“This is a book about Twine. But let’s not let it be the book, yeah?” – Merritt Kopas, introduction to Videogames for Humans (Instar Books)
What is Twine? To put it simply, it is a digital tool for creating interactive stories. Free and accessible, anyone – yes, anyone, including you! – can create in Twine, breaking down the usual barriers of cost and technical training that can make game creation a privileged and limited enterprise. Since its creation in 2009, Twine has become a medium for many marginalized artists, with a significant number of acclaimed authors who are trans women. In Videogames for Humans, Merritt Kopas, a noted indie game designer herself, has curated 27 Twine games on topics ranging from kink to depression to biomechanical horses, each paired with annotations and commentary by fellow Twine authors, artists, critics, and the occasional academic.
The branching, interactive nature of Twine makes each unique game an unfolding experience of twists and turns; even replays still mean serendipity and uncertainty as you progress. I have the paperback Videogames for Humans; at almost 600 pages, the hefty materiality of the book in my hands allows me to track my reading progress with a finger between pages. Yet the imposition of linearity by the material format is an illusion: the cover art by Michael DeForge, with its surreal, playful entanglements, imitates the multivalent connections between each game and essay across the volume. The subtitle is “Twine authors in conversation,” and the format and medium invites us as readers to imagine and interpret its intertwinements.
Twine games are not simply short stories. As Aevee Bee says in playing Electro Primitive Girl, “This story has writing, but it doesn’t look quite like prose. That’s more exciting to me than anything else as a writer.” Nor are the commentaries mere reviews: each playthrough write-up plays with genre and voice. Bryan Reid’s annotations on Miranda Simon’s Your Lover Has Turned Into a Flock of Birds are written as poetry, with dense, thoughtful footnotes that remind one that this form of paratext is not limited to the stylings of David Foster Wallace. Riley MacLeod’s personal essay responding to Benji Bright’s Fuck that Guy offers a trans man’s perspective on gay hookup culture that takes as a starting point his recollection of a stranger’s inquiry, “Do you think gay life is devoid of meaning?” Katherine Cross offers careful analysis of Olivia Vitolo’s Negotiation, noting how the interactive nature of Twine mimics the exploratory intimacy of the ideal manifestation of kink when sex in mainstream video games can often be flat: “Every step through the tree of choices in Negotiation is a reminder of how variegated sexual possibility can be, even within the confines of that leathery nebula known as kink.”
Some of these essays, such as Avery McDaldno’s, track the player’s first reactions to the game, while others like Aureia Harvey’s reveal that its writing emerges after the reflection born of several playthroughs. Anna Anthropy plays Michael Brough’s scarfmemory with her skilled eye as the author ofRise of the Videogame Zinesters, critiquing how Brough plays with Twine conventions but ending with a note of compassion for Brough’s lost scarf. Imogen Binnie finds herself drawn into Eva Problems’sSABBAT and reads out passages from the game about werewolf wombs to her girlfriend. Perhaps my favourite section of the volume is Naomi Clark’s lengthy, mesmerizing engagement with Tom McHenry’s Horse Master: McHenry’s grotesque but heartfelt game seems to infect Clark, who ends up obsessively going to the very code of the game itself to get the ending she wants.
In her introduction, Kopas writes about the need for greater dialogue between literary and artistic communities, across supposed high and low forms of art and criticism, and for more thoughtful engagements of diversity in digital games. She writes as someone on the margins of the academic world, about a medium that is on the margins of gaming. I believe this should also be a call for us as academics to reflect on our responsibility to those whose works we critique and consume. If you are interested in the digital humanities and if you are interested in the rich possibilities of narrative, I urge you to check out Videogames for Humans and support its creators.
(Full disclosure: I coordinated a talk by Merritt Kopas for Cornell’s Conversations in Digital Humanities series that I blogged about for HASTAC here. I also appear as a guest on her podcast Woodland Secrets.)