For most gamers, Zork is the classic example of a choose-your-own-adventure, text-based gaming experience. Although Oregon Trail is relatively adorned in images, italso fits the bill. When I think of this genre of game, my mind goes down a slightly different path. Instead, I first think of the Zork parody Thy Dungeonman, hosted on Flash cartoon site Homestar Runner. Then, I think of the queer indie games made in the early 2010s on Twine.
Open-source, hypertext-based storytelling tool Twine was invented by web developer Chris Klimas thirteen years ago. At the time, Klimas had no way of knowing what a hit the program would be in the indie gaming community, but was inspired by the creativity of its users to keep improving its functionality. On November 3, 2009, he wrote about finding a love poem that Dan Waber was scripting in Twine, and said, as a way of explaining “Why I’m Doing This,” “what I’m doing helps people do real things, to make poetry even. There aren’t that many developers out there making things that people make poetry with. I feel lucky.”
Perhaps Twine’s greatest brush with mainstream fame occurred when the creative team behind Black Mirror used it to storyboard the interactive episode “Bandersnatch.” Mostly, however, Twine has occupied a countercultural space in the world of storytelling. As Adi Robertson wrote in last year’s “Text Adventures: How Twine Remade Gaming,” “Twine’s simplicity felt liberating. It imbued games with the DIY spirit of homemade zines, many of them weirder, sharper, and queerer than their mainstream counterparts.”
In 2013, The Guardian‘s gaming blog shared a post entitled, “Anna Anthropy and the Twine Revolution.” Anna Anthropy isn’t the only game designer highlighted in the article as a revolutionary in the world of gaming; merritt k and Porpentine Charity Heartscape are also mentioned as crucial figures who made the most of Twine’s capacities. Heartscape’s Twine works include Howling Dogs, an award-winning claustrophobic simulation of a prison cell, and k’s include (ASMR) Vin Diesel DMing a Game of D&D Just For You, which is exactly what it sounds like. As we ring in LGBTQ pride month, the Anna Anthropy Twine game that I’d like to look at closer is called Queers in Love at the End of the World.
Queers in Love at the End of the World lasts exactly ten seconds, time kept by a countdown in the corner of the screen. The game begins with the white text on a black screen, “In the end, like you always said, it’s just the two of you together. You have ten seconds, but there’s so much you want to do: kiss her, hold her, take her hand, tell her.” Each of the bolded words is clickable, leading to more options for how exactly you might want to spend these last moments. No matter what, when the countdown reaches zero, the game ends the same way: “Everything is wiped away” (more lyrical than The Oregon Trail’s “You have died of dysentery”). Clicking through to the afterword provides one last piece of context, the scrawled words, “WHEN WE HAVE EACH OTHER WE HAVE EVERYTHING.”
A year after dubbing Anna Anthropy a leader of the Twine Revolution, The Guardian published games critic Cara Ellison’s “A Verse About Queers in the Love at the End of the World.” The subheading, “Twine developer Anna Anthropy turns game mechanics into poetry,” calls back to Klimas’ early inspiration: love poetry. Ellison’s verse refers to the ten-second timer as “tyrannical,” in agreement with Adi Robertson’s claim that Twine games “can compromise [the] sense of control” that a reader would normally have over the pacing of a choose-your-own-adventure-story. Ellison writes: “I want to treat those Twine rooms like Carrie’s prom night and gut them / I want to call that timer’s parents and say DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT HAS DONE TO ME,” pouring frustration onto the page. This is a desperate, angry love poem to a simultaneously brief and expansive interactive love poem.
My earlier post about translating poetry encouraged you to approach poems as games, with a willingness to engage in creative, productive failures. The queer Twine revolution of the last decade shows that it is also possible to treat games as poems. Any game built from language has the capacity to be movingly lyrical and verbally innovative (even a game of Dungeons & Dragons DMed by Vin Diesel). The first Twine Revolution may have passed, but Twine is still an available tool. Why not take it for a spin and map out a poem-game of your own? The second Twine Revolution might begin right on your laptop.
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