Facing The Fear of Twine

This interview was originally posted on the blog Ephemeral Objects: Art Criticism for the Post-Material World, made possible through the funding of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program

A few weeks ago I was having lunch at Pie Corps and ended up having a really interesting conversation with the counter guy about Blondie, old school hip-hop, the economics of being an artist and the Internet. As I was leaving he gave me a card and said, “Check out this show I curated, it’s called ‘Fear of Twine’.” When I got home I checked it out and was immediately fascinated by this online exhibition of Internet art made using Twine, an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories.

Featuring sixteen works by nineteen different artists with varied practices, Fear of Twine is at once totally contemporary and slightly retro. Because Twine is relatively easy to use, it allows artists to be expressive on the Internet without having to learn how to program. At the same time, creating with Twine is characterized by game logic that is inherent in all the included pieces.

The result is an exhibit that reinforces the contemporary notion of an expanded artistic practice across disciplines while engaging with many longstanding questions about narrativity, identity and experience in mediated space. Here a skilled designer can emphasize interactivity or responsivity, while a skilled writer can emphasize language, character, authorial voice and atmosphere. A game designer may use text to subvert the expected tropes of mass-market games or, sometimes, just go for laughs.

I was so taken with this exhibit –and the possibilities it suggests – I emailed curator Richard Goodness – the Pie Corps guy – and set up an interview. We met at The West for a spirited discussion.

Andy Horwitz: So what inspired you to do “Fear of Twine”?

Richard Goodness: I had made a few things on Twine and my friends had played them, I’d connected with some other people who were designing and I wanted to do something bigger, something that was fun.

Also, I’d put a work called “Sam and Leo Go to The Bodega” in an annual interactive fiction competition. It didn’t do that well, but I was proud of the piece. Honestly, it was really good to have a deadline, have people review it and to see what people who’d never heard of me before thought. It was a good experience and I wanted to provide that experience for other people who might not have had that.

At the same time I wanted to give friends who had an idea of what Twine is—or who had maybe played one but hadn’t really liked it — and say, “Well, ok, let’s see you do one. If you don’t really like any of the Twines out there, maybe you should make a game and we’ll see what you come up with!”  I figured, a bunch of my friends are writers and Twine is an accessible program, you can probably learn the basics in an evening, so let’s see what happens.

In a way, one of the reasons I wanted to do Fear of Twine was I didn’t like the existing scene so I wanted to create my own, to a degree. I had a bunch of friends who were not friends with each other, or who did not know each other, so there was a degree to which, ok, I’m like, “Let’s put all your work together. There were some people who I knew their work but didn’t get to know until working on this thing, and some people who I never heard and who may have felt similarly outside, I think. There were some gems from that. Like “Duck Ted Bundy”.

AH: I’m sorry, I spent a little too much time playing Duck Ted Bundy! I loved that one!

RG: [Laughs] Yeah I’m really happy with the exhibit. It grew to pretty much the exact size I wanted it to be. I knew I wanted to have sixteen works, because that’s four rooms of four, since I usually tend to design in four. I was a musician, but I wasn’t a very good musician, so I could do 4/4 and that was about it.

AH: If not all the artists had used Twine before, what was their experience like?

RG: It’s a very interesting learning experience for a lot of people. A lot of the rhetoric around Twine is about how easy and accessible it is to tell your story. If you can do Word, you can do it, it’s that level of interface. And yet it is a little more complicated to do something that really looks different and you have to learn some slightly more complex programming things to really get it to do what you want. So one of the interesting things was when first-time-Twine users realized, “Hey, this is not as accessible as I thought.”

The double-edged sword of accessibility is that if something is too easy, too accessible as a tool, you might not be able to do anything that intricate with it. Of course, in the hands of an excellent artist, you could probably make a masterpiece in crayon, but for the most part, you’re not going to get masterpieces in Crayola crayon. And so I think learning that Twine was a much more complex and flexible tool than people originally thought gave them more of respect for it. And the variety of works is pretty amazing.

For the first piece, “Debt”, Tony Perriello created this almost completely non-interactive, Terminator-esque dystopian story about a killer robot. I put that as the first one because it was like nothing I’d ever seen. I didn’t even know how he did half the things he did in that. It was kind of throwing down the gauntlet and saying, “Twines are not what you think they are.”

AH: So tell me a little about Twine, then.

RG: Does the term hypertext fiction mean anything to you? Or Interactive Fiction?

AH: Yes.

