Known Unknowns (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)

knownunknownsKnown Unknowns is a four-part Twine series by the author of Birdland and set in the same universe. The protagonist is Nadia, a Toronto teenager who is trying to deal with her sexuality, fraught relationships with several of her classmates, various annoying teachers, and the real possibility that she has just encountered a ghost raccoon.

Like Birdland, this is Y/A queer romance — but this time the choices are less about self-characterization and more about how you’re going to interact with the side characters. (And, as in Birdland, the core plot remains the same regardless. This is not as far as I can tell a heavily branching story, but the interpretation of individual scenes can vary a good bit.) Known Unknowns is immensely charming and accessible, solidly structured and well paced — and as it’s now available in its complete form, there’s no waiting between episodes.

The whole experience is smooth enough that it’s easy to ride right over the formal experimentation here. Though it’s a Twine game, Known Unknowns clearly belongs to a tradition of interactive fiction that knows about parser IF as well: there are several sequences where you’re navigating a space (in some cases even a space with compass directions) and choosing what to look at and which characters to talk to; and there are scattered jokes that are a clear acknowledgement of parser IF traditions. There are also moments that feel more reminiscent of Life is Strange, especially the elective conversations with scattered classmates. And there are a handful of sequences in which the player’s choices are even more surprising. Any given screen of text in Known Unknowns might represent:

  • Dialogue with one or more other characters, followed by a choice (often not verbatim) of what to say next
    • …including some examples that are not exactly in English
  • A room description, with choices of where to go or whom to interact with
  • The screenplay of a show we’re watching, with options as to which dialogue we want to comment on
  • Elements of a to-do list we’re working our way through, which we can tackle in any order

And notably, the default action here, the thing that happens most of the time when you click on a link, is not examine but discuss. Many, many Twine games divide links between those that will give you an object description and those that will move the story forward. Known Unknowns keeps you in conversation, and even your observation takes the form of conversation rather than interior monologue.

It’s good conversation. Hennessy’s dialogue is funny and assured. The few adults are pretty much all figures of satire — the mocking and dismissive French teacher, the history teacher who is desperately trying to be one of the kids, the occasional parent — but the other students mostly move (or at least can move) from an initial stereotype to something a bit more fleshed out, if you spend enough time to get to know them. Indeed, most people you encounter have a solid motive for what they do, even if it’s not initially clear what that is.


Meanwhile, also because of this rigorous focus on conversation, we often don’t explicitly see or specify what Nadia is thinking. We see what she’s saying to other characters — but that could be untrue, or limited, or represent internal confusion. It’s a very cinematic approach in a lot of ways — embracing the way film and television rely on subtext, rather than novelistically telling you what the protagonist has in mind.

There are quite a few moments where I wish I could make Nadia be more direct with people, and more truthful about what’s going on with her. And there were a few times when the choice structure also funneled me towards one thing I didn’t really want to do, like texting her boyfriend Allen. Curiously, the parser-esque structure where you can move from room to room helps disguise the occasions when there is only one option that will move the story forward — because you’re welcome to keep wandering through the rooms looking for something else to do, but at the end of the day, only that one interaction option will make things progress.

In the case where I wound up texting Allen because I couldn’t find anything else to do, it felt like Nadia was falling back on this as a habit and a default. Contacting him was something to do, when she didn’t have the imagination to picture different ways she could act in the present social circumstances. If this scenario had been replaced with a Twine screen where I only had one option, Text Allen, I would have felt a bit more railroaded; and I also wouldn’t have had the experience of flailing around trying to come up with another option, which was part of Nadia’s journey as a protagonist, not just my journey as a player.

But then, Nadia’s limitations are the point. She doesn’t have the confidence or self-knowledge to navigate high school romances very effectively. She needs to understand herself better before she can be honest with other people. In contrast with, say, Rameses, she is allowed to make progress and change over the course of the story.

This is a sweet and lovely piece, not to mention very funny. I highly recommend it.

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