I’ve written previously in the comments that I don’t get on with Twine games.
At last, I have figured out why. It turns out that Twine games offer too much player agency.
Although there have been projects like Façade (Mateas & Stern, 2005) that have tried to create games that cast the player as author, most story-based games use a finite decision tree constructed by the game’s designer. I’m not rabbiting on about those games where the mechanics become the story like Dwarf Fortress (Bay 12 Games, 2006) or your average roguelike. I’m talking about something called plot with something called consequences. Do you choose to chide someone or console them? Do you take the yellow brick road or the overgrown path through the dryad forest? Do you kill this person – or render them unconscious? The air vent, the front door or the experimental teleporter?
These crude narrative structures stand in contrast to the freedom of the mechanical realities they are smuggled into. We can explore an entire level of Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985) as we see fit, limited only by the physical rules of Mario’s virtual world – but the princess is always in another castle.
Some games sport a single narrative through which they thrust the player and we concede that the story is feedback, a reward for the player’s good behaviour. But some designers wish to convince the player they share authorship and current technology only offers one way to do this – go large. Complex decision trees with nuanced consequences and multiple characters are effective in obscuring the fundamentally discrete nature of the plot. But it’s difficult work. As story is still handcrafted, complexity attracts bugs. Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011) is an example of a densely detailed narrative world – but it is still based on a decision tree, one which harbours all sorts of bugs.
If we boil away the mechanics of the average narrative-driven title, we’re left with a Twine game. Although Twine games are often categorised as digital Choose Your Own Adventure books (CYOA) there are some important differences. The games are often more than just a heap of immutable slabs of text because Twine passages can change according to state. More advanced Twine works also play with the presentation. Nonetheless, a Twine game is still just a decision tree.
But it is a decision tree sculpted from hyperlinkarium and I find this choice of material particularly toxic. Most Twine games allow the player to rewind their steps which confers the time-travelling power of Braid (Number None, 2008) to the Twine player. With such powerful agency, it becomes a game of scaling the tree, scurrying through the leaves of text, leaning out from each branch and identifying every ending. I wind up performing tree appraisal rather than engaging the story and sharing authorship. I can only consider the game completed once I have learnt the shape of the entire tree.
It’s not always like that, of course. I’ve had fun with some pieces such as the clever Úrquel: The Black Dragon (David T. Marchand, 2012) and there are increasing numbers of Twine games that eliminate the player’s ability to step back. Plus our trusty fallback of using a massively complex decision tree to provide an illusion of shared authorship is also in evidence. Take a look at the node map for A Kiss (Dan Waber, 2013) taken from Twine Garden:
And yet still I’m all bah humbug. I grew up with the Fighting Fantasy books by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, a CYOA series that acted as my introduction to the world of role-playing. But I eventually gravitated towards parser-based text adventures, with Infocom’s adventures being the high point. One Infocom ad declares, “We draw our graphics from the limitless imagery of your imagination– a technology so powerful, it makes any picture that’s ever come out of a screen look like graffiti by comparison.”
We can view parser as a clumsy tool for exploring the decision tree of a text adventure but what the parser did was help obfuscate the tree and place me in the story. When the parser is removed, I start to see the tree again which is why my experiences with the acclaimed Photopia (Adam Cadre, 1998) as well as the important, thought-provoking The Baron (Victor Gijsbers, 2006) were marred. Both games deploy menus to replace parser-based exploration at key moments, exposing structure.
But my problems with Twine are not the problems of Twine. They are not even problems at all.
Games do not exist without their players and I’ve written before about how players must be able to fill the role expected of them. When a game fails for us, it isn’t necessarily the designer’s fault.
Lim (Merritt Kopas, 2012) did not work for me yet Dys4ia (Anna Anthropy, 2012), which treads similar territory, did. Lim is a powerful experience for the right player: I was not that player. I found The Cat and The Coup (Brinson & ValaNejad, 2010) fascinating but when I said I loved it because the game compelled me to spend a couple of hours researching the fall of Mohammad Mosaddegh, Zach Alexander commented on Twitter that it was “really telling that the net effect of The Cat And The Coup was ‘hey look this up on Wikipedia’”.
The recent tunnel racer Boson X (Mu & Heyo, 2013) requires “precise timing and fast reflexes”. Some have compared it to Super Hexagon (Terry Cavanagh, 2012) but Boson X is randomly generated with no two games being the same. I am quite rubbish at it, but a cursory look at the comments on the relevant Free Indie Games page reveals an outpouring of love.
Also consider the rage of the contemporary critic (myself included) towards the failure of the mainstream FPS to harmonise story and gameplay – games in which the pure hero protagonist is also a mass-murderer. Clint Hocking’s term for this disease, ludonarrative dissonance, is often wheeled out like a modern day freak show. Yet, as Robert Yang noted in an essay titled “Ludonarrative dissonance doesn’t exist because it isn’t dissonant and no one cares anyway”, that crushing failure to make a merry marriage of gameplay and story has not blunted the sales of the Call of Duty series.
The dialogic nature of games as a conversation between player and developer means that we’re not necessarily going to fit every conversation. However, who we are and the cultural contexts we exist within are always in flux: the conversations we found engaging yesterday are not the same as the conversations we will enjoy tomorrow.
Maybe I will get into Twine tomorrow. And maybe the mainstream gaming public will get fed up of face shooters next year.
It’s for this reason that I always support a plurality of games, even if I don’t like all of them.
Short version: Oh my Gods, liking games is subjective?!