Electron Dance
8Apr/14Off

On Truth is Ghost

It's Twine Week on Electron Dance. This is the second of five posts.

grimmer-start

For the Fear of Twine exhibition, I made a twine called Truth is Ghost based on some short stories I wrote some years ago.

The critics have been unanimous:

Amanda Wallace: “Truth is Ghost is clear as mud.”

Emily Short: “I played through it twice, and it made maybe slightly more sense the second time, but not to the point where I felt I could explain the plot at all.”

Jed Pressgrove: “I feel I am lacking the context needed to identify what the story is trying to say.”

And I can hear you now, reader, whispering, “Phew, it wasn’t just me then.”

With just ten days left until Fear of Twine closes its doors, it’s time to talk about what I was trying to do. It’s spoiler time.   

Planning

Last year, Richard Goodness approached me about doing a piece for Fear of Twine and for some stupid reason I said yes. While totally obvious that I wouldn’t have the time for it, I felt that maybe it was the moment to share some of my fiction writing with the Electron Dance crowd. (Of course, if you've read my Neptune's Pride diary The Aspiration, you might already have some idea of what I get up to...)

To cut down the work, I decided to appropriate something previously written. I went back to my defunct and now slightly broken writing site Hammerport and chose the stories I had been writing about a secret organisation called The Cloth. I’d always intended to go the full novel distance with them one day as their story was never finished on Hammerport. I know exactly what kind of awful shit they are destined for.

I didn’t really enjoy reading twines so I set up some design goals with this in mind:

  • Short passages. Walls of text are off-putting, so short passages engender a better sense of progress. (Unfortunately, I used a large font which was great on my monitor but probably looked too big on other people's screens.)
  • Full story only recoverable through excavation. After writing You Complete Me last year, I was in the process of figuring out an alternative perspective as explained in last week's post Stop Crying About Choice. In a nutshell, game story might be better understood as the sum of alternative paths rather than an agency-centric “my story” approach. Knowing some twine readers do a thorough exploration, I decided that the truth of certain scenes should only be clear through reviewing alternative narratives.
  • Proper Easter egg for hardcore excavators. I didn’t want the story to be opaque to those who didn’t dig out every narrative bauble I had buried, so if someone did a proper hardcore sweep of the game’s hypertext structure, I wanted to give them something back which wasn’t vital to understanding the story: let's call it a thank you. Each ending would give up part of a YouTube video key and this video would give some background about Hammerport and the Cloth.
  • Inconsequential decisions. Going back to my work-in-progress interpretation of game story as hypertext exploration, I planned to eschew strong consequences in the story, dispense with the lie of agency entirely. The reader would be setting up narrative tracks that exposed certain aspects of the characters involved, rather than “live/die” type choices. Having to choose Mr. Omega’s response to Mr. Alpha sneezing is the kind of decision level I was aiming for.
  • Honesty about no agency. Every branch was about the characters and never what “you” did. The reader would have no power here. I stretched this to more explicit branching; none of this “mystery meat word” business where some apparently random word has a link but you have no idea what clicking that link is supposed to represent in story terms.
  • Hidden consequences. Many of the consequences would be near-invisible. I was hoping readers would say, “hey, did that happen last time?” and also perhaps readers would exchange thoughts on what the story meant and begin to see odd contradictions.
alpha-xtnd-play

Alpha Ending: The Clothmen's next move is Morgana's parents

However, without realising it, I was actually sliding into experimental waters because I literally couldn’t help myself. I conceived a “Rashomon” style experience where you see the same scene several times through different eyes. This would give you a complete view of the world:

  • Mr. Omega is old-guard and keeping all sorts of Cloth secrets from his partner because he's not yet cleared probation. Mr. Omega understands the long-term goals of the Cloth.
  • Mr. Alpha, a junior Clothman frustrated with the speed of the probation process. He best represents the reader's state of understanding; through him I could answer some reader questions about the organisation. (Aside: You may not be surprised to learn that Mr. Alpha is the central protagonist of the original Cloth story, although Ariadne, who is mentioned in one passage of the twine was destined to have an important role. Maybe right now you're thinking, what, there was an Ariadne in the twine?)
  • Morgana is a renegade. She has plans for the future and central to the story’s mystery.

The hotel scene, where Morgana is captured, seemed ideal. I began to think about how I would deal with the possibility of narrative paradox, and considered a twine which reflected the choices of the reader in one character into the narratives of the others. This meant by playing the scene’s characters in a different order, everything could play out completely differently. But it looked like a hideous amount of work so I abandoned this approach.

I was still devoted to three different viewpoints, though, so instead chose three different scenes to play through. Mr. Alpha got the hotel scene and Mr. Omega got a scene on the shores on Windermere which directly precedes the hotel scene. I jettisoned Morgana because she is the biggest mystery of story: putting the reader in her shoes is something I did not want to do. I replaced her with Grimmer in a scene where he is about to be tortured for information. (This scene is chronologically later than the other two but appears first in the Hammerport original.)

