Some thoughts about fictional detectives

Detective stories aren’t really about solving mysteries.

Very few detective stories are Encyclopedia Brown-style “solvable murder puzzles” where the reader can find every clue necessary to discover The Truth. Even most of Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes stories are not solvable puzzles; Sherlock has insights and background knowledge the reader does not. Most mystery stories play with hunches and suspicions, but almost never with full, fair data. This is because most mystery stories are not as much about the mystery as they are about the mystery-solver.

Mystery novels featuring a private eye or a detective are almost always primarily character studies. We are likely to spend a lot of time watching smart people struggle with difficult problems. We are going to spend a lot of time ‘in’ their brains, following their patterns of thought and learning about how they think. Their personalities become the entire organizing logic through which we see a world. Though the mystery may change every novel or every week, the window we see the world through– the detective– does not.

It is therefore necessary that the detective’s brain be a fun place for the audience to hang out. The detective must look at the world in a fresh, fascinating way. If the story has long-term character development, he or she must have secrets, or drama, or something fraught and tense that they can think about all the time– some problem that lives wholly or largely in the brain. An interesting nut for the detective to crack. Our shared fantasy of fictional detectivehood is generally a fantasy of an incredibly smart, troubled person whose brain is so mysterious and cool that we must spend many books or many episodes of television unriddling it.

And despite the fact that they have no ongoing character development whatsoever, the Sherlock Holmes stories are, of course, the ultimate example of this. Most modern-day adaptations of the story add significant character development to Holmes in order to make his brain even more interesting. It is fitting that the “fandom” for the Sherlock TV show fixates so heavily upon Benedict Cumberbatch and his character as an object of (often sexual) fantasy: Sherlock Holmes stories were always about ordinary people fixating on and obsessing over and worrying about the much-more-interesting life and brain of the famed detective, and fans replicate those patterns in the real world. They adopt Watson’s worshipful awe as their own. Sherlock Holmes stories have always been about ordinary people describing and marveling over the fascinating brain of a much more interesting and important person, and this very much par for the course for detective stories in general.

It is true even when the detectives in question are not tremendous, wonderful, sexy, pedestal-standing people. The Wallander books by Swedish author Henning Mankell– who died, actually, in October of this year– are a character study of an incredibly ordinary person with extremely typical problems. But Kurt Wallander’s problems have interesting stakes, and his brain becomes interesting because we care about it and because its contents are familiar enough that we sympathize with them. He may remind us of people we know, dads and grandads we know.

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This weird frisson between his highly unusual problem-solving detective brain and the difficult familiarity of his problems is even more effective in the three excellent seasons of the Swedish TV show starring Krister Henriksson. Henriksson’s Wallander is the ultimate cranky old community misfit, uncomfortably occupying both a position of power and a position somehow outside the normal functioning of the community. He is always both exactly where he needs to be and terribly out-of-sorts. We watch with fixed attention as he experiences a variety of absolutely tragic miseries and stumbles over them with his sad, fraught detective brain. I, personally, would watch an episode consisting entirely of Wallander crankily trying and failing to board a flight at an airport. Though he’s no Holmes, this is exactly the kind of fascinating broken loner detective brain we all expect and crave from the genre.

Of course, the loner identity is the other side of the detective-brain coin. Because they think so differently from other characters in their fictional worlds, our detectives are very often major loners. they run the full gamut from ‘amusing and eccentric aloneness’ to ‘apocalyptic aloneness.’ They may have a partner, and they may have a family, but there is usually something about them and their precious brain and precious problems which makes it hard for them to fit in with the rest of their community. Holmes is a loner. Wallander is a loner. Rust Cohle and Sarah Linden and Alec Hardy and John Luther and Stella Gibson and Will Graham and, reaching back, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are all loners, to greater or lesser degrees. Here in the US, Netflix has just released a BBC TV show called ‘River’ where Stellan Skarsgaard, trying very hard (and failing) to not sound as Swedish as he actually is, acts the part of a completely bonkers detective who is so alone and miserable that he hallucinates the presence of his murdered partner almost 100% of the time. Our logic goes: if we are going to spend this much time in a stranger’s brain, it better be interesting. And ‘interesting’ usually means ‘broken’– so ‘interesting’ and so ‘broken’ that this person must be totally, astonishingly alone.

Of course, this is not all innocent drama. It is political that one of our major entertainment genres is primarily concerned with telling elaborate melodramatic stories about the precious brains and precious problems of imaginary good-guy policemen. And it is also wierd that we are glorifying and idolizing a bunch of imaginary people whose behavior nevertheless conforms pretty closely in many cases to untreated depression and other serious untreated mental illnesses, especially when these problems are credited with giving them their “appeal” and “charm” and “mystery.”

river

And these imaginary people are all so elaborately broken! Now, I don’t actually know any detectives personally, but I hear tell that the vast majority of them are fairly ordinary people whose lives feature no extraordinary, melodramatic level of brokenness or aloneness. Most people, I think, are aware of this. The Sad Lonely Detective Man is very obviously a trope that we use because it is fun, not because it tells any great truth about detectiving or detectivehood. I think the point of detective stories is to give us a place where we can do outrageously melodramatic character studies, where we can feel free to stretch out and roll around in the misery-mud with a bunch of wan-faced wasting men and women. The framing fiction of a ‘detective story’ has built-in goals and built-in villains and provides excellent structure upon which we can hang the frail, tortured skins of our imaginary brain-dudes.

I think this genre has largely become about what it is like to be various kinds of lonely sad person. We may not really have any idea what it is like to detect shit, but we all know exactly what it is like to be sad. The detectives are all establishment figures, System People, and that makes it easy and uncomplicated for the average person to empathize with their complicated sadness. We definitely need this place in fiction where loads and loads of imaginary sad characters can putter over fairly-formulaic problems while the story really focuses on how sad and interesting their brains are. I am not being facetious! There are so many of these stories, and they are all so similar, that there really must be something in them that we want. They aren’t filling a niche; they are filling in a gigantic crater of lonely sadness. They’re doing a good job.

