Horse Master begins like any other horse mastery simulator. “You have trained your whole life for this moment,” Tom McHenry’s game says, adding that you are “sturdy, calloused, wind-blown.” You even get a choice of mount: Europa Trotter, or Carolina Coffinbreath? But then the narrator mentions your new friend’s “nutrient gravy,” and the game lurches into dystopian horror, making you build up mutant horse musculature as propaganda blares: “REBEL GROUPS DEFEATED...PEACE RESTORED THROUGH STRENGTH OF MORALS...”
McHenry wrote Horse Master with Twine, open-source software for interactive fiction that Chris Kilmas developed in 2009. It’s become a popular tool for creating games that avoid the standard subject matter of dragons or 300-pound space marines. Michael Brough’s scarfmemory pays tribute to a cherished accessory; Aevee Bee’s Removed dwells on a Final Fantasy monster of the same name, who carries around their own jarred brain. Consensual Torture Simulator, by artist/writer/designer merritt kopas, asks the player to fulfill the masochistic desires of a bound and writhing partner.
merritt runs the curated website Forest Ambassador, which she calls “an attempt to bring video games to wider audiences,” and her new book Videogames for Humans collects Twine works that did just that—documenting a movement with women at the front, as “friends, lovers, or something in between.” By publishing the text of each game alongside another author’s playthrough, the anthology displays the mottled breadth of its contributors. Riley MacLeod’s essayistic response to Fuck That Guy, about being a trans man in homoerotic spaces, opens with a closeted Hasidic stranger who once asked him: “Do you think gay life is devoid of meaning?” The game Sabbat presents a different, not necessarily unrelated question—“How do you feel about sacrificing animals to Satan for power?”—and novelist Imogen Binnie bemusedly throws up some horns. (“You know you are in a horror story when you see the word ‘ichor.’”) The dilemma of Soha Kareem’s reProgram is simply: “How do you tell someone you want them to really hurt you?” In this spirit, I asked merritt to drop by and annotate her own book.
So the name of this book is Videogames for Humans, which to me implies the question: Mainstream "AAA" games, who or what are those for?
[laughs] Well, I feel like we were just talking about this, but who has time to play a 60-hour game, right? Obviously there are some people that do, but I feel like it's an increasingly small proportion of the total number of people that games are for. Like, who has time to play a 60-hour game? Mostly young people, mostly men with disposable income and flexible time, which, like ... they sort of have been treated as the whole by the industry? And I think that's really a shame, because the shape of games is so limited as a result. And I actually talk in the intro about how Videogames for Humans is a terrible title for this book [both laugh]—I think my publisher really liked that part. Not to say this is the alternative or the answer, just a step towards a broader range of possibilities.
Even a lot of indie games—and "indie games" itself is kind of a questionable term, but games for smartphones or on Steam or whatever, that white dude still seems to be the archetypal creator and player. I know you talk about this in the intro a bit, but could you go into the history of your own experiences playing games?
When I was super young my family was fairly economically secure, so I had a Super Nintendo. It was really dope. I mean, I think all my favourite games from the period are kind of clichéd, but there's maybe a reason why they're a lot of people's favourites. But stuff like A Link to the Past, for a kid they're these huge spaces that are impossible to understand. I think that's probably different now, kids have access to technology younger, but for a kid in the '90s, playing video games, you have no idea of the contours of this world that you're exploring and it's like this huge, confusing, unimaginable thing crammed into this little piece of plastic, which is really weird and exciting.
But also there's that aspect where it's kind of safe and contained [laughs], it's like this safe exploration of a world that can't actually hurt you but has a lot of mystery. So yeah, I played a lot of games like that when I was, like, a tiny baby, and I guess I did that for most of my childhood. I had a bunch of different consoles. I think that whole sense of there being this miniature snow-globe world was what really drew me to games.
I still remember playing Link's Awakening as a kid for the first time, where it's like that, and then there's this elegiac ending where I guess you technically "win," but also all of your friends and the world you've come to know—
—fades from existence. It's all gone. That's really sad, yeah. I think games functioned as this kind of escapism for a lot of people who could afford them. If school and peer groups are a horrible site of trauma, then you look for ways to not have to deal with that, right? That's why people read books sometimes as kids, or get into music or subcultures or whatever, and for me it just happened to be games. They were this weird site of refuge for me for a long time. And then at some point I fell out of them, because I think I entered that space of "oh, I'm too busy, I'm an adult," and also they started to feel less relevant to me?
And I started to feel guilty for spending time on things that seemed not just "unproductive," whatever that means, but actively gross [laughs]. When you have to spend all your time justifying, like, it's okay to enjoy problematic media—you don't just get to say that and then keep doing it forever. That should be the first step to engaging with something. So there was this period where I was sort of out of the game, so to speak—that was bad, I'm sorry [CR laughs]. That wasn't intentional. Aw, man.