Trouble

I framed the three threads as Morgana reliving memories – memories that she should not actually have access to. Whatever character Morgana thought of last would get the blue-coloured “extended scene” as an ending, so in this way there were three endings. Note the attempt here to mask the presence of multiple endings as the choice of ending does not come from apparent choices in the story. Actually, there are three and a half endings and I’ll come back to this later.

I knew this structure of “three scenes with extended play” would be the most technically complex aspect to develop so it was the first thing I worked on. It was completed last year and then... I spent little time on any of the actual narrative content of those threads until one week before the Fear of Twine deadline. Whoops!

And that’s where the trouble began.

omega-xtnd-play

Omega Ending: Pub scene where they deal with Mr. Alpha's loss of confidence

The idea of re-purposing Hammerport text was a problem because the scenes I chose turned out to be a huge amount of words from a Twine perspective. Further, as Mr. Alpha was the main protagonist of the original story it meant a lot of the story had to be rewritten to adjust perspective for the Mr. Omega and Grimmer threads, with some elements being dropped entirely. Consider the swimming passage, which was meant to demonstrate that despite Mr. Alpha’s constant moaning, he’s the fucking professional when the time comes: but now the equivalent Twine passage has been attributed to the experienced Mr. Omega and no longer has the same value.

The heaviest rewriting was required from sections taken from the first Cloth story, Truth is Ghost, because I was figuring out my own writing style at the time the original was written. There’s so much exposition, so much omniscient voice and so much purple prose whereas today would opt for something leaner and more focused. In contrast, the other two stories, The Crane and In the Hands of Others show vast improvement. Here’s the very first paragraph of Truth is Ghost which makes me squirm a little:

Their relationship was the climate of Antarctica, frosty with only an outside chance of thaw within the next ten thousand years. Despite this, just occasionally, just every now and then, just once every sixth blue moon, there were brief, fleeting armistices. These armistices, as is the dictate of the human condition, were only brought on by extreme situations and were never to be taken seriously as an indication of progress in diplomatic relations.

I also didn’t deal with another problem that was raised by my writing group at the time I wrote these stories. I can hear the Clothmen in my head, I know how they speak, but when the sentences literally cannot flow from one to another without a single profanity being exchanged, then it becomes irritating. Constant swearing will eventually lose its power and it was only after I’d written the twine that I remembered this problem.

I then fell in love with a brand new scene that revealed something the original stories had barely hinted at: Morgana is not alone. But this “partner” is even more buried in myth and mystery than Morgana herself; I’m not even sure how much I would divulge about this character in a novel version of The Cloth. This means I pasted in a new scene involving an unresolved plot line I had no intention of resolving possibly never ever, just for the aha. And even better, it broke one of my rules: the possibility of Grimmer being tortured or escaping was a “strong consequence” which bifurcated the Grimmer extended scene ending (hence the extra “half” ending). Oh, dear.

Truth is Ghost Node Map

Truth is Ghost Node Map

There was yet one more crime that came out of this. Morgana wept. You know what? Morgana would not have wept. That is not who she is. I wanted to show the nature of Morgana’s relationship with her Mysterious Benefactor and a disagreement over expressing emotions seemed to be the way to do it. Morgana was a Clothman and you don’t give up that kind of baggage over night; she does know what tears are. Morgana was never meant to be a sympathetic character and you would be a fool to root for her. She is not to be trusted.

And lo, there was Mr. Alpha’s vision of Dark Shit Which Is Yet To Come. I should have known something was up when I kept skipping through it on subsequent replays. The vision is a moment from the second Cloth story, The Crane, where I wanted to tell the reader: look, something else is going here, you need to realise we’re in Twin Peaks territory. I love that scene. It’s cited in the twine almost word for word.

Mr. Alpha's vision explains the Cloth's Mission

Mr. Alpha's vision explains why the Cloth want to create "The-God-To-Be"

The problem with the twine version is that it feels too long, split up over several passages, whereas it seems like a punchy one-pager on Hammerport. It also injects unresolvable mystery into a story full of existing narrative complexity. How is the reader meant to know which are the known unknowns and which are the unknown unknowns? Truth is Ghost is clear as mud. So we end up with speculations that Clothmen have special powers and go around creating gods. Ah, well.

The original trilogy of Cloth stories reveals the world slowly with a few teases, enough to whet the reader’s appetite and ensure they understand what’s going on. The twine version cuts all that structure up and asks the reader to make sense of it. The first Hammerport story, Truth is Ghost, spends its time in a pub in which two Clothmen contemplate their lot; it’s setting up shop and putting across who these people are. This foundation ends up as one of the twine’s extended scene endings. And finding all 3.5 endings is required to really unlock the story, which is likely a chore because of the way I set it up.

