Welcome to the fourth installment of Gayme Corner, a biweekly column in which I talk about games, all types of games, and the ways we play them. This week, I dove into Videogames for Humans, a lovely series of essays about Twine games edited by game creator and writer Merritt Kopas.
Here’s what I know about Twine: it’s a visual tool for writing interactive fiction and games. Passages go in boxes, boxes can be dragged around the screen, and links are drawn between them, offering options to go forward and sometimes backward and sometimes cycle through choices. Everything else is customizable. Played straight, it’s like a hypertext novel, but add some code, and it becomes more like a mainstream type of game. I played a Twine game for the first time in early 2013, and it felt like reading someone’s diary, in a fun and uncomfortably compelling way. Most Twine games make me feel that way, as though I’m looking at the raw code of a sliver of someone’s brain.
A lot of the most well-known Twine games are written by trans women, which is pretty rad, though Merritt Kopas points out that, “Few of these authors are accorded the respect, attention, or monetary success of their white male counterparts,” and within the community, it’s mostly white trans women whose work is recognized. Even so, Twine has great potential. “Authors are doing things with Twine that aren’t possible with traditional text. And at the same time, they’re using interactive media to tell stories that mainstream videogames couldn’t dream of telling,” Kopas said. There are Twine games about sex, about depression, about lyrical surrealist utopias, about losing a small-yet-important thing, about feeling out of place and overcompensating in fake confidence. Sure, some Twine games include stat building, or call on a certain degree of motor skills, but ultimately they’re never just about that external mechanism. There’s something personal about every Twine game I’ve ever played, which isn’t the case for many mainstream games.
Videogames for Humans, is, explicitly, not a definitive book on Twine. It’s not an expert’s anthology or a Best of Twine collection. In her introduction, Kopas says, “This is a book about Twine. But let’s not let it be the book, yeah?” Kopas intends the book to be many things: a celebration of Twine’s innovation, a cross-sample of the many different types of games that creators have made on Twine, a recognition of the creators themselves and the feelings and reactions that they evoke in their game players. To show the range of the Twine community, she pulled together a curious collection of essays: in each essay, a writer plays a game and talks us through their choices, reasonings, and reactions. Because Twine games are typically small and don’t take very long to play, each essay includes the entire text of the game playthrough as well. There’s something intimate about them. It’s like physically sitting next to someone and watching them play, with pauses for commentary and emotional breaks and all.
Videogames for Humans also took me a while to get through because of the nature of Twine! I was constantly stopping in between essays to go play a game, especially if it was one I hadn’t played before. Even though I could read through the text, there are always choices that the writer didn’t make, and I’m one of those game players who goes down every decision tree to see every possible outcome. With twenty-seven different writers, too, there are essays where I’m interested in the game, and it’s clear that my experience of the game would be different from the writer’s. In Austin Walker’s playthrough of There Ought to Be a Word, by Jeremy Penner, the game and Walker talk about online dating and OKCupid, but they’re both men. Having the extra filter wasn’t working for me. So I went to play it on my own, with just me and Penner’s words. For a game like Even Cowgirls Bleed (which is ostensibly about a cowgirl striking out for California and meeting other cowgirls and is really about “days when you fumbled your heart like live ammunition”), writer Leigh Alexander says that it’s impossible not to trigger an outcome that you don’t want. She predicts that you’ll play it twice, just to make sure. She warned me, and I went to play it anyway. I played it twice.
That’s the thing about Twine games, which Kopas does a wonderful job of representing with her curated collection of games and writers. It’s a medium, not a genre. You can predict a certain kind of storytelling, but not necessarily the subject, or narrative, or tone, or really anything beyond the mechanism that links one scene to another. Many Twine games are infused with their creator’s experiences and artistic touches, and it takes playing them, or watching someone else play them, to understand the deeply personal nature of Twine. In the book’s introduction, Kopas says that she hopes the book will be a step toward “more human forms of digital play,” which I love. Video games aren’t all mainstream adaptations and shoot-’em-ups and mobile puzzles to occupy us during commutes, though those games can be fun, too. Video games can be more human. They can be introspective, interactive, communicative and like the introduction to the book says, “games that are short, small, and generous with the player’s time, that don’t want to consume the player, but that invite them into playful engagement. And they are positive escapes rather than negative ones, experiences that help us to imagine better worlds rather than simply providing temporary reprieve from the one we live in.”
Tell me a bit about your favorite Twine games! How did they make you feel? Also, let me know what you’d like to see featured in future Gayme Corner posts! We’re all ears, all the time.