The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)
Unbeknown is a short Twine work of speculative fiction by A. DeNiro.
A. DeNiro has become, gradually, one of my favorite authors in Twine. DeNiro’s stories are often a little cryptic, assuming a world radically different from our own; the second reading often makes more sense than the first. But I don’t think the work is deliberately obscure, and I always find that the second reading is worth the effort.
In Unbeknown, DeNiro tells the story of– well, it’s a spoiler even to say who the protagonist is, really. It’s a story of an MMO gone off the rails, let’s say.
The story starts out looking like the most generic of Twine templates, though it eventually breaks away from that; but the words remain always the center of the show. DeNiro does relatively little here with complex structures (though Solarium has demonstrated the ability to use them) or kinetic effects. Structurally, it is pretty linear: you can make some choices along the way, but the plot rejoins quickly at these points until the very end. (Or at least, that’s how it appeared to me on several play-throughs. It’s always possible I missed some hidden additional path or information.)
Most of what I have to say about this game belongs after a spoiler space, because it involves interpretation based on the endings.
So the literal layer of this piece has to do with AI characters based on avatars once controlled by real people. They retain the possibly psychopathic personalities of the teenage boys who played those characters in youth. The second of the two possible endings allows for a scenario in which you — the AI — receive a message from your human progenitor, who has been dead for some time but has had some final words for you. The first of the endings shows you not finding about about this history and not coming to terms with it; and the decision that forks between those two points is what you have decided about whether you are able to break away from the words and actions of your originators.
The human layer beneath this: how do we relate to our past selves? It’s a theme DeNiro has taken up before, notably in Doggerland, writing about the selves before and after parenthood, and times before and after significant climate change.
The central metaphor of Unbeknown raises a different set of questions around the same issue, I think. Where Doggerland is about not recognizing oneself across a transition, about catastrophic and unimaginable change, Unbeknown is about what we owe the past selves, what they owe us, what it even means to be one person for eight or nine decades on end. The protagonist AI is based on the actions of a young man, but that person, grown up, regrets who he was, and has turned into someone different. Is the protagonist likewise free, or is he still bound to the patterns laid down for him?
It’s a story that resonates with me, though I think it might not have impressed me much when I was 18, when my life and my character seemed straightforwardly continuous and I hadn’t changed my mind about much yet. Back then I thought integrity was about sticking to your positions, about loving the same people forever even if they never loved you back, about finding ways to defend the teachings you were raised with, about consistency. And now I think the pith of selfhood is something else, deeper; something you only really identify once you’re not who you used to be, two or three times over.