Porpentine Twine: Shedding A Light In Dark Spaces

Written by Celeste Montgomery

If you haven’t heard by now, Twine is a pretty well-established storygame platform that houses the unique, odd and especially expressive creations of newbie and experienced game designers alike. Their creations could be described as a crossbreed between hypertext fiction (games like Patchwork Girl) and interactive fiction games (like Galatea) as is with the game designer Porpentine Charity Heartscape, who has taken advantage of Twine’s easy accessibility to people from marginalized backgrounds. Porpentine has used Twine as a stage to not only tell fantastical stories like that of an artificer who has been tasked by the Skull Empress to share their talent in the palace, but also to explore dark themes like child abuse and trauma which can be taken in by players in way not too overwhelming or direct. This is the case in many of Porpentine’s Twine games including Howling DogsUltra Business Tycoon IIISkulljhabitWith Those We Love Alive, and Love is Zero

Howling Dogs

Howling Dogs is Porpentine’s first Twine game created in 2012, written in the seven days after she started hormone-replacement therapy. Many of the themes behind Howling Dogs can be connected to mental health, as you play from the perspective of a patient in a mental hospital whose day-to-day actions are limited to simple self-care habits and a VR visor that allows the player/patient to experience realities outside of their own. 

When gameplay begins, the setting of the room you reside in is described and clickable actions are prompted through specific words that stand out on the screen. Players may first feel gravitated towards the activity room route but are thwarted when you are told you must eat and drink first. Players will come to learn that this action is habitual and necessary for each new day that the patient wakes up in order to be able to reach the VR visor which seems to be what the patient, and soon enough the player, actually wants to do. The limited actions available give players the feel that they have been admitted to a hospital where they don’t have free reign to do what they want or really any variety in their daily schedule. 

The settings and vibes of the VR environments the patient plays through vary by each day, but they usually point to greater themes of violence, death or even religion. This could be Porpentine’s way at alluding to certain struggles in humanity, whose misuse and abuse, has affected many communities today. Ideas of escapism, mental illness and coping with solitude are all touched in Howling Dogs and by playing it, players, including myself, may start to recognize the ways in which they habitually seek methods of escapism in their lives, and what the causes of wanting that disconnect may be. 


Speaking of escapism through Twine, Skulljhabit is another one of Porpentine’s creations that touches upon very similar themes like that of Howling Dogs, except the difference being that those themes are even more hidden under the narrative that players are experiencing in the gameplay.

In Skulljhabit, you play as a worker in the skull pits whose everyday tasks are limited to working by digging up skulls, visiting the village square, well and store, going to the train station, exploring the outskirts, or going home to your hut which contains a knapsack with a letter from a girl who appears mysteriously in little different ways in the game. Although at first this seems like an exhaustive list, after “days” spent waking up and having the same limited options that have no clear path of progression in the game, players may start to feel like the game’s redundancy is too dramatic. This idea of unsatisfaction while playing through the game because you are not getting what is expected through suspected endings is exactly what Porpentine seems to want players to draw their attention to. While playing Skulljhabit, one way players may think they can complete the game is by working in the skull pit and just continuing to earn as much money as possible. However, this doesn’t seem to do much but allow you to shop for items like a shovel or calendar which end up seeming to not have much of an effect on “winning” or “losing” the game. After repeated attempts of gaining more and more money and buying up everything in the store, nothing happens. 

Another route players may think to take is saving up enough money to buy a ticket in the hopes of leaving the town. After players have earned enough to buy a train ticket, the player does get to ride the train, but it just leads to the player being told that they end up walking back to the hut leaving the player to just accept the outcome once again and return to the options first prompted to them in the beginning. 

The final option I encountered while playing Skulljhabit was the path that led to the outskirts of the village. This route, like the others, took many days in the game to complete as you need to break away at a wall found in a cave day by day. After breaking this wall down, you return down this same route the next day to find a statue and get a bloody nose. You continue to go deeper and deeper in the cave until you fall in a pool and finally wake up at home. 

Players will likely attempt to play through all these routes in the game thinking it will lead to a completion of the game, when it just throws the player back in the original game opening screen. However, the game does eventually tease at a satisfactory ending when after playing through all these routes, you get offered a promotion which takes you to live in a new place. But when arriving, your everyday options are even more limited and the game mysteriously ends with a dream you have of dancing on the moon with a girl, most likely the same one who wrote the letter in your hut, and her wondering if she will find you again. 

If not clear from the description, the gameplay reveals that there is a lot of labor involved in the game that doesn’t lead to what is usually desired from a game. Again, like Howling Dogs, Porpentine created Skulljhabit to show an everyday truth in a different way. In this game, it is the everyday routine of life and the seemingly never-ending pursuit of meaning or satisfaction that is tackled through the themes of this game. 

Love is Zero

With Love is Zero, Porpentine takes a different approach compared to Howling Dogs and Skulljhabit and creates a twine that uses a lot of visual and audial effects to give players an experience similar to the vibes of the topic of the game. In Love is Zero, you are in a vampire clique at an all-girls tennis school on the moon, where you live because Earth was wired by mega corporations. According to the title screen, you’re going to live forever, and you’re extremely hot.

After the title screen, and all throughout the game, players have three options to click: Study, Play Tennis, and Bully. Every choice clicked prompts a scene that happens at the school and adds a word or phrase to your description at the top of the screen. For example, pressing bully may cause you to suck blood from someone to look good and this adds “gorgeous” to your list of words. After choosing several selections in any order you get a screen asking, if you are all the words that accumulated after all your choices. The player has no choice but to accept that they are all the above and the game ends. 

My first play through I didn’t quite appreciate the quick and vibrant energy that the game provided, but after a few run throughs you can begin to see the game’s attempts to express teenage struggle through the everyday choices of these tennis playing vampire girls who feel the same body image issues and lack of confidence as regular teenagers in the real world. I think like Skulljhabit and Howling Dogs Love is Zero does well to intermingle heavy topics like depression, and mental illness into readily accessible twine games that can reach a multitude of people and tell stories in very uniquely expressive ways.

Umurangi Generation: Photographing the End

By My-Nhi N.

