I work as a software engineer at a startup. So trust me when I say this: technology is not going away. People like me will continue “disrupting,” the world will keep changing at a faster and faster pace. It is inevitable, and I’m sometimes scared about its conclusions. But you, as a member of the literary community, don’t have to be. Technology may seem scary, but disruption happens for a simple reason: enough people think the changes it brings are a good thing. And being able to string words together in a way that moves people is not a skill that’s going to be unwanted in the digital age.
Let’s get specific for a moment, and talk about books. Nobody reads books anymore! I don’t read books anymore—well, that’s a lie, because I’m old-fashioned in this particular way. I actually happen to think it’s a lie for most people, but the only evidence I have is anecdotal. Let’s pretend it’s true for a minute. Nobody reads books anymore, they just surf the internet and play video games. It’s Complicated, by anthropologist danah boyd, details why teens spend so much time on Facebook, Tumblr, all the other myriad distractions of the web. It’s not because attention spans are getting shorter. Quite the opposite: when surfing the internet, people enter a state called “flow” in which we lose track of time passing. It’s the same as when you have a long conversation offline with your friends. It’s not anything different than reading a book. Not only is the mental state the same, but in many cases surfing the internet is literally reading words upon words. The same words that, in a shocking turn of events, also comprise books.
I’m being a little flippant here, but please understand that I do believe very deeply in the power of the written word and in the craftsmanship of writing, editing, and publishing. I love stories. I’ve written my share of short stories, poems, and even, occasionally, novels. Writing gives me the freedom to express myself, process emotions, and share them with others. To me, the absolute best writing is evocative of a mood.
I just don’t think that dead trees are the sum total of the written word’s potential.
Let’s get specific for a moment, and talk about new media. Let’s talk about video games. Immersion is fundamental to the nature of a video game—it’s you exploring the forgotten island, you dismantling the artificial intelligence, you saving the animals (or not). It’s If on a winter’s night a traveler’s second person taken to its logical conclusion. There is perhaps no better way to encapsulate the potential of storytelling in games than by talking about Twine.
“Twine is an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories,” says their website. Basically, it works like this: you type words in passages, and link passages together with other words. Chunks of words go in, narrative comes out. To play a Twine game, you typically go to a website, and read the words, and click on choices to decide which words you’ll read next. Rinse and repeat. In some ways, it’s the same as a “choose your own adventure” book—but while those were typically ghostwritten and slavishly bound to a convention designed for simple readers, Twine games are typically written with care, and have their own set of conventions separate from traditional literature, which may themselves in turn be flouted by a clever writer.
Lost Dutchman’s Gold, 1982
I’ve written plenty of words in traditional media formats. I’ve also written several Twine games. Twine easily allows me to be open and connect with others through writing in a way that is much more difficult in traditional media. Since Twine is a type of video game, when a reader plays a Twine game, it is inherently interactive. Even though the Twine games I’ve written are mostly linear, the act of clicking draws the reader in, in much the same way as turning a page. The hyperlinking to subsequent passages allows for fine control over the pace at which the reader takes in the words. Furthermore, the Twine paradigm is that there is typically more than one option to click on—this forces the reader to become personally involved in a way that traditional media doesn’t normally allow. Due to the expectations of those familiar with Twine games, if there is only one option, it may be seen as limiting, trapping the reader. If writing is about evoking a mood, Twine is absolutely capable of doing that, even in ways that go above and beyond words on a static page.
Twine also opens doors to people and ideas that are shut out of traditional storytelling. My favorite Twine game is Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World. It takes ten seconds to play (there’s a timer; I’m not exaggerating.) It is a fantastic example of storytelling transformed and elevated by technology. The strictly time-limited nature of the game is critical to the execution of this concept, and would be completely impossible without technology. The temporary nature of the words on the screen makes them all the more poignant.
Another Twine game, more literary than my first example, is Porpentine’s howling dogs, which tells a story with several interludes, dropping the reader into the main character’s second person perspective without context. At one point during the game, text is blurred out to the point of illegibility. At another, text disappears when you mouse over it. In a climactic scene, there are 77 links to different options in a single passage. There are multiple endings that you can reach; the best option is buried deep within an overwhelmingly long paragraph, hiding among those 77 links, if you read the text instead of glazing over it. Any literature can have dense passages—I know this isn’t unique to Twine—but howling dogs makes the search for meaning in complicated writing more overt, engaging, and urgent than anything that I’ve read of comparative complexity.
Since Twine is open to anyone who wants to download the tools to make something with it, it doesn’t have the accessibility boundaries that a lot of older media has. Not everyone can get published—there are huge barriers to entry in the field of traditional publishing. Almost everyone can write a blog. Anna Anthropy and Porpentine both use Patreon, an online crowdfunding platform, to raise money to support themselves while making games. These games would not exist without technology. I think that not having stories like these in the world would be a huge loss.
Twine’s accessibility means that it’s open to anyone with a computer and internet access. Anna Anthropy’s written an introduction to Twine that you can refer to as you make your game. It doesn’t have to be serious—one of my favorite games is Chris Martens’ Shower Sim, a game which she describes as “cutting edge crappy-apartment shower realism.” Once you’ve written a game, you can upload it to sites like philome.la or itch.io, and then anyone with the link can play it online.
Electronic media may be overtaking traditional media. But does that mean people no longer care about stories? The question seems ridiculous to me—there’s no relationship between those two things. Technology means people have more options about what media they consume, and how they consume it. It doesn’t mean the written word is dead.
If you want to read about more Twine games before you dive into making one yourself, I recommend you check out Merrit Kopas’ book Videogames for Humans for playthroughs of some of her top picks of Twine games, played mostly by prominent Twine authors. Some other articles I like on the topic of Twine include “Flesh and Twine“ and “A Missed Connection: Tech Feminism and Videogame Zinesters.”
Anne DeCusatis is a Core Engineer at Meetup. In her spare time, she runs a feminist hackerspace, MergeSort NYC. She can be reached on Twitter @precisememory.