Fear of Twine: Relax … It’s Just a Review

by Jed Presssgrove

Note: I consider Richard Goodness, the curator of Fear of Twine, a friend. I also follow Tony Perriello, Eric Brasure, Joel Goodwin, and Konstantinos “Gnome” Dimopoulos on Twitter. It’s important to acknowledge these facts rather than ignore a potential conflict of interest.

Fear of Twine, an exhibition of 16 Twine games, opens with “Relax. It’s just text.” In its plea for understanding, the phrase brings to mind the 1998 movie Relax… It’s Just Sex! — a fitting comparison, given that Twine games have featured various depictions and discussions of sexuality. But Twine doesn’t represent any one thing or any specific set of things. On a broad level, Twine provides further proof that the potential for empathy and offense is greater than ever in video games. On a personal level, Twine sometimes reminds me of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from when I was so young, though several of the Fear of Twine games could be criticized for not providing enough meaningful choices. What follows is a review of all 16 Fear of Twine games.

Room 1

Debt

What separates Tony Perriello’s Debt from most Twine games is its cinematic essence. With only a black background and green text, Debt channels sci-fi classics such as The Terminator by revealing the text in “real time” as the story occurs. The game’s impeccable use of sound effects and music give it even more cinematic flair. As a “bot” on a mission to locate a target, you don’t play the game so much as follow “recommended actions,” a device that further removes Debt from traditional games of any sort. While all of this dazzles and immerses one in a dystopia, the game’s pessimism seems far-fetched given that the story takes place in the 2020s. Still, Debt is likely to captivate anyone who has ever had trouble paying a bill, and the game drives home the reality that we can be tracked down via things we find fun or superfluous (like checking in at a favorite restaurant on Facebook). But what should the working class take from Debt other than stylish dread?

Duck Ted Bundy

The humor is silly and black in Coleoptera-Kinbote’s Duck Ted Bundy. You play as a duck whose base urge is to deceive and kill like the infamous serial rapist and murderer. One’s enjoyment of Duck Ted Bundy, a mixture of dating technology and bumbling evil, is partially based on how funny you find lines like “A beautiful duck in the full blush of youth letting her guard down and staring at you with trusting eyes, ever sincere, ever round, ever moist and pitch-black.” The game’s absurd situations can be played multiple times to rack up the kill count, and there are four endings to find. Unfortunately, repetition doesn’t serve the game’s not-so-secret weapon: Internet humor. I laughed at most of the duck pictures, but the game’s sex and violence lack the staying power of R. Crumb’s pornography.

The Conversation I Can’t Have

Unlike the other Fear of Twine entries, this game from Morgan Rille doesn’t appear to be interactive fiction. The Conversation I Can’t Have is more of an interactive essay about Rille’s submissive masochism, though not without poetic storytelling. The game’s didactic sections can seem shallow, but the quick lesson about gender, for instance, surpasses the annoying attempts of the point-and-click musical Dominique Pamplemousse. The stories within The Conversation I Can’t Have not only work as pleasant erotica; they expose mainstream video games as dry and flaccid (Rille’s conversation wouldn’t fly on the PS4 or other “mature” consoles, and it’s steamier than Steam). The Conversation I Can’t Have may not have the compelling psychology and narrative of Soha El-Sabaawi’s kinky reProgram, but it beautifully fits the Fear of Twine theme of “Relax.”

The Matter of the Great Red Dragon

Dignified usage of the word “sin” is a bizarre sight for eyes trained to consume secularism and extremism, but Jonas Kyratzes’ The Matter of the Great Red Dragon routinely shares ideas such as “Evil does not cease simply because people choose to ignore it.” This game is a thoughtful examination of traditional values and contemporary malaise. The Matter of the Great Dragon doesn’t intend to compete with other fantasy products and franchises but rather uses fantasy to explore whether morality itself can stand the test of time. I recommend ignoring Kyratzes’ author’s note; following the principle of his note would rob you of philosophical insight within the game’s juxtaposing endings.

Room 2

Zombies and Elephants

This work by Verena Kyratzes has the grisliest descriptions of the Fear of Twine exhibition, which is surprising given my desensitization to zombie violence. Here, the elephants are far more interesting than the zombies, but even those beasts can’t keep the zombie nihilism at bay. While Zombies and Elephants allows you to make choices, the game often makes you wait too long. Kyratzes is a skillful writer, but Zombies and Elephants needs more editing: there are walls of text that can drown out the fact that you play an important role in the story. Despite these flaws, getting to the end is worth it for the horror. Just don’t expect the focused commentary of zombie stories like Night of the Living Dead or Pontypool.