Of course, I am not being entirely fair to the genre. The formula is much more varied than I have described it. You have shows like The Blacklist, where ‘the detective personality’ has been displaced from the actual detectives onto their criminal consultant; you have the US version of The Killing, which features loners but gives them absolutely no hint of abnormal brilliance. Broadchurch has one drama detective and one relentlessly ordinary detective, then partially swaps their roles at various points in the story. You have stuff like Columbo, which turns the misery-brain trope on its head, featuring instead a very down-to-earth detective who is interesting for his common friendliness. You have anti-detective stories, like Twin Peaks, where the detective’s smart-man expertise makes absolutely zero sense to the audience. The genre is so big that I cannot ever cover it comprehensively. There are endless twists on the formula. You can probably name many yourself.

xfiles

But we do cleave to the formula a little too tightly. For example, we will even stretch it to include baffling examples of “anti-establishment” policemen. On The X Files we followed the adventures of two rebellious FBI agents who, over the course of the show, somehow managed to shed almost 100% of their institutional qualities and become entirely anti-system rebels while inexplicably retaining their jobs– and even when they lost their jobs, we received two replacement agents who began an identical journey from scratch. We’d apparently rather jump through those bizarre hoops than deviate even slightly from the time-tested detective-man plan!

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about this lately because I am halfway (well, slightly more than halfway) through writing an interactive mystery story myself. In some ways, it is extremely formulaic: it features a very alone adult man who has a melodramatic past and who is trying very hard to solve a murder case. But it also deviates from the formula in a few ways I think are important. I have been taking absolutely for-fucking-ever to write this story, but I am making consistent progress, and that’s giving me a good environment to slowly mull over what I think of these tropes and whether they are useful or good for me. It is important to think about what you are supporting or buying into through the tropes and stereotypes you use in your work. I have a better idea of what I like, now.

But: I would recommend staying far, far away from TV Tropes when doing this kind of thing. Losing yourself in TV Tropes has never been better than simply marathoning a TV show or chain-reading an entire book series and just allowing yourself to get lost in someone else’s story. A writer reading TV Tropes is like an alien trying to learn what a cake tastes like from a cookbook. The best solution is to simply go eat the cake.

A final story: since first or second grade, I have been repeatedly and relentlessly informed by all my peers and many of my elders that I am extremely weird, and that I have an unusual way of putting things and of looking at the world. I can’t disagree. As a child I had an encyclopedic command of large numbers of useless facts, an aggressive, double-barreled stare, a complete lack of interest in all gendered social activities, and a habit of constantly trying to get and hold other people’s attention. Though this stopped being a problem for me over a decade ago, when I was very small I derived enormous amounts of angst from my defective personality. But in third grade, after a life-changing classroom reading of The Red-Headed League (that I still remember with bizarre detail), I ended up absolutely inhaling Sherlock Holmes. I read almost all of the original canon without stopping and later re-read it all on a yearly basis, novels and all, all the way up through high school. I found the stories soothing, not least because they were about a weird person whom everyone seemed to worship.

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As a child I took Sherlock Holmes as proof that someone could be weird and smart and alone, but nevertheless fulfilled. I sort of idolized the Holmes-Watson pair as an example of complete and ultimate friendship, and I took it as proof that if I could only do one or two things extremely well, then someone would admire me for it and be my friend. It did not occur to me until much later that the Holmes-Watson friendship is actually rather shitty, and that Watson is constantly trying to get away from it by marrying people and having a career. I also sort of glossed over the fact that Holmes is a sexist and that he probably would have despised me if he were real. For quite a long time, my secret role model and idol was a caricature of a grouchy fictional British detective, and I can tell you: it didn’t do me much good.

In high school I changed my behavior dramatically and became rather decent at making friends. My opinion of Sherlock Holmes changed too, and although I still think those stories are the finest short stories ever written, I no longer treat glorified miserable smartass aloneness as a thing to aspire to. As a result, my relationship to the entire goddamn mystery genre has changed. I don’t necessarily laugh at these stories, but I do a lot of laughing with them, with their melodramatic mud-rolling misery, and I think I enjoy them in a more genuine way now that I can treat them as inherently absurd.

I think the true sign of real comfort with a genre or style of writing is the ability to treat it as completely ridiculous. Not necessarily all the time, but some of the time, certainly. I would give a lot to be a fly on the wall in some of my favorite detective shows’ writers’ rooms. I would like to see whether they laugh at themselves, and how much. I think I can guess which writers’ rooms are relentlessly po-faced.

Hint: it’s probably not the best ones.

Creating an inherently pathetic protagonist: Six Months and its “reactive” choice system

I’d like to talk for a moment about the core mechanic of my current long-term IF project, Six Months. I recently asked two friends to do a test-read of the first 60% of the game, and the feedback I got from them has had me thinking about my work in new ways.

I’ve shared gifs of the game before on tumblr and twitter, but Six Months essentially uses the exact same mechanics as Swan Hill: a two-tone link system where black links change the text currently on the page, while red links commit decisions and advance the story. You can play Swan Hill here. Here’s a gif of the mechanic in action:

flame

All red links appear in-line as part of the game’s ordinary narrative. I’m not an enormous fan of choose-your-own-adventure or RPG-style option-choice in my personal projects. I have worked on traditional CYOA-style choice stories for my day job, and for my side projects I’m interested in exploring systems which seem less ludic, less interrogative, and more fluid or seamless in their presentation.

However, every IF choice system enforces certain underlying moods or philosophies upon the story. The system that you use to convey choices to the reader can be as much a tool as a cage– each completely alters  the way the reader will experience your story. Choice systems can affect moment-to-moment narrative rhythm, player-character characterization, story structure, and more.

We often tend to interpret the organizing system behind game choice as a sort of mental model for the protagonist. Let’s imagine a choice system where a bunch of choices are printed on a page, and the player must roll a die to select one. Telling an entire story in this inherently random, uncontrollable way would make the protagonist feel like an inherently random and uncontrollable person, wouldn’t it? Similarly, an “interactive fiction” art exhibit where players made choices by shooting targets with an airsoft gun would make decisions feel difficult and subject to error. The protagonist of such a story would feel like someone who tries hard but is liable to make mistakes. This is very similar to the choice system in Christine Love’s Twine story Even Cowgirls Bleed. Please, take a moment to play that game. Think about the ways that Love has taken advantage of her choice mechanics to convey certain things about the character.

Even traditional CYOA choice-list storytelling enforces certain ways of thinking and choosing, but we use it so often that these inherent characterization elements are often invisible to us.

The biggest difference between list-based storytelling and other methods of presenting choice, I think, is the addition of the list as an extra narrative “space” where ideas and solutions can be presented separately from the “real” continuum of the story. For example, putting choices in a list allows the writer to include unusual or out-of-left-field solutions that have not been presented anywhere else in the story:

surprise

A reader may learn something new in the CYOA choice list which changes their understanding of the dialogue they’ve already read. The author can use this to characterize the player character as an initiative-taking leader, capable of surprising enemies (and readers!) at the last moment.

