It’s Book Week Scotland this week and what better way to celebrate than with… an ode to 8-bit role playing games starring Robert Burns?
In Glasgow poet Calum Rodger’s Rabbie Burns Saves the World! (And, by Extension, Book Week Scotland), visitors to the Scottish Book Trust website take control of “Captain Caledonia” himself (Rodger’s words) and enter a GameBoy-hued Scotland under threat from an “unspecified catastrophe”. Along the way they’ll enlist the help of various other luminaries of Scottish literature, including Edwin Morgan, Muriel Spark and Jackie Kay, and participate in cheeky homages to the authors’ best-known works. Playable in a browser and in the space of a coffee break, it’s charming, educational and thoroughly daft, as well as a great reminder of the eccentric characters that make up the Scottish literary canon. Just make sure to brush up on your grammar and Scots vocabulary first – there will be quizzes!
Rock, Star, North…
Calum Rodger, who is also a doctor of Scottish literature, has a history of incorporating video games into his poetry. Last year he published PORTS, a book which he reimagines classic poems as if they were interactive events in a game, and he has previously performed a piece called Rock, Star, North. that recounts a Grand Theft Auto play session in verse. Rodger also maintains an instagram account called p0etryb1ts, where he pairs extracts from poems with screenshots retro games, and viewers of his YouTube channel will find an homage to the GameBoy start-up screen in his series about translating Robert Burns into modern English.
Rabbie Burns Saves the World! is actually Rodger’s second game starring a world-renowned poet. Earlier this year he released Gotta Eat the Plums!, which provides the juicy backstory of Williams Carlos Williams iconic poem about missing fruits, This Is Just To Say. Going from writing about games to making them “seemed like the next fun and logical step,” he says.
I finally got a half-decent gaming laptop at the beginning of lockdown so it seemed like a good time to do it. But I’ve had no prior experience making games and have essentially zero knowledge of coding.
I’d already ‘adapted’ the William Carlos Williams poem as an imaginary game in PORTS and I had a clear picture of how it could really work as a game in my head, and it was such a simple, basic game that I thought surely I can find a way of making it myself.
Then I found RPG Maker MV and picked it up in the Steam sale, and found it did exactly what I wanted it to – especially once I discovered all the plugins online.
It was after playing his first game that Danny Scott and Nyla Ahmad from the Scottish Books Trust team asked him to put together a new project for Book Week Scotland.
It was basically as a result of making that game, and the really great response to it from people online, that led to the commission.
Given the inability to get out and perform in front of people this year, Rodger, who was 2019’s Scottish National Slam champion, says that making these games has been something of an outlet for him.
I’m a poet and usually I do loads of performance but obviously there hasn’t been much of that lately, and much to my surprise I’ve found this scratches the same itch. Another poem/game maker Nick Murray I’ve been corresponding with told me he saw it as a form of performance, which I like.
It’s rare to see the work of classic Scottish writers turn up in video games, never mind the writers themselves, so Rabbie Burns Save The World! is an unusual treat and certainly a unique way to promote a book event. Here’s hoping Rodger’s continues to explore the intersection of video games and poetry, lockdown or not.
Play Rabbie Burns Save The World! (And, by Extension, Book Week Scotland) here.