Workers in Progress

This game from Konstantinos “Gnome” Dimopoulos comes across as a broader, Marxist version of the Democracy simulations on PC. Workers in Progress presents an array of interesting scenarios where big things happen with one click of the mouse. While this approach might make the game easier to digest for the general reader, a little characterization could have gone a long way. The game also tends to end abruptly, so a few more levels of political negotiation would have made the game a more satisfying experience. From a sociological standpoint, I appreciate the fact that Workers in Progress gives fair attention to the ideas of Karl Marx; few games do. However, theory from Max Weber could have provided more sociological credibility as well as a way to flesh out the narrative.

Saturday Night

Whether you’re gay or straight, perhaps you’ve had a night somewhat like Eric Brasure’s Saturday Night. To say much more would ruin the joke, which is all this game has going for it. For what it’s worth, I think the game is a pretty funny joke, partly because it doesn’t even try that hard in the first place.

Truth is Ghost

After going through Joel Goodwin’s Trust is Ghost three times, I can sum it up as a story I wish I could understand. The narrative is interesting and varied (the game allows you to make choices for various characters), and the religious references get the wheels turning in my head rather furiously. But I feel I am lacking the context needed to identify what the story is trying to say. The ending does make the whole thing seem unpleasant.

Room 3

When Acting as a Particle

You don’t choose your own adventure in David T. Marchand’s When Acting as Particle. Instead, you click any bit of text in a visceral series of choices within a preset adventure. The game is pure action and full of nervous energy (even the text is jumpy). There’s no exposition leading you into situations, and the game doesn’t tell you the consequences of your choices. What happens before and after your choices is only as interesting as your imagination — to an extent. You do get enough hints in the text to know that you are a political leader in a nation of unrest. Marchand undoubtedly intended some of the choices to be mundane and repetitive in order to put you in another person’s shoes. Some of these sections can be quite tedious, and the game needs more narrative branching, but the foundation for a better game is clearly here.

The Girl in the Haunted House

Several of Amanda Lange’s ideas and tricks are quite familiar, but her subtle narrative framing, as well as her use of background color, creates an original story. The paths in The Girl in the Haunted House not only lead to their own conclusions but also reveal details about scenes in other paths — not everything can be figured out in a single playthrough. This game’s exploration of a “house” is far more inventive than the overrated Gone Home. And that’s not the only way Lange tops the 2013 critical darling: the Girl’s horror feels authentic (the allusions to harassment are particularly relevant) and avoids creating a partisan (idiotic) battleground for liberals and conservatives.

The Scientific Method

This entry from Evil Roda isn’t a hip ode to darkness but rather an illustration of a scientist’s duty and struggle. Most science fiction wants to challenge you or provide thrills, but The Scientific Method emphasizes the grime and emotional side effects of scientific responsibility. As a disease threatens humankind, you are given two options of potentially life-saving research. The victories and disappointments of the research then make their way into the protagonist’s home life. The perspective of a scientist under pressure acknowledges the emotional aspect of an objective field, but even when things get better, the game’s cold lecturing overshadows the joy of discovery.

Drosophilia

Drosophilia (a reference to flies) is by far the most curious of the Fear of Twine bunch. The three creators — Pippin Barr, Gordon Calleja, and Sidsel Hermansen — combine hypertext, sound, and YouTube videos to simulate a nagging office environment. The presentation is original, but my experience often amounted to a lot of mindless clicking, which evoked memories of the almost insufferable The Stanley Parable. Even the peaceful ending gave me no peace. Despite all of this, I would like to see another Twine game with such creative use of audiovisual elements.

Room 4

Abstract State-warp Machines

This game by Ivaylo “Evil Ivo” Shmilev is the perfect example of something that could make someone fear Twine — a long interactive poem that empathizes the white-collar politics of professional science. I almost dismissed Abstract State-warp Machines as overwrought, and I know some people will dismiss it based on the fact that it’s a poem that requires a good deal of concentration. All of this is a shame. For instance, we rarely see a statement of grief and understanding as profound as “I know now why people seek mediums to converse with the dead.” Does the poetry of Abstract State-warp Machines make the choices it presents even more challenging? Absolutely, but the difficulty of the game reflects the richness of the subject. This innovative work will stand the test of time.