RG: Ok, so, until recently, saying you were into hypertext fiction was like going to a music festival and saying you have a Ska band. Like, it has that equivalence, right? In the 80’s hypertext fiction had a lot of problems within the software community, because it was really expensive, computers weren’t really standardized, and most of the writers were just too taken with the novelty of the medium to write anything good.

So parallel to this you had – in the game sphere – interactive fiction. When computer graphics weren’t really possible, or when memory limits were a thing, text adventures were very commercially popular. Some companies were even trying to promote this as the next iteration of books. There were some legitimate authors—Douglas Adams [Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] is probably the most famous, the poet Robert Pinsky made a game called Mindwheel, Timothy Leary even tried his hand at one. But for the most part once graphics became better and memory became bigger, interactive fiction became a very niche, very hobbyist work; it hasn’t been commercially viable since probably the very, very beginning of the 90s.

So, when videogames first started, when microcomputers were first a thing, they were hobbyists, you know? They were guys in their garages building their computers, people programming in their bedroom and selling in their local store in black bags.

Have you read Our Band Could Be Your Life? That’s kind of the point where videogames are at the moment, the indie scene is getting very large and very diverse right now. Twine seems to have arrived at a point where people wanted more things from videogames, it is accessible enough for lots of people to make games, but complicated enough that people can make interesting work.

I mean Twine has not been the first choose-your-own-adventure, hypertext fiction software out there. It’s not. There’ve been plenty out there and everybody has a very strong opinion about what the best one is out there, as you can imagine. Everyone seems to have an opinion of twine and a lot of people don’t like it.  But Twine has definitely become a thing that people are interested in and working with.

AH: So how did you start working in Twine?

RG: Well, I think a couple of things happened at the same time. I used to do a lot of game criticism – I ran a podcast called Cartridge Blowers for a couple of years starting in 2009…

AH: What’s a cartridge blower?

RG: Well, when you have a Nintendo cartridge that doesn’t work, you blow into it, and my friend and I are both gay so we figured that would be hilarious and fun [sarcastically]. And I think I got into text games because of a couple trends that kind of hit at the same time. Like, if somebody says, “He’s a gamer,” what do you picture?

AH: Mountain Dew, pizza boxes, on the couch.

RG: Pretty much! And there are obviously many problems with this. Women saying—“I’m a gamer too!” Lesbian populations, transgender populations, African-American populations and in the past few years there has been a call for much more diversity of representation in games and among gamers.

But at the same time within the criticism sphere there was a lot of stuff that was less criticism and more – a friend of mine called them the “sad autobiographies,” and it’s all very, “Here’s a lot of bad things that have happened to me and I played a videogame and I felt better about that. That’s my game review.” And I kind of got known for being an asshole for calling that out.

Long story short, I played more than a few Twines that were basically these sad autobiographies, that were basically bad relationship stories like, “Let me tell you all about my ex who I’m never going to see again,” that kind of stuff, and so my very first Twine was a parody of that. It was an “autobiographical” Twine inspired by this game from the 80s called “Alter Ego”.

I wanted to go through all the stages of life, so the first choice character was a baby and, “Okay, you’re a baby, and what do you do?” You shit, or cry. So I had you choose those two, and then I ran with it for the entire piece. It was just this very simple thing making fun of these “sad autobiography” games that I did just to make a couple of friends laugh, and then people started playing them and I just ran with it.

But with this exhibition, one of the main things I wanted to show, because everybody had a preconceived idea of what can created with this kind of tool, was that  “Yes, Twine can be used for those personal narratives, and that is important, but that is not all you can do with it.”

AH: So you’re kind of saying, “Ok, how do we actually take this seriously as an art form, not merely a platform for sad autobiographies?”

RG: Sure. The third work in the exhibit is “The Conversation I Can’t Have” by Morgan Rille. It is an examination of transgender and kink issues, and I thought it was brilliantly written. The only word I’ve thought to describe it is generous.

There are plenty of works about sexuality and kink within the Twine sphere and they are all fairly aggressive. There is one called “Consensual Torture Simulator” – things like that. And while I can appreciate the artistry that goes into it, I’m not built to read that.  I liked Rille’s work because it was very much coming from this place of, “I’m just as normal as you. This is a thing I do. This is why I do this. This is what I get out of this. If this is not your thing, that’s cool, just understand it’s my thing.” I thought that was a wonderful expression. I put that piece as one of the first ones in the exhibit because I wanted to make clear: “This is still part of this. This is a tool for marginalized voices just as much as it is a tool for you to make really weird shit out of, or really cool games out of.” But the artistry was there.