Umurangi Generation is a first-person, single-player photography game, available on PC via Steam and on the Nintendo Switch. The game takes place in Tauranga, Aotearoa (traditional Maori name for New Zealand) in the “shitty future” amidst a kaiju apocalypse. As a player, you take on the role of a photo courier, taking pictures of the various scenes of this apocalypse as you travel from place to place, earning money from your photography. 


Developed in 2020 by Naphtali Faulkner, also known online as Veselekov or “Ves”, an independent Maori developer, the game was produced within about 8-10 months. The initial idea for the game came about from Faulkner teaching his younger cousin how to use a DSLR camera, to which he likened the experience to teaching mechanics in a video game. Faulkner then first approached development of the game with the idea of creating a photography-based game. The concept and themes of the game then changed course with climate crises, including at the time the Australian bushfires, which destroyed his mother’s home, and the Australian government’s overall lack of action and willful ignorance towards the fires until they affected the wealthier neighborhoods. Completion of the game unintentionally overlapped with the very first COVID-19 outbreak, escalating the themes of the game for players. 

The game combines a low-poly art style and cyberpunk visual aesthetics to create surreal environments and frame the concept of a “shitty future”. It takes inspiration from other games such as Jet Set Radio (2000) and Death Stranding (2019) and additionally draws references from other media such as Godzilla (1954) and Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995).


The gameplay can be summed up as “FPS meets I-Spy”, in which the game combines FPS (first person shooter)-esque mechanics with I-Spy-esque objectives. The game itself is separated into 9 unique levels, with the expansion pack adding 4 new levels to the game. Each level has its own set of unique objectives and obtainable rewards, including bonus rewards not necessary to progress in the game.

When walking around the map, the player screen takes on the look of your typical FPS game, with what would be a weapon replaced by a camera instead. When the player clicks to take a photo, the player character brings the camera to their face and the screen then imitates that of a camera display. In this screen, players are able to manipulate common camera settings such as zoom, focus, and angle or tilt. The tilt mechanic differs on the PC version and the Nintendo Switch version, the PC version utilizing keyboard controls to tilt the camera and the Nintendo Switch version allowing the player to tilt the camera by physically manipulating their Nintendo Switch device. Taking the photo moves you to a new screen in which players can edit the colors and effects of their photo. This screen also allows players to save the images they’ve taken and edited to their photo gallery. 

Photo editing screen, seen after taking a photo.

Players are allowed a lot of freedom in how they approach the gameplay of Umurangi Generation. Players are free to take pictures however they like of whatever they like within the mechanics of the game. In the game tutorial, it is made clear that there are no strict creative or composition guidelines for taking photos and that photos are graded and rewarded instead based on the amount of colors in the photo and the overall mood of the photo. Players are only ‘punished’ for photographing bluebottle jellyfish, Portuguese man o’ wars.

The game does include a ‘point system’ via money earned through taking photos, but there isn’t any explicit place to spend this currency, thus making it largely irrelevant aside from the bonus objective that can be earned in each level. This means that players are essentially allowed to photograph anything they’d like. 


Progressing through the levels of Umurangi Generation involves exploring the spaces and maps of each level, taking photos, and clearing the level-specific objectives. Each level has its own unique map that requires players to explore each time they progress. The maps do not not have any clear and distinct boundaries or edges, effectively making each space feel like a part of a larger, expansive world. Of course, the maps do still have boundaries, and when players cross this boundary or fall off the map, they will respawn back at the starting point of the map. Movement controls in the game are limited to walking, double jumping, and crouching and do not include sprinting, forcing the player to slowly explore the space. Within these controls, players are allowed to explore the space however they like, including climbing stairs and jumping to high places. 

Objectives from Level 8, depicting the the increasing difficulty of the Photo Bounties.

The objectives of each level are an incentive for players to further explore the spaces in each level. The objectives required to progress to the next level are called “Photo Bounties”. As you progress through the levels, the bounties get harder and more specific. Players have to explore the space to find specific angels to capture certain sets of things in order to clear the bounties. For example, in the first level, one of the bounties is to take a picture including 2 boomboxes, a relatively easy task. However, when we get closer to the end, players must capture a picture of something like 11 candles and 2 boomboxes, a task that requires players to explore a bit more to find a location that can capture all the objects in one frame. Additionally, each level is laced with many, many details, further driving player incentive to explore the space and discover new details.


The story of Umurangi Generation makes use of embedded narrative. As players advance through the levels and explore more of the spaces, the narrative becomes more apparent. In each level’s map, we piece the narrative together through the various objects and messages littered throughout the map. Some of these messages are more explicit than others. For example, players are able to find news pieces in some levels showing the recent events in this world, expanding the lore, or players can find messages in graffiti.

When we view the progression of the levels and maps as a whole, we see the use of the transformation of space in aiding narrative development. We see this when objects are taken from one scene to the next or when maps recur but with a different atmosphere and context. For example, the map in Level 2 is reused in Level 5. In Level 2, the map takes on a stale, grey-toned color palette, depicting a military zone at standby. In Level 5, this map is transformed into a pitch-black kaiju warzone rimmed with blood-red lighting. Players are given hints that this is the same area through details such as graffiti and landmark objects. Similarly, in this war-ridden Level 5, players are tasked with photographing a bodybag in order to progress. In the next level, players can find the same bodybags as they explore the train on its way back from the warzone. Players can then begin to see that there is a linear narrative playing out as they progress through the levels.

Photos on the left taken from Level 2, and on the right Level 5. They depict areas taken from similar angles, showcasing the transformation of the map.


“The end of Umurangi Generation is explicitly anti-cop, anti-capitalist, and anti-fascist.”

