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 Dogs, Ultra Business Tycoon III, Skulljhabit, With Those We Love Alive, and Love is Zero.
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.