A new book puts some of gaming's most interesting, innovative and exciting narrative experiences under the spotlight.
Page 85 of Videogames for Humans reads as follows:
by Tom McHenry
Played by Naomi Clark
This meant I was about to read portions of the narrative Twine game Horse Master, and simultaneously read Naomi Clark's summary of her own play-through of the game. I was going to walk side by side with Clark as she broke down the elements that made this game with such an odd title work.
I had no idea what Horse Master was about, but something made me put the book down, Google the game, and play it right then and there. It took me about an hour. I came away utterly bewildered but energized by the energy of the game. I was sad, because the game was sad and grotesque, but it was beautiful too. And then I read Clark deconstruct her experience, laying bare the game's parts, and learned maybe more than I wanted to know about a game that purports to be about "training horses".
As I see it, there are three broad ways of dividing up how we understand the digital games industry. First there is the AAA game space, with its high powered graphics cards, production budgets in the billions of dollars and development teams with hundreds of employees. There are indie games, developed by smaller teams ranging from one or two developers to upwards of a dozen, with smaller budgets and the precarity that comes with it. For these developers, each game is a make or a break event with their independent career on the line with each release.
And then there are altgames (which you might also call zinesters or artgames). These are games that can be radical, personal, explicit, sexy, violent and most often, counterintuitive. They are made by people, often on a part-time basis, or as a hobby. They can be given away for free, maybe with a request for a small donation.
There are thousands of these games—and in many cases, they would not exist without the platform Twine.
For the uninitiated, Twine uses hyperlinks and basic HTML to create interweaving, primarily text-based games. Paragraphs are displayed on screen, with branching routes in the narrative highlighted as links. When you click on a link, it can be an important choice with no turning back, or a cul-de-sac—a small missive adding character and place to a story. These games can tell bizarre and deeply affective personal stories, such as Winter Lake's Rat Chaos; erotic social commentary, as is the case with Benji Bright's Fuck that Guy; or dystopic science fiction simulations like Tom McHenry's aforementioned Horse Master.
For me what unites these game isn't so much an aesthetic (though an argument can be made for one) or a politics (same), but rather, a shared belief that making games isn't purely about economic and artistic success. While some people who make Twine games can be professionals, it's much more likely that they are amateurs experimenting with a new medium of expression.
It turns out that it's a good time to be intrigued by Twine. At the end of April, instar books published Videogames for Humans, edited by Twine author and writer Merritt Kopas. When I met with Kopas, maybe the most striking thing was that she thought of her book as something more than just a series of essays about Twine. Rather, Videogames for Humans is a "historical document" that not only features games, but also the experiences of play that specific people have had with a game itself.
In this way, Videogames for Humans isn't a book where Kopas or anybody really holds an authoritative court on what Twine games are, fundamentally: instead it's a collection of vignettes that give a fuller picture of Twine as a platform, and of the young, growing culture of game designers who develop works for it.
The book is split into 27 chapters, with games and writing by authors and artists like Soha Kareem, Mattie Brice, Anna Anthropy, Zoe Quinn, Christine Love, and Cara Ellison. Each chapter focuses on a single play-through of a single game, and the gameplay is interspersed with commentary from the person playing through it.
One example is Riley MacLeod playing through Fuck that Guy while reflecting on his own experiences of being trans in a gay culture dominated by cisgender men. While MacLeod moves through Fuck that Guy's narrative about trying to hook-up in a club he can't help but reflect on the kinds of choices the game makes for him. On the other side of the spectrum is Naomi Clark's play-through of Horse Master, which is not only a reflection on the narrative, but on the unseen code and algorithms behind the screen. In the process, Clark pulls the curtain back to show the reader what choices are merely smoke and mirrors, and what ones actually matter.
Nevertheless, it's not really Twine as a platform that Kopas is interested in. The social movement around this technology of play is key here, not the fetishization of a technology, and Videogames for Humans is part of a project that Kopas is working towards more broadly in her overall work: thinking critically about what it means to make art in a world saturated by the ongoing pressure to monetize everything.
"The growth of spaces like Dames Making Games here is super important," Kopas told me, referring to the Toronto-based feminist non-profit community organization dedicated to bolstering the involvement of women in game design. "What's cool about that space to me is that it isn't professional development. It's not an incubator, there's no singular track. At the same time they recognize that all their constituents live in a capitalist economy and help them to develop a wide range of strategies to survive within that."
With each chapter in Videogames for Humans I immediately felt a specific kind of affectation I often associate with Twine games—contemplative, slow, mysterious and exciting. These are games that often beg for reflection and context, and it's apt that artists working in a medium as seemingly antiquated as interactive fiction are developing works of digital play and storytelling with such depth. It is an interesting juxtaposition with the AAA games industry, which iterates endlessly on existing genres and tropes to avoid risk.
That Twine games feel fresh and particularly exciting, while the next FPS is likely to be a well-oiled version of the last game, is a testament to the creativity in this community. In a world where every TED talk and pop-science book purports that specific technologies will be what makes our lives better (while simultaneously saving the world), it's refreshing to read an accessible book about games that stresses, not graphics, groundbreaking visuals or immersion, but the interaction between games and players and the social forces they exist within.
Correction 04/05: An earlier version of this article attributed Riley MacLeod's play through of Fuck That Guy to Benji Bright, the game's author. This error has since been corrected. Thanks Benji.