The Trouble With Twine

In another world, I could easily see myself being a staunch Twine supporter. After all, I’ve long supported tools that democratize the process of game creation. For instance, I’m arguably the last champion of the much-aligned Adventure Game Toolkit (AGT). I like AGT because it lets people who aren’t necessarily programmers write interactive fiction. I’m also a long-time supporter of ZZT which serves a similar role for people who want to create simple graphical adventure and action games. Robb introduced me to Adventure Construction Set and its modern equivalent Adventure Creation Kit which are also great graphical adventure game creation systems. And then there’s RPG Maker, the wildly successful RPG creation system which I play around with approximately once every decade. Like all these other development systems, Twine makes it easier for people who aren’t coders to design their own games. How could that possibly be a bad thing?

Considered in isolation, it really isn’t a bad thing at all. Twine has successfully filled the apex development system role in the world of Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) gaming that Inform occupies for traditional parser-based interactive fiction. I feel totally comfortable calling Twine great software. It is absolutely the most appropriate tool for some game developers. What I struggle with is accepting that Twine in any way represents either the future or the current face of interactive fiction.

That’s because for me CYOA and parser-based interactive fiction are fundamentally different genres of games. IF is a nebulous, broad term — more or less any type of game that tells a story could be called interactive fiction. It’s not easy to set down any boundary lines for what IF is. I’ll probably write a review of Mass Effect for RFTK at some point even though it’s certainly not a text adventure and isn’t solely devoted to telling a story. Thus, I don’t deny that Twine games are interactive fiction. Many do tell interactive stories, and some do it well. That doesn’t change the fact that the mechanics and the feeling of playing choice-based, CYOA interactive fiction is extremely different compared to traditional, parser-based interactive fiction. For me, choice-based interactive fiction tends to feel somewhat constrained. In a traditional text adventure, the limiting factors are primarily your own imagination and the creativity of the game’s author. You genuinely don’t know what can be accomplished in the virtual world you find yourself in until you start to experiment and explore. The possibilities are potentially endless. With a typical Twine game, though, the cards are laid out on the table for you. At a glance, you know what you can do in a given situation; it’s largely a matter of making a choice, whether considered or arbitrary. You know you can always come back to the game later and make different choices. Some games are more ambitious in terms of available choices than others, but no non-parser-based game can quite recreate that feeling that one can do anything. CYOA games are fundamentally less free and less open than parser-based games. It’s a basic limitation of the genre, and for me it’s the biggest reason I far prefer parser games.

It’s not that I don’t understand what has lead up to this point. After all, parser-based interactive fiction has been frustrating players for 40+ years now. Instead of offering freedom, some games with parsers make players follow a very narrow, prescribed path. Instead of recognizing many reasonable inputs, some games make you guess the verb. If you can’t do it and won’t consult a walkthrough, it’s game over. Choice-based games never make you guess the verb. They usually don’t conceal the path you must travel upon. They give you the feeling that victory is just around the corner, x number of clicks away, no matter how frustrated you might feel at the moment. For developers, tools like Twine are more also accessible than a language like Inform. Twine lets developers focus on writing their story as they envision it while creators of parser-based IF, if they are to produce a good game at least, have to consider not only what they want to create but also how players are likely to react to the virtual environment they are placed inside. The seductiveness of Twine is that it potentially offers an easier path for both players and developers; I can totally understand why both groups would want that. “Easy” doesn’t mean “good” though, certainly not inherently. I personally still prefer the challenges and the freedom traditional IF offers at its best despite the existence of many flawed, imperfect parser-based games.

Twine certainly isn’t going away any time soon. What I hope is that parser-based IF and parserless IF will continue to be able to coexist so fans of both will still be able to play games they prefer. It would be naive to not admit that Twine is a threat to traditional IF, however. Look at the annual Interactive Fiction Competition for example. The 2019 iteration is coming up, and if it turns out to be anything like the 2016, 2017, and 2018 competitions there will be more Twine games than Inform games entered. It’s become a given that less than half the games in the competition will have a parser. You’re virtually assured to have more custom non-parser games and other Twine-like games created with exotic development sysems such as Texture, AXMA, and Choicescript than games created with old standbys like Hugo and Alan. Twine and its relatives have successfully stormed the old fortresses of interactive fiction. They’ve achieved something that graphical adventure games never could. No longer the rowdy upstarts, they are becoming the default choice in IF. If we want parser-based games to survive long-term, we’re going to have to get to work. From where I sit, it appears that Twine is fully capable of sweeping away traditional IF, superseding it from the inside. If that’s not the future we want for our hobby, we have to continue to write, play, review, and promote our favorite new parser-based interactive fiction. Furthermore, I think we need to create virtual spaces specifically for parser-based games, places where they don’t permanently play second fiddle to Twine. The annual IF competition, the XYZZY Awards, and Spring Thing obviously can’t be those spaces any longer.

Saving parser-based interactive fiction will be difficult, but I think it can be done. After all, people have always discounted text adventures. The death of Infocom was supposed to be the end. The rise of point and click adventures was supposed to finish the parser once and for all. The increasingly sophisticated graphics in mainstream games were supposed to create a world where gamers could no longer tolerate plain text. None of it happened — we always found a way to survive, and we’ll probably survive the current challenge as well. But let’s choose to survive in an active, defiant way rather than as some sort of novelty sideshow in a genre ever more dominated by Twine.

— Bryan, August 25th, 2019

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