Choose Your Own Adventure-Maker: Twine and the Art of Personal Games

One of the best video games I played in 2012 is set about two miles from my apartment. It's called Brooklyn Trash King, and it informed me that raccoons are gaining control of the neighborhood. It also presupposes the existence of a local island called Raccoon Island, makes fun of Kickstarter, and contains the most graphic descriptions of animal butts that I have ever read. Brooklyn Trash King only takes about five minutes to finish and, while this might be local bias talking, if I had bothered to play Call of Duty: Black Ops II, I'm sure I would say with no reservations that Brooklyn Trash King blows it out of the water.

That sounds ridiculous, but think about this: The new Call of Duty game was made by a gigantic group of people who felt a years-long interest in parting as many people as possible with fifty dollars and hundreds of hours of their time, whereas Brooklyn Trash King was made by Ben Esposito, who presumably had a few hours to kill and felt a passing interest in raccoons and making jokes about "getting huge." 

According to Wikipedia, Modern Warfare was in development for two years; let's be generous and say BTK took Ben four hours. How did he manage to seize that moment and create BTK in roughly one four thousand three hundred-eightieth of the time it took to develop a Call of Duty game? He used something called Twine, an application that makes the creation of choose-your-own-adventure style games simpler than ever before.

Twine was created about three years ago by a guy named Chris Klimas, a writer and developer whose self-written bio claims he "likes coming up with increasingly complex ways of telling stories." It's free to download for Windows or Mac (most other game-creation frameworks, especially those that are easy to use, cost money), and it exports the finished product as HTML files, which are extremely simple to put online for anyone with an internet connection to access. 

From Brooklyn Trash King by Ben Esposito

Creating a Twine game isn't much more difficult or complicated than creating a PowerPoint presentation. The user makes a page, gives it a title, and links to it from a previous page based on that title. That's it. I managed to go from downloading Twine to having a playable (albeit tiny and boring) game within about five minutes. 

Frameworks for game creation generally require at least a small amount of programming-based heavy lifting, but Twine games can be created entirely from within the program's graphical interface. Code can be used to enhance Twine games, but it's far from necessary; users are able to explore Twine's capabilities both at their own pace and by constantly creating, rather than by being thrown into the deep end of the pool. Letting creative whims dictate the need for technical difficulty, rather than the other way around, is where Twine distinguishes itself for beginners and those uninterested in the arduous process of learning to program. (Old school users might recognize in Twine echos of one of the earliest and most famous consumer programming tools, HyperCard, which Apple finally discontinued in 2004; other kinds of nerds will notice a whiff of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books or classic text adventures.) 

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While Twine has been around for years, along the way earning the disdain of more serious indie game developers, it wasn't until Anna Anthropy got ahold of it late last year that things began to get really interesting. Anna is a game designer, critic, and writer whose evangelism of the Twine platform has helped elevate it from a potential novelty to a sort of subcultural lynchpin. (Anna literally wrote the book on this type of thing; it's called Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, and it's great. When she talks about finding new and interesting ways for people to make games, people listen.) As a result of Anna's efforts, types of people who don't usually make games are making Twine games, which means lots of these little stories are strange and funny and sad and cool in ways that games usually are not. "Everyone has stories to tell," says Anna. "It's just that, until now, it wasn't cost-effective for people to tell those stories in games. The barrier to entry was a sheer rock wall, and only programmers could climb it. But anyone can write."

The Twine community seems to be gathering around TwineHub, a gallery of Twine games and tutorials that was, itself, created in Twine. On TwineHub you'll find surreal set pieces such as Seven Hours Pass by Loren Schmidt, science fiction mini-epics like Eioioio by David T. Marchand, statements about psychoanalysis like Intake by Maddox Pratt, and erotic cannibalism adventures like Encylopedia Fuckme and the Case of the Vanishing Entree by Anthropy herself. (Note that, if anything, these are among the more straightforward ones.)

Looking through the authors on TwineHub, you'll find established games industry personalities, artists who have made their name in other media, and total newcomers. The sheer diversity of the Twine community is surprisingly unique, as game development goes; there's been an active artistically-minded games underground for awhile now, but because of the immense technical challenge involved, it was made up mostly of talented game-maker types who were consciously opting out of the AAA gaming environment, rather than outsiders who wanted a way to express themselves and were brought in by the game scene's inclusiveness.I'd bet the majority of Twine authors had never made a game before. "I ran a game-making workshop in Toronto," says Anna. "I gave everyone Twine and a crash course in how to use it. There were all sorts of people there: a lot of them were in their fifties or sixties. They wouldn't have had the time to learn [other tools such as] Game Maker or Stencyl, but they all made their first videogames in Twine that night."

