By Vanessa Hellner-Born
While currently a shadow of its former self, the Twine scene of the early 2010s revealed a representational gap in the largely corporate video game industry that seemingly had little space for taboo topics such as sexuality, gender, abuse, and mental health. Due to its accessibility, communities of aspiring game developers from marginalized and minority groups formed around the platform, producing a plethora of narrative-driven hypertext games based on their own experiences. In stark contrast to its Storyspace counterpart, in which both game developers and players are heavily curated, Twine has very little gatekeeping. It is completely free to creators and players and requires only a computer and an Internet connection to use. There is little learning curve for game devs since Twine uses a graphical interface that does not require knowledge of any coding languages. Likewise, most Twine games require players to use their mouse as a controller to simply click links, something most Internet users are already familiar with. Finally, games on Twine can be about any topic or be as long or short as desired. This allows it to be a platform for creative freedom and a hobby for even those with little free time.
Anna Anthropy, a trans game developer and one of the most vocal members of the Twine community, speaks about her experience with the corporate industry and her hopes for a shift away from it. She expresses that a rise in independent game developers is important to promote creativity in a gaming landscape that is largely devoid of it due to censorship and a hyperfocus on marketability. Her goal is “…a world where everyone is capable of sitting down at a computer and making a game by herself” (Anthropy 103).
And Twine seems to have fulfilled that wish for a brief time at least. From using the hypertext format as a sort of diary-like Jeremy Penner’s There Ought to Be a Word to making a compelling and branching narrative about queer cyberpunk “banditas” like Anthropy’s And the Robot Horse You Rode In On to making choose-your-own-adventure gay erotica like Benji Bright’s Fuck That Guy, Twine has been used for self-expression to make gaming narratives and experiences utterly unique to traditional corporate games.
Even Cowgirls Bleed – Christine Love
Even Cowgirls Bleed is a second-person narrative game where you play as a trigger-happy city girl moving to the Wild West town of San Francisco. Rather than clicking links to traverse different pages, the mouse cursor is transformed into a crosshair which shoots highlighted text when hovered over. To progress the narrative, you have to either shoot words or put your gun into its holster.
This mechanic, accompanied by a linear storyline, largely eliminates player choice. Interestingly, this creates tension with the use of second-person writing. As a player, you are forced into the role of the protagonist who is given character traits and a personality, regardless of if you actually fit these traits. To some players, this lack of autonomy may feel frustrating or alienating. Ultimately, your choices in this game do not matter, and even attempts to rebel against the narrative mold are shut down. For example, there is a part in the game after you go home with a cowgirl you met at a bar where it seems like you are given the option to put away your gun or shoot more of your potential lover’s possessions. The option to put your gun away is surrounded by objects you can shoot and even creative methods such as right-clicking to center your cursor over the “hand over the gun” text has you shooting a vase of flowers.
However, if you choose to embrace the non-malleable narrative and take on the persona of the protagonist, this inability to break free of the protagonist’s trigger-happy curse serves as an immersive mechanic instead of a restrictive one. Gameplay elements like making you move the cursor from holster to holster as the protagonist waits impatiently to get to San Francisco connect your actions more directly with that of the protagonist. I found myself sympathizing more with the protagonist as I was forced to literally shoot her (and myself in a way) in the foot repeatedly until reaching the conclusion that we’re both helpless city girls in this narrative; she is trigger-happy and can’t help but scare her lover off by shooting her in the shoulder, and I can only forward her tragedy and sympathize with it instead of being able to change her fate. While incredibly short and largely comedic in tone, Even Cowgirls Bleed explores ideas of queerness, overcompensation, and self-loathing through a narrative accompanied by interesting and restrictive gameplay mechanics that allow the player to feel a similar inevitability and inadequacy to the protagonist they are forced to inhabit.
In addition to providing characterization, the gameplay mechanics make this game quite difficult to classify using Montfort’s definitions of hypertext and interactive fiction. As there are no links to click or additional pages to see, it is hard to call it a hypertext game; however, it is also not interactive fiction as there is no choice or direct input on the player’s part. This puts Even Cowgirls Bleed into a unique category of its own that shares traits of hypertext and interactive fiction while not fitting neatly into either.