Swan Hill, on the other hand, used a choice mechanic which made it very very hard for me to present moments where the main character surprised people or took initiative through choice. Swan Hill presents all choices through inline prompts. This means that all possible character choices must be “prompted” to the player before they have the opportunity to click one or the other. Sometimes these prompts come from thoughts the player character has. Sometimes these prompts come from things that other characters say:

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So I was trapped in a situation where any time the player made a decision, they had to do so in reaction to things other people said to them, or to thoughts that I, the author, decreed from on high that they should have. And because each page has very little text on it– a style choice I clung to very seriously– the red choice prompts must often appear in the same paragraph, or very close to one another in a short conversation snippet. Essentially, every time the character makes a decision, someone has to swoop down and give them options immediately before they decide.

On a choice-organization level– a level deeper into the guts of the story, really, than plot or prose style– this characterizes the protagonist of Swan Hill as an inherently reactive person who is also often very unsure of themselves. Every time the player makes a decision, they do so in reaction to things going on around them. Whenever I wanted to make the player seem like they were taking initiative through choice, I had to make certain decisions for them. A good example of this is when the character gets into a fistfight with his brother. I choose to make that fight begin; the player ends the fight by responding to my prompt that they are about to throw a punch:

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When I started planning Six Months, I knew that I wanted to use the same mechanics from Swan Hill and explore them in a deeper way. This time, however, I planned to really lean into their inherently reactive nature. You play SImon, the asshole duke brother of the Swan Hill protagonist. In Six Months, however, we learn that he isn’t really a self-assured countryside potentate– just a confused, overwhelmed, moderately-pathetic homebody who finds himself in trouble way over his head after foolishly declaring that he will personally execute a relative’s murderer. Simon must relentlessly fake it until he makes it. He’s got imposter’s syndrome all over the damn place, and other characters constantly pester him to make decisions without the proper information or context. I want the player to feel overwhelmed and reactive. What better way to do this than to use a decision system which forces the player to choose reactively?

The big challenge, of course, is to tell a story about a reactive, overwhelmed person that still feels exciting and interesting. My recent test readers found Simon’s attitude and problems compelling enough to keep reading; they have not reported that he feels like a sad sack. I’m pretty sure that I’m heading in a good direction with regards to choice systems, interactivity, mood, and character. Anyway, my testers report that I’m doing a decent-enough job.

Six Months is about 60% done and has over a thousand Twine passages in it. I was shocked to learn that it took one of my test readers over three hours to read. You can listen to me mope and groan about it on my twitter.

Text game dev gifs are an unfilled niche (that I am filling)

I have created a Tumblr entirely of gifs of my in-dev text games. I know, I know, this sounds stupid and useless, but it’s definitely not.

There are a lot of people out there making text games right now, and thanks to Twine and Leon Arnott’s excellent macros, more and more of these games include text that moves or changes onscreen. This is the kind of stuff that interests me most. I like stories with text “mechanics.” Most of the stuff I make has this kind of thing in it.

It’s hard to excerpt out isolated little moments of these games so that I can discuss/brag about the cool shit I have done. Gifs work well enough, though. So that’s what the tumblr is going to be. Solid gifs of me clicking on shit.

This is not commonly done with, say, novels– nobody sticks two paragraphs of their novel on a blog to brag about some little technical thing they did and the thought process behind it. I am fully aware that the actual text content of a lot of these gifs will be confusing and meaningless to most readers. However, I think I can explain myself well enough to make some of these gifs a little bit valuable. There are “mechanics” that can be discussed even when the text content is taken out-of-context.

It’s important to think very hard about what you do, no matter what you’re doing. Even artists who cultivate an air of carelessness or spontaneity are thinking much harder about their craft and process than most of us realize. When it comes to Twine, we don’t often talk about the nitty-gritty details of hypertext.  Twine has a low barrier of entry but you can do a lot of very complicated and weird stuff with it, and it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of practice before you can start to work at a high level of complexity. I think there’s a lot to learn and share there.

Basically, I want to talk about Twine craft and I want to do it with gifs of my unfinished projects. I hope you enjoy it.

Mad Max: Fury Road is the most relaxing action film I have ever seen

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It’s no secret to my friends that I passionately and unreservedly adored Mad Max: Fury Road. It instantly leapt somewhere toward the front half of my Top Ten Movies Of All Time list. I’ve seen it twice already and plan on seeing it a third time in IMAX. I haven’t stopped talking or thinking about it since the day it came out. I haven’t stopped energetically recommending it to everyone I meet. I also haven’t stopped trying to articulate exactly what about this film made it so special to me, and I think I’ve finally found out what that is.

The first thing you should know is that Fury Road does exactly what every other action film tries to do, but better, more earnestly, and more expertly. The entire content of the story is essentially one long chase scene– the tanker chase from The Road Warrior for two solid hours. Every moment is fascinating. The cars are absolutely wild– every time I’ve seen it, the “guitar car” has sent the audience cheering in amazed glee. The crashes are outrageous. The explosions are nearly constant. There are a lot of firearms involved. There is a short shot, in fact, of bullet casings bouncing wildly off a woman’s naked pregnant belly. The characters state their motivations out loud, informing one another that they are looking for “hope” and “redemption.” Little subtext, no tact– just the facts. It is the most Action-Movie-y action movie ever made.

I watch an awful lot of action movies and I have believed for years that I am a fan of the genre. I like explosions, violence, and guns in movies. I like unrealistic thrills. I didn’t know or didn’t admit, however, that I’d been holding myself at a short distance from these films– that I’d never completely embraced or loved an action movie for exactly what it was, no caveats, no hesitation. Mad Max is probably the first action movie that I have felt completely safe to enjoy. It is the first action movie I’ve seen in years which allowed me to relax and just enjoy the fucking ride.

It is not easy for women to embrace and love a genre of film which repeatedly makes them the butts of jokes, the helpless victims of crimes, or the tacit second-class citizens of their high-pressure fantasy worlds. You need to keep a little distance between yourself and a work of fiction that is so consistently likely to abandon or betray you. Occasionally I’ll be enjoying an action movie– like a Marvel film, for example– and I’ll be unconsciously bracing myself for the moment when the sole woman is kidnapped, killed, thwarted, or forced to go running to a man for help. When you’ve got an action movie with only one woman in it, you’re constantly worried that she’s going to end up dead or married. You are enjoying these movies with the unspoken knowledge that they were made by a bunch of people who believe that you are some kind of unintelligible space alien with whom they cannot communicate or sympathize.

