Twinery - Affect and Humour
Narratives, game design, and interactive fiction are all topics I’ve been interested since picking up a controller over 10 years ago. Our task here was a perfect fit; to create a short narrative using Twine, “an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories” (Twine, 2009). Bringing the idea of “surface effect” (Anable, 2018), that is, a user’s body having an effect over code with touch, we consider how platforms and data affect the users and how creating these pieces of digital art requires a deeper understanding of the code that makes it all possible. Throughout our task we encountered language barriers, cultural barriers, and skill barriers, all of which guided our understanding in different ways. When reflecting on these barriers, it has encouraged me to explore alternative platforms for showcasing creativity in storytelling; it has helped me to think proactively about my own role in facilitating the overcoming of them in future collaborative work.
Aubrey Anable asks “What kind of encounter is it when we touch the screen of a digital device?” (Anable, 2018). Her answer, then, is that it is “an intimate encounter—meaning that, like all touching, it simultaneously designates self and other and the confusion between these designations.” (Anable, 2018). Having started a university course amidst a pandemic, this answer seems almost entirely relatable. My classmates are behind screens, as are my lecturers, as are most of the books I now have to read digitally. Everything about university has been an other that has no bearing on my day-to-day outside of neatly-allocated hour-long slots once a week. With that comes the issue of language barriers too. The neat affordances that technology provides: taking a course alongside people from all over the world, from different cultures, time zones, and languages, brings into light a new issue, one that seems unsolved right now. My course mates speak a different language. Espen J. Aarseth’s Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature (Aarseth, 1997) is based on an assumption that we all speak the same language, an assumption one would have no reason to challenge… usually. These are, of course, unprecedented times, and my peers do speak a different language. The language barrier became an underlying theme in much of our work; it’s impossible to talk about the task, its insights, and its relationship to the assigned reading without mentioning the language barrier. To directly quote merritt k’s The Empathy Machine, “isn’t empathy about simultaneously holding difference and sameness without subsuming either?” (k, 2013)
Twine promises a simple enough means of creating multicursal, ergodic narratives. Its story formats are CSS-adjacent; knowing one can massively help with the other. Of course, to many of us CSS was a fresh skill, and we weren’t well versed in CSS or Twine. We found a compounded challenge: the technical language of Twine and CSS, the emotive nature of “affect” in Anable’s writing, and reconciling those through our lingua franca. In a similar vein, programming languages are categorised as “high level” and “low level” based on the abstraction between hardware and user readability – overcoming the language barrier beyond programming was even higher; a “meta level”. Of course, CSS and Twine itself are both reliant on a presupposed knowledge of English. We struggled immensely to overcome this, and I’m not sure if we ever did. As a result, our narrative was simple; a linear sjuzet without any branches and only one choice.
Creating “affect” also relied on a certain level of cultural and geographical knowledge – when crafting our story based on Sarah’s fictionalized weekend, we added a tongue-in-cheek choice that allowed the player to choose where Sarah went on holiday. Our jokey staycation option was “Cornwall”. Without the context, the experience of clicking through our Twine game was exactly the thing merritt k was wary of in her game The Empathy Machine; we were reducing the complex lived experience of people immersed in our local culture enough to assume that a simple on-screen choice would cause a universal response in all players. In hindsight, it was a privileged thing to assume and as a result our peers from different backgrounds were confused, asking “what is Cornwall?”. We were, in effect, using a technology none of us were familiar with, telling a story in a language that was second to our native languages (Sarah being the only native speaker), and using cultural shorthand for the purposes of humor. The impact of comparing the Maldives to Cornwall was likewise a gamble; a punchline made effective only by my lived experiences and not necessarily those of my peers. It’s an uncomfortable mirror of the “power” disparity – why were our Euro-centric narratives taking precedence over those of my peers, when those narratives are in a numerical minority (Western cultural homogeneity aside)? In the words of Anable: “A computer program may not fully capture the complexity of what gender feels like, but that does not mean that it cannot create a circuit of feeling across screens, language, code, and bodies.” (Anable, 2018) – in this case we aren’t talking about the lived experience of gender specifically, but it is lived experience, nonetheless. We may not have been able to capture the specificities of visiting Cornwall, but we used code to add visuals and sounds that aimed to replicate the experience.
