Before we can really dig into the intriguingly-titled anthology Videogames For Humans (edited by Merritt Kopas), we must first understand a few things about Twine. This is Twine, the hypertext storytelling tool – not twine as in a length of string. The simple program allows people with little or no knowledge of coding to create interactive stories, poems and other written objects. Its simplicity and flexibility has lead to the formation of a thriving community of Twine artists distributed around the world.
All of this and more is explained in detail in the introduction to Videogames For Humans – but you don’t really need to know any of it. All you need to know is that a Twine text is the digital equivalent of a Choose Your Own Adventure Book – a story in which the reader doesn’t just passively read, but makes decisions, picks paths and interacts with the written word on screen.
The book – a hefty volume weighing in at almost six-hundred pages – features a selection of Twine texts, each of which is played through and commented on by another writer. For those who have never read one before, the playthrough may seem like an odd medium, but when it comes to conveying the form and mood of a Twine game, it works far better than a review or feature article. In fact, the anthology doubles its value by having not only a reading of the original text, but a second creative piece arising from the observations and commentary of the writer completing the playthrough.
For example, in the playthrough of “Fuck That Guy” by Benji Bright, player Riley MacLeod doesn’t just offer a straightforward run through of the text in question, but instead begins with a personal anecdote about being propositioned by a man in a van, and then – as the game progresses – moves on to talk about his experience as a “radical queer trans man”. It’s an intriguing piece that greatly enhances the original Twine text, and allows one to see if from a thoroughly different perspective.
Similarly Austin Walker’s playthrough of “There Ought To Be A Word” by Jeremy Penner is as much about Walker as it is about the game. He writes about how his own experience online dating mirrors that of the until-recently married narrator of the story. It’s a wonderful combination of fiction-that-might-be-nonfiction and actual creative nonfiction, rife with both sadness and honesty. The echoes between one narrative and the other are a pleasure to discover.
The two games we have discussed so far both explore sex, sexuality and dating. This is far from an uncommon theme in Videogames For Humans – indeed a large proportion of the featured texts can be sorted into more or less the same few categories: sex, identity, mental health and memoir. Flicking casually through, one might get the impression that Twine is used mainly as a creative method of catharsis – a way for writers to put readers forcefully in their shoes, or exorcise some personal demon. Though these types of story dominate, they are by no means the only note at which Twine is capable of singing.
“And The Robot Horse You Rode In On” by Anna Anthropy (played by Cat Fitzpatrick), for example, is an at-times hilarious dystopian sci-fi adventure story. It has a great deal in common with the old-school Choose Your Own Adventure series – but also manages to take things to another level in the way that it plays with narrative, truth and perspective.
“Even Cowgirls Bleed” by Christine Love (played by Leigh Alexander) is quite a different animal. It features a rather excitable pistol-wielding city dweller, who decides to fulfil her fantasy of being a gunslinging cowgirl out in the wild west. Both the format and tone of the game are unique – you progress by targeting words in the text with a crosshairs; an action that very often results in the protagonist simply shooting something. Despite a rather moving ending it is still immense fun to play.
You are not, by the way, restricted to being simply a reader of playthroughs. Most of the Twine games featured in the book are available for free online, and the digital version of the book comes complete with a folder full of pre-downloaded games. You don’t need any special software or knowledge to play; if you can browse the internet, you should be able to play all the games on offer with very little difficulty.
This being the case you are, of course, presented with a choice. You can read the playthrough of a given game before opening it up to try for yourself, or play the game before reading what someone else has to say about it. I tended to favour playing the games first – as this allows you to explore and experience the texts while they are completely fresh and unknown to you. The playthrough in the anthology then allows you to examine different paths to the one you took, and gain a greater insight into possible readings of the game.
“Nineteen” by Elizabeth Sampat (played by Patricia Hernandez) was one game where I was particularly grateful that I played before reading the playthrough. It’s a powerful little story about the author’s attempts at suicide. It is unusual in that, quite often, one runs very quickly into a dead end. You’ll find yourself staring at a screen where there’s nothing more to click. You are forced to either use your browser back button or restart the entire story and pick a different route. This conceit was at first annoying, but very quickly came to feel like an integral part of the game; although it doesn’t move quite as freely as some of the other stories, it is among the most compelling. The playthrough, however, doesn’t add very much – Hernandez works her way through the narrative and makes a few light observations, mostly limiting herself to straightforward factual notes. To read the playthrough first might well have sapped the game of some of its power.
On the other hand, in the case of “Sacrilege” by Cara Ellison (played by Soha Kareem), the playthrough was crucial to my experience of the game. “Sacrilege” is a kind of heterosexual female version of “Fuck That Guy”, which makes use of Twine to enact some excellent formal devices. The setting is a nightclub, and the sentences of the story arrive in hypnotic pulses, as though in time to a beat. Towards the end though, the rhythm of the story does give way to a more preachy tone, as the narrator is handed a six-page instruction manual, detailing exactly how they should be making choices. It’s a sharp tonal shift, and somewhat undermines the point of the story. The playthrough, however, rescues the experience – it’s packed with insightful and interesting commentary, and is very much worth a look.
As previously noted, there are a great many stories sandwiched between the covers of Videogames For Humans – too many to list in detail here. If you’re remotely curious, then I suggest you get a copy of the book and try them out for yourself. For someone new to the world of Twine the anthology can serve as a menu – a way to pick interesting works in which to indulge from the otherwise-overwhelming array of Twine tales on offer. For experienced players Videogames For Humans can be considered a showcase of just what Twine can do. At just ten dollars for the eBook and all the games, it’s certainly a worthwhile investment.