Right: Twine designer/writer merritt kopas
I grew up engrossed in video games. I remember hiding behind a pillow, navigating past two-dimensional monsters exploding with pixelated blood in Doom II and heroically defeating monsters to rescue Princess Zelda in The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. I bonded with my siblings, cousins, and childhood friends over countless hours of multiplayer games that required both teamwork and brutal deceit. As an adult, I now find myself contemplating games academically and psychologically, attempting to situate titles in broader social contexts and meanings. Unfortunately, as an Iraqi-Palestinian queer woman, there isn’t much room for folks like me in the games I grew up admiring.
With each year that passes, video game critics often speak about the lack of diverse representation in blockbuster-budget video game narratives. A quick scan of most commercial titles shows characters that are mostly white, straight, able-bodied, cisgender and male, tasked with acts of violence and dominance in order to complete the story. The mantra of critics is clear: since gamers themselves are a diverse demographic, video game developers should work to represent more diverse voices.
There are, of course, examples of where mainstream gameshave successfully implemented diverse stories. Gone Home and The Last of Us: Left Behind explore queer young women falling in love, the Assassin’s Creed franchise has featured two characters of colour and Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is about a young Iñupiat girl and an arctic fox, developed in collaboration with the Iñupiat people. While these examples are stellar, the mainstream games industry — like so many other facets of popular culture — still has a long way to go when it comes to actually implementing diverse voices. In 2014, mainstream games culture witnessed a toxic eruption when several female video game developers went vocal with their criticism received widespread harassment and death threats. These events have populated much of the continuing discourse in the games industry.
For many gamers, the response to this problem is to become critics ourselves and spread awareness about the problem of inclusivity in the games industry. For others like myself, the answer is to move away from blockbuster-budget titles and development studios and instead create games that reflect our own experiences using low-cost/free tools accessible to everyone. For us, the answer often starts with Twine.
For game developer Elliot Pines, Twine functioned as an outlet after a panic attack on a San Francisco flight. They used the experience to develop I FUCKING HATE PLANES, a game that simulates the experience of a player struggling with anxiety during a plane trip, providing choices on how to manage this – for example, you can choose to order a drink, or stare out the window in order to try and distract yourself from panicked thoughts.
“I found the process to be really soothing,” they said. “It felt like a match made in heaven that this confusing string of connected links felt so much like part of me and what I was going through at the time. So since then I’ve been using Twine almost exclusively to make games and usually they are personal ones.”
Personal content and autobiographical themes encompass many Twine games. Passages are structured like a .txt Notepad file, which makes it easy to open up a new file and write anything that comes to mind. Rokashi is a game creator of colour whose game I’m Fine blends fact and fiction into a heartwrenching narrative about mental illness and its effect on friendships. He says sharing personal content in Twine is, “as easy as opening a word document and just writing down everything that comes into my head. I’ve seen other game makers use Twine to do the same and it just wouldn’t be the same without it.” This accessibility makes Twine highly effective as a coping mechanism for both creators and players. These are games that explore deeply personal emotions, traumas and healing strategies; they provide simulations of very real experiences that can help to cultivate awareness and even empathy.
One of Pines’ works, Relief/Relive is about dealing with trauma from sexual abuse and disability. The player is taken through a couple of days where they try to go through the motions of daily life – seeing friends, exercising – while dealing with chronic pain, depression and memories of an assault. The game ends on a question: “How can I feel empowered in my body when it hurts?”
Pines says making Relief/Relive was a daunting experience – but it’s ultimately helped connect them with others. “I had a few people reach out to talk to me and that is what really helped start the healing process; it was knowing that I wasn’t alone in these experiences,” they say.
The user-friendly nature of Twine also enables creators to redefine and re-interpret modes of storytelling, particularly when it comes to lesser-heard or frequently silenced voices. “While Twine is pretty well-known for (and sometimes pigeonholed as) autobiographical, the kinds of works that people are using it for are pretty different from conventional memoir,” says multimedia artist and game designer merritt kopas. In a 2014 article titled “Trans Women & The New Hypertext,” kopas compares the process of trans developers creating games to trans literature writers, and how both “represent a breaking out of the genre of memoir, to which trans people have been mostly confined by traditional publishing.” (Read the full article at lambdaliterary.org.)
