Easy as blogging

2 June 2015

Twine didn't simply arrive on the scene. It took the online world by storm, rising in a few short years (Twine will be 6 this month) from little upstart to common noun. The numbers speak for themselves: in April, Porpentine's Twiny Jam attracted 239 entrants, a remarkable number. In the same month, a twine won several categories in the XYZZY Awards*, and more Twine games dominated the Spring Thing. And in the Interactive Fiction Competition last autumn, twines and other choice-based games had such a massive presence that an argument broke out between hardcore fans of parser-based interactive fiction and those who welcome other media under the IF umbrella.

To explain this phenomenal success, I need to take a look back in time.

I discovered gamebooks around the age of twelve, courtesy of the French Institute in Bucharest. It wasn't long until I wanted to write my own. Armed with pen and paper, I proceeded to map out the structure as little boxes connected with lines, writing each passage along the way in a thick notebook. At some point it got out of hand anyway, so I decided to see how one of my favorites had been designed -- a story in the Car Wars universe, as it happens. (It turned out to have a branch-rejoin graph, with a linear chain of scenes where each scene could be resolved in various ways, but always led to the same one next -- apart from a couple of places where the story forked briefly).

My masterpiece remained unfinished, but hey, the plan had been sound.

Writing isn't easy. Doing it in small chunks, however, makes the task seem a lot less daunting. The aforementioned Twiny Jam for example set entrants a word count target of only 300 -- a little more than your average paperback book page, or less than I wrote since the beginning of this essay. I'm sure many authors dared try who wouldn't have otherwise, and that's important. It's the same reason why writing on social media is so popular. (One of them, anyway; another is the appeal of interactivity.) And if you can churn out short blog posts all day long, then it's not much of a jump to make a twine.

Writing isn't easy, but it's a lot harder when you also have to think about graphics and sound, like with visual novels, or to set up an entire map covered in objects that react to the player's actions, like with text adventures. Twine is interactive storytelling pared down to the absolute basics -- quite literally as easy as it can possibly get. But that's just as true for competing authoring system such as Choice of Games, or Textallion. So why didn't one of them become the runaway success instead?

Much as I hate to admit that, it's the visual angle. Remember the giant diagram I had to draw on paper? Twine gives it to you for free, by its very nature. It's not just a convenience, either -- it's satisfying to play with. And making games is a lot easier when it's a game in itself, rather than work. That's a liability when you're trying to write a business report in Word and instead you end up playing with fonts, but when you're making something to be played in the first place? It may be just the thing.

Game developers nowadays take themselves much too seriously, as if they weren't making immature power fantasies involving giant swords. It might have something to do with the equally giant budgets, as well as the technical skills involved. Twine not only encourages different people to make games, but a different attitude as well -- whole other mindset. And we need that.

After all this, you might be surprised to hear that I haven't made any games in Twine yet. I watched from afar, but it's really not my style. (I made a competing system of my own, and didn't use that one either; other authors did in my stead.) The point is that I want to understand. And I want other people to know their options if they decide to try their hand at making games. Because if only programmers do it, we're never going to get out of this rut we're stuck in.

Luckily, now it's as easy as blogging. So dare make a game.

*That was followed in 2016 by another twine, Birdland, essentially taking all!