The Art of iPhone Games

Monument Valley by ustwo

The Room 3 by Fireproof Games

Believe it or not, but novels once enjoyed about the same cultural status as iPhone apps do today. Nowadays, novels are considered a form of high art – worthy of study at school and even university. So what will be studied in the universities of the 22nd century? And what art are we missing out on due to our prejudices, our insistence that it is not proper art?

I recently played a game on my iPhone which completely exploded my preconception that an app could not constitute art. It’s called Monument Valley by ustwo, and it’s the most beautiful game I’ve ever seen.

The game is simple, gentle, and non-competitive. Your task is to guide Princess Ida through a dream-like landscape of impossible architecture, inspired by the optical illusions of M.C.Escher.


The gameplay is so seamless, and the soundscapes so soothing, that after finishing the whole game I replayed the individual levels over and over. Ida is aided in her “quest for forgiveness” by Totem, a small tower consisting of four yellow bricks. Yet their relationship is oddly touching, as Totem silently helps his small friend navigate the mesmerising landscape.


There are games you play when you want to switch your brain off, but what I noticed about Monument Valley was that playing it made me feel inspired. Surely, that is a mark of good art, when it makes you want to create your own.

I scoured lists of “If you enjoyed Monument Valley, you’ll love…” and after a little trial and error came across The Room. The Room is a much more challenging game, where you have to unlock a series of complicated puzzle boxes sitting on ornate tables.  I wasn’t hugely taken with it at first: it felt like a never-ending succession of finding keys and opening secret compartments which revealed other keys to yet more secret compartments. There was a storyline, loosely played out via mysterious letters and notes, but these had no bearing on the gameplay. I found The Room 2 much more engaging, as each level allowed you to explore a whole (wonderfully creepy) room, rather than just a table. And then I played The Room 3.

The Room 3 creates a world far richer and more engrossing than The Room and The Room 2.  The game begins as you are sitting in the carriage of an old-fashioned train, a picturesque landscape rolling by outside the window. As the train rushes howling into a dark tunnel, you are suddenly transported to the basement of Grey Holm – the old mansion which forms the hub-world of The Room 3. No longer are you confined to a single room: here, you must explore every nook and cranny of the library, greenhouse, clock tower, forge, and observatory in order to solve the puzzles. The storyline, while still not totally clear, is more coherent than in the earlier games, and the puzzles are more intricate and engrossing. But my favourite thing about the game is the creepy, immersive setting, brought to life by the flawless graphics and realistic soundscapes.


The mansion feels incredibly old, seemingly abandoned since the Victorian Era, and yet the various puzzles and contraptions have been painstakingly prepared – as though they were set up over a century ago, just for you. This contributes to the creepiness, although we never find out exactly who the mysterious “Craftsman” is.

The ending is jaw-dropping, but you have the option to change your fate, and if you so choose you are whisked back to Grey Holm. And then – surprise! You discover that hidden throughout the rooms are many secrets which you missed the first time, or noticed in passing but promptly forgot. The horrifying first ending seems to be a punishment for failing to observe your surroundings critically, instead blindly allowing the game to lead you.

I am glad that I put aside my preconceptions about iPhone games, and took the time to enjoy these two beautifully crafted pieces of art. I am now on the lookout for a new favourite: any suggestions?

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How did you find your way to me?
My mother does not know Albanian well,
She writes letters like Aragon, without commas and periods,
My father roamed the seas in his youth,
But you have come,
Walking down the pavement of my quiet city of stone,
And knocked timidly at the door of my three-storey house,
At Number 16.

There are many things I have loved and hated in life,
For many a problem I have been an ‘open city’,
But anyway…
Like a young man returning home late at night,
Exhausted and broken by his nocturnal wanderings,
Here too am I, returning to you,
Worn out after another escapade.

And you,
Not holding my infidelity against me,
Stroke my hair tenderly,
My last stop,

Ismail Kadare, 1959

Translated by Robert Elsie


At the age of 80, Ismail Kadare has lived through the Second World War, the Communist regime in Albania, and the fall of the Soviet Union. After his studies at the University of Tirana, Kadare worked for a time in the Gorky Institute in Moscow as an official writer of the regime, which cemented his hatred for censorship and indoctrination. After the fall of the Soviet Union he was called upon to become president, a suggestion which he swiftly declined. Based primarily in Paris, he has achieved significant recognition in the West, and won the Man Booker International Prize in 2005. I couldn’t go past his tender love-letter to poetry, and now look forward to reading some of his novels.

