About The Hive Abroad

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.

During Indiecade, however, Andi McClure graciously wrote a little piece of javascript which allowed me to make these changes much more quickly. The final version of the story would not have been possible without her help.


An earlier, appealingly-symmetrical version of the story. Andi’s macro allowed me to restructure this story many times before picking my favorite version.

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.

The Hive Abroad

The Hive Abroad is an experimental, nonlinear sci-fi short story about friendship, community, and changing yourself.

You can read it here.

It is also available on itch.io, because that’s where the twines are at now, apparently

I began working on this story in 2013. I finished it in early 2015 with the help of Andi McClure (code) and Julie Fiveash (art).

Andi wrote a Twine macro for me which allowed me to queue up passages for the player to navigate as if they were a timeline. Having this code made designing and testing the story’s structure 10000x faster and easier. Take a look at Andi’s website.

Julie drew images used in the story’s navigation UI. Take a look at Julie’s website.

This story was written in Twine 1.4.2. You can find the story’s .tws file here. It contains all the javascript used to make the nonlinear navigation work.

Detective City – Global Game Jam 2015!

I spent the last ~48 hours doing the Global Game Jam at USC, running pretty much on adrenaline and diet Cokes. I teamed up with Rosstin Murphy, Kent Sutherland, and Meagan Trott to make Detective City, a comedic, randomized choose-your-own-adventure game about a disgraced detective determined to clear her name. You can find and play our jam build here! Look at the bottom of the page for a download. The game is an .html file that will run in your web browser.

Detective City is one of the more-successful jam games I’ve ever worked on. It marks the first time I’ve ever written my own working macros for Twine, too. (A little bit of Code Academy Javascript goes a long way when all you need is randomization, ha.) I wrote the “engine” that controlled game progression and powered our randomization features, as well as a couple tools to help us stay out of Twine If Statement Hell. I guess this makes me the “lead programmer” on Detective City? Hey, I’ll take it.

We were lucky enough to win the judges’ choice “Writing/Theme” award. Here’s our awesome trophy:

We also recorded a “speedrun” of our game to make our jam page more exciting. Take a look at my mad clicking prowress:

Our team will be fixing some bugs in our game and releasing a more-polished, spell-corrected version sometime soon. I’ll probably also crap out a postmortem. But here are the major points about Detective City you should probably be aware of:

  • It is legitimately extremely funny. I was surprised at how good our jokes were with little sleep and very little time.
  • The art Meagan made is extremely rad. It fits the theme perfectly and is also hilarious.
  • There is an insanely huge amount of content in this game. There’s enough for four full playthroughs with no overlap– though you’ll get overlap from playthrough to playthrough thanks to the RNG, I’m sure. STILL, there’s a TON of stuff in here.
  • Like most collaborative writing games I’ve made at jams, we chose to split the game up into large regions and assigned each to a specific writer, with very little overlap. Although we wrote the beginning and end of the game together, we were mostly able to churn out this huge amount of content because we were each charging away at a different part of the story and combining them using StoryIncludes. If you ever do a text-based game with more than one writer, I strongly encourage splitting everything up and going as far as you can to reduce or eliminate interdependence. It makes the experience a lot more relaxed when you know that you don’t have to hit any content quota, or that your writing isn’t dependent on anyone else’s time or energy. We had a great ability to accommodate any reduction in scope, and even sliced out several entire regions right before the end. At previous jams, I’ve worked on narrative-based projects where extricating chunks of the game was a lot harder, and those projects have always been way more stressful and, in the end, less successful.
  • In fact, I’d go so far as to say that text-based jam games should basically never be linear. If they’re randomized, or select from a pool of vignettes or events, they seem to be a lot more fun and easy to finish over a weekend.

Some cool shit with randomized text

Boromir Death Simulator


Boromir’s death was one of the great movie moments of my childhood. I knew Boromir was going to die. I’d read the books. I knew he was doomed from the start. But when he actually started taking arrows to the chest, I was overcome by the tragedy and the melodrama. I remember sitting so rigidly in my theater chair that my legs and neck started to ache.

Like many things Boromir has said and done (let’s be honest, Sean Bean himself is turning into a meme generator), this over-the-top death is not just a thing that happened in a movie; it’s now a kind of thing that could happen over and over again in the future. In this text toy, Boromir will die every time you refresh the page. His death will be a little different every time, but he will still die. And just like the movie, this toy will overwhelm you with the sheer melodramatic detail of his death. Boromir has 119 hit points! Did you know?

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (remix edition)

Cory Doctorow’s (mediocre) novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town has a number of weird characters whose names change almost every time they appear on-page. Someone created a web version of this story which randomizes those characters’ names automatically.

This is pretty cool. I think that randomizing the names more fully expresses the effect that Doctorow was trying to achieve in the dumb-paper version of the story. I didn’t much enjoy the book, but I love it when a digital text uses digital tools to enhance and expand upon its core themes.

This kind of stuff is very important to game storytelling. Can we use the way in which a player experiences a story to make the themes of the story deeper and more resonant? We can, and we should be doing it more often.

Who the fuck is my DnD character

This is simply an uncommonly good random character generator.