Fury Road, on the other hand, very deliberately avoids doing anything to make women as a group seem less powerful or deserving than men, and very deliberately goes out of its way to include women as an understandable, empathizable, worthy group of people in their made-up fantasy universe. It uses the language of action films to remove that frission of separation and mild alienation I’d been unwittingly feeling with almost every other action film I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Fury Road is about a powerful, authoritative woman rescuing a bunch of other brave women from oppressive sex slavery with the help of a bunch of other women… and two men who sacrifice their own priorities to help these women achieve their crusades. (In fact, the men are more interesting for their explicit vulnerability.) Certainly Furiosa, Max’s co-protagonist, carries the entire plot of the movie. It’s her story. Max is a sidekick.

I can watch Fury Road without ever holding myself back or bracing for a sexist gut-punch. It is practically the only action movie I have seen in my life that I can completely and earnestly adore. It is the only high-intensity frayed-nerves heart-stopping explosions gruntfest gunshoot that I can relax while watching, which seems crazy, but there you go. Mad Max involves cars smashing into one another at 100 miles per hour, but I find it positively soothing.

I’ve found myself wondering: is this how men feel about the fantasy and sci-fi films they love?

WUB WUB WUBWUBwubwubwub

When you watch the first teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode 7, you should watch it with your eyes closed.

I don’t mean that you should watch it with your eyes closed the first time you see it. That would be pointless. Watch it once, put it away for a few days, and then come back to it with your volume high and your back turned. Listen to the crabby little alien noises, the soccer-ball robot guy beeping and whirring, and that low wub wub wub sound that the fighters make over the water. This is Star Wars. The whole point of Star Wars is for enormous rusty machines and huge slavering monsters to groan and crackle at you in a huge dark movie theater.

If something does not go WUB WUB WUBWUBWUBwubwubwbububwubwbub at you in the first five minutes, then you might as well be watching action figures fight one another.

I have a lot of experience with Star Wars action figures. I was alive and conscious and basically sentient for the 1997 Star Wars theatrical re-release, and when I saw A New Hope in a crummy little Windsor theater with my best friend, it was the first time in my life that I had an ecstatic, worshipful response to a movie. I do not care about anyone’s shitty extra scenes controversy– the point is, I got to see these films in theaters at the tender age of eight, despite the fact that I wasn’t alive thirty years ago.

It is important to see films in theaters. It is important to see films with really good writing or sound design in theaters, because your entire body will shake with the explosions and you will feel all those words in your throat and the soles of your feet. With Star Wars, of course, it is the sound design. When I’m ancient and withered up and dying in a nursing home, I am sure that I will still sit up straight at the sound of those laser guns, at Chewbacca’s voice, and at the music of the cantina band. I am very picky about lightsaber hums, even still. I used to have an app that made lightsaber sounds, but I deleted it because they were not quite right. These sounds get into your blood.

And it is important to experience these sounds in a movie theater. It is also important to see the film as big and crazy as possible, theater-sized. While these huge sounds rumble and shake you, Luke’s nervous brow will glisten with sweat, and it will be something on the order of fifteen feet wide. When it explodes, the Death Star will be about the size of a small car, and when Luke and Han get silly medals put on them in front of an enormous crowd, the crowd will be actually enormous, and you will be able to see all the little people.

If you are eight, you will be cheering along with that crowd. It does not matter that the movie makes only a medium amount of sense, or that some of the dialogue is super dumb. Seeing the original movies in a theater can be a physical experience, like standing past the end of a runway when a plane takes off overhead. You may shiver in your chair. I remember that I came out of the theater feeling clammy and weak.

We had already seen the films, and we already knew we liked them, but after watching A New Hope in the theaters my friend and I developed a kind of personal cult of Star Wars. We played with a lot of action figures. We invented and memorized a rhyming song about Emperor Palpatine. We used to sit in my living room and watch the Endor speederbike chase scene over and over and over again for entire afternoons. Just that scene. I can still remember exactly what huge chunks of that scene sound like. I can still hear the speederbikes humming in my head. God, and the music! I clumsily learned how to play almost all the major songs from the original trilogy on the xylophone in middle school. The second CD I ever bought with my own money, after Graceland, was the soundtrack to A New Hope. I still own that physical CD. Binary Sunset forever, guys.

I do not watch Star Wars because I care about trade agreements between Coruscant’s various frog-headed aliens; I care about dudes getting zapped with force lightning while evil gnomish emperors cackle. There is no way that anything coming out of Anakin Skywalker’s mouth can be more interesting than the crazy OO-WA WABBA sounds coming out of Jabba the Hutt’s mouth. The only great thing that came out of the Prequels was the ridiculous chirping battle-droid dialogue.

Well, that, and the “NOOOOOO!!”

The final prequel came out when I was a sophomore in high school. My sister, my mother, and I went to see it with my family’s closest friends– my friend, my sister’s friend, and their mother– and I remember that on the way back the moms asked us whether we’d enjoyed the film. I was still kind of dazed by it all, pleased that they’d improved on Episode 2 but still unsure, after three films, how to feel about the fact that the things I’d worshiped as a kid were normal movies after all, normal shit that would never really mean anything to anyone. Ninety percent of everything humans make is crap. Almost all art is crap.

“I guess I enjoyed it,” I told my mom. “I mean, I’m not going to see it in theaters as many times as Lord of the Rings.”

We parked in front of my friend’s house, jumped out, and started pulling our bookbags out of the trunk of the car. I remember that someone started shouting “NOOOOOO!!”

So we all shouted “NOOOOOO!!” in the driveway for a little while. Not because it was a magnificent movie moment, of course. It figures that when I was a small child, Star Wars was an unassailable mass of perfect action flick– but by the time I could enjoy things ironically, Star Wars had started to suck. It was on my level.

These days, all I remember about the third prequel is the NOOOOO, Anakin’s voice when he cried with all his limbs cut off, and the annoying sound that Obi Wan’s (lizard? bird?) steed made when he was running around on that planet that I can’t remember anything about. Star Wars remains an audio experience for me, after all these years.