Another idea of Anable’s that stuck with me was that of “feeling code” (Anable, 2018) – the idea that we could be intimate with computing systems in a way that other digital medias don’t allow us to be. In this case, we added a simple line of text referencing the Royal Sceptre. When clicking the term “Royal Sceptre”, the text was replaced with “(yup, had to google that one too)”. It was, like earlier examples, a joke trying to get a reaction out of our players; a cheeky nod towards the outdated, sentimental theatrics of the British Monarchy. This time, it landed. It was “the game’s code touching us back when… our desire for a certain outcome [was] trumped by the game’s programming, its desire to move us.” (Anable, 2018) The player’s expectation might have been that of clarification: a Royal Sceptre isn’t something that comes up in day-to-day conversation much. There might be an expectation, inherited from literary media, that the words on the page (and, by extension, the author) are knowledgeable and trustworthy, and their expectation might have been that the nature or history of the Royal Sceptre would have been revealed to them. Instead, the players had their expectations subverted: the game produced a human response, one of uncertainty, and one that acknowledged its place in time. It referenced a platform, a brand, so ubiquitous it’s been assimilated into our languages as a verb. The game’s desire to move the players to laughter trumped whatever interest they had to move the story forward or satisfy their curiosity. Something I hadn’t considered during the task was how much we relied on Google and other search platforms. By making the context of the Sceptre a punchline, I assumed that the players would assume it was a throwaway line, the Sceptre itself irrelevant to the game. Anyone who genuinely wanted to find out more would have to resort to Google.
The idea that a game has a “desire to move us” (Dixon, 2018) is interesting to me, and brings back a rather unpleasant experience I had playing The Last of Us Part 2 (Naughty Dog, 2020). In a similar vein, the game’s events are deliberately built on the player’s desire for a certain outcome being consistently trumped by the game’s programming; by the game’s desire to move us. In an interview with GamesRadar, co-writer Halley Gross says “Ultimately, this is a story about the cycle of violence, right?” (Weber, 2019). The game’s protagonist-turned-antagonist is a young woman named Ellie, driven by revenge. At the game’s halfway point, when things have seemingly calmed down and Ellie settles down with her partner having adopted the baby of a now-deceased friend, Ellie leaves in the night. Unable to reconcile her need for closure, she decides to leave her idyllic farm life behind, and ventures off to kill the people who wronged her. It’s a clear example of the game touching the player – I found this frustrating and unrelatable. People hold grudges, but my grudges don’t spiral into murderous sprees. I wonder, then, where the tipping point lies for the game’s desire to move us becoming farcical, when the player gives up trying to empathise with the game’s characters and themes, when the game is so clearly set on evangelising an unrelatable “cycle of violence” to us. Maybe our text replacement joke was effective purely because it was throwaway – it wasn’t an experience that would last another 10 hours, it wasn’t an experience that had lasted 25 previous hours split across two games, and two very expensive games consoles. This frustration is a valid affect in itself – stories with unlikeable, misguided characters are allowed to exist. The affect is amplified by the game feel, “the feelings of connection between bodies and computational processes through the touchscreen interface.” (Anable, 2018). The Last of Us 2 doesn’t rely on a touchscreen, but the controller is a unique method of input to games. Twine only relies on simple mouse input, meaning it can be used on touchscreens, touchpads, or with mice. Video game controllers require an abstraction of the character’s abilities that are then tied to an abstracted button on the controller. The only similarity between the character’s action and the interface the player is using is a trigger; a button shaped and designed to replicate the feeling of using a firearm. Each button press throws Ellie into another desperate strike, the game waiting, taunting, and pushing the player to fulfil Ellie’s prewritten destiny and commit horrific acts of violence. The player only has two choices: to take part and be complicit, or to not play at all. There seems to be a marked difference between watching Breaking Bad’s (2008) Walter White lie to his family and make drugs for cartels, and playing Ellie’s descent into villainhood. Having some affect is certainly better than none at all, and being complicit with Ellie’s actions can leave the player feeling guilty. It seems to be a deliberate decision: the cycle of violence waits to be broken, and the game actively calls the player out for taking part. Though a lengthy and, admittedly, extreme example, I wonder how many times we could use techniques like the text replacement in our Twine game before the player feels that the game isn’t respecting their time. It is a worthy lesson to be mindful of in future endeavours; balancing this desire to move the player whilst not descending into emotive extremes for the sake of inflammation.
