As one of Twine's most infamous developers, Porpentine loves writing about the gross, the sexual, the internal, and the metaphorical. And nearly every single one of her games leaves the player with some measure of dread and longing.
Last year, Anna Anthropy declared in her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters that the game making revolution had begun. Thanks to new free tools becoming available and simple enough to use, game making had been opened up to anyone. One of the most hailed tools at the forefront of this movement is Twine. Last time that I wrote about Twine, I spoke to the variety of experiences and different opportunities the program offeres, but I left out one important element.
Every genre has its rock stars,and every artistic movement has those who drive that movement forward. Twine has Porpentine. Who is Porpentine? According to her site, she is a “queer tranarchafeminist, guromother, little shit girl, trash harpy.” It doesn’t so much answer the question as give a vague sense of self and an understanding that with her work we are standing at the fringes of culture and art.
Porpentine came to more mainstream recognition and prominence at this year’s Independent Game Festival during the Game Developers Conference. Richard Hofmeier had just won a number of awards the night before, including the grand prize for his game Cart Life. The next day he showed up with a laptop and a can of black spray paint and defaced his own station. He took down Cart Life and in its place set up a demo station with Porpentine’s Howling Dogs in its stead. That gesture was many things, but underlying it all was a great piece of showmanship. The act granted all the games on the show floor more attention, but most of all it put the spotlight on Porpentine’s masterpiece and gave it the attention of many more people than it might otherwise have received.
Howling Dogs is a twine game about prisons. It takes place in a small room. The door is locked or barricaded. There are food and water dispensers as well as a waste disposal chute. One adjacent room is a bathroom and the other is a room containing a virtual reality machine. It is here where the rest of the scenes take place. Each day, the virtual reality machine presents you an experience of life as a different person in a different situation.
You might find yourself alone in a house speaking to someone about murdering your husband. Or you might find yourself in the role of a princess, ruling until your ritual death so the next leader may be born in your land. Each of these experiences detail a different type of confinement and prison. Then, near the end of the game, you find that the food and water dispensers not working. The waste disposal has refused to work for some time, and you are left trapped in a tiny room waiting for nothing. It is a bleak work full of haunting imagery and terrifying ideas, all of which is lovingly put on display through well-crafted prose. It is a dark work and a prime example of what something that could be described as so dark actually looks like, based on its theme and content rather than on needless gore and cursing.
At the time of the game’s release, people explored the game’s meaning. In looking for meaning, they saw that the author was transgendered and tried to read that into Howling Dogs. At the time, many descended on her and her work acting horrible, mainly to punish her for creating something different. One critic of the game went so far as to call the game “a crime.” As for the trans reading, Propentine has said that reading the game this way is “a very cheep thing to do” suggesting that that interpretation it is wrong. I don’t put much weight on understanding authorial intent regarding a work’s meaning, but at the same time, I don’t see much in the game that can be construed as a trans subtext that isn’t broad enough that it could also reference any group of powerless individuals against a powerful, entrenched system.
However, there is something notable to be said about Howling Dogs because people felt compelled to dig into the author’s life to find meaning in the game. It is an extremely dense piece of writing. It’s relatively short, but it covers a lot of ground and contains a lot of shifting imagery and description that can be difficult to keep up with. There is meaning in the text, but it is elusive and may evade people completely to the point of frustration -- so much so that they may want to look elsewhere to fill in the gaps. Despite being a game comprised of hypertext links, it cannot be played quickly and breezed through. The player must take their time to absorb the text on screen and understand what it is telling you.
In nearly every aspect, Howling Dogs is at the same time a perfect ambassador for Porpentine’s larger body of work and yet it is also far tamer. Playing Howling Dogs may leave a player unready for the other games in her catalog.
