Three days ago–on January 24th, 2014–Vine turned a year old. It’s not really momentous, except it was made out to be by your standard content-spammy blogs, posting year and monthly compilations in response. You won’t believe this Vine compilation—check out the best Vines of September—etc etc. I found myself in a late night internet spiral, absorbed by the continual sluice of 7-second slices of so many jokes, snippets, lives.
I bring up Vine because, even though it took a while to take hold, once it did, it was followed by the usual pop articles about how it brought the power of video to the people. A summarized talking point: while YouTube democratized video distribution, Vine democratized video creation, with its ubiquity only limited to the ubiquity of compatible smartphones.
I think that point about democratization is an interesting one, and I think it’s an interesting issue to solve with regards to video games, since they exist already in a realm that requires technological knowledge as a barrier to entry. It’s harder to make games than it is to make film/poems/art, at least before getting into discussions about quality. (Obviously a child with a smartphone won’t instantly make Citizen Kane, nor will a child with paints and a canvas instantly make Woman III.)
Tools do exist. I’ve been playing around with GameMaker: Studio, the latest iteration of software that’s been kicking around since 1999. Another is RPG Maker, which dates back even farther to 1988. Both of these are intensely powerful tools, and while the latter is designed to create a very specific type of game—your classic Final Fantasy, for instance—both have been expanded and broken, used to create widely popular indie titles such as Gunpoint and Spelunky (in the case of GameMaker) and To the Moon (RPG Maker).
But problematically, both of these programs feature that same barrier to entry, which is the learning and use of a digital software, and the languages or methods contained within. While this knowledge may be akin to technical proficiency as a painter, writer, filmmaker, or musician, these other arts feature basic tools that can be picked up and used easily, albeit in a rudimentary fashion. There is, essentially, no good equivalency in these programs in the same way there is of strumming a guitar, or snapping a quick video; no scrabbling words on paper or washing a quick color across the surface of a canvas. Before experimentation, it feels, there must be mastery, even if it is a small amount to produce small things.
Which is why, in the past year, I’ve been particularly excited to experiment with a new program: Twine. Boasted as an “open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories,” Twine doesn’t create “games” in the classic sense: there will be no Marios, no Street Fighters. Twine instead is a tool for the propagation of interactive fiction, which is often compared to “Choose Your Own Adventure” books.
The comparison isn’t exactly apt, but it is a useful one, especially because those books are a pretty interesting use of their medium. But while those books might present several paths of a somewhat linear story—there may be branches, but they usually either end in death or a “good” ending—Twine is somewhat more concerned with the exploration of text and image through clickable links, and not so much concerned with a strict narrative, but something that is both read by and invites the reader to interact. A paragraph could have choice nouns as links, ready to click for explanation. This could then lead to others, and so on, creating a looping, branching, recursive textual landscape.
But perhaps what’s most exciting is all of the things people are doing with Twine. The Hairpin recently published an interview with one of my favorite authors, who hosts a wealth of games over on her personal site, with titles such as CRY$TAL WARRIOR KE$HA. And in the title image of this post (from High End Customizable Sauna Experience), the player chooses what kind of futuristic creature they are, what color their eyes are, how they break into a cupcake factory, and eventually, the details of their sauna. Over in a different area of the web, Travis Megill used the program to create an incredibly touching, heartbreaking Memorial for his brother, something much more serious and personal–but in the context of Twine, obviously meant to be shared.
And in July of last year, Cara Ellison published a letter from Dan Waber, a poet, on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Dan had decided that Twine would be the perfect place to create a sprawling, novel-length, poetic vision. The result was a kiss, which spans a staggering 1,001 pages, and in the letter, Dan talks the differences between readers who approached it as poetry vs. a game, and how far they got into the monumentally intimidating work.
It’s an intersection that I’ve been interested in for quite some time now: that of literature and video games. I feel as though each year, the industry and creators get closer and closer to realizing that marriage, and tools like Twine—or Inform, another IF creator—help it along the way. It’s these tools that kind of shrug aside at arguments for or against video games as art, and keep enabling creators to experiment, expand, and produce.
Because sometimes I can’t help but stay awake at night, nearly unconscious and absorbing Vines. They’re so short, so easy, and they show off the vast creativity of a vaster expanse of people, of culture. While Twine might not be the key to getting the masses to create the next Tomb Raider or GTA–and I’m not sure any of us want that– they’re a step towards pushing the line on gaming as a whole, through the wild world of interactive fiction. It’s an exciting tool, and an exciting genre, and as something that can appeal to both gamers, readers, and writers alike, it makes the future all the more an exciting place.