The brief time we spent working with Twine brought to light its shortcomings: while a powerful tool, we spent most of our time reconciling the differences between CSS and its story format. It was a finnicky process of finding out how to do a specific thing (like importing fonts from Google) using CSS, to translating that CSS to be Twine-friendly. It took us too long to figure out that the CSS element body; was actually tw-body; in Twine. Trying to explain this to each other while one person was sharing their screen (“no, no, see the ‘Edit Stylesheet’ button? put that on the second line from the top…”) with the language barrier likewise not offering any respite was a difficult task. We had other ideas, too, that were simply not possible within the time we had, especially when you consider the time we threw aside trying to change a simple font. For the popularity Twine has amongst independent creators and game designers, it entirely lacks a “What-you-see-is-what-you-get” editor – changing fonts in a word processor is one of the first things we learn to do on a computer, and it becomes frivolous, requiring no effort or time. Here, we had to engage with code instead, using a different syntax, following a new kind of logic that we hadn’t had to consider before. This stretched beyond changing fonts, too. Changing the color of the background, adding pictures, ambient sound, all required engaging with the code that Twine runs on. There was no simple drag and-drop functionality: adding pictures or sounds required a lengthy process of downloading and reuploading the files we wanted to a public repository, then linking to them using HTML. We would have loved to make the Royal Scepter something our player character could hold, or an item they needed to acquire before progressing. Bitsy is made with those considerations – its sprite editor would have allowed us to draw an 8x8 character complete with two whole frames of animation. It would have allowed us to make a space for our character to move around in, and possibly find and wield the Scepter. All this, without having to delve into the fiddly bits of code. Neither of these are suited for collaborative work, however, as each project is stored locally and has to be assembled by one person. The technology that allows us to communicate intercontinentally also robs us of the immediate “presence” – I can see my peer’s screen, but I can’t point to the image on the screen I’m referring to.
Overall, this task was difficult to draw conclusions from. We found communication a nigh insurmountable challenge, one that didn’t allow us to fully interrogate Anable’s ideas of “surface affect” or “touching code”, nor explore Twine’s potential to create multicursal, branching narratives. Nonetheless, the brief game we’d made gave way to analysis regarding humour as subversion; one could say that subversive humor is exclusionary by design. For the humor to land, you have to know what is being subverted. We’d explored the strengths of Twine and found it to be a neat “wrapper” for technical skills like CSS and HTML that none of us really had; though I’d be keen to persist with it and engage with the community that sprung up around it. The most interesting part of this reflection was engaging with the idea that games have a desire to move us, expressed through their code – when is the breaking point for these narratives to alienate the player rather than engage them? Applying this idea to public spaces which use algorithms to curate visitors’ experiences is also incredibly interesting: when a visitor knows their experience is being curated, do they become disillusioned with what’s being presented to them? For all intents and purposes, Twine still facilitated our collaborative project and, despite wide ranging shortfalls, allowed us to communicate a simple yet enjoyable story to a specific audience of player. Additionally, it gave us the space to learn basic CSS skills that we can transplant into future work. In that sense – it was a success. Looking beyond this, however, the accessibility problems identified and lack of creative depth in Twine has sparked an important conversation for me to grow from in future work; both collaborative and solo.
Aarseth, E.J. 1997. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Johns Hopkins University Press. Anable, A. 2018. Playing with feelings : video games and affect. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Dixon, A. 2018. How small game makers found their community with Bitsy. [Online]. [Accessed 17/12/2020]. Available from: https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2018/02/23/how-small-game-makers found-their-community-with-bitsy/
k, m. 2013. The Empathy Machine. [Twine game]. [Accessed 11/12/20]. Available from: https://web.archive.org/web/20170310220521if_/https://a-dire-fawn.itch.io/empathy-machine Naughty Dog. 2020. The Last of Us: Part II. PS4 [Game]. Santa Monica. [Video game]. Twine. 2009. [Online]. Available from: twinery.org
Weber, R. 2019. The Last of Us 2 is “a story about the cycle of violence”, says co-writer Halley Gross. GamesRadar. [Online]. [Accessed 17/12/2020]. Available from: https://www.gamesradar.com/uk/the last-of-us-2-interview-halley-gross-2019/