There was a lot of heated disagreements surrounding the visual hypertext development tool Twine, and with the recent news that the Twine game Depression Quest had been greenlit on Steam these tensions seemed to explode. Accusations that Twines were gimmicky, whiny, and, worst of all, NOT REAL GAMES ran wild. Despite hypertext and interactive fiction having a decades-long history and many video games having routed conversation options that function similarly to a Twine document, Twine itself remains a controversial tool. Why? Maybe it has something to do with how easily it lets non-programmers and the otherwise technically challenged among us make something interactive we can post on the internet and call a game. Maybe it has something to do with the number of intensely personal narratives about queerness, mental illness, and other non-mainstream topics it’s produced. Maybe gamers just hate reading and fade transitions. The complaints are myriad, from the outright bigoted to purely aesthetic.
I find Twine to be an incredibly accessible and useful tool with a ton of potential. As someone who had written fairly straightforward, short form fiction before learning about Twine, I can say it’s definitely inspired me to take on new frontiers and think about my writing in new ways. It was in late December when I was madly working on what would be my pet Twine project through the end of January, that I saw Richard Goodness’ post about an online Twine exhibition called Fear of Twine, and decided I’d throw my hat in if I finished this Twine on time.
Fear of Twine, in concept, didn’t demand answers from Twine itself, to “prove” it could actually make a REAL GAME or something that wasn’t a personal narrative. It simply asked, why do so many people have such a visceral reaction to a tool plenty of people find useful and inspiring? And to explore this question, Goodness has brought together 16 Twines that challenge the presumptions mentioned above on multiple levels. And I’m proud to say one of my Twines made the cut.
It’s worth noting that not all of the creators would use the word “game” to describe their Twines that are included in the show. While I think my entry, Duck Ted Bundy, is a game, (score thing, check. win condition, check–ish..), other creators prefer poetry, interactive fiction, or even just “Twine” to define what their work is. Twine is a powerful and worthwhile tool to me, not only because it’s easy to use and the workflow matches how I think, but also because it does not produce one type of thing. I call my other Twines things like “hypertext short stories” or “coping devices,” “rhetorical arguments.” What I’m trying to do with a Twine can get quite abstract, and I don’t feel particularly like I failed if it doesn’t come out as something I call a “game.” In some ways the striving towards the standard of “game” can be more of a hindrance than a goal, and you won’t end up with what you want.
The most common criticism of Duck Ted Bundy so far has been, why can you play the same paths multiple times? Shouldn’t they stop being options after you [spoilers] kill the duck? [/spoilers] No. I didn’t submit the game up the way it is because I couldn’t figure out how to do that. The game functions exactly how I intended. You are never closer to the end, your work is never done, and there is always one more. It’s a game about monotony, repetition, and the break with conscious awareness those conditions can cause. I’d play specifically through the couch route and the late night route to see how I explicitly hinted at this truth of the main character’s situation. Maybe it doesn’t express “polish,” “progression” or “realism” in the way we’ve come to expect it from other games, but I couldn’t imagine doing it a different way.
Twine games can be upsetting and draw visceral reactions because I think their function is rather Modernist. The Modernist project through the 19th and 20th centuries was to reduce media to their core. Painting became about the literalness of paint and canvas. Music became minimalistic meditations on sound and notes. When it comes down to it, what is the difference between a Twine game and a AAA title that generously throws you a few dialogue options, maybe a sex scene you can have some control over, and one of two or three endings based on the mostly arbitrary and unnatural choices you made throughout the narrative? Sure, there’s sections in between where you move about in a 3-d environment and attack things, maybe, but the narrative is carried by this (often simplistic) web of choices, not unlike the document that appears when you open the Twine program.
It’s practically a rule of thumb in New Media Art that works tend to be hyped up to one level of interactivity higher than they actually represent. Things that merely react based on the presence of particular inputs are hyped up to interactive, things that are truly interactive, as in, the player has more control over the content than just a few reactive responses to particular inputs, are hyped up to being collaborative. When I think of big AAA titles with multiple endings based on a few key actions or dialogue options, I see a piece of reactive media, not an interactive one. That Twines are explicit in having the same structure, by nature, may be what makes them so terrifying to the gatekeepers of “real games.”