Gaming Corner: Pushing the Boundaries of Game Design with Twine


Designed by Ray Gill

(Designed by Ray Gill | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Abigail Bowé, Arts Writer

No attached price tags. No prior knowledge of a programming language required. Simple enough to learn in under an hour. Many gamers are less familiar with Twine than game creation programs big-budget studios use, like Unity or the Unreal Engine, but this landmark freeware is special in that it makes game-making simpler than it has ever been before. Following Twine’s 2009 release, anybody could quickly make a computer game about anything they wanted and share it. Twine’s indie games have boomed from few in number to countless, meeting both high praise and intense backlash along the way. What should count as a video game? Moreover, who should be allowed to make them?


Teaching and Using Twine

University of Utah associate professor Elizabeth Swanstrom works in the English Department and the Marriott Library’s Digital Matters program. She specializes in digital humanities, an umbrella term for a field which she said is “notoriously impossible to define,” but said, “if you’re using a computer as a fundamental part of what you’re doing or making, you’re in it.” Alongside many other pieces of software, Swanstrom teaches Twine. It’s ideal for introducing students who aren’t computer science or EAE majors to game mechanics and electronic literature. “It’s just so much more friendly than other operating systems,” she said.

Twine is a tool for writing text-based games. To begin, a user opens a page, adds text and then makes a hyperlink that creates the next page. For example, a barebones Twine game might display the prompt, “Your cat is hungry,” with two clickable options, “Feed the cat” and “Don’t feed the cat.” Each may then lead to a result: “The cat lives” or “The cat dies.” This is about as minimalist as a video game can get, with just one choice for a player to make and two possible outcomes. Enough choices strung together, though, make for a game with many endings.

“My favorite book of all time is still ‘Underground Kingdom’ by Edward Packard, which is a Choose Your Own Adventure novel,” Swanstrom said. “And the use of Twine makes building that kind of narrative as easy as possible, in ways that I don’t think have been replicated with other programs.” Twine lets its creators do more than write branching stories with text alone by including animations, sounds, pictures and code into their games as they become more practiced. “It can handle conditional statements, it can handle anything you can make in Python. It’s pretty flexible, and there are several active community boards you can go to if you get stuck,” said Swanstrom. “I was checking up with a grad student last week to make sure that they could embed Google Maps into a Twine game, and you know, you can!”


Twine’s Leap Into the Gaming World

One can expect to see books, movies and television that tackle serious topics such as mental illness and suicide head-on, but what about a computer game? Enter “Depression Quest.” When this Twine-based simulator went up on Steam in 2014, its reception was intensely polarized. Although many gamers enjoyed the more serious game, others were insulted by the idea of a computer game that solemnly discussed mental health in depth. “Depression Quest” designer Zoë Quinn temporarily pulled the game from Steam after being falsely accused of having a relationship with a journalist who wrote a positive review and receiving so many anonymous death and rape threats that she temporarily had to live in hiding. Her attackers also started the online harassment campaign #GamerGate off of Reddit and 4chan, targeting artists that its members felt were promoting progressivism, feminism, diversity and political agendas in gaming culture. It has inspired other movements like it and actively runs online today. “It’s so amazing to me, that that ever became a thing,”  Swanstrom said about #GamerGate. “It’s puzzling to me.”

“Maybe ten years ago, maybe twelve now, there came a big debate in the humanities, an anti-digital narrative throw down,” Swanstrom said. While #GamerGate and the debates surrounding it are still prevalent in the gaming world, there also exists a tendency for academics to dismiss gaming as a legitimate literary form. “One of the criticisms about experimental literature or digitally born works of art is that they are more interesting formally than they are to engage with,” she said. “They’re more fun to think about than interact with.”

Indie creators’ Twine games continue to challenge both mainstream gaming and literature in featuring many slices of life with marginalized and controversial subjects at their centers. Swanstrom sees this trend as one of Twine’s advantages. “It is free, and it doesn’t have to go through commercial standards, and so this means you see topics that wouldn’t be considered, quote on quote, fun, sexy or profitable,” she said. For every shooter and terrain explorer out there, there seems to be a Twine game about issues such as sexism, disability, racism or familial abuse. “That anyone can make a real game, communicate things according to their intuition, I think that’s fantastic,” said Swanstrom.


Playing Twine Games

Ranging from simple text games to complex narratives reliant on graphics and music, Twine games don’t only broach differing themes but vastly different looks and aesthetics. One of Swanstrom’s favorite Twine games is one of those more minimalist in terms of visual design, a text game. “In my upper-level digital humanities grad seminar, we look at Porpentine’s ‘With Those We Love Alive,’” she said. “And I think it is really gorgeous.” Swanstrom likes to present it to her students to show them that they can build strong games with few complex multimedia elements. “I love that it starts out just kind of like, ‘Alright, anyone could do this,’ and I think for the most part the structure is pretty friendly.”

Porpentine is one of Twine’s most well-known and popular makers. Her games are simultaneously recognizable by their bright neon colors and the strange extremity that their narratives take on. In an interview with the New York Times, Porpentine reflected on how her games were influenced by her experience of being forced from her home after coming out as transgender. “A lot of my work deals with these topics of abuse that I feel are incredibly common to any feminine person’s life,” she said. “With Those We Love Alive” deals with such themes in an out-of-the-box way by asking its players to draw on themselves alongside the story. “Some of us, when we went through the class, had taken tons of notes and some of us had actually written on our skin,” said Swanstrom. “I like that it’s different for everyone who plays it.”

Other well-received Twine games also stand out as unique offerings from the indie gaming world. “my father’s long, long legs,” a horror game evocative of creepypasta lore, maintains a uniquely eerie, misty atmosphere, as does “Bogeyman,” an original fairytale about what happens to naughty children who disappear. Some Twine games are built to resemble retro pixel games, such as the dystopian “Horse Master” and comedic “(do not) forget.” Still others, in particular, are especially enjoyable for their clever artwork, like “The Temple of No” and “Ürs.”

“I think people are just learning to explore the capabilities of Twine,” Swanstrom said. She encourages those who haven’t used it before to give the software a try. “I would love to see more people start blurring those boundaries between fiction and gaming and narration,” she said.

Twine is free to use both online and for download.


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