– Naphtali “Veselekov” Faulkner

The final message of Umurangi Generation is the inevitable end of the world. The title of the game is taken from the Te Reo Maori word “umurangi”. Although the word does not have an exact translation, it directly translates to “red sky”, and its meaning akin to “witnessing the end of the world”. The word “umurangi” also makes reference to the Huia, a bird that was hunted to extinction. With Umurangi Generation, Faulkner wanted to depict a generation of people who are essentially living out the last moments of the world, the world’s inevitable end caused by the inaction of world governments in response to crises in addition to the dangers of spreading neoliberalist ideals and thought. On the game, Faulkner has said that “the end of Umurangi Generation is explicitly anti-cop, anti-capitalist, and anti-fascist.” With its seemingly free style of play and creative freedom that Umurangi Generation promotes through its gameplay, the theme then provides an interesting take on the problem of player agency against the inescapable narrative of the game. What importance does personal freedom play in a world that is doomed to end? That is the ultimate question of Umurangi Generation

A shadowy bird-like figure representing the Huia bird cloaked by the red sky.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umurangi_Generation
  2. https://www.indiegamewebsite.com/2020/06/05/talking-climate-change-and-maori-culture-with-umurangi-generation/
  3. https://www.thegamer.com/umurangi-generation-interview-fascism-colonisation/
  4. https://www.vice.com/en/article/pkdvgv/how-umurangi-generation-captured-2020s-despair-and-neoliberal-decay
  5. https://medium.com/vistas-mag/the-umurangi-generation-is-asking-you-to-care-e9d02c5d2fff
  6. https://eggplant.show/76-seeing-for-yourself-with-tali-faulkner-umurangi-generation
  7. https://etao.blog/2021/06/29/podcast-112/
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZequjU73rBY

Before Your Eyes: A Tragic but Fulfilling Tale of Benjamin Brynn

By JJ Abu-Halimah

“So when he knew he was going to go, he was okay, because he’d already lived a great life a full life.”

Before Your Eyes is a marvelous game about Benjamin Brynn, a 12-year-old child who died young due to terminal illness. We first experience the grand life that Benny wishes that he had before reliving the dark reality that he actually faced before dying. At the game’s core is its eye-tracking system which allows players to traverse and control the narrative at their own rate to create a greatly immersive experience.

Immersive Storytelling

First Person Point-of-View and Choice

“You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”

We never actually see what Benny looks like in the story. We instead see Benny’s life through Benny’s eyes. This strategic form of storytelling already makes us feel as if we are Benny reliving Benny’s life, immersing us in recalling his life story. We feel more emotion and better feel how Benny’s feelings by playing this way.

One of the saddest moments that stuck with me was reading Benny’s typewriter as we see him call himself a loser and self-loathe. I instantly felt dread inside my body as I watched Benny feel and write as if he was worth nothing. Such emotion was created by living as Benny, and I do not think it could have effectively been conveyed if we didn’t play in Benny’s perspective. A great example to support this is that we didn’t know all the hardships that Chloe was feeling until we were told that her mother died. By living through a character, we better understand them, and the emotional impact of the story gets much, much more real.

To further our experience, the developers utilized another form of immersion: choice. Throughout the game, we are presented with many choices. Although they do not affect the ending, we can create our own artwork, decide to answer phone calls, choose to crumple up and throw contracts/ sheet music, and more. We even get to see the effects of some of our actions such as viewing the paintings that we created in the art gallery near the end of Benny’s idealized life. Such choice further immerses us into reliving Benny’s life, bridging choice to the narrative, making it as if WE are Benny shaping Benny’s story.

The Eye-Tracking System

The game starts us off by immediately introducing us to the eye-tracking system.

Blinking while hovering over the eye symbol on the screen will allow you to interact with objects/ take pictures, shutting your eyes while prompted to (via the shut your eyes symbol) lets you progress through and hear more parts of the story, and keeping your eyes open while the hourglass symbol appears allows you to progress while blinking inhibits you.

Forcing you to keep your eyes open such as when we had to view Benny’s dead kittens and hearing his grandfather died, allows us to better feel the horror and intense emotions that Benny experienced when he lived through those dark times. We usually had to close our eyes to listen to Benny’s parents discuss their depressing, emotional thoughts on Benny that he wasn’t supposed to hear. This made us feel more of the loss of Benny’s innocence as he was exposed to life’s cruelties.

The most prevalent eye-tracking mechanic, however, is that blinking when there is a metronome on the screen moves us to the next memory in Benny’s life, making us miss out on the rest of the game narrative from the previous memory.

One may think: but I want to see everything! Yet, the eye-tracking system hinders you from doing so – of course not so much if you hold the Guinness World Record for the longest time with your eyes kept open. However, this is a great thing narratively.  

The Ferryman tells us early on that while we may want to stay back and see all of Benny’s memories, we cannot. We watch Benny’s lives unfold before us, and the memories they hold quite literally go away in the blink of an eye. The same can be said about our lives. While we may want to stay in the present, we simply cannot and have to pursue the future. Like Benny, we cannot dwell on the great and horrible parts of our past: we must move forward.

What limiting how much we can see and hear does is make for a more real experience in that we better feel the sense of urgency that life presents to both Benny and ourselves. We get a better feel of just how fast the past goes flies away, and this immerses us in Benny’s reminiscence of his life.

Some players opt to use the mouse rather than the webcam, but this greatly reduces the immersion of the game–I know this because I had to rapidly speed through a segment of the game that I already played after the game crashed. Playing the game this way makes it feel less emotional without the feeling of life going by fast, and you miss out more on one of the most defining aspects of the game: using your eyes as a controller to see Benny’s life through Benny’s eyes.

But let’s say that you really wanted to hear everything and feel that you’d get more out of the story by using the mouse. You will reach a point where you have seen and heard everything that the game lets you, and you’ll be stuck there watching nothing new happen. This is quite boring and again reduces the immersion of quickly seeing Benny’s life flash before your eyes.

So if you ever play/replay this game; please play it using the eye-tracking system.

Efficacy of the Blink-Tracking System

While a great tool to create a more immersive experience, the eye-tracking system has both its downfalls and its strengths.

Brendan Keogh describes an “embodied literacy” in videogames where players have to adapt to the controllers/ game’s controls to better enjoy and be immersed in a videogame. While we may adapt to the eye-tracking system, it doesn’t always work smoothly. Such glitches make the game feel clunky and are distracting from the flow of the narrative by challenging our adaptation to the controls.

There are times when you may be keeping your eyes open only for the game to register it as a blink, leaving you to traverse the story much faster than you anticipated, reducing your ability to control the speed of the story. Other times, it makes it increasingly hard to get past parts where you HAVE to keep your eyes open to progress. This reduces the immersion that using your eyes as a controller aimed to initiate in the first place.

Sandy Baldwin details how eyes are “wired and directed, turned left and right” and how images and media in general “solicits my eye before I even look at it”. She says that we must “deaden” our eyes to read screens, inducing the lack of importance of our eyes and their robotic nature to just input and relay sensory information about the media we are consuming rather than playing a part in our experience, viewing the media.

