Poetry News

The New Yorker Looks at Robert Pinsky's Video Game Mindwheel

By Harriet Staff


At The New Yorker, James Reith remembers when "text adventures" were at the forefront of video gaming--and that Robert Pinsky was at the forefront of text adventures. "U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky wrote a video game called 'Mindwheel' ... 'I look on it as part of my life’s work in writing,' [Pinsky] said." More:

Synapse Software had been founded just a few years before, in 1981, and was looking to enter the interactive-fiction market. Ihor Wolosenko, the co-founder of the company, told me over Skype that he had an idea for a narrative experiment: he wanted to get a novelist, a playwright, and a poet to each write a text adventure and to see what these different types of writer would separately bring to the form. Wolosenko was familiar with and liked Pinsky’s poetry, and Pinsky was located nearby in Berkeley, California—a combination of geographical convenience and critical appreciation that would make him Wolosenko’s first (and, as it turned out, only) choice for the poet role in his experiment. Pinsky was happy to receive the invitation, attracted both to the novelty of the project and the challenge of writing for a broader audience.

Pinsky quickly came to enjoy working with his programming collaborators, Steve Hales and Cathryn Mataga, and he liked the atmosphere at the Synapse office enough that he made excuses to hang out there. In conversation, he compared Hales to the literary critic Francis Fergusson: both men, he said, possess “an acute, practical, deep sense of action as a movement of the soul.” There were, nonetheless, some mild creative differences: Wolosenko wanted something “highbrow,” Pinsky has said, an “electronic novel,” while he “liked the idea that it was an entertainment, that it was a game.” The resulting product—which, thanks to Hales, you can now play online, for free—is a playful mishmash of sci-fi tropes, Pop surrealism, and allusions both high and low: the work of a poet having fun, but still the work of a poet. After all, Pinsky pointed out to me, “allusion” and “ludicrous” both come from the Latin ludere, meaning “to play.”

Pinsky was at a transitional moment in his poetic career, moving from the discursive, coolly rational style of “Essay on Psychiatrists” and “An Explanation of America” toward a more enigmatic mode of questioning lyricism. “Mindwheel” plays like an absurdist response to the poems he was then writing: both the game and his 1984 collection “History of My Heart” attempt, Pinsky told me, “to relate the large forces of history to the dimensions of an individual human life.” “Mindwheel” does this literally, by having the player traverse the minds and memories of four deceased individuals—loosely based on major historical figures—using what the game calls a “neuro-electronic matrix.” The goal is to retrieve the titular mindwheel, which “contains the secret of the world’s best values.”

Read all of "When Robert Pinsky Wrote a Video Game" at The New Yorker.

Originally Published: January 22nd, 2016