The Hive Abroad began as an experiment to see if I could write a short story consisting of discontinuous, kinda-“randomized” vignettes which nevertheless maintained a sense of emotional heightening despite their non-linearity. I wanted the reader to choose the order they read the passages, but I also wanted the experience to feel as if it had a proper beginning, middle, and end.
The challenge in writing this story was that although I had some knowledge of what the reader’s experience would be like, and some control over the order in which they read the passages, I did not have complete knowledge or complete control. Writing like this for a game is much easier and more comfortable, because in games we’re used to giving the player agency, used to urging them to take responsibility for and ownership of their actions. But when I write something where the reader has NO agency in the story’s events, I am used to being the one with all the responsibility and ownership. But this isn’t the case in The Hive Abroad.
So, this felt weird to write. It was sort of an exercise in psyching myself out.
Basically, the story is made up of around 25 short vignettes arranged in four major “tiers”. The later tiers contain more serious, sad, or frightening events than the earlier tiers. The later tiers also require you to have encountered certain setting information which is explained in the earlier tiers– for example, the nature of Marun’s morphing abilties, or the names of the three different planets on which Sam lived his life.
When I first began writing the story, I was using weird Twine passage setups to create “loops” that were otherwise impossible in Twine’s markup language. However, this became very tedious; every time I wanted to add a passage or move a passage from one tier to another, I’d have to make huge changes all over the project.
The macro she wrote allows me to name all the passages that I wish to include in a timeline of sequential events, then allow the player to explore left and right along that timeline. I always start you off in the middle of the timeline, giving you options both forward and backward in time. If you read in one direction for a while, then “turn around,” the macro will skip you over the passages you’ve already read and take you beyond them to the next unread passage. If you reach one end of the tier, you will no longer have hands pointing in that direction because you won’t have the option to proceed any further that way.
Here’s a diagram of one way you could possibly read the second “tier” of events:
So, I know which passage in the timeline the player will read first: the middle passage. I also know which two passages they may read last: the earliest and latest passages. This means that I can put more “intense” events at the beginning and end of the timeline, and I know that the reader won’t encounter either of these until they’re at least halfway done with the “chapter.” This will result in gradual emotional heightening throughout the chapter, and allow the transitions between the tiers to feel stark and interesting.
However, this control is incomplete. I have no idea how the player will explore the middle of the tier, how many times they will double-back, or even how many pointer-hands will be on screen for the second half of each tier. My control over your moment-to-moment experience is incomplete and uncertain. But– to take a step back– I have much more complete control over the emotional heightening of the entire story as it progresses from the beginning tier to the final tier.
For example, I can put more disastrous, intense, traumatic events in the later tiers. I can put events in the later tiers which play off the reader’s familiarity with the characters. I can do a lot of different things to ensure that the reader’s experience– although unpredictable– has the overall average emotional arc that I want it to have.
This is pretty amusing to me. Although I have no idea what any given minute of your reading experience will be like, or how jarring any individual transition may be, I do know what the “overall experience’ will be like. I have more control over the general than the specific. I’m usually all about specifics: in my current project, there are sections I’ve played close to fifty or sixty times, slowly changing the wording and the interaction sections bit by bit. The Hive Abroad forced me to take a step back and let things go.
Aside from Twine, I know no other tool that would have let me write something like this so easily. In the future, I’m interested in possibly using Twine for other non-“game” writing projects– projects which use randomization and non-linearity to expand their stories in ways that don’t necessarily involve game-like experiences.
Here’s an example of a project which actually accomplishes that: a fan-made web version of Cory Doctorow’s novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town which randomizes several characters’ names every time they appear. In the original version of the book, the characters’ names change every time they are used, keeping only the same first initial. Reading it as a text which actually changes the names randomly for each reader creates an experience which is more personal and, I think, better representative of the book’s core themes. If you’re going to have a story with themes of uncertainty and ambiguity, why not use digital tools to actually create that uncertainty in the text itself?
And, going forward– if I’m going to use nonlinearity in a story again, why not use it in a story where disorganization, randomness, uncertainty, or disjointed time are important themes?
If I ever had to write an “artist statement,” I’d probably say that I think the way in which a digital story is told should somehow reflect or enhance its themes. Swan Hill was about a guy buried in his own thoughts– so I used digital tools to actually bury his thoughts inside other thoughts. I’d love to write a nonlinear, non-game story where the core themes of the tale are more deeply expressed by the story’s non-linearity. I don’t think The Hive Abroad really does this, but for me it’s a good stepping-on point.
When it come to games, my favorite story-games all use unique story-delivery methods to further express their core themes, pulpy as those themes often are. Pulling the trigger in a Mass Effect interrupt feels as brazen and ballsy as an action-hero must feel when they step into the middle of a discussion and escalate shit with a gun. The thing the player does– the physical action of pulling the trigger during the NPC’s speech– mirrors the emotions in the scene and the overall escapist fantasy of the game itself.
The best recent example of this kind of wizardry is Pry, a mobile game nominated as a finalist for the Narrative award in the 2015 IGF. The player navigates the story with pinching and spreading gestures on the touchscreen. The text opens and closes like an accordion of folded paper, revealing or hiding details. These same gestures are also used to control video storytelling moments: sweeping your fingers apart will peel open the character’s eyes and play a video of the world around him. Pinching them closed will pull up the character’s “unconscious,” where rapidly-flashing images and text give you hints about the deeper meaning of exterior events.
The physical actions Pry forces you to perform while reading actually mirror the themes of the story. Eyes, wounds to the eyes, photographs, bright lights, moments of peeking voyeurism, and other vision-related themes and symbols are important to Pry’s plot. The protagonist spends most of his interior time agonizing over his motivations for the deeds he regrets, and the player slowly learns more and more about the degree to which he is culpable for the story’s central tragedy. You peel apart the text to open an eye, reveal a truth, expose a guilt– first-person video sequences are literally hidden between the lines of the story. If your finger slips on the screen, the pages may snap shut again, hiding the video behind a glut of evasive, frantic, stream-of-consciousness babble. This “prying” motion makes the story more than it would otherwise be. This is the kind of narrative magic I’m interested in. It doesn’t have to be about physical motions or touchscreen gestures or polished video sections, either: some Twine games have already accomplished stuff this dee using only text change macros.
Anyway, bottom line is that I’d love to write a non-linear short story that uses its non-linearity to create something big and resonant by uniting plot, themes, and narrative delivery. I’ll be thinking about this while I work on my other projects this year, that’s for sure.