There are a lot of “useful” character/enemy/plot generators on the internet. Most are super old, and I hate nearly all of them. This one’s short and sweet, and it’s got a punch that a lot of random generators lack.

The characters each come with a personality adjective (critical, resentful, irritable, resourceful), an intriguing origin (from the wilds, from a brothel, from a theater company), and a really damn good quirk. Like, really damn good: “who adds a notch to their sword every night.” “who finds it impossible to speak to girls.” “who has serious body image issues.” “who realized the importance of literacy far too late in life.” “who was raised to work in a library.” The quirks suggest a whole range of possible secrets, backstories, and futures without locking the reader down to any single interpretation.

I’ve decided that the biggest quality indicator for any random generator of any kind is the degree to which it recognizes and addresses the inherent shittiness of randomization. Random output is generally worse than output created and curated by a skilled artist. To make random generators good, you either have to:

  1. sell the randomness itself as the aesthetic (see: fake academic paper generators, some kinds of twitter bots, or the Boromir simulator above)
  2. invite the user to curate for quality (what we did with Verified Facts)
  3. limit the entire system in such a way that its flaws are not often revealed.

What I mean by the third point is that, in my experience, short or small random generators are usually better than long, detailed ones which try to tell a whole story. It’s way easier to make a good short generator than a good long one, and robots who try to “tell the whole story” are usually worse than humans. Twitter bots, on the other hand, are short as hell, and some twitter bots are sublime.

This particular character generator accomplishes both point 2 and 3 above. Not only is it short in length, but the elements themselves are suggestive, not exhaustive. None contradict because none are particularly concrete. It tells just enough to interest you, then backs away. I love it.

Anyway, this page would make a great twitter bot. I would follow the shit out of it.

Three moments when I was very disappointed in myself

The time I was “helped” by policemen

When I was about 18 years old, I was once stopped by policemen while doing a dangerous thing near a river. My friends all ran away and left me behind. When the police trapped me and questioned me, I was so frightened that I stuttered for almost a whole minute without saying a word. When I finally managed to speak, I coughed up a word salad.

The policemen shared wide-eyed looks. They began speaking extremely loudly and slowly, as if I were a baby. I nodded my way silently through an entire conversation comprised mostly of bizarrely basic yes-or-no questions. “DO YOU KNOW THOSE PEOPLE WHO WERE HERE WITH YOU? DO YOU LIVE NEAR HERE? DO YOU KNOW WHAT NUMBER YOUR HOUSE IS?”

It wasn’t until we were headed back out to the road– the policemen guiding me as carefully as they could, warning me about obvious roots in the path, obvious puddles of mud– that I realized they thought I was mentally disabled!

I did not correct their assumption. In the end, they just left me standing in a parking lot– “You know how to get out of here, right?”– and took off in their car after my friends. I’m not sure this was best practices for them, but whatever.

In the end, nobody was caught.


The time I was robbed!

When I was in fifth grade, I and several of my friends were obsessed with Pokemon cards. One of these friends– we’ll call her “Lisa,” because I don’t know anyone named Lisa–  had a reputation for stealing things, but I was loyal and did not believe it. I invited her over for a sleepover one weekend, and we spent the whole evening nerding out about these cards. My sister and I showed the girl our most prized specimens: a holographic Charizard in my collection, and a holographic Polywrath in my sister’s.

The next morning, my sister was the first to notice that something was wrong. While I was eating pancakes and Lisa was in the bathroom, my sister marched up and silently brandished the D-ring binder with her collection in it. She refused to say a word. It took me a while to realize the Polywrath was missing. I ran and checked mine: the Charizard was gone too!

For some reason, we spoke in whispers, moved silently. While Lisa was washing her hands– I could hear it through the wall– I went and checked her stuff. I found nothing. But it was obvious she’d stolen them– obvious! It grew even more obvious when Lisa sat down at the table to eat her pancakes and told us, “Oh I forgot to mention to you yesterday… I have some nice cards too.” She then removed the Polywrath and Charizard from her pocket and showed them to us. “From my collection,” she said.

I was dizzy with anger. “Excuse me,” I said, and stood up. My sister followed me. We went into the kitchen to speak with my father. “Lisa’s done something very bad,” I told him.

My dad was furious with me for bringing it up. I still don’t quite understand or remember why. He told us we were being very impolite and sent us back into the dining room with orders to “respect our guest.” So that’s what we did: we went back to the kitchen and, with a practiced niceness that today makes me cringe, we had a perfectly kind conversation with Lisa the God-Damned Thief.

Later, after dropping Lisa off at her home, my sister and I informed our dad that we’d just let a thief get away with our shit! Now he was even angrier, but mostly at himself. “I’m sorry,” he kept spluttering. “Jesus! What a girl!” This was probably the moment when my blind faith in adults died.

When Lisa added me as a friend on Facebook a year ago, I was still angry enough (!!??) that I considered reminding her that our last real friendly interaction had been a conversation over stolen Pokemon cards. However, because I am nice, I accepted her invitation, and now we are friends.