My ENTIRE opinion about California

Shortly after moving to California, I attended a New Years’ Eve party in a mansion somewhere northeast of Berkeley. I didn’t know any of the people who were throwing the party (though many of them would later become my close friends), and I’d never been at a party in a mansion before. Or any New Years Eve party that didn’t include my parents, actually. I made the best of weird circumstances by eating an entire orange in one bite, which is my Party Trick.

My Party Trick.

My Party Trick.

Someone at the event asked me where I was from. “New England,’ I said, keeping it general. I was born at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, spent college in New Hampshire, and spent many of my summers working at a summer camp in Massachusetts for girls with diabetes. I’d been living away from my hometown for a pretty long while, but California was the first time I’d done it in a state where people called highways “freeways.”

“I can tell,” the guy said.

“How?” I asked.

“You talk really fast,” he said.

Growing up in Connecticut, I’d never really thought of myself as a “New Englander.” My parents were both kids from Chicago who went to college in New York, and they’ve spent close to three decades maintaining a kind of mental self-separation from the people in their new home-state. Some of that rubbed off on me. I’d just grown up thinking of myself as a Generic White Girl who happened to be living in New England.

But moving to California showed me that I really was a “New Englander,” whatever the hell that means. (It probably means that I should be living in a slowly-flooding pit filled with bears and pumpkins and Yankee Candles at the end of a gravel driveway somewhere just outside Boston.)

I’ll be honest: I really, really dislike California. It wouldn’t be too much of a dramatic exaggeration to claim that living here is like scraping my nails very quietly along a chalkboard every moment of every day. I’ve spent the past several years trying to articulate what exactly it is about California that is so wrong and fucked up, but I’ve had to admit, in the end, that California isn’t really fucked up at all.

It just doesn’t have enough trees.

And the highways are too wide, and the people here are flaky as shit, and there are too many people, and it doesn’t rain often enough, and because no snow falls and no trees change and no rivers of migrating birds follow the highway in the fall, it feels like time isn’t passing. And the towns don’t have centers, and everything is built flat on the ground instead of vertically with second floors and basements, and I haven’t seen a proper 24-hour diner in forever, and when you drive from one town to another, they just sort of bleed together with no trees or empty space in between. There is no Edge Of Town. And all the buildings are simultaneously too new and too run-down– everything looks like it was built in the 70s and hit by a zombie apocalypse in the 80s. And there’s a drought. Why the fuck would anyone put a huge chunk of the country’s agricultural industry in a fucking desert? Who does that? Why does anyone even live here?

My dad used to text me pictures of bears. My mom once called me to complain that a black bear had appeared in my back yard and that my dad standing ten feet away from it, taking pictures. Now, there are some mitigating factors here: the bear was in a tree, and the tree was growing out of a disused canal behind my house. There are all sorts of snakes and foxes and turkeys and opossums in the dry canal, and bears use it as a highway. When they climb up the trees next to the steep wall of the canal behind my house, they can be ten or twenty feet away from our fence, level to our eyes, while still being on the other side of the fence and also up in the top of a tree. But the point is that my dad was standing next to a bear and taking pictures of it.

The latest communique from my dad

The latest communique from my dad

When I moved to the Bay Area, everyone I knew was talking about how glad they were to live so close to nature. Meanwhile, I was getting bear texts from my dad. “You people are fucking deluded,” I once ranted to a friend.  “You do not live in nature. You live in an urban scab that happens to be a day-trip drive from a national park.”

The fault was mine. I lacked proper California sympathy. Fact is, southern and central California are completely reasonable places that exist in this universe, and there just aren’t any Real Trees here. But there are a lot of people, and a ton of cars, and I just have to Deal With It. I am used to certain things and a certain way of living, and the things I am used to are not universal. I am not a Generic White Girl. I am a white girl from Connecticut, and I grew up next to a giant empty canal filled with spiders and snakes and red-tailed hawks that used to eat crows outside the windows of our living room. In many places in New England, you can live in a place like that and drive (or walk!) five minutes to a Starbucks and a Stop & Shop. Most places in California? No such luck.

I didn’t find California culture anywhere near as hard to adjust to. I’ve heard stories about people moving from California to the east coast and feeling a deep, unsettling dismay at the way we behave over there, but I think being an east coast asshole has given me an inherent advantage in my transition. I am guarded and quiet in public and kind of mean. I put a high priority on getting things done as quickly as possible. I show up everywhere incredibly early and hide it by parking five blocks away and reading my email in my car. I am the first person to arrive to any party, even if I am late. I am way more aggressively practical than I ever realized before I moved out here. Is this because I’m a New Englander, or because I’m just a highly practical asshole? No clue. But we have a reputation for this kind of shit, so sure, I’ll live it up.

I used to have a silly story I’d tell about the difference between east coast and Californian personalities. I’m not sure how closely I stand by it anymore, but I’ll share it with you now:

Imagine you’re at a party. You’re talking to someone you’ve never met before. He says, “Yeah, I’m a huge biker. I’m really really into biking.” Now, if you’re in New England, you can safely assume that this means your new friend bikes a lot. He probably has a real expensive bike, and he bikes to work every day, and owns one of those biking leotards, and he wears those death-trap shoes that you clip onto the bike because you want to die. But if you’re in California, and someone at a party tells you, “Yeah, I’m a huge biker, I’m really into biking,” you can make no such assumption! Does this person even own a bike? Do they bike once a month? Maybe they just bought a bike. Maybe they just spend a lot of time in bike stores. Maybe they used to be on a competitive bike-racing team in college, but lost a foot in a tragic accident, and now they just bike in their dreams. In California, everything’s up in the air.

I’ve heard people say that they want to move to California to live the “Cali life,” but I’m pretty sure there is no Cali life. There are just a lot of people here doing pretty much whatever they want, all the time, for whatever reason, whatever. I think this article about Los Angeles describes it best:

No matter what you do in L.A., your behavior is appropriate for the city. Los Angeles has no assumed correct mode of use. You can have fake breasts and drive a Ford Mustang – or you can grow a beard, weigh 300 pounds, and read Christian science fiction novels. Either way, you’re fine: that’s just how it works…

…L.A. is the apocalypse: it’s you and a bunch of parking lots. No one’s going to save you; no one’s looking out for you. It’s the only city I know where that’s the explicit premise of living there – that’s the deal you make when you move to L.A.

…And I don’t just mean that Los Angeles is some friendly bastion of cultural diversity and so we should celebrate it on that level and be done with it; I mean that Los Angeles is the confrontation with the void. It is the void.