The Work

The horror narrative of Cayora Rue’s The Work seems to represent a creative mind that is beating itself to a pulp. This game led me to that important question from filmmaker Francios Truffaut: “Is the cinema more important than life?” But the outcomes of The Work suggest a fatalistic perspective that goes beyond Truffaut’s concern about the prioritization of life and art. Rue even makes the text of the game hard to read to emphasize the negativity. The Work is certainly honest about the difficulties that might torment a storyteller, but such hopelessness can be balanced with more of the blue-collar ethic and pride that defined Larry Brown’s 92 Days.

Coyotaje

Delayed text and Google maps characterize the naturalistic approach of Coyotaje, a story about illegal immigration across the Mexican-American border. Joseph Domenici’s focus on environment shows a commendable refusal to play politics, and the scene about different American Dreams of Mexican immigrants is remarkable. But Coyotaje does trip on pretense when it declares “This is not a game.” The irritating trial and error required to make the protagonist care about his own soul says otherwise (Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us allows superior philosophical handling of the conflicted Bigby Wolf).

TWEEZER

This “fucking RPG” by Richard Goodness and PaperBlurt is a refreshingly simple take on the genre. As much as I enjoy RPGs, the obsession with numbers and the unending technical variations on the talk-search-fight-collect-shop formula can get tiresome. TWEEZER rarely speaks of a number and streamlines the RPG essentials with concise text and a time device. Even though a game of TWEEZER can only last a maximum of three “days,” the possibilities are plentiful and ridiculous. There is one annoying flaw: sometimes text disappears before I’ve read all of it.

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10 comments

  1. In my opinion, about half of these games look great…and I think that’s the point…there are enough options here that everyone will find something they like. More importantly, I’m glad to see a resurgence of interest in IF games. Language can be more powerful than images if done correctly.

    1. The options are certainly there, you’re right. But I wouldn’t say half of these games are great; frankly, some of them are not as enjoyable as they could have been. The only great ones are The Matter of the Red Dragon, The Girl in the Haunted House, and Abstract Time-warp Machines (I could make a case for TWEEZER, but my addiction to RPGs clouds my judgment). Of course, others are great at certain things; Debt’s cinematic approach was outstanding, for instance. At the very least, there’s no doubt a lot of thought was put into these games (with the exception of Saturday Night, which I enjoyed anyway) — I tried to put as much thought into this review.

  2. Hi Jed,

    “Coyotaje” author here. What I have to say may come off as unnecessarily defensive, but I assure you that this isn’t my intent. I merely wish to begin a dialogue, and my sleep-addled mind can’t come up with a nicer way to phrase my thoughts.

    I find it interesting that you get hung up on the protagonist caring about his soul, as if it’s a win condition of sorts, yet in the next paragraph praise TWEEZER for stripping itself of game-y elements and condensing the RPG experience into near-unadulterated narrative. There’s a duality to “This is not a game” — the warning that this experience isn’t to be taken lightly, as well as the authorial statement that I don’t consider this to be a game. In my mind, Coyotaje is a work of interactive fiction, which I consider to be distinct from an interactive fiction game.

    I chose to insert that statement because I want to challenge any preconceived notions that unfamiliar readers may have about Twine being a program to make interactive fiction games. I’ve read an incredible number of arguments online about whether or not Twine pieces are “really” “games”, and this is me throwing my hat into the ring and shouting, “Hey! This one definitely isn’t a game, people! Focus on the narrative elements and enjoy the story!”

    My deliberate exclusion of ludic elements in Coyotaje is also a subtle (or perhaps not-so-subtle? I’m a poor judge of my own work) statement about our perception of immigration: immigrants are real people making real life-altering decisions, not characters to be played and played out on a screen. I continue this thought through each of the game’s eight endings: other characters are momentarily affected by the culmination of your decisions, and then their lives continue onwards. The story treats them as indifferent to you because this is how real life works: you’re just someone who has done his job, rendered his services. You are not a heroic player-character in a world that was designed around you: you are Miguel Angel Guzmán, a 19-year-old soon-to-be coyote in the northern Mexican city of Cananea. Whether or not you care about Miguel caring about his soul is a value judgement passed solely by you, as the game has no ludic framework by which to assess you and proclaim, “Miguel only somewhat cares! Better try harder next time!”

