A curious and fascinating thing about Melissa Ford’s Writing Interactive Fiction with Twine is how it combines hypertext craft advice and Twine syntax tutorials with design expectations largely derived from parser-based interactive fiction.
This is a 400 page book about Twine fiction whose index lists Anna Anthropy once (in a passage discussing how she did geographical description in one of her games) and Porpentine never — though it does refer, without attribution, to the tiny Twine jam Porpentine ran. Steve Meretzky and Brian Moriarty appear, but not Michael Lutz or Tom McHenry or A. DeNiro or Caelyn Sandel or Dietrich Squinkifer, nor Michael Joyce or Shelley Jackson or other luminaries from the literary hypertext tradition either. The book has early and prominent chapters about how to design puzzles, inventory, and a room layout; fonts, text transitions, and CSS effects come quite a bit later, despite being much more common than inventory systems in practice. The section on genres starts with a helpful definition of the word “genre,” then runs through bite-sized descriptions of some common fiction genres — rather than, say, trying to describe the range of genres represented in current Twine fiction. The section on story structure explains terms such as “climax” and “exposition” from scratch, assuming essentially no writing-workshop-style experience from the reader.
This writing style, along with the tendency to draw examples from Narnia and Harry Potter, suggests that the author intends the book to be accessible to younger users as well as adults. It would probably be a bit over the head of most young children, but I could picture a motivated tween handling it just fine. Possibly that accounts for a decision not to explore much of the most innovative content for which Twine has been used. If you’ve read Videogames for Humans, almost none of what you saw there is replicated or even mentioned in this book.
There’s a similar simplicity or conservatism to a good deal of the craft advice: or rather, perhaps more fairly, the book presents a lot of conventions as straightforward absolutes. For instance:
When you construct a Twine story, you write it in second person so that the player becomes the main character in your story. (3)
Or this, which in a sentence sweeps away the whole tradition of Twine games about disempowerment:
If you create lots of agency for your players, they’ll feel like active, important figures in your story, and that’s the point of writing interactive fiction in the first place. (14)
Occasionally the instructions include the kinds of admonitions we generally only make to children:
How different were your endings? Where there four very different outcomes based on the actions of the main character? Think about your own life and how there are natural consequences for your choices. (19)
When I got to this page I got lost in a brief reverie about the way cause and effect in real life tend to be random and unfair. I thought about how much of the good in my life has come about through luck; also, about this man I know who has lost not one but two wives to cancer, and how that brutal circumstance was a consequence of nothing that he chose other than loving and committing himself to them in the first place. Then I remembered that that probably wasn’t what the book was getting at.
Every smart writer starts with an outline. (23)
Well, except when they don’t. “Some kind of planning is a good idea” makes for looser and less immediately applicable advice, though.
The section on genre is similarly prescriptive, many sentences starting with things like “The goal of an adventure writer is…”, and offering prompts like this:
Words that will help set the tone in an adventure story: muddy, khaki, ravishing, plummet, shining, jewel, forest, scaling, racing, and leaping. (119)
This is not a kind of advice I’m used to seeing even in fairly introductory-level writing craft books; it’s a lot more common in rulesets for tabletop roleplaying games. Monsterhearts character skins, for instance, invite a prospective player to circle an attribute for their protagonist out of a trope list like this one for the Ghost: “Forlorn, meek, distant, stuffy, out of place, brooding.” It’s really useful in RPGs where you want to keep all the players on more or less the same kind of story tack, and also in writing workshops where you want to prod people into producing things quickly in an hour or two. As the basis of a deep understanding of any particular genre history, it’s very limited. But that’s just not the goal of this book.
Meanwhile, Writing Interactive Fiction with Twine does provide a route into some of the more technically sophisticated aspects of Twine — specifically, of the Twine 2 Harlowe format — that are currently not especially easy to learn from the documentation at twinery.org. Ford’s gentle lead-in, numerous examples, and exercises do a lot to explain how you might do programming-like things under a Twine surface, and why you might want to. You’ll find discussions of how to manipulate variables, simulate inventory, calculate and make use of total turn count, and much else.