This observation is more true in a general sense about the entirety of California than it isn’t. When the east coast was settled, it was settled by frightened European religious fundamentalists who cared quite a lot about inherited status and who were constantly being menaced by bears and the weather. There’s a humility and guardedness to New England towns– a close gathering around the central green, three-story houses with basements so you can store all the things you’d need for an apocalypse, only three or four kinds of churches. Only three or four kinds of people.

But by the time Americans got to California, we were proud and arrogant jerks. We just jizzed concrete over the entire landscape and marched around like we owned the place. Why bother building a second story on a house when you can build another one next to it, and another, and another? Why bother making a place livable and kind if it looks cooler and makes more money as a concrete iron maiden?

Sure, California has Google and Hollywood. But Silicon Valley is really and truly the most fucked-up place I have ever seen in my entire life, and Hollywood is basically just a gigantic heap of useless trash. (And I often have a hard time parking there.)

Okay. Here’s the rundown. New England pros:

  • Weather
  • My family
  • Trees
  • Roads are occasionally empty
  • People tell the truth, walk quickly, and get things done
  • You can pick your own pumpkin

New England cons:

  • Often boring
  • Too white
  • No good Mexican food
  • My job isn’t there

And California pros:

  • Diversity
  • Better food
  • Actual jobs
  • My job, specifically

California cons:

  • You are living in the void
  • Everything here was built by a charming asshole
  • You will never be menaced by a bear

Some thoughts about that harassment essay

You maybe surprised to learn that I did not plan to publish that harassment article at all.

I wrote it a year and half ago in an attempt to clear my head. I composed it directly in WordPress, then panicked and set its publish date for ‘far, far, in the future.’ Every few weeks I’d wonder whether it was time to finally publish. Every time, I thought: not yet, not yet. Someday, though.

Well, the “far future” occurred one month ago. I’d completely forgotten about the article and it published totally without my realizing it. When I woke up that morning, someone from Critical Distance was tweeting at me. I’d accidentally published something highly topical. I actually had to go back and change all the dates so they made sense.

I am not even close to the saddest harassment story from the last several months. Please read this long article about how relentless and inescapable harassment can be for many people. I quit writing online because I could, because I had other passions and skills to rely on. A lot of people getting harassed on the internet are getting harassed at the place they work. They make money out here. By attacking them in the place where they sustain themselves, their harassers are doing a lot more damage. Harassers are also often more aggressive to LGBTQ people and people of color. Don’t let this shit stand, please, particularly if you’re in a position of power that allows you to help directly.

Anyway, thanks for all the kind feedback! Having my raw thoughts accidentally broadcast all over the internet didn’t turn out so badly after all. Here are some additional thoughts I’ve had over the last three weeks:

1) It’s definitely OK to jump ship

Some people have been saying things like, “man, it’s so sad you didn’t hang in there,” “It’s too bad you didn’t have thicker skin,” etc. I’ve seen the same thing occasionally written about other people who got out while the going was good.

Here’s my opinion on the subject: suffering sucks! If you are in a shitty situation and you can escape it and you want to escape it and need to escape it for your personal health and peace of mind, then yes, jump the hell off that stupid rat-infested rotten shit ship. You don’t owe your continued suffering or martyrdom to anyone. Jump right off. Swim the fuck out of there.

Here are some great times when it’s a good idea to jump the fuck off the ship:

  1. You aren’t getting paid to suffer
  2. You don’t have the energy, time, or money to weather this bullshit
  3. This isn’t the only outlet for your creative passions and you will feel just as (or more) fulfilled doing something else
  4. Your friend on the USS Sunshine Utopia has thrown you a nice life raft and you have a limited amount of time to get on that fucking raft and join your friend on a different ship full of happiness and fulfillment
  5. Absolutely any other reason. Jump off if you want to. Make yourself happy, please.

The sad thing here is that many people getting harassed on the internet do not have anyone to throw them a life raft. It’s important for you to be the kind of person who throws rafts. There are three or four people specifically responsible for helping me disembark from Shit Ship and without them I might even now be a bloated corpse on the bottom of the sea.

2) I think I underplayed how bad the Witcher thing actually was

No, it wasn’t just ‘people calling me bad names.’

The Real Bad Stuff lasted a solid week. Kent handled most of that. But for weeks afterwards, people would link through to the site from the harassers’ home forum and all my blood would rush into my head and I’d feel like barfing. People kept popping by to say more shitty shit. For about six months afterwards, I actually got heart palpitations every time I tried to publish an article. My hands would shake and I’d get weak-kneed and I’d have to go lie down. My housemates would see me lying stricken on a couch and they’d say, “woah, you look sickly,” and because I didn’t feel like saying “strangers on the internet are giving me a panic attack!!!” I’d say “no, man, it’s cool,” and I’d get up and limp over to another room and toss myself on a different couch and sweat.

And please, remember: I’m a lady, so this was not the only time people randomly harassed me. People wrote low-grade aggressive stuff to and about me on a regular basis. The Witcher bullshit was just the biggest single event, and it occurred at a moment when I was making big choices about how to spend my time.

3) Wait, there are still people in the universe who think that personal essays are somehow bad?

Ha! Haa! Haaaaaaa. Personal essays have been around for a bajillion years. They’re in AP English. I took a course about them in college. You will find them in many notable, long-venerated publications. It is not arrogant or self-absorbed or narcissistic to write creative nonfiction about your personal experiences. Men and women and adults and teenagers and college students and even children all participate in this fine, well-established form of literature.

And guess what? Some of those people are games writers! Shocking!! If you don’t like games writing with a hint of the personal in it, I’m very sorry for you, because you’re missing out on a lot of fine shit. For starters, go read some of these brilliant stories and see if it changes your mind.

4) I should probably just finish The Witcher, because The Wild Hunt looks badass

5) Getting paid is way important

shakespeare-got-to-get-paid[1]

It is normal and admirable for writers and other creators to want to find a way to sustain themselves with their passions. You should respect that they are seeking a way to get paid. You should be cool with the fact that “I’m not getting paid” was a significant part of my decision to “let harassment beat me.”

You may be a writer who is OK with writing as an unpaid pastime. But bear in mind that the things you get out of that experience– positive feedback, a community, friends, status– are in themselves a kind of payment. They are the earnings of your unpaid labor. This is how a lot of people get into online writing: they’re getting something valuable out of the experience.

But some people are not getting anything valuable out of the experience. Some people are getting shat on.