Twine is a medium where transgender communities particularly flourish. Trans developers like Lydia Neon, anna anthropy, and ohnoproblems have created critically acclaimed Twine games including Reset, Queers in Love at the End of the World, and Sabbat. Kopas’ Twine work is reflective of what feminist scholar Katherine Cross calls a “rebirth” in trans storytelling – in other words, exploring narratives that are not directly related to the process of transitioning. In kopas’ Conversations with My Mother, the player is in the shoes of kopas’ mother as she composes an email about hormones, therapy, or makeup. The conversation is brief but can be altered and played with, creating a meaningful discussion and a sense of bonding between two people. Another title is her Consensual Torture Simulator, a BDSM game which is simultaneously a non-fictional framework about dominating a submissive woman, and a direct challenge to reveal the relationship between violence and mainstream games.
Twine has opened doors for game creators of colour as well. As a game developer myself, I’ve found Twine to be the most suitable medium to write narrative non-fiction stories about my Palestinian heritage in Penalties, and my experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder and kink sexuality in reProgram. Both of these titles were my way of responding visually and mechanically to the world around me. Penalties, an escape-the-room horror, loops non-fictional aspects of microaggressions that I’ve faced regarding my race into a larger fictional narrative, and reProgram was my way of contextualizing BDSM into the process of healing after sexual abuse. The process of creating a fictional structure to house autobiographical snippets was crucial to me to help players to be able to visualize my experiences. The players who engage with my games may not necessarily be Palestinian, but most have played enough escape-the-room games to realize the importance of the objective: get out of the place holding you as a prisoner.
Yet even with the spotlight shifting to shine on diverse stories, there are still areas of concern that require further discussion. For example, a recent editorial in the New York Times about Twine games celebrated the tool for embracing diversity, and yet the story only featured white Twine designers.
In a recent panel about women making new media art, kopas vocalized her concerns about white supremacy underlying the diversity movement in games where people of colour’s expressions, voices, and works are routinely undermined and overlooked. “I’m a white lady,” she told me in an interview. “A gay white lady living in poverty, sure. But, you know, still white. And if you look at most of the women who’ve held up as exemplars of this New Movement in Videogames, they’re pretty much all white too. Sometimes it feels like the weirdo games scene is actually whiter than [mainstream games culture] which is something we don’t talk about nearly enough.”
A project like Lights Out, Please attempts to confront this problem directly. It is an anthology of thirteen short horror stories made in Twine, written by marginalized people and curated by Kaitlin Tremblay, who’s previously created games about eating disorders and mental illness.
“We live in a society and work in an industry that doesn’t make it easy for marginalized people to tell and share their stories, and so, I thought Lights Out could be a small space working against that,” she explains. “Even if nobody else played Lights Out, then at least the project created a zone where we all sat and worked together and listened to each other.” Some game creators of colour in this anthology include Jericho Bull, John R., and Vicky He, whose horror stories contribute to the larger skin-crawling narrative overseeing the project. Regarding the use of horror, Tremblay adds: “Using horror — and specifically using (pre-existing) stories that people knew well to share feelings that a lot of people just don’t listen to — is a way to express an identity in a way that, hopefully, circumvents the usual stigmas and pre-conceived notions attached to it.”
A collaboration like Lights Out, Please is an example of an overarching “Twine community” which game developer Rokashi likes to call “the spider web community — it’s open and anyone can come in, yet it’s held firmly together and is always changing with fixes and upgrades.” There are several free tutorials and guides for beginners, and the creators of the program can be easily reached in the official forum or through their social media, which fosters the notion that someone will always be willing to help and teach.
It’s not easy using non-traditional tools to share non-traditional stories in a tech-heavy industry. Often, the so-called “underdog” indie games continue to uphold a storytelling status quo or are made by development teams of largely white, straight, able-bodied, cisgender males. While every pocket in the games industry has its issues to work out (the Twine community included), the role that this tool has had in sharing underreported and unheard voices is undeniably powerful. Twine is essential in furthering the dialogue and discourse about fairness and representation in the gaming world. Its appeal stems from its ability to act as a DIY tool for beginner game developers who are both desperate and excited to express themselves.
“I really want to encourage people to makes their own games and for themselves and on their own terms of what they want their game to be,” says Pines. “When I first started making games I had lots of people telling me my ideas were worthless….Then other people started speaking up and affirming that Twine is legitimate and were proving it by putting out these interesting, complex and beautiful games, and then I realized that I had a place here and my games were valid.”