How did you discover Twine?
It was around 2012, and I think it was through Anna [Anthropy's] book [Rise of the Video Game Zinesters]. I forget how I even came across that. I think I had sort of started to get back into games around then, and was realizing that people were doing unexpected stuff with them. I somehow came across Anna's book, and she really promotes Twine in it, like, "Hey, you should make games about your pets, or family, or city, or a trip you took, or whatever, and here are a bunch of tools you can use to do that." She really pressed Twine as the most accessible. I think that's the first time I came across it, and I just started digging around online and found all these weird games people had made about fucked-up shit. And I was like: "Cool. This is good. Yes. I agree."
What do you think makes it so accessible?
The funny thing is, people think about Twine as a text-based tool, which is true, it makes games that are text-based, but actually working with it is super visual. And in ways it's less text-based than a lot of traditional game development. People think about programming and it's lines of text, right? And indecipherable blocks of code. That can be really intimidating, and I think having this visual interface, where you can see the path of your narrative as it's developing, is one of the biggest reasons for that. Having to go back and forth between blocks of code and the results—if you learn to do that, you start to be able to read that and see what it's going to do, but it's still a translation process. Whereas there's a very direct correlation between the way you see paths unfolding in the Twine editor and what your resulting piece of work is going to look like.
I'm a horrible perfectionist as a writer—I'll spend half an hour reworking a single line. So the fact that all the text is just lying there in front of you on the page can be horrifying.
I have that same experience. I could write the same piece in plain text or in Twine, and it would probably take me twice as long just in plain text. Having that blinking cursor and the blank page is really intimidating. So there's that other aspect—I feel like for people coming from an experience of wanting to do creative writing, it can be more accessible in that way too.
Do you feel like there are any parallels to Twine games in existing work? I guess I was thinking specifically about non-linearity, and so—Dhalgren, the Samuel R. Delany novel, which can be read as a giant loop, orFinnegans Wake. Do you know about The Clock, the Christian Marclay piece? It's 24 hours long, and he did a huge amount of research looking up films that display the time.
Oh, yeah, I know, yeah.
So it's a very close simulation of an actual day. There are smaller rhythms within it, and you can basically walk in at any point and watch it for whatever amount of time. I thought of that, and Maggie Nelson's Bluets ...
I mean, Twine didn't invent non-linearity in text. It didn't even invent interactive fiction or hypertext. Hypertext had its big moment in the '90s, as a concept, and then I guess people sort of lost interest in it, or it was not as revolutionary as people thought. And I think it's super important to look for those connections, especially in tech and games, because they're so tied up with tech—people have terrible memory and always think that they're on the cutting edge or that they're doing brand new things and it's obviously untrue. Even the idea of "personal games" or whatever is not new—before game-making became really expensive, most games were made by really small teams, or a couple of people, or even individual people.
And the whole idea of a game as a multi-million-dollar production is a relatively new idea, within the last 20 years or so. So a lot of this stuff is digging up these half-buried or cast-off ideas and polishing them or turning them into something new. Repurposing them. This is going in a weird Frankenstein direction, which is fine, I think. It's like we're digging up parts of these discarded corpses and sewing them into some horrible new monster [laughs].
I guess this is true of games in general, not just Twine games, but you mention that they can hide their own mechanics, which feels like something unique to games, in the same way that only comics allow you to totally control time, flipping backwards and forwards between images. Do you think people have really taken advantage of that until now, or...?
I think that is one of the defining characteristics of video games. There's this whole boring horrible debate [both laugh] of, like, "Is 'video games' one word or two?" It seems like pedantry and it mostly is, but it conceals this argument about whether or not video games are a subset of games and can be understood in the same way, or whether they're something different. And I think my answer is "yes," but I spell it with one word because it irritates more people. But I also do think that that is one of the special qualities of them, that you can have rules governing the experience that the player isn't aware of. So there are a few games in the books that do things like that—Naomi Clark's playthrough of Horse Master shows how that works. Like, a normal player wouldn't go through the code and learn which decisions actually matter, but it's really cool to be able to see that.
Yeah, her piece is a classic deconstruction—it's like when Roland Barthes describes how love stories work.
Right, yeah, except she's doing it with code. I think that's really interesting, that ability to hide things from players. And it can work in really innocuous ways, just the fact that people don't have to keep track of the rules is a basic feature of games, of all video games ... Even the idea of having a choice offered to you, there's this idea of reflective choices in games, where you have a choice offered to you and it may not actually have any mechanical effect or any effect on the narrative, but it's going to affect the way you think about the story going forward. But you don't know that it doesn't affect anything, right? And that's super cool to me.