The time I got punched

I worked for several summers at a sleepaway camp for girls with diabetes. Because I am a space alien who only pretends to be a human woman, I spent most of my time there behaving like a jester. I got a weird reputation for being “up for anything.”

There was another counselor at the camp who always seemed a little “out of sorts” to me. At first it was innocuous– weird fascinations, odd opinions expressed at embarrassing moments. However, this out-of-sortsness took a pretty dark turn when she found a plastic lawn ornament in the shape of a penguin in a storage closet in the barn. “This is my penguin,” she told us. She concocted an entire story about how her grandfather (???) had given the penguin to the camp on loan. She insisted that it still belonged to her and her family. This was impossible. The penguin had been locked in that closet for several years and had never belonged to anyone’s grandfather.

But this counselor started carrying the penguin with her everywhere and using it in most of her daily teaching activities. She talked to the penguin, apparently. It weirded some people out. Some said it was disruptive. I didn’t really have a problem with it, but when several people suggested that I steal the penguin, I was totally Up For It. And one rainy day, when Penguin Counselor left her precious penguin alone in the dining hall, I stole it and hid it under my bed.

Shit got serious. There was angry shouting, franticng rushing around, and actual crying. She made plaintive pleas before the camp at mealtimes, begging for the penguin’s return. Probably fifteen different people knew I had it, but nobody ratted me out. People actually came up to me and begged me not to return the penguin. “She’ll get over it,” someone told me. “The whole point is to wean her off the penguin.”

At first I was pretty gleeful about the whole thing, but as Penguin Counselor grew increasingly teary-eyed, I grew increasingly uncomfortable. She was physically a very powerful individual. Penguin Counselor’s day job involved physically restraining people at nursing homes. She enjoyed explaining these restraint techniques to us in enormous detail. It was frightening, and besides, I felt very guilty. I started to look for a way out.

I decided I’d leave the penguin in the pool in the middle of the night. Leaving shit in the pool was A Thing that summer. You could only enter the pool area with the head lifeguard’s permission, so the campers would always notice and laugh on the way to breakfast.

I’d have to do it in the middle of the night. Diabetes camp had a system where campers were alone in the cabins from about 9 PM to midnight. Counselors who didn’t have time-off would wait “on patrol” at picnic tables outside, in case of medical emergency. The campers were supposed to use this alone time to go to sleep. I waited until about 10 PM and snuck back into my cabin to extract the penguin under the cover of darkness.

Of course, none of my kids were asleep. On my way up the stairs: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING, LAURA??” As I dragged the penguin out from under my bed: “WHAT’S THAT SOUND, LAURA??” I wrapped the penguin in a blanket to conceal its telltale form. As I came down the stairs: “WHY ARE YOU HOLDING THE PENGUIN, LAURA?? I KNEW YOU HAD THE PENGUIN!”

“This is not a penguin,” I told them. “This is a stack of textbooks and I am going to study.” I rushed out of the cabin and down the hill toward the center of campus. There was a sort of valley in the middle of the camp,  with a low flat field next to the pool and the pond. It was visible from almost every major building on the camp. And there was a patrol table down there, too, full of people who would certainly see me with the penguin.

When I arrived with the penguin, they cracked up. “Good idea,” someone laughed. I grabbed the penguin by the beak, hooked my arm back, and flung it over the fence into the pool. As it flipped end over end through the air, someone at the patrol table yelped and pointed. I didn’t even have time to turn around before Penguin Counselor was on me, thrashing her fists and shouting, “YOU LITTLE SHIT!!!”

It turns out that Penguin Counselor had been high on the hill above the field, sitting on the steps of the dining hall with another counselor and pouring her soul out about the missing the penguin. She’d seen everything!

After a lot of screaming and fist-swinging stamping and me shouting “Jesus Christ! It’s just a penguin!”, she finally stomped off. In the morning, she got the lifeguard to let her into the pool area to rescue the penguin quite early. She even made a mealtime announcement about my guilt in front of the entire camp. My punishment was a draw from the “suggestion box,” where campers were supposed to put creative indignities which the counselors would occasionally agree to suffer. People had to smear food in their hair and wear crazy clothes and do unusual and inconvenient things. My specially-designed “punishment” was to wear a dress to the dance. (We had a dance every week with the boys’ diabetes camp down the road.) This was supposed to be “a big deal for Laura,” since most people had never seen me wear or do anything feminine. I didn’t care much, though. I suffered no kind of loss.

Listen: diabetes camp has been the only place I’ve ever been “cool.” This is the one braggardly claim I will defend until death: I was a cool camp counselor. I was very cool to ten-year-olds, and even my public guilt and punishment could not diminish that. I used my day off to go to Boston and buy a very frilly pink prom dress from a thrift shop. I let my campers give me makeup. I lurched around the dance in this dress while making Frankenstein faces. It was definitely a cool way to handle the whole thing

I danced like a maniac with a bunch of little girls and got dehydrated and tired. My makeup started to run off. I remember asking for a bit of space, sitting on the sidelines in my pink dress, drinking water out of a paper cup, and noticing that Penguin Counselor was also alone, but not by choice, and I remember feeling suddenly very disappointed with myself.