And furthermore, nobody can live on status alone. That’s why it’s important that paying outlets hire women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Everyone eventually arrives at a moment when they must make big decisions about how to spend their time. If the professional games-writing community refuses to give these oodles of highly qualified women and minorities paying positions, those people are going to jump the fuck off the ship, and you are going to lose their voices and perspectives. Remember: unique voices and perspectives have an inherent value that exists in their difference from the mainstream. Respect that.

Why I Stopped Writing on the Internet (for a while)

Three and a half years ago, I was still in college. At the time, my friend Kent and I ran a blog about videogames. We had an absolute blast, but we weren’t really interested in taking it any further. Sometime in 2010, however, I almost completely lost my will to put my writing on the internet. This contributed to the fact that I haven’t posted anything on that blog in almost 2 years.

Let’s start at the beginning: I started playing The Witcher. I was unimpressed with it. I’d heard that it was the Jesus of modern western RPGs, but it turns out that modern western RPGs do not have a Jesus, and although The Witcher is pretty good, its story is not super compelling to me. The parts that I played had a rather shallow and childish emotional range– and they reminded me very strongly of other Bioware/Bioware-esque games where I’d been disappointed by the story’s emotional range. I wrote a very haphazard article about all this in a few hours, ran it through the Kent Filter (it passed with flying colors, by the way), and posted it on the site. (You won’t find it. I’ve since deleted it.)

Shortly after the article came online, someone linked to it in a general-interest RPG fan forum. I don’t know who this person was, but if I ever meet them in public, I am kicking them in the nuts they probably have. This person posted that I was a “bitch” who had a “PhD” and suggested that I was performing an uninformed hit-job on RPGs in general. They also steered the discussion towards the fact that I’d offhandedly given FFVII the thumbs-up for showing its protagonist vulnerable and crying onscreen (something western RPGs rarely do). If you know anything about the way western RPG fans talk about JRPGs, you can guess what kind of effect that had.

The post was very obviously an attempt to set me up for trolling and online harassment. It was abundantly clear on our website that I do not have a PhD, that I don’t frequently play or discuss mainstream JRPGs, and that I don’t hate Bioware games. The person who said those things wasn’t interested in talking about my article with anyone; he was hoping to rile his readers into seeing me as a fair-game target for the community’s vitriol. And it worked! Our site was filled with people calling me a cunt. Even more people were calling me a cunt on that forum.

Kent did most of the damage control. I, meanwhile, slowly stopped writing. I stopped reading the comments. I even stopped playing The Witcher. (I still haven’t finished it. Every time I pick it up, I remember this whole thing and get so goddamn angry I can’t think.) And I started questioning the very reason I was putting my work on the internet at all.

When Kent and I started that site, we wanted to write thoughtful essays with vague academic overtones for a general audience. Shortly after the Witcher debacle, I had an email conversation with another games writer about whether it was possible to have real, meaningful conversations with ordinary people about games on the internet. I determined that it was not, and that it was not worth it, because that audience of “ordinary people” contained a substantial portion of assholes, and I didn’t feel like writing for assholes.

Complete openness is good for some things. It is good for shooting the shit with friends, maybe. It is not good for discussing complex or sensitive topics with strangers, or for talking about privilege and prejudice, or for starting conversations which kill sacred cows. This Witcher shit helped me realize that I did not want to write in an open environment anymore. I wanted civilizing rules! So I did a 180 and refocused entirely on my writing for school. In school– and in face-to-face conversation with my friends and people I respect– people are not allowed to call me a cunt just because they disagree with me.

The change was refreshing. It took me a good nine months to completely stop writing on the internet, but after I did, I got a ton of really valuable, edifying stuff done. Here is a total list of the things I accomplished in academia and the “real world” during the next two years after I stopped putting my writing on the internet:

  1. I wrote the story for and helped design two different week-long sessions of an ARG that had several hundred participants
  2. I wrote a 280-page novel for my senior thesis, which won the largest departmental prize in my entire Creative Writing department
  3. I wrote a thirty-page paper on English-language Catholic bibles and completed my History degree
  4. I graduated from college
  5. I got a full-time job writing computer game stories
  6. I moved all the way across the entire United States
  7. I participated in game jams and made projects that make me smile. I also once got to work on a team with IF writers I respect
  8. I learned four different interactive fiction authoring systems
  9. I learned how to live on my own like an adult
  10. I signed a lease???
  11. I and my friends made a website that randomly generates conspiracy theories
  12. I learned how to enjoy videogames again without feeling as though I must write about them

Kent has also achieved things in life since we stopped writing on the internet. We are each so busy achieving things that we do not have time to write all the time, for zero dollars, about games on the internet anymore.

Our perspectives have also changed. Whenever I look at my old articles, I feel as if I am watching a space alien try to communicate to me. Many of our ideas boiled down to, “Why can’t games be perfect?!?” I now know several answers to that question, and all of them are a bit disappointing. It’s hard for games to be perfect. It’s particularly hard for games to be my kind of “perfect” when they are aimed at a “general audience” and cost many millions of dollars to make.

Over time, I have gradually regained the desire to write on the internet, but not in the way I used to. I no longer go around ranching and slaughtering sacred cows. It’s not that I don’t have opinions anymore; it’s that I no longer feel the internet is the best place to share all of them. I admire and respect people who put up with the audience’s bullshit, but during my hiatus, I felt like the problem at hand was so big, cruel, sexist, and messed-up that breaking myself against it wasn’t productive. I could do better for myself in environments where people didn’t call me a cunt all the time. I only have so much time to live my life, and I’d rather spend it making cool things for kind and grateful people.

If the vocal audience served by the average games media outlet represented the IRL standard for humans to behave toward one another, society would be an unbelievably fucked-up mess. Luckily, there are better environments and people in the world, and if you’re at the end of your wits, seeking them out is definitely worth it. And, as I’ve come to learn, some of those people are actually hiding out on the internet, too.

Five years later: what I think about early access

I’m getting super burnt out on early access games.

In 2009, I bought Minecraft. I spent the next year and a half breathlessly following its update schedule. This was the first time I’d ever purchased an unfinished game.

Following Minecraft’s development took a lot of energy during a time when I had a lot of energy to give. I spent 5-7 hours a day in my school’s library, and when I wasn’t doing my homework or attending a class in that building, I was hunched in a library carrel playing Minecraft. I followed Notch on twitter, checked his blog regularly, read the forums several times a week, and talked about the game all the time with my friends. For parts of 2010, following Minecraft was basically my biggest hobby.