However, in Before Your Eyes, we utilize our eyes as the controllers, using them to dictate the pace of the story, thus removing a barrier between our eyes and the narrative. Our eyes now become more than just machines to accept and relay sensory information to our brain as they also dictate how the media we are consuming, the game, appears to us. By doing this, the eye-tracking system greatly adds to our aesthetic and immersive gaming experience.

The Great Life of Benjamin Brynn: The End

I can’t sign off without writing about my favorite part of the game: the end.

At the end of the game, we hear Benny’s mother give him her own story of his life. Telling a depressed and dying Benny:

“So when he knew he was going to go, he was okay, because he’d already lived a great life. A full life.”

Through the Ferryman realizing that stories, especially Benny’s life, didn’t have to be grand and his mother’s story, we realize that Benny’s life, while short, was fulfilling in that he brought others hope and was thus a great life.

We are then told to close our eyes at the end of the game, overhearing Benny’s father asking, “Why is he smiling like that?”

To which his mother responds, “He must be somewhere he likes.”

Benny died at peace with himself, smiling.

This ending is beautiful. Benny reaches the afterlife, comes to terms with his life, and by closing our eyes, we are put in a position to experience Benny’s death.

This game teaches us a lot. It tells us that we don’t have to change the world or do anything else that’s grand to lead an amazing life and legacy. We can easily live a normal life and die happily even if we didn’t get to experience all the joys that life had to offer. The eye-tracking system teaches us to cherish the moments we have in the present before they go away in the blink of an eye. This ending gave me the ultimate closure I need to finish the game and apply what I learned from Benny’s life to better lead and accept my own.


Baldwin, S. (2016). Section 1. In The internet unconscious on the subject of electronic literature. essay, Bloomsbury Academic.

GoodbyeWorld Games. (2021). Before Your Eyes

Keogh, B. (2018). Chapter 3: With Thumbs in Mind. In A play of bodies: How we perceive videogames. essay, MIT Press.

SUPERHOT VR and the Effects of Immersion

By Ivan Messias

Immersion in Storytelling

Immersion into other worlds has been a longstanding tenet of storytelling: in order for a story to be palatable to others, the creator must immerse the audience to some degree in the world that they are presenting. The pursuit of immersion in a story was most notably expressed in The Matrix (1999), where humans are placed into a story that seemed real enough to the point of believing that it was reality. While it was used for ulterior motives within the film, the concept of a world that realistic bred, and still breeds even today, a fascination within the mind – the intriguing concept of being fully part of a world besides reality. SUPERHOT, released in early 2016, was a further extension of this – the story revolved around the player becoming more and more immersed into this world, ending with the player shooting their character in order to become part of SUPERHOT itself.

Virtual reality technology was essentially designed with the pursuit of immersion in mind, advancing immersion beyond simply sight and audio – allowing for a literal hands-on experience, with the motion of the body being the form of input into the simulated world. It represented the next leap forward in storytelling immersion – and SUPERHOT was keen to import its story into this format, with SUPERHOT VR being released later in 2016.

To my surprise, after watching a few playthroughs of SUPERHOT VR to see what I missed in the story, I discovered that what I played through myself was New Game Plus, and the story itself had already been told. The story itself proved to be as in-depth as, if not more than, the original SUPERHOT, largely due to the immersive qualities to be had in a VR environment. As such, each story scene will be dissected herein in order to define and understand SUPERHOT’s interpretation of the future of immersion.

Scene 0: piOS

The first “scene” shown in the game is that of an operating system booting up in order to play SUPERHOT: specifically piOS, with the tagline of “operating system of the future (TM)“. This is followed by several screens in a grid being filled with static, prior to the player’s perspective being forced through the center screen and transitioning into the tutorial.

This is not so much a scene as much as it is a brief glimpse into the game’s meta-narrative. This is the first of three (possibly four*) layers of immersion, notable for being the one with zero player agency. There are no inputs required or available save for the motion of looking at the screens, with the implication that this is the player. With this in mind, the OS’s tagline serves not only as a subtle reminder that this is, indeed, a piece of science-fiction, but also as a prediction of what future technology could hold in terms of storytelling immersion.

*This is dependent on whether the person looking into the real-life headset is counted as a layer of immersion.


After a few levels, the player is placed in a white void, with the words “ARE YOU READY TO PLAY?” and “SHOW YOUR DEDICATION” respectively appearing in front of the player as the player is presented and picks up a gun. As the player shoots themselves in the head, the headset flies off of the person, showing a previously-unseen office space, where four computer monitors are displaying the words “SUPER” and “HOT” on a loop.

This is the first time that the player is shown a perspective outside of the core gameplay. From a gameplay point of view, there is no point to this room, and nothing to interact with save for a floppy disk that loads up more of the game. From an immersive point of view, however, it is a great help in that it presents a sort of “reality” to contrast with the surreal nature of the game up to this point. It provides a grounding point for the player, and while it may not be entirely convincing as a stand-in for real life, the reveal that so far the player has been playing in a headset in-universe does wonders in establishing a link between the body of the person and that of the actual player, using the headset as a bridging point between both forms.

Scenes 2 & 3: Hardware and Software

At the end of the level “Helipad”, a helicopter crashes into the player, killing them and again forcing the headset off of the person in the office. The screens in the office now say “rebooting” and “hardware error” (hardware only appearing for a brief moment).

A few more levels down the line, the player is placed at the edge of a broken window in a high-rise, with “SHOW YOUR COMMITMENT” in front of them as they look down and jump out of the building, once more resulting in the headset being forced off of the head of the person in the office. Along with some messages commending their dedication and potential, as the player grabs the floppy this time, the screens display “BODIES ARE DISPOSABLE”, “MIND IS SOFTWARE”, and the signature alternations of “SUPER” and “HOT”.

The final messages not only present the idea that the mind is transferrable, but that the previously-mentioned hardware error was a failing in the body, and each scene up to this point has reinforced this idea. In each one, the player has died, but the mind has remained to pick up another body. This also leads to the questioning of which body the player’s mind is inhabiting at any given time: is it the one that can slow down time in the levels, the one in the office, or the one currently holding two sticks to control them? The constant shifting between the second and third layers of immersion starts to break down the barrier between the mind of the player and the links to any particular body form; indeed, is not one mind controlling all three, going between them at any given moment? The notion of the mind being software leaves it free to traverse between any of them at any given time, which the player has been doing this entire time.

