The Many Forks in the Road of Twine

Hey, Free Cheesecake (Lana Polansky, 2013)

Between the images of the destruction of the game industry and its salvation lie actual Twine games, which are both much more mundane than folks imagine and far more fascinating than the hyperbole implies.

Twine is a relatively new game development tool that makes it easy to create a simple game. I hesitate to describe it any further because many different people have managed to make it do many different things. However, when someone says Twine game, the image conjured in their mind is that of a choose-your-own-adventure-style interactive fiction experience.

Everything about Twine is contentious or rather it’s causing people to at least check their assumptions on what they knew about games or their genres. There are some in the interactive fiction community wondering if games in this style qualify as such next to games developed with parser based interfaces. You have those of the formalist persuasion saying that they are not games at all and the less thoughtful members of the gamer population saying they are utter wastes of time.

On the one side, you have hyperbolic reactionaries either consigning Twine games to oblivion or claiming that they will destroy all gaming should they continue to exist. While on the other end of the spectrum, you have hyperbolic radicals claiming that they are the only games worth a damn and the only light that might save the medium. None of this is an exaggeration. I’ve heard all of those arguments.

The simple fact of the matter is that Twine is a platform and whatever broad strokes that any developer, critic, or commentator would paint it with are seeing it only through the very narrow scope of their own definition of what it is and can be. Between these images of destruction and salvation, lie actual Twine games, which are both much more mundane than these folks imagine and yet are far more fascinating than the hyperbole actually implies.

I’ve spent the last few weeks delving into whatever Twine games I could get my hands on. The fact that they are much shorter, more easily consumable, and all playable in your browser means that I could get a wide view of what people are making. But probably more important than that is the naked view of the creative soul that one sees in them. Twine games are mostly, if not wholly, textual experiences. Sometimes there are some additional interesting choices made in presentation,allowing for more getting meaning across than pure text might, but essentially, the games are generally text augmented by hyperlinks. You read an author’s voice and point of view, but it is even stronger by virtue of the options that the writer gives to the player to hear and see it fully. You could read a description and want something elaborated but what can be elaborated through a hyperlink is up to the author and what they find important. Likewise, should you reach a choose-your-own-adventure-style decision, your options are constrained by what the author thought of or chose to include. The choices are made blatant in the actions that they offer, if not their consequences, and you have all the time in the world to make them, making the games deliberate experiences.

And once you hear the voice of the game’s creator so clearly, you stop evaluating games on the nature of some factor of "awesomeness" (whatever that criteria may be) and focus on what is being said and what artistic statement is being made and how a Twine game makes it.

Now the truth of the matter is most Twine games are crap, and I waded through quite a few of them. Twine is held up as the great equalizer of game development, but the fact of the matter is that you can hand a person the tool with which to create, but it doesn’t mean that they’ll be any good at using it. Most are confessional in nature, the equivalent of a journal entry -- certainly meaningful for the person who wrote it, giving that person some satisfaction in a job well completed, if not well done, perhaps. It may even be an experience that is meaningful to a creator's closest friends, as the feed of your social network would be, but the further from that central circle, the less meaningful it will be. But that is true of much writing. Also, true of all writing is that some is better than the rest and some resides at an even higher echelon, allowing an author to cast their circle of meaningfulness wider and wider, perhaps, reaching up to the level of a desirable, consumable product.

But entering that higher circle means that the standards of critical appraisal are different. For something that is essentially a personal entry in a journal, I wont judge as harshly as something like a fictional story in Twine game form, even if the latter is technically and artistically better.

Another thing that Twine has in its favor is the subject matter or genres that the platform can present. The more technical proficiency that a game requires, the less subject matter it can seemly encompass. Twine is just words and is hindered only by the skill of the writer. Additionally, the fact that it doesn’t need ever-present graphical images (some games provide picture stills or simple .gifs) allows the imagery in the writing to far outpace Twine games' graphical counterparts in imagination and wonderl.

All the Twine games I played could fall into one category or another. Some games are essays or pieces of criticism exploring complex subject matter through the program’s hypertext to correlate to the complex nature of an issue rather than by presenting a linear argument. The very simplistic Misogyny Island highlights the worst of this culture. It presents a game show hosted by Daniel Tosh, where any display of “weakness” (read: kindness, understanding or decency) is punished and reviled, in which the ultimate reward for being a dick is being removed from society. The game was a collaboration between Samantha Allen, Fred McCoy and Kat Hache. It is essentially one of those cheesy personality tests -- in this case to determine how horrible a person you are. The highly allegorical Hey, Free Cheesecake by Lana Polansky uses the double meaning of the phrase to highlight the processes if over consumption and to make a statement on the effect of good cheesecake. If the cheesecake is wholly consumed, can it speak for itself? Michael Clarkson used Twine to write his interwoven thoughts on Hotline Miami in an experience that he calls Reality is Chosen. The circular paths and repeated hyperlinks match his own experience with the game’s repetitive nature. And then there is Darius Kazemi who made a Twine game as his response to the formalists claiming that these types of games are not games by turning a quote into a game of Space Invaders in which you shoot by pressing a moving “Click to Continue” button. When the quote is gone, the game declares that you have won.