I felt at the time that Minecraft was deserving of my energy and my constant fixed attention. And though it took a lot of energy to follow that game’s development process, it didn’t take too much. I didn’t have to join a special forum if I didn’t want to. I got frequent Minecraft updates on regular games news sites alongside other news. Notch’s twitter was fun to read. He really put himself out there, and I didn’t feel like I had to work hard to figure out what he was doing or what was coming next. He updated all the goddamn time, too.

Most of the early-access games I’ve purchased in the past year, however, do not measure up to Minecraft when it comes to early-access performance. Here are my biggest gripes:

  • A lot of Kickstarter projects send me weekly updates. I don’t care about what you’re doing this week. I want something tangible I can interact with, or a cool video I can watch, or a picture I can see. I don’t want 90+ wall-of-text updates sent directly to my email inbox. I have unsubscribed from most Kickstarter update mailing lists. (In case you’re wondering, the worst offender here is Project Eternity.)
  • I’ve bought a lot of Steam Early Access projects that are simply not fun enough to waste my time on. It’s hard to stay excited by something when the initial Early Access versions are so uncompelling. Minecraft had uniquely compelling early versions. If there’s nothing uniquely compelling about your game yet, I don’t really want to see it. I’ve had my enthusiasm for several games killed by the fact that their Early Access builds are so lame. 
  • The vast number of Early Access games out now makes it impossible to give any individual one the attention I gave Minecraft. I follow too many people on Twitter already to start adding developers from every Kickstarter I’ve bought. I don’t have the time or the energy to read twenty development blogs a week, particularly when so many are so poorly written.
  • And that’s another problem: a lot of developers are really bad at communicating about their unfinished game. Notch is really a very good communicator. The same can’t be said for the people behind a lot of the projects I’m currently interested in.
  • Many Kickstarters ask their backers to join special forums for secret information. Look: I’m profoundly uninterested in joining your forum. I backed your Kickstarter because I liked your pitch, not because I wanted to sign into your website once a week. If you are not producing Double-Fine-quality backer content, there is no reason to hide your development process from non-backers, and no reason for you to force me to join your forum to access any of that information.

So far, here are the two games I think have done the best with early aaccess/open development since Minecraft:

  • Don’t Starve did the best at early access. They had a days-to-next update counter on the front menu of the game and updated quite frequently. Their update announcements were well-written, featured a lot of unique art, and were honestly exciting to get in my inbox. All versions of the game were fun to play.
  • Double Fine Adventure (Broken Age) did the best at open development, of course. The documentary series is really well-done. If you’re going for “development as a participatory experience”, there is nothing better than actually letting people see– see– who you are, what you’re doing, and what your biggest struggles are like.

Now, I know a lot of developers are encouraging heavy participation because they need a pool of testers. A lot of people clearly like and appreciate this dynamic: for them, backing an early access project means joining a community, giving a part of yourself to something you’re excited about.

But this is simply not how I do early access anymore. I don’t have the time or the energy. I back projects and buy early versions because I like the pitch, not because I want to join a club. Unless you have some Don’t Starve-quality shit, or unless your development tell-all is as fascinating as Double Fine’s, I do not really want to see your game until it’s perfect. And that usually means that I don’t want to see it until it’s done.

Are developers wrong to want legions of loyal fans constantly engaged in their unfinished product? In principle, no. But Early Access developers and Kickstarter teams should do a better job remembering that their supporters’ time and attention is precious. I think the biggest problem is that a lot of the partially-developed games I’m playing are simply not very good, and therefore undeserving of my time and attention.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that I no longer think early access is the future, or that it’s even better than regular development. It’s just another way of doing things. It seems to be harder than regular development, and it only seems to work for certain kinds of projects. It requires you to be better than the average bear.

And depending on how you run your show, it may require your fans to give something of themselves that– like me– they may not want to give.

Twine without CSS or Javascript

I recently learned that an online Twine jam was going to be happening this weekend. It’s a “Naked Twine Jam”, where all submissions must avoid using any CSS or Javascript modifications whatsoever:

Twine is also very easy to customize. However, while visual modifications and external modifications can produce lots of interesting results, they aren’t at all necessary to tell compelling stories.

For this event, we’ll all work within the creative restriction of using only the basic Twine program with no CSS or Javascript modifications. If you don’t know what that means, then don’t worry about it! Just download the program here and start playing around with it.

I haven’t actually completed many Twine projects I’m proud of, but all of the ones I’m deeply invested in involve a LOT of javascript plugins and CSS modifications. My favorite thing about Twine is the versatility you can achieve through unusual text behaviors and page layouts. A lot of my favorite Twine games ever would be impossible without javascript plugins. Breakfast on a Wagon With your Partner, for example, could not exist without the cycling link macro. All I want is for all my friends to become insanely powerful would not have the same crescendo without the targeted CSS macro. Anhedonia has important audio and visual elements that would not be possible without javascript and CSS. Without those elements, it would be a completely different kind of art.

I have no problem with the idea of a “naked” Twine jam– in fact, I’m already participating– but it is making me realize how much I value customization and specialization in Twine projects.  I’m fascinated by words changing and behaving uniquely on-screen. I like cycling links, unfurling sentences, etc. Not all of my projects use these kinds of behaviors, but I really like them, both in my work and in others’. I like that Twine allows authors to add this functionality.

Fact is, when you add new behaviors to onscreen text, you can actually say new things. I recently met with another writer who’s interested in new ways of presenting nonlinear narratives, and during that conversation we talked a little bit about how the artistic possibilities of hypertext are unrealized by the tools and platforms people have been using to consume digital writing. When you add cycling text to a page, you can actually communicate in new ways that you could never could before. When you add “unfurling” text, the possibilities for communication expand again. To make an awkward analogy, when it comes to the communication of ideas, these features are less like fonts and more like entirely new words.

Twine is special because it’s accessible, but it’s also special because it can be incredibly complex. You can make Twine behave in extremely specific and unusual ways, which in turn allows you to say very specific and unusual things that can’t be quite said in any other way. If I’d been writing Swan Hill in linear form as a short story, I could have communicated the Chancellor’s inward-looking attitude in a number of different ways, but I couldn’t have possibly communicated it in exactly the way that I ended up doing so. And I have the replace and revise macros to thank for that. That’s the kind of thing that I value about Twine.

Nevertheless, I’m enjoying the challenge of making a game without CSS or javascript modifications of any kind. I’ll probably go back after the jam and spruce it up before hosting it on my own website, but until then, the story looks a little like this:

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