In ‘Around the World in 230 poems’, I will share a poem from every country in the world.

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I’ll kiss you in the pomegranate garden. Hush!

People will think a goat’s stuck in the underbrush.

– Anonymous


The Kabul-based women’s literary society  Mirman Baheer has a hotline which women and girls from the provinces call to share their poems. These frequently take the form of landais – couplets written in Pashto, often dealing with taboo topics such as love, sex, and war. Singing and poetry can be associated with licentiousness, and many female poets compose in secret, using a pseudonym to call Mirman Baheer. Their poems express frustration, heartbreak, wit, and irreverence. I liked the cheeky tone of the above landai, which nonetheless conveys the furtiveness with which the young lovers must express their affection.


In ‘Around the World in 230 poems’, I will share a poem from every country in the world.

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Around the World in 230 Poems

Happy New Year!

I have a 2017 project I’m very excited about. Inspired by Ann Morgan’s wonderful A Year of Reading the World, I’m going to embark on my own around-the-world literary quest: this time, via poems. Within an unspecified time frame, I will share a poem from every country in the world: 230 in total.

Why 230? Where am I getting this number from? Deciding what constitutes a country is notoriously tricky. Morgan chose to read 196 books, using the 195 UN-recognised sovereign states plus Taiwan. I wanted to separate out the components of the UK, and I also wanted to err on the side of more rather than less when deciding whether to include territories (I don’t have any deadlines to meet, and if I can’t find a poem from a particular place I will simply skip it).

So in the end, I’ve chosen to use Lonely Planet’s The Travel Book: A Journey Through Every Country in the World to guide my journey. My copy is not the most up-to-date edition (it’s from 2004); moreover, Lonely Planet has its own agendas when deciding whether or not to include a place, some not necessarily conducive to finding poetry (Antarctica is on the list!). But I like how comprehensive the list is; I like that England, Scotland and Wales have separate entries (Northern Ireland is lumped in with Ireland); and most of all, I like that it is a beautiful big book, full of gorgeous images, and I can turn to a new page each time I am ready to find another poem.

I’m not going to impose many rules on myself. The poem does not need to be set in the country it is representing, or be “about” it in any explicit sense. The author doesn’t need to have been born there, as long as she or he identifies with the place. Nor does the poem need to be representative of broad literary/poetic trends in that particular country: no place can be summed up by a single poem, and that is not the point of this project, which is to broaden my horizons and those of my readers. Sometimes I will deliberately favour female poets because we are biased to favour white males – don’t believe me, pull down any anthology of poetry and open to the contents page – and making a little effort to counter our biases is extremely rewarding. Indeed, this is what this project is all about. The huge majority of my favourite poems are all from a single country, England: particularly given that I’m not even from England, that should be enough proof that cultural biases play an enormous role in dictating what we seek out, and what we assume to be valuable. And while I don’t for a second doubt the consummate skill of the male English poets I love, I have to also consider the treasure trove of poetry I am missing out on by maintaining such a narrow gaze.

I will do some research before selecting a poem, rather than simply googling “poem from Burkina Faso” and posting the first thing that comes up! I am excited by the prospect of learning about places I know next to nothing about, and also about languages – one of my other great passions. So to that end I will do as much research as time allows. I haven’t decided conclusively what I will do regarding translations. If the poem is written in a language I don’t understand (ie pretty much anything except for English, French and German), I will post an English translation where one is available; I may also post a translation of the French and German works if I came to them via translation. Full credit will of course be given to the translator in addition to the poet.

Finally, I reserve the right to narrow or widen these guidelines as I go!

I look forward to beginning my journey in Afghanistan…

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T.S. Eliot wrote in ‘The Cultivation of Christmas Trees’ that Christmas is a time for children to accumulate a sense of wonder. The emotion of awe – which I mentioned briefly in my last post is garnering more interest among scientists as well, and fascinating research has shown that feeling a sense of awe can inspire pro-social behaviour.

I remember when the Bali Bombings happened in 2002, I wondered at the actions and attitudes of the terrorists. Surely, if they understood the overwhelming magnitude of our universe – that we are nothing but a tiny blue globe hanging in the immense vastness of space, a noisy minute in the vastness of time – their hubris would dissipate.

So in the New Year, I wish you not just happiness but awe: the antidote to despair, that other possible response to the incomprehensible enormousness of existence.

Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. – Carl Sagan

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Stories and Multiple Truths

Cafe Scheherazade by Arnold Zable

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

We’re living in a post-truth world, so we are told over and over by the media, but my own leitmotif this year has been the idea of multiple truths – two competing viewpoints can be simultaneously valid. I think I always thought/understood this somewhere at the periphery of my consciousness, but now I more properly grasp what it means.

I’ve read two books about storytelling recently. The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall (2013), and a lovely novel by Arnold Zable called Cafe Scheherazade (2001), based on a real cafe in Acland Street, St Kilda. Jewish survivors of the Second World War gather here to tell their tales, in a novel which is a paean to the magic of story itself. There is a reverence, even a fetishisation, in the way Zable describes and performs the act of storytelling.

We remain seated as darkness descends, Zalman and I. We eat our evening meal garnished with fables and tales. We imagine cities, strung across the globe, like pearls upon a silver chain. We see frayed maps etched in the foreheads of the old men who sit at neighbouring tables. Rivulets from distant continents course through their veins.

It is a work of art which gives me that sense of… I am sure there is a more apt word in a different language, but in English the most fitting word I can find is awe. The sense of the enormousness of the world, as well as the interconnectedness of things. It is a pleasant feeling which I often get, strangely enough, at airports – the reason why I so often volunteer to be on airport drop-off or pick-up duty.

I digress. Gottschall, whose book is subtitled How Stories Make Us Human, argues that storytelling is of evolutionary benefit to humans: it allows us to rehearse our responses to potentially dangerous situations in a risk-free manner, as well as disseminate moral values which contribute to a cohesive society. A point which really stuck with me was that we continually construct narrative in order to make sense of our lives and protect our egos, positioning ourselves as the flawed yet ultimately good protagonist at the centre of our life story. People with depression, Gottschall argues, have been less successful at doing this, which is why the “talking cure” is often so effective – it helps people reclaim their life narrative and their role as protagonist. There is so much to debate here, but it is a fascinating – if somewhat disturbing – proposition.

Gottschall and Zable both practise what they preach, and both books (particularly Zable’s) are filled with excellent storytelling. A huge downfall of Cafe Scheherazade is its pointedly masculine outlook, relegating female characters to cardboard cut-outs on the set of the men’s stories. Certainly, some of these set pieces are interestingly and lovingly drawn, but they are two-dimensional: women are either whores or saints, and if they do great things, they do only great things. They are neither complex or contradictory, and they dissolve into nonexistence in the absence of men, who are almost exclusively the storytellers in this novel. The only female storyteller is Masha, proprietor of the cafe; yet even she is in the novel as a lover, the beautiful girl who shares a name with her husband’s first love, and goes on to save him from his despair. She only does good things, whereas her husband Avram does both good and bad things.

And then there is the odd passage of prose which seems straight out of a parody:

His blue eyes are darting about, following the ladies moving past on the street. He glances at the patrons entering the cafe, and surveys the chicken schnitzel that the mini-skirted waitress places by his side. ‘Thank you, my beautiful girl,’ he says, with a wink. ‘Isn’t she a krasavetze, a true beauty?’

I was immediately put in mind of this article I had recently read.

Yet both interpretations are true. Zable’s (and the fictional Yossel’s) perception of the romanticism of the scene – the waitress’s legs and the food and the women on the street as all a part of this landscape of peace which the old survivor can now enjoy – this perception is not invalidated by the feminist reading, which boggles at Zable’s reduction of the waitress,  a multifaceted human being with her own share of stories, to an item of clothing below the waist, a silent deliverer of chicken schnitzel. Even the eponymous Scheherazade told stories only to appease a violent, all-powerful and misogynist man.

The unsophisticated depiction of women holds me back from fully immersing myself in this tale about tales, subtly implying as it does that I am excluded from the storytelling act by virtue of my gender. But my enjoyment of the novel is reduced, not erased. Multiple truths.

On that night, under an impassive moon, Laizer discovered parallel universes, hovering side by side, one of beauty, one of ugliness, one permeated by darkness, the other suffused with light. On that night Laizer regained his childhood sense of naivety and awe; and he realised that be learning to manoeuvre between these alternative universes he could generate the change of energy necessary for him to pull through.

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Birds on the Wires

I saw this today on IFLS. A man cut out a photo of birds sitting on wires, imagined them as notes on a stave, and orchestrated the piece of music they unwittingly created.

Isn’t it beautiful? The world is so full of wonderful, hidden things.

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