Navigable Concrete Poetry in “Gyossait”

“Gyossait” is a platformer produced by indie game developer Amon26, and available to play for free on Newgrounds. As someone with an interest in indie horror games, I’ve been aware of this atmospheric, dark platformer for a while. Though the gameplay is simple–you use the arrow keys to move left, right, jump, and deflect projectiles with a shield, and have access to a gun as the game progresses–the world of the game seems deep and dangerous from the moment you begin. The pixel art means that most of the items you encounter are small and lacking detail. When greater detail does appear, the landscapes and figures are reminiscent of Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger. The sparse electronic soundtrack is more atmospheric noise than music. The levels you explore are grey ruins, with appearances ranging from ancient to industrial, and occasionally populated with enemies, or NPCs that silently stare at the player as they pass. The character you control is a white specter-like creature with what looks like horns and a single red eye, and the game opens with a cutscene of him descending to Earth from the head of a white androgynous giant floating in space: from the beginning, you know this game will be a dreamlike, bizarre experience.

Dialogue floating in the air behind an NPC. Screencapped directly from the game on Newgrounds.

Dialogue floating in the air behind an NPC. Screencapped directly from the game on Newgrounds.

As you play, you feel isolated, and, as the environments grow more dangerous, targeted. At one point, to progress through a level, you’re forced to push a heavy object into a pit and crush an innocent girl at the bottom. Her blood drains out of the pit and you follow the trail to find a gun. This brief but important episode encapsulates the entire mood of the game very well. Your protagonist cries in response to accidentally killing the girl, but it’s completely silent. You have to look closely to see the shaking shoulders on his tiny sprite.

The girl at the bottom of the pit. Screencap taken from gameplay footage.

The girl at the bottom of the pit’s dialogue floats in the air behind her. Screencapped from gameplay footage on Youtube.

However, the game doesn’t leave you to figure out your situation from images alone: as you navigate the levels, you frequently come across text. Some of this text is printed on the wall or floating in the air behind NPCs, depicting their dialogue. Other lines have no visible owner. These lines come in a variety of colors and fonts and range from advice, to threats, to seemingly meaningless phrases. As you progress through the game and the types of fonts become familiar to you, they come to stand in for the characters they represent: the gods and demigods that govern the world, who your protagonist seems familiar to.

An example of concrete poetry within the game. Screencapped directly from the game on Newgrounds.

A stanza of concrete poetry within the game. Screencapped directly from the game on Newgrounds.

When I played this game a year or two ago, I really loved this aspect of the game: I felt like I wasn’t just playing a simple platformer, but jumping and fighting through the lines of an austere, old poem. It uses oblique language to enhance the dreamlike world of the game, and often strange metaphors. (Though, when a shadowy giant woman tells you “i shall wear your pain like the finest shawl, and dance before you in it” can you really be sure it’s just a metaphor?) The arrangement, punctuation and content of the lines you encounter seems deliberate and carefully composed. The story of “Gyossait” is a mythological story of gods, humans aspiring to godhood, and gods forsaking their immortality, and like many of the ancient myths from around the world, it’s told in poetry.

Disembodied lines of poetry. Screencapped directly from the game on Newgrounds.

Disembodied lines of poetry. Screencapped directly from the game on Newgrounds.

“Gyossait” isn’t the only game Amon26 has created that uses this method of presenting dialogue and narration, but it is, in my opinion, his most memorable use of it. The otherworldly, lofty topic of “Gyossait” makes poetry seem especially fitting, and it contains more lines per level than other, similar games of his I’ve seen. To me, “Gyossait” feels like not just a game, but also a narrative poem that the reader has to literally explore and navigate through, as a character in the poem as well as its reader.

The game is short and shouldn’t take more than an hour or two to complete. In addition to being free on Newgrounds, it can also be purchased from the developer’s website for a low price.

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