy world in which they sculpt objects from "digital clay." In essence, players would either try to re-create Dickinson's poems or create their own visual poems inspired by Dickinson. As Molyneux summarized, "It's all about trying to re-create visual poetry."

In the live demonstration, Molyneux and his team showed the sculpting of a chair, which they then placed in a 3D version of Dickinson's bedroom. Molyneux imagined that players would ultimately create a "series of environments" in which they would use magic portals to link their creations. "That's what poetry does," Molyneux explained. "It allows you to look at something in a different way."

Will Wright, the creative mastermind behind SimCity and The Sims, spoke last, charming the crowd with a fluid mix of academic design insight and brash humor. "I'm convinced that if she was alive today, she'd be an Internet addict," Wright began. Citing television show Futurama as a key influence, Wright presented his idea for an Emily Dickinson desktop agent. Wright explained that, like a mix between Tamagotchi, the Microsoft Paper Clip, and Seaman, the Dickinson agent would be moody, portable, dependent, somewhat annoying, and observant of all your computer-based actions.

Wright envisioned that the agent could be sold on USB memory sticks, in order to cleverly "backdoor" the program to unsuspecting customers. "USB Emily," as Wright dubbed the agent, would then interact with the user via IM, e-mail, and pop-up messages. USB Emily might snoop into the user's programs and documents in order to find keywords to comment upon or send poems about. Over time, the user would "slowly bootstrap a relationship with her."

Referencing some of the emotional problems from which Dickinson suffered, Wright explained, "I want to put the player in the role of her psychotherapist." In one scenario, the player might help USB Emily through her problems and eventually befriend her. But in the two "degenerate cases," USB Emily might either become romantically obsessed with the user (a reference to her often erotic poetry) or fall into a suicidal depression (in which case the program might delete itself).

The presentations weren't just provocative; at times they were downright hilarious. Hocking, for example, applied the concept of Emily Dickenson to the Mortal Kombat series in order to demonstrate that such an unusual license requires brand-new ideas. The hypothetical game--titled "Emily Dickinson's Poetry Slam!!"--featured characters like Robert "Iceman" Frost, Mark Twain aka Fathom, and POE!!, and drew uproarious laughter from the audience. Wright displayed a similar knack for parody, picturing digital Emily Dickinson as a "133t" hacker and imagining an absurd chat room conversation between Dickinson and himself.

At the end of the panel, audience members were asked to decide the winning design. Though each designer was loudly applauded, Will Wright emerged the clear victor and even received some standing ovations.

And although Wright semifacetiously vowed never to compete in the challenge again, his enthusiasm for the project was evident. "I really enjoyed the research," Wright admitted, elaborating, "What really intrigued me were her letters." Wright also talked about his lasting motivation throughout the design challenge, entertaining the idea that an Emily Dickenson game could potentially expose a new audience to her poetry--people who would otherwise "never go to a bookstore."

In his introduction, moderator Eric Zimmerman--the originator of the Emily Dickinson idea--explained the competition's purpose, asserting that GDC needs to look at something "a little bit more uncertain, a little but more lively." Zimmerman further argued that "the game industry as a whole is in a creative crisis… We're exploring a very narrow range in terms of dorm and content."

Zimmerman closed the panel by pointing out the surprising feasibility of the three designers' ideas. Urging the audience to think in similarly creative ways, Zimmerman excitedly declared, "You can make these games!"

The products discussed here were independently chosen by our editors. GameSpot may get a share of the revenue if you buy anything featured on our site.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email

Join the conversation
There are 3 comments about this story