    Anyway, that’s about all I have to say without repeating myself. I would love to hear your thoughts!

    1. Joseph, I am glad you started this dialogue, both with your Fear of Twine entry and now with your comment. I think it’s important to share our ideas.

      Before I get to Coyotaje, I’d like to address your point about TWEEZER. While it is true that I praised it for streamlining RPG elements, TWEEZER is the Fear of Twine entry that, more than any other, tries to be like a specific kind of video game (Workers in Progress reminded me of the Democracy simulation series, but I’m not sure if this was intentional). This is why I kept bringing up the RPG in the TWEEZER review. You’ll notice that I didn’t, for example, use the term “survival horror” in The Girl in the Haunted House or Zombies and Elephants reviews. While I’m fine with classifying them as video games, they don’t try to resemble survival horror games. In contrast, TWEEZER tries to resemble RPGs (and succeeds in many respects).

      I understand what you’re saying here about your intent with the “This is not a game.” phrase, and I think the phrase represents your strong beliefs. But I still must disagree based on how I experienced Coyojate.

      Personally, I don’t find the “interaction fiction” vs. “interactive fiction game” debate that important; it reminds me of the debate about whether Gone Home is a video game. To me, the most important question is not how we label these things but how good they are at communicating ideas, providing some sort of entertainment value to an audience (whether that entertainment value is defined as fun, edification, etc.), and functioning in a way that an audience finds acceptable.

      All of these factors lead me to my experience with Coyojate. Even though I really liked your naturalistic approach to the story, I still thought that I was playing a game because I felt I had some control over the proceedings. The comment about Miguel not worrying about people’s souls (triggered by the votive candles) made me realize he didn’t care about his own soul, so I wanted to “play” in a way that could change this. This motivation, of course, clashes a bit with your design and goals. However, I was finally able to satisfy myself; the issue was that I had to wait through the delayed text every time I tried, so Coyojate was a trial-and-error exercise as far as my motivation to continue “playing” was concerned. This is not to downplay the importance of anything you’re saying above, but I can’t deny my experience with Coyojate.

      By the way, I don’t think you’re alone in wanting Twine to distinguish “interactive fiction” from something else. Richard Goodness recently said on Twitter that he wanted Fear of Twine to show that Twine is more than “interaction fiction.” But again, as someone who doesn’t find much of a stake in this IF debate, it doesn’t matter to me either way. I’m the simpleton who just calls everything a game.

      1. Ah, I see what you mean now about TWEEZER. I certainly agree.

        That’s very interesting that the votive candle scene not only stuck with you throughout the game, but became a motivating factor in of itself. I certainly didn’t intend for the player to “play” against it, so to speak, though I can see how you interpreted it as a challenge of sorts. I wonder whether other people interpreted this scene similarly, as the challenge of getting Miguel to care about his soul seems fairly self-constructed. I don’t think I can possibly anticipate all of the myriad ways in which players construct their own challenges — I don’t question the validity of your interpretation, but I also don’t think I would change the votive candle scene if given the chance to remake the game.

        All of this being said, I do agree that the timed text makes Coyotaje laborious to play through more than once. I believe Emily Short posted something to this effect in a recent review. In retrospect, I should’ve strayed a bit further from the naturalistic approach and just used regular links, though I also didn’t anticipate people trying to play through Coyotaje more than once. Certainly something to keep in mind for my next Twine.

        Thank you again for the feedback!

  3. The one thing I’ll say at this time is about the text speed in TWEEZER–which, part of it is simply, it was my first game with automated transitions–I didn’t have much of a baseline to optimize against and I didn’t have enough time to test it as extensively as I would have liked, so I’m appreciative of the feedback!

    There were a couple of practical reasons for making it go quickly–I do want the game to have a manic, impressionistic feel. I wanted to characterize the narrator as someone rushing you through these sights and you can just pick up a few fleeting glimpses. More importantly, if you’re going to search for the ending, you’re probably going to end up seeing certain passages many times over. Like, you have to sit through the centaur’s presentation in order to get a key item, and I didn’t want to make that take up a full five minutes or anything–I wanted to be respectful of the player’s time.

    It’s funny. In general I click through very quickly when I play twines, which is one of the reasons I’m trying to write in a more clipped style. That’s part of why I loved Marchand’s piece–it’s one of the most skeletal pieces I’ve ever seen.

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