Likewise, the book combines technical and writing instruction in a really thoughtful way. Most chapters introduce a few pieces of Twine syntax in the context of particular examples, and combines those examples with broader observations about good interactive storytelling. The “either” and “random” macros are introduced alongside a discussion about player expectations and plot predictability. “prepend” comes in the chapter on foreshadowing. Various more and less obvious text-addition macros appear in a chapter about character depth, along with more narrative considerations about conveying interiority. Arrays — and this is admittedly something of a reach — appear alongside the concept of metaphor, as ways of packing considerable information into a small space.
And as to that explanation of arrays, it’s again extremely gentle, assuming no programming knowledge from the reader and offering analogies and illustrations to clarify what an array is for. Having a diagram to help me picture an array as a shopping bag with slots for different items feels like overkill to me in adulthood, but I remember that when I was trying to learn to code as a kid, I found arrays the most bewildering thing in my programming books: they seemed so fiddly, and what were they for anyway? I half wish I could go back to my much younger self and offer her this explanation and these tools. I spent a good decade and more frustrated by technical limitations before I was finally able to write my first IF.
So overall, I’d say there’s a definite rhetoric to this book, and it runs counter to a lot of what has been written about Twine before. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters talks about Twine’s accessibility, the ease of writing immediately, and the critical importance of that tool to give voice to the voiceless. Writing Interactive Fiction with Twine instead positions Twine as technically sophisticated enough to express many of the same things that are valued in the parser tradition. And I thought it did a good job of that: certainly I found it the clearest explanation I’ve yet read for the coding aspects of Harlowe and SugarCube. Given that Twine documentation and code samples are notoriously scattered all over many different sites and forums, it’s really valuable to have these materials in one place, organized in a logical progression, with plenty of examples. I can definitely foresee coming back to this book as a useful reference for any future Twine projects: I might not need the picture of what arrays mean, but I welcome the tidy presentation of related macro concepts.
Second, the book knits together mechanic and fiction, presenting the technical craft of IF implementation in clear relation to the technical craft of storytelling. It may be doing both at a fairly introductory level, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of that rhetorical move. Lots of previous writing about IF craft assumes either that you have already digested a lot of writing instruction and don’t need to be told, or else that you don’t at all care about conventional fiction writing (though it’s worth looking at Aaron Reed’s Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7). The book is less into game design per se — it tends to treat the concepts of puzzles and plot progression as already settled things, inviting the reader to pick some pre-established puzzle types and deploy them, rather than to think afresh about what interaction could involve.
Finally, Ford’s book offers loads of exercises one could imagine using in workshops or with younger users. I think it may offer a route in to classroom teaching of Twine in particular, and I recognize that some of the book’s glaring omissions about Twine’s cultural history may have been made in order to keep it palatable to the PTA.
Above all, it feels safe: concepts have tidy subcategories; advice is clear, generalized, and prescriptive; characterization starts with a discussion of Big Five personality factors; the most conventional formats of branching narrative are placed alongside the most conventional of writing advice. (There’s a full chapter on Show, Don’t Tell.) Depending on who you are, that could be a really good thing. The book is thorough and careful and well-organized, which are serious virtues in this context. It’s doing something useful, that isn’t being done in any of the other books on Twine, and the more I read, the more I was convinced that the simplicity of its explanations reflected expectations about the audience, rather than limitations of the author. The final chapters do suggest that the rules laid out earlier can be broken by someone who knows what they’re doing.
At the same time. At the same time. I’m glad this exists — I will use it, and I believe so will others. At the same time it makes me a little sad. Here is a book about Twine in which gender is mentioned for a third of a page at the back of the book; a book about Twine that includes the sentence “Most of the time you’ll be able to straddle both genders with your player character as long as you’re careful about not making gender-based assumptions.” Indeed. It’s the most usable explanation of Twine I’ve read, and also the least touched by the evangelical spirit, by the sense of holy fire.
(Disclaimer: I read a copy of this book I was sent for free by the publisher for review purposes.)