A Place of Infinite Beauty is a game that offers the same choice over and over. Do you continue to climb the steps up a mountain to see a place of infinite beauty or do you turn back? Horrible things will happen to you along the way. The winds will strip the flesh from your body. One by one, your senses will fail as body parts are flayed from you. Eventually, you will die and still be asked if you wish to continue on up. At each point, you can turn back and be faced with a different ending, all the injuries – which are described in graphic detail – remain with you for the rest of your life.
Metrolith begins by letting you choose one of three randomly presented backstories and goals for entering the metrolith, a city carved from the edge of a cliff rising from the mists. From there, you travel along different set paths, seeing many things, before finally coming face to face with your goal. Succeed or fail, you never leave the metrolith again. The city is a haunted place. It can be explored but only so far. Something happened here, but little can be learned. One of the more terrifying lines of the game is one full of implication rather than description: “You become part of the city.”
Cyebrqueen is not for the weak of stomach. It is a game in which you are tortured on a spaceship by a rogue AI. You are broken repeatedly as hope is dangled in front of you only to be snatched away so that the computer can play with your intestines again. It is the successor to Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Your humanity is stripped away piece by piece until you are nothing but a monster that you might see in any other action/horror game and a slave to the AI’s will. The game knows how to dig into you as you play. However, the discomfort that it creates is not due to exposure to the game's gore or even evoked by the sense of the sick pleasure that the game seems to take in describing how exactly you are being killed only so that you can be revived again. The affecting part is the process of dehumanization that is described by the text and also by the eventual removal of any choice and any hope of resistance from the player. Your character has been mutated before your eyes just as their body has been mutilated.
Myriad is as equally graphic and myopic. You wake up in your apartment, a disgusting place that looks like it has never been cleaned. You play a paranoid individual who is also quite possibly deluded. The text focuses on the sweat and grime and lack of cleanliness of everything around the protagonist. The world and everything in it is gross, but nothing is more gross than the character themselves. The game can go in vastly different directions from there, though. In one instance, you skip class and go to the movies only to find yourself a human-scorpion hybrid. If you make it to class, you enter a hell in which you find yourself alone and are eventually tortured. The game comes to a head with this line:
“That’s why art is fucking useless, why love is fucking useless, why books and movies and games should be thrown into a pile and burnt.
You tell them everything.”
This is the single most horrifying, darkest game focusing on pain and a catastrophic, bitter misery that I have every played. Its purpose is to revolt you, to push you away just as the character in the game has seemly pushed away everything in their life -- from people to their own dignity. It is an expression of the ultimate nadir of the void of human existence and emptiness of the individual's soul. Propentine tells us that its inspiration was “All The Depression.” Whereas another Twine game called Depression Quest seeks to illuminate the system that governs the illness of depression and the difficulties in dealing with such an illness, Myriad is a poetic emotional expression arising while within its grasp.
Then there is climbing 208 feet up the ruin wall, a game in which you can take one action to progress: climb. You do this 12 inches at a time carrying a backpack full of treasure. Along the way, your character thinks and observes. An internal monologue concerning those thoughts and observations continues throughout the ascent. Then the protagonist gets a call on his cellphone. He drops his cellphone. An artifact or two falls from the bag. He tries to focus and ignore the pain. His hands bleed as he continues to hold on to some nearby vines. The game represents a journey with each click to climb loading a new page with a new short snippet of text to read, sometimes even only a word or two. It is a game that is noticeably impressionistic in its method of displaying the scattered thoughts of a person performing a repetitive, strength-draining task. Eventually the top is reached, and the game ends.
All of Porpentine’s Twine games have similar elements, though varying degrees of emphasis are given to them. She loves writing about the gross, the sexual, the internal, and the metaphorical. And nearly every single one of her games leaves the player with some measure of dread and longing. You can’t leave any one of her games with all of your questions about it answered, if they ever could be answered. Her writing is sharp and focused and able to transcend beyond simple shock value. The material isn’t for everyone, nor should it be. It doesn’t want to be mainstream. At the same time, it’s not punk, and it isn’t alternative. Her work is somewhere else on the vanguard acting as ambassador for the power of descriptive text in games and the power of Twine.