AH: It’s interesting we kind of keep going back and forth between thinking of these works as games or as writing but they’re really kind of both.

RG: Yeah. I don’t want to have to decide whether or not what I work on is a game or a story. There are a lot of people who will insist that Twines are games, full stop. And then there are just as many people who will say that it’s not a game. It’s this weird, stupid definitional argument that I make fun of any chance I get because it’s just so pedantic.

I like that it kind of slips in between a lot of different things. I like that I don’t have to completely decide if I’m writing a story or a game. I mean, I think that’s nice. I think there’s a degree to which I am writing stories that take a lot of meaning from the fact that they’re structured like games.

That’s kind of why I got into hypertext as well, because I didn’t want—I mean, I found that it was good for my writing because I do tend to write….

One of the things that prose does is assume that everything has to be in a prescribed order, it assumes a hierarchy and linearity of events that don’t necessarily exist in that way. In hypertext you can have two contradictory events occurring simultaneously.

For example, any story where you’re having two different characters and you’re doing a swapping point of view: here’s a chapter from my point of view, here’s a chapter from your point of view. Well, when you’re doing a static prose fiction or a regular movie, you present those in an order. You have to choose which one goes first and which one goes second.

Now that’s very basic stuff. That’s the first page on the first page on the hypertext evangelization packet, you know? But still, I like working in Twine because it lets me not have to create a hierarchy between these two different points of view. In other words, one can determine the order one wants to see those two perspectives, and then you can write those perspectives in a more neutral way, or where they can affect each other, or whether the order is going to be different.

AH: What appeals to you about that?

RG: Well, I’m one those people who is interested in clusterfucks. How one finds dignity within the concept of failure, how you deal with the fact that things are crumbling and kind of fucked, but what do you do?  And this takes a certain level of complexity.

AH: You mentioned the idea of Twine – or games generally – as a tool for marginalized voices. What do you mean by that?

RG: Well, Twine is pretty deeply embedded in the queer gaming community, and that is wonderful, but I don’t really feel a part of that. As I mentioned, a lot of those Twines are coming from these very personal, very idiosyncratic and niche places, it does generally have its own subculture that I don’t feel myself a part of.

Every subculture eventually becomes a culture, and comes up with its own strictures, and I don’t necessarily agree that aesthetically all of these works are so great. And I don’t agree with some of the philosophical things behind some of them. There is a way to write a personal story that universalizes something, and there’s a way to write a personal story that martyrs yourself, and I see more of the second category.

And it can be problematic. There is this guy Robert Yang – he’s an academic and he’s a designer –  and he wrote this blog post early last year called the 2013 Queer Feminist Agenda For Video Games and he was listing off some things that queer and feminist games should be and should do.

AH: So he’s a queer man deciding what a queer feminist agenda should be?

RG: Yeah. And I had a problem with this. Among other things in the article he said that queer games should talk about restrictive identities. He was basically saying that we should make videogames that show how bad it is to be queer, because it’s really hard and horrible and … well, that’s what I took away from it at the time.  Reading it today I find it a little less strident than I remembered but, anyway, I posted a reply saying, basically, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?”

AH: Helen Lovejoy from The Simpsons?

RG: Yeah! The very first line in Tendencies by Eve Sedgwick is “I’m haunted by the suicides of gay teenagers.” Most everybody who does queer studies is haunted by these suicides. And I think, “Ok, who was fourteen-year-old me? What did I want to hear?”

Did I want to hear, “You’re going to be this different person and you have to hang out with these types of people because the straight world is never going to understand you, and you’re never going to… whatever?”

Or did I want to hear, “No, you’re just like everybody else, and it’s going to get better?”

AH: I’m curious then about how you relate to pioneering queer fiction like Burroughs or Dennis Cooper or artists like David Wojnarowicz? People who at the time they were writing were coming from really marginalized places, so their writing reflected that otherness. Are you saying those voices are overly-represented within the queer gaming community, and you think it’s time to move on from that?

RG: No. I’m more saying that…what does queer mean to you? When I say queer, what do you think?

AH: Well I’m old.

RG: But this is a question.

AH: Well, from my perspective, I think that it means a counter-normative position in society that may or may not, but usually is, based in sexual identity.

RG: And counter-normative, then, what is normative?

AH: Well, the argument could be made now that “gay” is a normative identity.