Scenes 4 & 5: Pyramids and Body Blending

The next two scenes are similar in nature, both featuring text urging the player to reach and destroy a pyramid, as a sign of their worth for an unspecified reward. The most significant aspect of this is how it begins to further break down the links between bodies, as the headset flies off of the office-dweller without any input or death required from the player. Furthermore, the disks gain different properties: in the first scene, one of the player’s hands becomes the disk, only briefly reappearing to put the disk inside the computer; in the second, the disk has to be inserted not into the computer, but rather into the player’s head, an action which briefly causes the office to gain the graphic simplicity of the main game and does not require the player to don the headset in order to go to the next level.

The first scene serves as more of a breakdown in what can be defined as a body, with the hand-floppy leading to a quiet contemplation of what a body has to exactly be, prior to going back into the game. The second is far more blatant, with the world of the person in the office becoming increasingly tied to that in the “game”, mirroring the blending of the perceptions held by the person in real life to that of the game world. The headset randomly popping off of the head in-game, without any requirement of input, further solidifies this, as the lack of “disposal” of the body in the game being necessary to trigger the headset disconnect makes it seem as though the office character and the game character are the same, especially as the office briefly resembles a level.

Scenes 6 & 7: SUPER HOT

Following the final level, in which the player destroys a large pyramid, the headset once more flies off of the character, and a face greets him on the monitors, saying that he did well, and ordering him to answer his knocking door. There is a small pyramid there, which opens to reveal a gun. As he says “Collect your reward”, the office character shoots himself in the head, mirroring the cause of the first true scene. There is now a black void, with “SUPER”, “HOT” flashing within. As the words stop flashing the player is transported back to the office, lit in red, with the screens saying “ONE / OF / US”, “YOU ARE NOW FREE”, “TO REPLAY SUPERHOT VR”, “FOREVER”, activating NG+. The hands in the office are now the same as the ones in the game. There are notes reminding the player that “Mind is software”.


SUPERHOT is a game about transhumanism, and SUPERHOT VR serves to enhance that experience for the player by allowing their own journey into this world. Instead of shooting the person in the headset, the player is the one in the headset. They are the ones that ascend and move between bodies. As they play the game, they bear witness to the disposability of bodies, and their mind is the software that moves between them.

Photo Credit

Playthrough used for screenshots: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGKbGxBBDIw

Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Problem Child

Ben Ratchford

               Child of Eden (Q Entertainment, 2011) is the brainchild of Japanese game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, who would be perhaps most recognizable today for his work on Tetris Effect (Q Entertainment, 2018). The game spotlights the music of his band Genki Rockets in its core gameplay and is thematically designed around the band’s (virtual) frontwoman, “Lumi.” It is not an exaggeration to say that Child of Eden is a realization of purely his artistic vision.

               To understand what Child of Eden is trying to do, then, it’s helpful to look at Mizuguchi’s history as a game designer and as an artist more broadly. Mizuguchi got his start making racing games for Sega, where his first big hit was the 3D racing game Sega Rally Championship (1995). After three years of work on this property, Mizuguchi says in an interview with the New Statesman from 2017 that he attended a party in 1998 that turned his gaze permanently to music and movement, to dance, and in particular to “synesthesia” (his word). Following this we saw the release of Mizuguchi’s first musical game in 1999, a rhythm game for the Dreamcast called Space Channel 5 (Sega). This was followed by Rez (Sega, 2001), a musical rail shooter (to which Child of Eden is the sequel), a series of puzzle games, a VR-compatible version of Rez with updated graphics titled Rez Infinite (2016), and eventually Tetris Effect in 2018.

               Mizuguchi also started Genki Rockets in 2006, a virtual band which featured Lumi, played by (then merely 13 years old) Yusada Rei as its frontwoman and lead vocalist. Like much of Mizuguchi’s work, they enjoyed a rather dedicated cult following that lasted into the 2010s. Genki Rockets concerts, Rez, Child of Eden, Tetris Effect, and even some of the lesser-known puzzle games of Mizuguchi all share a theme—synesthesia. In this case, what is meant is a multisensory experience involving the blending auditory, visual, and in some cases kinesthetic elements to create a totalizing gameplay experience.  Mizuguchi labels himself as a “futurist” or “technologist,” rather than a game designer, and claims to be interested always in bringing the height of interactivity and immersion to his works.

               Mizuguchi’s visions ultimately were realized in VR, a medium which he has strived to work in ever since it became possible to do so. This technology, it seems clear, has been most able to meet his desires for totally immersive games with broad range of opportunity for artistic freedom. Whether these are successful as synesthesia (or, for that matter, as art) is somewhat beside the point; there can be no denying the immersive power that these games have when played with a VR headset, and in my experience with, e.g., Tetris Effect, they really work as coherent and immersive audiovisual experiences. They’re fun games, in short.

               Child of Eden, on the other hand, we might treat with a slightly different attitude.

               Child of Eden was released on Xbox and Playstation, compatible with the Kinect and Playstation Move respectively. The game itself is a musical rail shooter, like Rez before it—somewhere between a rhythm game and an arcade game. The player is meant to time their attacks to the beats in the Genki Rockets tracks which comprise the game’s OST, and by doing so they may score sufficiently high to progress through the game’s six levels. If done correctly, the whole game can be completed in about an hour.

               And with the magic of the Kinect, they can do this using nothing but their hands! Mizuguchi likens the actions of the player to those of a conductor; with the right hand, the player controls a blue lock-on laser attack that is released by a (rather vigorous) flick of the wrist, and with the left hand they may aim an auto-firing purple machine gun. These two attacks share a reticle, and cannot be fired at the same time, which led to some rather frustrating moments of trying to switch from one hand to the other under the duress of timing and having the cursor snap from one side of the screen to the other as the Kinect suddenly recentered its gaze.