I relied too heavily on collaborative reading and I didn’t have enough readers to make a Truth is Ghost FAQ or gather on a forum to discuss thoughts on the story. It should be no surprise that readers felt lost.

grimmer-xtnd-play

Grimmer Ending: Morgana discusses future plans with Grimmer... or the pregnant Ariadne

Magic

Despite all this, I had some nice feedback on characterization from Jonas Kyratzes and David T. Marchand in the Appendix forum. Some also liked the almost Lynchian ambiguity of my twine.

Let me finish with some of buried magic of the Twine version that will likely go unnoticed unless I point it out.

  • At the opening of Mr. Alpha’s story, Mr. Alpha has to get Morgana to open her hotel door. He has three choices. Regardless of what Mr. Alpha says, even if he announces he’s the police, Morgana opens the door. The aggregate reading here is that Morgana was always going to open that door and that changes your interpretation of the scene. Who has captured who?
  • If you’re really good, you might be able to guess what Morgana did that got her reported in the first place. It’s not spelled out but the pieces are there. This was something to be clarified in a later Cloth episode.
  • If Mr. Omega is nice enough to Mr. Alpha and offers a handkerchief, it means he was in a better mood, and throws out random small talk about Starbucks in a later passage. There are several nuanced consequences like this in the twine.
  • If Grimmer says something about his daughters to the Clothmen, Morgana utilises this when trying to persuade him to push the sofa backwards. It’s intended to indicate that she is just as manipulative as Grimmer’s captors.

If you want to check out the original stories and learn a bit more about what was actually going on, they are still available on Hammerport. The story of the Twine was taken from The Crane with additional extracts from the original (and somewhat hideous from a writer's perspective) Truth is Ghost.

  • Truth is Ghost (2006) Meet Mr. Alpha and Mr. Omega as they deal with failure over drinks.
  • The Crane (2007) Mr. Alpha has trouble holding onto reality as he remembers how Morgana escaped.
  • In the Hands of Others (2008) Morgana sets plans in motion while the Clothmen chase ghosts in Dublin.

Whether you enjoyed or hated the twine, I appreciate everyone who spent some time inside its words.

Twine Week

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Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Apologies for all the typos here. Will fix sometime later. Five posts in one week is a bit crazy but I didn’t think anyone wanted me to write exclusively about Twine for five weeks.

  2. Clear as mud, yes, but slick writing makes up for it. I think that if you realize the whole story is not there, you
    can appreciate the work much better (which I did during Mr. Alpha’s vision). Plot or no plot, Truth is Ghost shows me good and considerate design. Even if I can’t understand it fully, it doesn’t feel as a drag: the story flows well – maybe because it’s honest about not being a game.

  3. I should have guessed that there’d have been a tremendous amount of planning and some very deliberate objectives behind your Twine game. :)

    I shall have to revisit and play through a few more times – only twice before now, plus reading the associated story.

    There are details you mention above, such as the way in which Morgana manipulates Grimmer, or the way she opens the door no matter what you do, that are interesting insights into character and motivation. I do wonder, though, if I didn’t pick up on these only because I haven’t attempted enough playthroughs, or because I don’t know enough about the overarching setting and concept that my focus is on that, rather than small, suggestive details?

    Much admiration for the work you put into this game.

  4. Henrique, thanks! From what I’ve gathered, people liked the writing but just didn’t get the plot, which I should take away as positive. And even though I did not intend the story to be so obscured, some have enjoyed that.

    It reminds me of a time a story when my writing group was confused by something I wrote and I made adjustments to make my intended meaning more clear. My father, however, did not like the changes, having robbed the story of its unintended ambiguity – I’d fixed it worse.

    There’s another issue which is more tricky to articulate especially as it might come off like sour grapes, which it isn’t. I’ve noticed that twines are sometimes approached as something to play once and throwaway, that works intended as hypertext exploration are still seen as a ticket for one journey only. Also, people are more likely to dig around for meaning if it’s by an author they are familiar with and trust: I am not such, at least not yet. The extreme example here is something like a Lynch movie or Jacob’s Ladder where meaning is elusive and you spend hours just mulling over what you’ve seen. You’re not going to do that for some debut Twine effort. (I say this as someone who does exactly the same thing to others.)

    “Honest about not being a game”. Hah. I think the point of Fear of Twine was to show that Twine could do all these things without even addressing the question of whether they were a game or not. That question is so boring. That doesn’t mean the works are diminished without that label.

    @Shaun: Thanks for the kind words. I was hoping people would go back and forth, checking out the other options, not simply waiting for a second playthrough. I often explore other branches this way, so that was the playstyle I was pitching at.


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