And the Robot Horse You Rode In On – Anna Anthropy
Anthropy’s And the Robot Horse You Rode in On also puts the player into a characterized protagonist’s shoes through the use of second-person. In this game, you play as a “bandita” in the cyberpunk Wild West future where you have just pulled off a heist with your lover Di. Trying to take the money for yourself, you sneak away in the middle of the night to hide it but are inevitably caught by Di and must lie about where the money is hidden.
This game fits much more into the category of hypertext since you play the game by selecting links that take you to new pages. The game has three branching paths that all result in the same ending, so while this game features much more choice than Even Cowgirls Bleed, your decisions are ultimately inconsequential to the outcome.
However, I don’t believe this game completely fits into the category of hypertext either. It features a sort of inventory system unique to the other Twine games I studied. For example, if you choose to tell Di you hid the money in the mine, you have to go to a side chamber to grab a rope before you are allowed to go deeper into the mine (see video).
It also plays with both space and visuals to tell its story. There is a section in the game where you can choose to move in the cardinal directions, and while you will inevitably end up at the same signpost regardless of your choices, this mechanic and the pseudo-inventory system felt very similar to interactive fiction games such as Adventure despite having no text-parsers or direct player input involved.
Visually, simplistic pictures and changes in text color are used to represent the time of day and location the protagonist is in. These images helped to make time skips more clear as well as add to my visualization of the world as the player. This addition to the atmosphere was very interesting and served to immerse me more in the story as I took on the persona of the protagonist.
Like in Even Cowgirls Bleed, the use of second-person complicates the player’s immersion in the story. Cat Fitzpatrick, a trans woman who described her experience while playing, writes about such tension: “I have a new dilemma: to balance my desire, as the reader, to find out as much as possible against my desire, as the protagonist, to conceal as much from Di as possible” (Kopas 340). There is a large discrepancy between what you as a player know and what the protagonist–whose persona you are meant to take on–knows. As such, there is a conflict of interest where the player needs to both lie to Di to fulfill the protagonist’s goals while exploring and discovering as much as they can about the world to make up for their ignorance compared to the protagonist. Here, the differences between player and protagonist are even more apparent, leading to tensions that do not arise in narratives written in third-person or where the protagonist is silent and the player is given greater agency.
Fitzpatrick’s commentary is also insightful into the communities that formed around Twine. She is ecstatic to find out that Di is a trans woman just like herself. As a Twine creator, Anthropy has the freedom to put trans characters like Di in her games and address other topics that are relevant to her identity, and players like Fitzpatrick can see themselves represented in a form of media that usually lacks it.
There Ought to Be a Word – Jeremy Penner
There Ought to Be a Word is markedly different from the previous two games. It is written mostly in the third person, fits neatly into the category of hypertext, and is largely linear with few choices for the player to make. The game follows Jeremy, a 31-year old Canadian man who is going through a divorce. Jeremy tells the player about his grief regarding the separation, his struggles to find direction in his life, and the loneliness that leads him to create an OkCupid profile to make more friends.
Partly due to the use of third-person, the player’s choices in this game feel more inconsequential than in the previous games. You can help Jeremy construct an OkCupid profile but these choices do not impact the plot and are even sometimes rejected by Jeremy—specifically if you tell him to say he is single instead of married. While this can make the game feel frustrating or trivial to some, I found it very effective in creating greater intimacy between myself as the player and Jeremy. Because he does not agree with all of the player’s choices (for instance, he will question you if you say he is unhappy with his life), the game feels like you are giving Jeremy advice as a friend rather than controlling his actions. The lack of power your choices hold creates a separation between you as the player and Jeremy which makes this game feel very personal and as if Jeremy is opening up to you as a friend.
While the game does not do anything visually or mechanically unique, it is able to set up a very intimate experience precisely because the choices the player makes are inconsequential, and I believe this was one of my favorite Twine games to play.
Whether or not Twine games have a space in the gaming landscape today is debatable. The Twine scene is largely dead and its major players such as Anna Anthropy and Porpentine have moved on to bigger and better projects. However, with the rise of Scratch and other low-barrier game-making tools, game development is becoming increasingly accessible to anyone who is interested. While the industry is still dominated by large corporations, there seems to be more room for the creativity Anthropy yearns for in the rising field of indie games. And at the end of the day, Twine is still as accessible as ever for new generations to find and make their own hypertext adventures.
Anthropy, Anna. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People like You Are Taking Back an Art Form. Seven Stories Press, 2012.
Kopas, Merritt. Videogames for Humans: Twine Authors in Conversation. Instar Books, 2015.