From LabNet Email Systems

This democratization of game development is critically important, both to prevent the homogenization of games as an art form and to make game-making more inclusive, providing people with new media for expressing themselves. The formation of a community surrounding Twine marks an enormous step towards that goal. Says Anna: "For years I've been talking about a beautiful new promised land of games by everyone, for everyone. Marginalized people, formerly silenced in games culture, rising up to shout their stories at the tops of their lungs. Can you imagine what it's like to see your vision of the world begin to come to pass? I wanted to fall down crying. It was so beautiful.

Courtney Stanton, a blogger, project manager, and former games industry employee, was inspired by Anna's tutorial and created a Twine game every day for the month of December 2012. Stanton had very little coding experience prior to her project, and Twine stood out among more intimidating options. "If you know how to write, you can make a Twine game, all by yourself. That's a really different barrier to entry than most everything else in games," she says. Courtney's games ended up running the gamut, from weaving the heartbreaking story of a deceased pet cat to providing a short, accurate simulation of being home sick from work. They end up creating an emotional response almost alien to the world of mainstream games: they're personal, relatable, and wonderfully flawed in a way that most video games literally can't afford to be.

I asked Courtney how her games might differ from a blog post or an essay about the same subjects. She pointed to Twine's design, which can make concerns about the actual content take a back seat to the ecstasy of creating something, resulting in a more stream-of-consciousness finished product. "I know the content is really personal," she says, "but in order to noodle with a feature and experiment and see how it works in a game, I need to be able to crank out a game before I get bored. The only way to do that without Lorem Ipsuming all the text is to just write down whatever's in my head at the time."

 by Anna Anthropy

A rule of video game design: If a game gives a player two separate problems, they're typically able to compartmentalize and solve them both relatively easily. As soon as both problems are presented at the same time, however, a wire gets tripped in the player's brain and they become confused and unlikely to solve either one. By compartmentalizing the technical side and allowing the game maker to focus on a single white box of plain text, Twine gets out of the way and lets its users cut to the chase. "Twine operates the same way my brain has already been trained to tell stories," says Courtney, "and I think it's actually faster for me to make a Twine game than for me to make notes and an outline for a Twine game. I've tried jotting down ideas on paper or in Notepad, but at this point I just make a bunch of cards in Twine and jot notes directly in there."

There's a popular myth that many of games' most enduring franchises are the product of a single auteur. This is true to a degree; the ideas for Mario and Zelda can be traced back to Shigeru Miyamoto, Final Fantasy is the brainchild of Hironobu Sakaguchi, and so on. Ultimately, though, these games, and most games, are the product of huge teams, held back by things like branding concerns, tight timelines, and, most importantly, financial bottom lines.

What the myth speaks to, though, is a widely-felt desire for games to be more direct reflections of the people who create them. (Miyamoto, in particular, has a knack for these types of hooks. Pikmin, he claims, was inspired by his fondness for gardening; the Wii Fit came from the satisfaction of standing on his bathroom scale every morning.) Twine gives those of us who aren't Mario-creating supergeniuses an opportunity to fulfill that impulse for ourselves, turning our experiences, however abstractly, into interactive vignettes that can be experienced by others. They certainly won't always make for great games. But simply by virtue of being free and easy, Twine is helping to expand game-making from the myth of the auteur to the reality of the amateur.


Below, a sampling of compelling Twine games, including some recommended by Anna Anthropy. Anna's made an excellent guide to Twine; also check out the Twine reference guide and the Twine Google Group.


Eioioio by David T. Marchand

The Ark by Matthew Marcus

CLOSET by maddox pratt

Calories by Emma Fearon

The Death of Analogue by Chris Priestman

What's in a Name by Gaming Pixie

Develop a Leather-based Bloodstream by squidlarkin

»——-?——-> by JP LeBreton

Hunger City by Millicent Herrman

A Jousting 'Game' by Emmanuel Turner

love by finny

metrolith by porpentine

The Porcelain Precipice of Immanence by @SolonCubed

A Synchronous Ritual by merritt kopas

Tony the Turkey by David S. Gallant

TRASH GYRE by antibesnice

Walking Story by Michael Brough