RG: The argument is being made now that “gay” is a normative identity. Specifically and, to me, not that I did much post-colonial studies in college, but the terms that stuck with me were “hegemony” and “subaltern.” That’s a much more—the definition in the queer game space is between “queer” and “privileged.”

AH: That’s interesting.

RG: Ok, so let’s talk about probably one of the more successful Twine designers out there, Zoe Quinn is her name, and she made a game called Depression Quest. It got a lot of notice, and I have my own problems with the game as someone who has suffered from depression, who does not find that romanticizing depression is a good way to get out of depression but anyway …. she defined “queer” in an article as “anything that is not white, straight, or cisgendered male.”

Which you can see how – being several of those things, and given that most of my friends are cisgender straight men- it seems like a problem. Do not get me wrong: my understanding of oppression and privilege and normative is yes, in America, for the most part, being normative, the hetero-normative, whatever you want to call it, has been white, cisgender, heterosexual. That would be stupid to deny. At the same time, one makes and one critiques because one thinks that change is possible, right?

RG: And I guess my problem with the queer game scene is that it is defining power in this very specific term and considering that power to be the provenance of this one group, and to be synonymous with it. This totalizing definition of power doesn’t understand that within white cisgender heterosexual male, there is everybody from the Koch brothers to the guy in Louisiana with three teeth who has no money, do you know what I mean?

If you’re looking at Twine – or games – as a platform or tool for marginalized voices, you have to look at issues around capital, labor, class in relationship to queerness.And that has been a lot of where my critique of the queer game scene has come from.

But there’s this guy Richard Hofmeier who made the game “Cart Life” which is probably the most important video game ever made. It’s a game where you play a street cart vendor, and it’s brilliant. There’s no way I can really make it sound as good as it is.

It is about being working poor. It takes the form of a simulation game, in which you are playing a cart and you get to go in the city, but it grounds all of the three characters very specifically. One of the characters is a single mother who is doing this because she just got a divorce and she needs a job, and so her story is—everybody is on a really tight timer — and she needs to remember to pick her daughter up for school. If you’re selling coffee when your daughter needs to be picked up for school that’s really bad, you know? Because then her father’s going to pick her up, and then when you have the custody hearing at the end of the week it’s going to look bad for you.

Another character is an immigrant who is just making a newspaper as kind of his last thing in life – he’s a 70 year old. It’s very Malamud in that chapter. There’s another character who is just this dude and he’s kind of a drifter, he’s just opening a hot dog stand because that’s his next project.

The game gives you these three very different archetypes and it really goes into the stress of what it means to be an entrepreneur in America in the 21st century. You work your ass off and you barely make ends meet.

AH: So now that the exhibit is almost over, how do you feel about it and what do you feel you accomplished with the exhibit in terms of form?

RG: In terms of form: I think there have been a lot of Twines that people haven’t seen before. “Drosophilia” by Pippin Barr, Sidsel Hermansen and [Gordon] Calleja incorporates Youtube videos and sound effects, it’s a very glitch art kind of thing. Barr is probably one of the more famous people to work in Twine, and he’s collaborated with Marina Abramovic on a couple of art games, things like that.

There are a lot of works that are very different from what people were used to seeing. The point I was trying to make was, “This is a lot of things. A tool is only as good as its users.”

If you get some good users, you can make really interesting things. If you just say, “This is a tool that is going to be used by these marginalized people,” then you are going to get a lot of similar things. Many of them are …

AH: Using it as a platform versus an art form?

RG: Yeah. To a degree I was saying, “Well, let’s see what this is. Let’s see what Twine is outside of interactive fiction.”

AH: And how has the exhibit been received?

RG: Well, it is really true that you learn quickly who your initial supporters are. There was this one forum that I found where somebody – on, like, the first day or so of exhibition – who had posted “This is really cool.:

And soon there was this huge argument with people saying, “Well, this isn’t interactive fiction!” or, “ These aren’t games!” And I responded, “I never said they were games!” That was kind of the whole point of this.

I wanted to say, let’s get that baggage out of there. I’m not asking you to make a game. You can make a game if you want. I’m asking you to make a Twine. What is that to you? There have been some people who have been saying, “Well, I don’t really like Twines. I full-stop don’t like them.”

So some criticism has come from that perspective, because, if you do hypertext, everybody has their own favorite hypertext platform, which in a way is really silly. But I have my own I guess.

AH: And that’s Twine.

RG: Yeah! And, you know, it’s the closest to how I picture stories in my head, and it’s the closest to feeling like I’m seven and learning how to program on my Apple 2E that my uncle gave me.

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