As mentioned, the game centers around Lumi, canonically the first human to be born in space (somewhat absurdly, on 9/11, 2019), who lives her whole life on the ISS, never setting foot on earth. Ostensibly, her consciousness and memories are preserved on the internet (redubbed “Eden” by subsequent generations) centuries into the future. This is where the game is set to take place: 22XX, Eden is beset by computer viruses that threaten to corrupt and destroy Lumi and her memories, and the player is set up as a hacker who can traverse Eden and purify it of its viruses. This is rather similar to Rez, which also positions the player as a hacker traversing a futuristic artificial intelligence named “Eden.”

The visuals in game consist of a strange blend of elements. Some enemies (or obstacles, as the case may be) are simply geometries, like in Rez, even carrying through some of the same color palate from that game—orange cubes, purple cubes, grey spheres, and the like. Some completely diverge from this scheme, however, and the game features whales, jellyfish, flowers, stingrays, worms(?), and, most prominently, Lumi herself, in the form of a live action recording of Yusada, in several of the levels, often with corresponding bright colors and full-screen movements and light-shows, all set to-time with the soundtrack.

This divergence in style can be attributed partially to the time past since Rez, and the Child of Eden team wanting to take full advantage of the suite of technology at their disposal. It’s probably also partially attributable to the production teams for each level being totally separate, with Mizuguchi being the only common factor between them.

Whether this all coheres into one singular experience is probably a matter of taste, but for me I the technology falls short of providing the intended experience somewhat. Essentially the problem is twofold: first, the Kinect is not a very good device. Second, the story is totally not fit to the gameplay.

Speaking about the Kinect, it’s useful to bring in Melanie Swalwell’s discussion of the kinaesthetic [sic] sense of gaming in her essay “Movement and Kinaesthetic Responsiveness: A Neglected Pleasure” (2008). Swalwell, in analyzing the psychological responses of gamers in a LAN hub to playing their games, correctly identifies (among other great points) the development of an embodied literacy as a key component to the enjoyment of gameplay. What is meant by this is the acquisition of skill, for one, and a corresponding kinaesthetic sense for what motion is achieved when performing the actions required by dynamic and, often, difficult gameplay. She’s referring to the natural sense that skilled gamers have for the way that their motions in interfacing with the controls for a game influence the game world—this well describes the way that a dedicated tetris player might conceive of what it is like to move the tetrominos, or what a skilled Soldier player in Valve’s Team Fortress 2 might feel as they perform a rocket jump, a technical maneuver that requires skill, practice, and a high degree of in-game awareness. In practice, this amounts to a kind of flow state, an (embodied) identification with the player character and an immersion in the diegetic world of the game.

When playing Child of Eden (as it was intended, with the Kinect), for me this flow state was simply impossible to find, and this experience was common among those who tried it. The simple answer for why this is the case is that the laggy and inaccurate Kinect response to my motion introduced an insurmountable barrier to identification of any kind with the diegetic world. This effect would have been somewhat mitigated if not for the game’s insistence on the precise timing of actions to correspond with the music (that it wasn’t totally clear when the crescendos were is beside the point here. I am not a fan of Genki Rockets, and if you are, maybe you would have a better experience here). However, as things were, I was left continually frustrated in my efforts to control the reticle with any degree of consistency, let alone elegance, and the repeated casting motion with my right arm became more of a physical strain than an integrating element.

Secondarily, there exists a rather severe ludonarrative dissonance in the presentation of the game, in which the Lumi plot, despite being consistent throughout the game, feels like an afterthought. The game would have been totally unchanged if this bit of setting were left out. Aesthetically, Mizuguchi’s creative direction leaves a lot to be desired here, and the whole thing (like Genki Rockets) reeks of new-agey end-of-history type vapidity that I simply can’t overcome. In another interview about the game, Mizuguchi declares that the central theme of his work (besides the synesthetic experience) is, simply, “happiness.” What this could possibly mean is, besides being of no interest to me, beyond the scope of this essay, but I think it is obvious from his work that his talents are best left to game design rather than storytelling.

This is not to declare Child of Eden, or Mizuguchi’s ouvre, a totally unsuccessful project; what Mizuguchi intends to do with the technology, although a failure here, is certainly an ambition worthy of our attention, and sees success in later titles. As VR games grow in number and quality, and as the tools to create these games become available to a wider field of game designers and artists of all kinds, we may look to this (frankly) funny experiment as one of many meaningful efforts into the realm of unknown that helped usher in a new paradigm of game design, the ramifications of which are truly still yet to be known to us.


  1. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2017/07/how-tetsuya-mizuguchi-reinvented-video-games-his-love-synaesthesia
  2. https://www.siliconera.com/tetsuya-mizuguchi-interview-illuminates-child-of-eden/
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayWV7XNRxK8
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetsuya_Mizuguchi

Asphyx: The Paradoxical “You”

While “immersion” is often considered the ideal tenet of modern videogames, the unification of the player and avatar on a physical, kinaesthetic level is a generally overlooked aspect of that goal. Players are rarely asked to consider their own body as a controller, aside from their fingers (or feet, occasionally). What new games could be created, simply by implementing mechanics with the player themselves in mind? Asphyx, a Flash game created by Droqen, takes the universal bodily experience of breath and makes it crucial to its gameplay in an attempt to simultaneously merge game with reality and force a greater acknowledgement of one’s own experience of playing.

Asphyx presents itself as a straightforward two-dimensional platformer, a format instantly recognizable to a vast majority of the game-playing public. The game’s pixel-art graphics and low-detail spelunking draw on a long history of titles, perhaps the most recognizable being Super Mario Bros. Players are instructed by Droqen to use the arrow keys to move side to side and to jump — also useful for jumping is the X key — and that is virtually all one needs to begin. This ease of gameplay as well as the game’s original publishing in Flash as a browser game meant that Asphyx was a highly accessible title upon its release, insofar as it was simple to comprehend and to begin playing on the Internet. It is one artifact amongst the legions of similar Flash browser games created in the 2000’s and early 2010’s that were simple to pick up, comprehend, and move on from. Though, if Asphyx was so straightforward a game there would be no real merit in dissecting it as I am about to do. Droqen implemented one crucial mechanic (though more like a house rule) into Asphyx that sets it apart from games of its time and caliber: when the player is underwater, they are instructed not to breathe, in real life. 

