Twine: A Platform Analysis

Twine is an open-source interactive fiction platform that enables users to easily create dynamic narratives in HTML. It was originally created by Chris Klimas in 2009 for his own personal use in constructing narratives, but rapidly grew, gaining a substantial following among gamers and fiction enthusiasts alike.

chyoa

The initial wave of interactive fiction revolved around a parser that interpreted typed commands of the user. Some added more clever wrinkles than others to this formula, but the basic structure involved a very granular level of player interaction, including fighting with a parser that might not accept your intended commands. In many ways Twine instead hearkens back to the style of the choose-your-own-adventure books of the 1980s and 1990s, with limited, clearly demarcated options that create branching paths. The basic format involves the organization of text into ‘passages,’ with words or phrases that operate as hyperlinks between them. Thus, the reader operates within a limited selection of choices in any given text.

This does comparatively limit the perceived flexibility of the narrative for player interaction, but even most parser games necessarily operate within given constraints—a player cannot be allowed to make any decision because the designer/writer cannot realistically account for all possibilities. The constraints of Twine thus can be a positive, particularly paired with strong direction in the writing: the player knows precisely what the given options are, and can anticipate satisfyingly-developed results from each. (Although, arguably, many Twine games may be better seen not as ‘games’ at all, but rather interactive texts.)

twiness

While this hyperlink structure forms the basic framework of Twine games, there’s a great deal of flexibility present as well. Links can recurse in order to provide structure or a sense of place. They can add text to a passage rather than directing to a new one entirely, perhaps clarifying or changing a sentence or term. They can also handle storage of variables, allowing the writer to create a system of stats or alter passages depending on whether they’ve been encountered before or not.

Further, it’s fairly easy to add images and background music to the experience. More ambitious writers can use javascript for even more functionality—see, for instance, my father’s long, long legs, a horror game which uses a flashlight effect for the cursor in one memorable sequence. But many extremely effective games tend to avoid overly-complex elements, instead adopting a minimalist style that places the greatest emphasis on the writing. Birdland, the 2015 winner of best game in the XYZZY Awards, is one strong example of this, using only a few images to augment the story it tells.

birdland

Privileging text over other kinds of media and working off of a simple code base that’s accessible to non-programmers makes the platform particularly welcoming. For perhaps this reason, many creators have used Twine to tell stories about and from the perspective of marginalized groups—particularly in the LGBT sphere. Game designers such as Porpentine use visceral, provocative imagery to create surrealistic experiences that still meaningfully incorporate themes of queerness, sexuality, trauma, and abuse. (See, for instance With Those We Love Alive, which asks the player to draw real sigils on their arm as part of the experience) Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest takes an even more direct stance at expressing a message, placing the player in the position of someone struggling with depression, and in doing so, communicating more about the experience than other modes of discussion might allow.

The combination of accessibility for both player and creator, as well as a basic structure that’s not dissimilar from primary and secondary historical source documents, makes the usage of Twine well-suited to augment historical narratives. Effectively, Twine allows a sufficiently thoughtful creator to better manage the experience of a user—it would not be a stretch to imagine a critical scholarly edition of a set of texts linked through Twine rather than a different platform. But while Twine does not necessarily enable a lot of new tools for serious scholars, its capabilities and structure do speak very well to more general audiences. The conception of ‘game’ allows these texts to particularly resonate with people interested in an entertainment experience, combining play with pedagogy.

This is not to say the medium is not without its challenges. In particular, much of a given game’s overall quality is dependent on the writing and structure, which requires real thought about what stories to tell and how to tell them. In a practical sense, while compiling a finished game is simple, and the resulting html file can easily be hosted on a personal server or a service like philome.la, publicizing the completed experience comes with its own challenges and unknowns. But there seems to be tremendous opportunity here, and the success of others working within the sphere seems to indicate the possibility for historical narratives to thrive alongside fictive works.

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