Further works from Fear of Twine. This time we have The Scientific Method, Drosophilia, Duck Ted Bundy, Abstract State-Warp Machines, The Work, Coyotaje, TWEEZER.
Evil Roda’s The Scientific Method is a story about a researcher trying to find the solution to a potentially civilization-ending disease. Your agency within the game boils down to one important choice about which research avenue to pursue, but you don’t have much guidance before hand about which option is going to be the correct one. One leads to a win, the other to a total loss. Thematically, I suppose that’s consistent: the game spends quite a bit of time on the idea that the world doesn’t automatically conform to our desires for it and that magical thinking is ineffective. Within that world view, it’s consistent for there to be no clues about which path to take — and the arbitrariness of the game might be seen as its main point.
To make that really stick, though, it would have helped if the game’s writing were stronger overall. It switches off between heavily expository passages about your research, and manipulatively idealized ones about your home life with your adorable son Gary who may or may not live to have much of a future. Meanwhile, the premise feels rather off: even though the whole world is at risk, the story implies that your team is the only one working on this, and that there isn’t time and resource available to pursue multiple lines of inquiry at once. How could that be? I would think in any situation this severe, the search for a cure would be parallelized across thousands of medical research facilities around the world, with every imaginable avenue being explored simultaneously. These stakes simply don’t make sense. The people needed to be written as more nuanced characters, and the events presented more convincingly, for me to feel really invested in them. As things stood, it felt more as though both the disease and the family members were props in a thought experiment.
Drosophilia, by Pippin Barr, Gordon Calleja, Sidsel Hermansen. Drosophilia is one of the more technically ambitious entries in the Fear of Twine collection, with background audio and video. It’s (sort of) about working in a call center, but it’s also about the dissolution of meaning: as you go about a series of endless, pointless tasks, the words describing your environment degrade, and you have more and more fits of a kind of alternate experience in which you see the world differently. I don’t want to overexplain this because the piece is quite short and it’s worth seeing for yourself how it works.
In a very distant way, this reminded me a bit of Leonard Richardson’s parser IF game Degeneracy, in which room descriptions change and degrade over the course of the game, as though we were seeing the game itself losing its implementation.
But I also found that I reacted to the imperative to answer another 99 customer service calls in the same way that I did to Papers, Please: I recognized that the situation was ridiculous, tedious, and degrading, and I simultaneously wanted to prove that I could do it quickly and acceptably. Maybe I was programmed very successfully in grade school as a good little member of society. I’m not quite sure what touches off this response. But I spent much of the game really trying, seriously trying, to answer as many calls as possible and select the most appropriate response for each one, even though it was totally clear to me that this didn’t matter and that being invested in the outcome of the calls was not the response intended for my character.
Duck Ted Bundy, by Coleoptera-Kinbote, is a surreal piece in which you’re a serial-killing duck. The game explores the weirdness of that premise for a while, then stops; it’s not always totally clear how much the ducks are just ducks or how much they’re anthropomorphized, but the story is so weird to begin with that you don’t really need to understand the worldbuilding thoroughly in order to proceed. Its most effective scene is one in which you encounter a duck with even more disturbing desires than your own. There is also duck genitalia, which may surprise those readers who haven’t already heard that ducks have corkscrew-shaped penises. I was mentally prepared because a friend once sent me a link to the video Explosive Eversion of a Duck Penis. If you click that link, don’t say that you weren’t warned.
Abstract State-Warp Machines, by Ivo Shmilev. Some of the other pieces in the exhibit embrace their digital nature, playing with CSS and animation, image and video and text color changes. This one, instead, uses an old-fashioned font that emphasizes the idea of physical text impressed into a physical page. That text itself is in verse. And here, I admit, I have to admit a bias: 99% of poetry that I’ve encountered in an interactive fiction context has made me cringe (the other 1%, possibly, being the screen and a half I played of The Tempest before I decided I couldn’t deal with the unfairness of the gameplay). So now, when I see verse in IF, my brain pre-cringes and I have to exert willpower in order not to just press the back button.