A thorough explanation of Asphyx’s breath rule is crucial to understanding the project of this game, and the experience that Droqen is attempting to simulate. Addressing the player directly, environmental text in the earliest section of the game (see above) declares: “WHEN YOUR AVATAR IS UNDERWATER, YOU MUST BE HOLDING YOUR BREATH. PRESS ESC IF YOU FAIL. YOU FAIL BY BREATHING IN, UNDERWATER.” Water, represented by a lighter purple color, is everywhere in this cave system. Its manipulation and traversal is the essential challenge of the game, which the breathing rule adds a layer of bodily difficulty to. Though, this system has a caveat that makes me hesitant to call it a true “mechanic.” There is no implemented measurement of the player’s breath, nor any punishment for not following the rules in real life. Essentially, Droqen is leaving adherence to the rules up to the player. “IT’S UP TO YOU TO FOLLOW THE RULES… OR TO NOT, BUT I PERSONALLY THINK YOU SHOULD TRY,” the disembodied text explains.

While there are no punishments for not following the rules, there are no rewards present in the game, and no stated goal to the exploration that the player undergoes. All that they encounter is a series of empty rooms typical of a platformer, and some simple obstacles involving buoyant blocks that must be moved with water to progress. While one would think that the breath rule would completely shift the requirements to succeed at this game, the player need only hold their breath for a few seconds, at least in the first part of the game. Pressing the escape key at this point returns the player to the moment before they entered the water last.

At a certain point the player will happen upon the second section of the game, in which the caves are being continuously flooded with water with no way of draining it. Asphyx then becomes a race against time, to get as high as possible to escape their drowning. However, Droqen’s level-building actually makes it impossible to escape the water permanently, as platforms fall when stepped on, causing a long fall into the depths of the cave. Even if the player does find a pocket of air, there is nothing more to explore at this point in the game; they must press the escape key, at which point they make it to the ending levels, now being “worthy.”

So, why is Asphyx so fixated on breath? What does it aim to explore with its unique rule, and exploration of bodily functions? If the game refuses to actually verify that the player is following its set rules, then what is the point of incorporating them at all?

To answer the first few of these questions, I wish to draw on and extrapolate Melanie Swallwell’s theory of “becoming,” as well as Brendan Keogh’s identification of “embodied literacy.” In her essay Movement and Kinaesthetic Responsiveness, Swallwell writes about the experience of reacting with one’s own body to movements, sounds, and sensations from the gameworld. It is a well-known phenomenon that some players will react, emphasize, or otherwise feel things in their real bodies while focused on a game, as if their virtual avatar and their physical form were linked. Swallwell mostly discussed high-intensity, motion-centric games like Quake II and Grand Prix Legends, and how players will either be affected by the game’s movement mechanics or project their lived experience onto the game. She writes: “Though (sadly) I don’t usually get around in a vintage Porsche, I do know the sound and feeling of gear changes and the way that one is thrown around within a car by hard driving […] While my physical response to the sound of Grand Prix Legends was a surprise, the game was not introducing me to anything new.”

Part of Asphyx’s project is to induce this kinaesthetic response within the player, albeit on a smaller scale than the powerful sensations that Swallwell discusses. By limiting the player’s breath, the author seemingly hopes to induce frustration, annoyance, fear, and some level of panic (particularly in the final flooding section) by drawing on the universal human experience of not being able to breathe when wanting to. It also hopes to counteract the usual “flow state” of gameplay that typifies Keogh’s “embodied literacy.” As he write in  A Play of Bodies: “The literate videogame player […] has a basic understanding of the performative grammar of different videogame genres […] and is able to transport and adapt this literacy from one videogame to the next.” 

Asphyx, as an easily understood game for a literate player, distinguishes itself from the norm by incorporating its unique breath mechanic, working against the usual understanding of embodied literacy. Rather than merging the avatar and the player, the text of the game’s minimal narrative always distinguishes between the human at the screen and the controlled character. By often referring to the player directly, and telling “you” to think about your own breathing, Asphyx essentially forces a simultaneous physical unification and separation of the avatar and the player’s body; they both “breath” at the same time, but the player is also encouraged to be aware of their own body. At the end of the game, the player is told to “judge themselves,” and ask if they are worthy of truly “winning,” though it is mechanically impossible to do so. 

In creating Asphyx, Droqen tested the limits of what immersion in games is. The game is seemingly paradoxical, as it asks for a level of bodily identification with the avatar — something rare in games even a decade later — while simultaneously instructing the player to think about and judge themselves and their physical experience. It combines aspects of Swallwell’s “becoming,” while trying to avoid the deeper ramifications of embodied literacy as defined by Keogh. In the years since Asphyx’s release, the world has seen games that place less trust in the player, or do seek to create the flow state that embodied literacy necessitates. Before Your Eyes actually tracks player blinks, merging to a remarkable degree the player and the game’s character. SUPERHOT VR does the same, creating a flow state in a VR world that can be easily understood by even the newest gamer, as long as they can look around. With these new horizons on both sides of the spectrum, Asphyx’s place is awkward, as a middle child that plays with both. Yet still today, the question of breath is left largely unexplored, possibly due to its accessibility issues and health hazards, while movement and other physical activities are gamified. What new frontiers in game immersion would there be, if the world were to follow Droqen’s lead?

-Leo Alvarez

Twine and Stories of Intimacy

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.

Gameplay from the beginning of Even Cowgirls Bleed

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.

The player is unable to select “Hand over the gun” even by using unconventional means
Final line of Even Cowgirls Bleed

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.

Examples of the visuals used to denote the time of day and location

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. 

Gameplay from There Ought to Be a Word

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.

Gone Home as a non-binary space between games and narratives

By Helen Zhou

Between games and narratives exists a decades-long debate about whether games constitute good narratives. Ludologists want to shift the focus of game study to game mechanics and regard narratives as a secondary aspect of games, while narratologists are interested in studying games as a form of storytelling medium. A long-standing binary of game and narratives are created out of the debate, which delineates their boundary using agency/interactivity. According to this binary, games and narratives are in direct conflict with each other because narratives need to remain under the author’s control, which calls for minimum agency/participation from the players. On the contrary, the agency of players offered by the game’s interactivity is the primary feature of the game as a medium. In addition, gaming satisfaction might be in opposition to narrative satisfaction, which adds to their incompatibility. E.g., when a losing ending of the game provides a better story, the player is pushed into a conflict of whether to seek the narrative satisfaction which requires losing the game, or to seek the gaming satisfaction, which is to win at the stake of losing a better story.