Other games describe personal experiences or the recreation of such an experience featuring multiple paths that show how an event could or could not have gone differently. One highly promoted subset of Twine games is what has become known as Queer games. Then, there are the fiction games, which themselves range wildly in style, purpose, genre, focus, execution, and degree of interaction. David Goldfarb’s letters from my father, whether true or fictional, consist of several email conversations with his father and show the drifting apart that can occur despite the ease of communication. Jonas Kyratzes' Arcadia is an extension of his style of thoughtful contemplation and exploration game, but this time presented in text rather than through a graphical interface. It could be Proteus in prose. Christine Love’s Even Cowgirls Bleed utilizes more than text, adding sound and a mouse icon in the shape of a gun sight with a hair trigger, which when merely touched by the cursor will cause the story of a city girl going out west pretending to be a cowgirl to be told. There is also madamluna’s The Temple, a gorgeously and evocatively described game about an explorer going through three temple challenges to reach an unnamed prize. The challenges are nothing like what you’d find in Uncharted. How could they be with their less than standard interactions?

Then there are those games that bridge the two styles. They are personal, fictional, satire, or messaging in different quantities or sometimes all at once. Tower of the Blood Lord is a Call of Duty knock off made entirely in Twine with text. All the excesses of the series are on display with ready for poking fun at -- thanks, of course, to the heavily nonstandard design of such a game. Text will update, slowly, as you wait for a hyperlink to appear in the manner of a cutscene. Choices will repeat -- until you choose the right one. And multiplayer consists of clicking the same button over and over until you level up. The text adds context to the meaningless statements of such games.

All of the above games, for whatever their level of quality or ability to convey meaning to each player, is a game trying something new. They are games that could not be made any other way and are leveraging what games are capable of for far different purposes or in far different ways than more conventional works that are more commonly identified as games.

I’d go on about potential, but there is no need. Some twine games have already displayed what the platform is capable of and done so admirably and to a degree higher than anyone could have predicted.

Depression Quest

Titled in a similar way as the old Sierra adventure games, Depression Quest is a journey featuring problems, challenges, and the ever-real threat of death hanging over you. Instead of a fantasy death and a shrugging off of what happened before a quick reload, Depression Quest is an all too real portrayal of a real affliction with grounded prose. This game takes place in our world, and you are inhabiting a person that could exist.

The person you play as suffers from clinical depression and does not know what to do with himself. The challenges that you then face are those faced everyday by those with depression. As the player, you see through the issue through a mere pinhole, allowing what experience such an opening can reveal to allow some better understanding of the problem. The realities of slavery were made real to millions of people through Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The realities of modern war though All Quiet on the Western Front. The realities of depression are made real not through a simple narrative but through the complex inner workings of system that acts upon you.

The worse your depression and your mood, the more possible options are stripped from you. If things get worse, you can actively lose all of your possible routes to getting better. A harsh red line struck through every path denied to you and a reminder of you condition exist at the bottom of each passage. You wish the person to get better, and you can see the path to do so. However, the very condition denies it as a choice.

If ever a better example of a game that need not be fun could exist, I cannot think of one. Depression Quest seeks not to engender enjoyment or satisfaction but understanding. It wants you to learn and hopefully destigmatize such a prominent mental disorder for those who need the help so that they can get it.

Power and emotional weight is given to experiences like your girlfriend asking if you’re okay and then silently acquiescing to your desire to stay in with pizza and Netflix again in lieu of going out. The crushing cycle and inner thought processes of the sufferer of depression are put on display, but the game-like aspect of the experience adds the one thing that a simple written narrative could not engender to the reader: the helplessness engendered by such a disorder. The player is helpless against his depression and is driven by it. The best possible ending that you can get is not a cure. There is no cure, merely the affirmation that you are on the right track and have the skills to maintain the status quo. Life goes on, but it does go on. The Sword of Damocles never quite removed, only dulled.

Twine has proven itself through the works artists can provide through it. They are games. Whether or not they are Interactive Fiction, they are of the written word, and they are interactive. They are a branch in the path that forks many more times, perhaps, but is of the same road. That’s good enough for me.

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