It’s Twine Week on Electron Dance. This is the last of five posts.
I never had any experience of using Twine until I wrote Truth is Ghost, which was released as part of the Fear of Twine exhibition in February. I had heard all sorts of things. It’s really easy. It’s better than parser IF. It can make your voice heard. It’s the remedy for capitalism. It can make English Breakfast tea.
Now, with a little experience of Twine tucked under my Batman utility belt, I have a few thoughts to share.
Twine is a tool for creating hypertext fiction. You make a node. You put text in the node. You etch links into the text. New nodes sprout and the map spreads. Sometimes it is sensual, watching hypertext tendrils stretch but sometimes the process inverts and all you can see are unfinished paths, doors you wished you had locked, endless rabbit holes of words.
Making a twine is easy.
Making a good twine is hard.
But if you are feeling frisky, you can flirt with some italicisation or something a little bold. Maybe you change a colour. Maybe you would like to change the background? Put a box around it. A box of hearts. A different font? Wait, this is not easy at all, this is not what you were prom—
No one likes to look as ordinary as Ms. Jody Average. For a while, Twine was synonymous with this:
There are still twines being made this way today. This is Ms. Jody Average. But READER do not look at the screen because you will miss all the heavenly glory. The words are the twinkling stars in the sky, twinkling for your attention. Read the words. Follow the links. Find your way. Embrace the hypertext.
It is not enough.
There are too many Jody Averages. We can do better than this. We can make something more beautiful. We can make text plus. If text is so good, then text and more must be better, more delicious food for the mind.
This must be why the mighty Infocom, those old masters of interactive fiction, perished. They told everyone that the graphics of their games were powered by imagination. They said text was key. But they died. Perhaps they did not think highly enough of text plus.
Thirty years on, it is time for a new revolution of text. No-frills white on black is good for starters, but it will not be enough to keep the fires burning. Add a little zest. Let us add a little CSS.
Let me tell you the sad tale of HTML. I will try to dress it up as a parable.
In the beginning, the web was powered by a simple language called HTML. It contains simple instructions like <h1> for header and <p> to start a paragraph and <a> for a link. The great genius of HTML is that it prized text over implementation. Write once, read anywhere. The hypertext revolution had begun. Well, it was good for starters, but it was not enough to keep the fires burning. Web page makers realised they had the tools to make something compelling. A few mouse over events here, a few tabulated images there: a web page could become an interactive drama. HTML disciplinarians were unhappy. HTML was about content not form. But the new web was about beautiful form. Pixel dimensions took over. No one cared about the promise of HTML. Designs had to be tested in every browser. Designs had to be tested on different screen sizes. Form over content. Style over-- The web gurus knew what was going to happen. The ice, they said, is gonna break.
They solved the problem. They kept HTML clean and made a layout language called CASCADING STYLE SHEETS (CSS) to keep the web designers happy. All you had to do was learn CSS and you could make anything. People flocked to CSS Zen Garden to admire what CSS could do. Except CSS was its own little private fucking NIGHTMARE
Making a twine is easy.
Making a twine with a distinctive visual look is hard.
There are very few people in this world who enjoy working with CSS. This is what some of the CSS from my twine looks like.
The twine community does not tell you to “buy a book on CSS”, because CSS books are hateful creations. Trust me. I bought one myself about a decade ago. I also read it. The twine community, instead, offers ready-made CSS and concise advice. No one wants your CSS becoming complicated, because CSS will eat you for breakfast.
As the fascination for text plus has grown, Twine has moved forward with these new times. Twine has better support for multiple stylesheets so formatting and layout can vary from passage to passage without using macros from the twine black market. But total control always seems a little out of reach.
That extra CSS mile is what can kill you. During the making of Truth is Ghost, much time was expended trying to suppress transitional effects. Those weird transitions between some of the passages in Truth is Ghost? I did not want them. I had a deadline to keep and so I conceded defeat. CSS will eat you for breakfast.
Form may not be your only concern. Maybe you want to make something sophisticated. Maybe pure hypertext, node-link-node-link, is just not enough for your vision.
Instead of creating duplicating a whole node just to add “Gary followed you into the room like you asked”, you could use a variable to remember that Gary is following the protagonist through the narrative corridors of your twine. It almost sounds like programming, does it not? Does it look like programming to you?
Come, now, do not panic. They are mere IF statements. Except the IF statement is full of trouble. Maybe you should panic. As you layer in several IF statements you may also notice the resulting text looks wonky and wrong, with additional spaces popping into existence against your authorial will. Okay. Panic.
Maybe this is still not enough. You want more. You want all the latest macros. You want text to explode in the middle of a paragraph when a link is clicked. You want pauses. You want video. You want to distort space-time. You want Twine plus.
This type of trajectory is well-known.
When a new technology lands on the dance floor, it looks simple. It has few buttons, few functions. By design, it cannot be customized because that brings complexity and complexity turns away people. The early adopters love the technology. They evangelize its lack of bloat, its everyday appeal. But they ask for a few extra features. Something here, something there. Nothing too fancy. But these people are experts. They are not learning from the ground up. When a technology caters for power users it is all too often at the expense of the newcomer. The more features included, the greater the climb for the next generation of adopters. Now they see bloat. Now they see an entrenched old-guard with a wiki. At first the old-guard continue to evangelize but, in time, they believe they have paid their dues, put in the time, and fall in love with RTFM.
This is not the Twine community.
At least, not yet.
It may not happen. But it is already clear that the Twine movers and shakers want to be able to do more with the platform. It is difficult to say where Twine will end up or whether Twine itself is a passing fad, destined to follow the example of Infocom. You remember when Depression Quest (Zoe Quinn, 2013) got on Steam? Man, those were the days.
In ten years time, what is Twine? This, I do not know.