However, as people experiment more with game design and storytelling, the line is not as clear anymore and an in-between area of narrative games starts to be sketched. Gone Home, a 3D first-person exploration/adventure game released in the August of 2013 by the Fulbright company, lies in this middle ground. This blog post aims to provide an insight on how Gone Home, as a narrative game, opens a non-binary space between games and narratives and carefully combines the two sides of the binary through expanding player agency and breaking traditional gaming binaries (e.g., win vs. lose). These moves help align gaming satisfaction with narrative satisfaction and thus construct a coherent emotional experience for the players.

In Gone Home, the player plays as the big sister Katie of a 4-member household, who just returned home from her one-year overseas trip in 1995. It was 1 AM. She arrived at the new house in Oregon that her family had moved into, only to find out that the house was empty, and no one was there to greet her. The only information was a note from her sister Samantha stuck to the door, saying “don’t come looking for me, and don’t tell mom and dad what happened”. Clearly, something went wrong during her one year of absence. Thus, she set out to explore the house, entering every room and examining different objects, to find out the truth behind the emptiness and the history of her family.

(The family portrait: Katie is the one standing behind and her sister is the one on the left)

With this premise in mind, we can start analyzing the game and how it combines game and narrative without undermining one with the other. As a videogame, Gone Home not only preserved but also well expanded the player agency by expanding the range of interactivity available in the gaming space. Through embedded narrative, a mode of game storytelling invented by Henry Jenkins, the interactivity got tied to the process of progressing in the narrative, making the agency serve the narrative purpose well without undermining it. To start with, the extent to which objects were interactable in Gone Home is amazing. While a lot of games, due to design budget limit and intention to give players instructions, usually only design interactivity for objects that are “useful” for the gameplay, e.g., you are likely to be able to interact with coins or weapons, instead of a random rock that serves as part of the background. However, in Gone Home, pretty much all objects were interactable. You could open any drawer or cabinet, whether they would be useful for making progress in the game, and in fact, a lot of them were empty and were NOT related to the narrative. You could also pick any object up and examine them, such as toilet paper rolls, film tickets, etc., which were not necessarily relevant to the story but were there to increase the player’s range of choice. This amazing range of interactivity greatly expanded the sense of agency players felt, as there were more choices lying ahead and more actions one could take to investigate the house, along with different sequences of exploration and your own way of interpreting each object. However, this immense freedom of exploration did not go outside of control and went against the narrative. It was rather tamed well through embedded narrative, which allowed the game to “become a kind of information space, a memory palace, embedded within the mise-en-scene awaiting discovery,” according to Henry Jenkins. The bits and pieces of information were stored in the objects and the layout of the house, making the scene saturated with narrative, waiting to be explored and discovered. Thus, the freedom of exploration of the space is harnessed to make progress in narratives, instead of creating different goals that distract the storytelling.

(Someone moved all the items from Gone Home into one room; from Reddit)

On the other side, the narrative was protected well under the author’s control, stored in individual audio journals narrated by Samantha’s voice, which was a story vastly unrelated to the protagonist’s action/choice. The gloomy space of the house that provided the potential of evocative narrative also turned out to be unrelated to the actual story of the game, further protecting the narrative’s own emotional flow. The house, other than providing a free range of interactivity and embedded narrative, also appeared to be an evocative narrative, which are spaces “built upon stories or genre traditions already well-known to visitors”, according to Henry Jenkins. Staged in a big abandoned empty mansion with dim lights and disappearing family members on a stormy night, Gone Home was for sure evoking the players’ previous knowledge of the classic setting of horror films and games. The carefully constructed gloomy vibe provided a very natural ground for imagining a suspense and mystery story behind the missing family. However, the story itself turned out to be nowhere close to a horror/suspense story. Told through Samantha’s audio journals, the narrative was about Samantha’s new high school life, specifically the story of her and a girl named “Lonnie”, who she later fell in love with. The themes were centered around LGBTQ identity discovery and exploration, along with subsequent confusion and denial from the family, which stirred emotions that were far from being scared and afraid as in usual horror games. The content delivered was also completely independent of the player’s action as it’s predetermined and narrated through Samantha’s monologue. What the player’s action did affect were just the sequence that the journals were unlocked, or how many times that they got replayed. In this way, the narratives remained intact as an encouragement for the player’s exploration, while players gained their agency through their unique way of exploring the space and unlocking the narratives.

(When you unlock a new journal in Gone Home)

In addition, Gone Home also pushed the boundary between games and narratives by breaking certain traditional gaming binaries, such as win vs. lose and reward vs. punishment, and making room for more compelling and coherent storytelling. Unlike most games, there was not a clear winning or losing state in Gone Home. Although the space construction was reminiscent of the horror genre, there was neither monster chasing you nor a character death of anyone. In fact, you would never die or lose in the game, as it was just you walking around in an empty house, exploring in whatever way you like. What to interpret from all the individual objects that might or might not be tied to the narrative and what to do with them was left to players and they could freely do whatever they want, e.g., throwing it, hiding it, putting it away, carrying it, etc., without having to bear any consequence. Similarly, there were neither punishments nor material rewards. No matter how much stuff you threw away or how messy you made the house be, there would not be any punishment on you, which is unlike a lot of games that use punishment/reward to instruct players to learn an intended way of playing or the way to successfully navigate the game. You would also not get any reward more than your sister’s voice in the air narrating her high school story, no matter how hard you try. Thus the only thing close to any kind of reward in this game became the narrative itself. In this way, the game resorted its gaming satisfaction to narrative satisfaction, as the gaming satisfaction was aligned with completing the narrative, without extra goals of winning the game or leveling up.

In conclusion, Gone Home serves as an excellent example of a narrative game that breaks the binary between games and narratives alienated by agency and satisfaction dissonance. It strived to expand player agency in a way that aligned with the purpose of providing a compelling narrative, while the narrative remained intact and preserved its original form, unsusceptible to the player’s action or choices. It also further blurred the dividing line by breaking certain traditional boundaries that a game would have, for example, distinguishing a clear win or lose state. Gone Home illustrates that it’s possible to present compelling narratives through video games, and it’s plausible to provide players with the agency to complete the story exploration.