This is not so bad, however. There are a few points where it descends into forced and jangling rhymes, but it’s an intentional effect. The poetry also means it’s necessary to read (even if silently) at reading-aloud speed. The story (at least on the second path I followed) concerned a university research group trying to develop an experimental new AI creation, but encountering setbacks and failures that come from the humanity of the individuals involved. The artificial and the natural, the digital and the analogue, come up many times, and the story is also partly about the fact that we can’t cease being physical and emotional beings, can’t get rid of social needs or outrun our financial requirements; that the life of pure fiery disembodied intellect is impossible because one can never clear away all the other considerations that come with living in a body made of animal. (At least, that is how I read it.) The poetry and the old-fashioned type are suitable to that theme.
The Work, by Cayora Rue, also uses a typewriter font — in this case a very rough and damaged one. The passages of text are short. The links are colored a very dark blood-red, so that they don’t stand out very sharply from the black unlinked text; so that it takes a little bit of work to see which bits of the text are active. The premise is that, for some reason, the protagonist is trapped in a little room where she forges letters and notes between people. Fabricating bits of lives with which she has no direct contact. From time to time she is brought new instructions and new supplies. She gives careful thought to the penmanship that should be used for each letter, the appropriate paper and ink, how the paper should be folded and what damage it might have sustained. The protagonist is, in other words, a creator of narratives of the object. This much I found interesting.
From there, the protagonist can escape the room, or be caught again. That part of the story didn’t work as well for me, because it’s not clear what kind of institution she’s in, what its purpose is, who is helping her to escape, or why her captors have been making her forge all these things for all this time. She is in an alien environment, but how alien, and why? It didn’t feel as though the author had an answer to these questions I was failing to figure out; rather, it felt like there was no specific intended explanation.
Joseph Domenici’s Coyotaje presents itself as an interactive nonfiction about the lives of people near the Mexico/US border, and the process by which experienced guides help immigrants trek across to Arizona. It emphasizes the non-fictional aspect constantly, with many links to maps, photographs, and documentation that provides context for the situation it describes. It dramatizes the difficulty of the situation many Mexicans face: the economic desperation that leads to attempts to cross the border, the overwhelming force of the drug cartels, and the difficulty of decisions about breaking up families or keeping them together. The US border patrol is a vast impersonal danger. It felt, to me, both better documented and less vivid than Autumn’s Daughter: I was less invested in the Coyotaje protagonist, who remains largely a cipher. He is given a little bit of a romance plotline, but as Gloria, the love interest, wasn’t very fleshed out, I didn’t feel particularly strongly about that connection. I did come away wondering whether Coyotaje could have taught me more about the structural problems that result in this kind of situation — but maybe that wasn’t what it was aiming to do (or maybe I would indeed have learned that if I’d taken the time to read the rather lengthy academic paper linked from one point in the piece).
As a side note, Coyotaje uses timed text effect a LOT, so that paragraphs come out bit by bit. That was okay on the first playthrough, but it became a bit irritating when I was replaying the same portions the third time. I wonder whether there’s a possibility within Twine to provide some sort of fast-forwarding option, the way that Ren’Py allows the player to speed through dialogue they’ve already seen until they get to new choice points.
TWEEZER, by Richard Goodness and Paper Blurt. This was kind of trippy. It’s sort of a parody of RPGs, with blockish pixelated text and funny colors, and you can do things like go to the alchemist to buy potions or go out on adventures. Except that my explorations kept resulting in my character getting killed for totally arbitrary reasons, or accidentally taking drugs.
So that’s all of them, now. Of these, I think I was most impressed by
Drosophilia, for unusual use of audio and visual effects
Zombies and Elephants, for the treatment of the racial and social aspects of the situation
When Acting As a Wave, for creating a Twine story consisting of nothing but links
The exhibition as a whole also does a pretty good job of demonstrating the variety of what Twine can do, showing off many different text styling effects and types of subject matter (from awareness-raising interactive nonfiction to personal essays to poetry and genre fiction).