You didn't have a Sega Saturn, did you?
I wish I hadn't sold mine. I was bewitched by Ocarina of Time. But there was this game on it called Dark Saviour, which is vaguely related to Landstalker on the [Sega] Genesis, and you're this bounty hunter dude, and in the opening of the game you're on a prison ship where this hideous monster is escaping. And depending on how fast it takes you to play through the brief sequence, that determines the entire shape of the story going forward.
Obviously you can look this up now on GameFAQs or whatever, but when I was a kid … we had go to the library to look at GameFAQs [laughs]. You would never have known. Imagine if you went to see a movie and the story completely changed depending on when you walked in.
Clue did that, right? They had three or four different endings and they just randomly showed different ones, which I kind of love.
How did you come up with the contributors for this book?
It was super hard. I didn't put out a call or anything, I kind of just exercised dictatorial power, which was pretty dope, actually. I combed through as many Twine games as I could—it's hard because there are hundreds at this point, maybe thousands. A lot of it was works I knew had a lot of impact over the past couple of years. Also, people have this idea of what interactive fiction looks like, or even what Twine games look like—there's this weird perception that Twine games are all about feelings, or marginalized people's feelings, and obviously that's a shitty view, because if you compare the percentage of those to the overall percentage of games it's still small.
I remember a year or two ago I saw somebody complaining, "Ohhhh, another story about a sad trans person." And I'm glad you feel like you can say that, because that means there are more. Probably you're just saying that because there are, like, three you've seen and that seems like a lot to you, but I wanted to show that people have done some unusual and weird things with it. If you compare a game like Horse Master to something like Player 2, the only thing they have in common really is that they're made with the same tool. They're radically different approaches.
I loved Riley MacLeod's piece, because it's mordantly funny and sad too—it reminded me of David Rakoff at times. But then there's the goofy Imogen Binnie one, like, Hey, I'm being a witch, and I'm growing ... what is it?
"Oh, I've got a wolf vagina that is constantly birthing and unbirthing wolves, that's cool."
And there are some where the affect is flat, almost. It kind of reminds me of Let's Plays. Are you into those at all?
I like the idea of them. I've seen people do really cool things with Let's Plays—I've known people who have taken boring big-name first-person-shooter games and used text and music to try and create a different narrative out of them. I think there are all kinds of interesting intertextual ideas there. But LP culture is really horrible and boring—it's turned into famous dudes shouting at video games, and getting famous for shouting at video games, and it's just like ... why? Obviously people are interested in that, and I like watching LPs sometimes—usually I watch them not because I want to actually know what a game is like but because I find them soothing, especially if someone has a really flat boring voice, which is maybe not their intended effect. I'm into the idea of them, but I'm not really into their actual manifestation in the world.
I was going to say, one of my roommates, she's into them, and ... it's the most obnoxious nerd voices shouting.
"Hey guys." Yeah, my friend Matthew Burns made a really good tweet today where he was like, "The Let's Play was invented by Dr. Harry Heyguys, which is why every LP starts with a symbolic invocation of his name." I know people who are into them—it's kind of cool, because they give people who don't want to invest all that time into learning how to play a FPS game access to them. I know a lot of people who get motion sickness playing games like that. But I hate that—I kind of hate celebrity culture in general, but I hate that a lot of the biggest celebrities in games culture are white men who shout at video games [both laugh].
How did you decide on that format of the text as commentary on itself?
I was talking to someone the other day about this, and they were like, "Oh yeah, it's like a Let's Play meets 33 1/3." And I was like, "That's such a good pitch, I wish I had that nine months ago." But it's still a good way to describe it, I feel like. I can't actually take credit for the idea, that was Jeanne [Thornton, of Instar Books], but I feel like it makes sense. Because I like the idea of LPs, but I've seen a couple of Let's Plays of Twine games and they don't make a whole lot of sense [laughs], because it's just someone clicking on links and talking over that. For me, if you're going to do commentary on Twine, text makes total sense. Also, I feel like it let us do a lot with this one book. I talked about this in in the intro, but it's the first book about Twine, and there are so many different things we could've done, but I feel like doing this let us avoid that question and have all these other narrative threads going on.
I also really liked the idea because I didn't do a call for submissions or anything, I just had the tyrannical power to say, "You! Play this game and write about it." Obviously I didn't ask people like that, but when I got the responses back, when they sent me their playthroughs, I was like, Oh my God, yes, this is exactly what I wanted. It was this terrifying power. Being an editor is a weird thrill. So when we decided on a format, I wanted to pick people who I thought had interesting things to say about these games, whether they have personal relationships with the people who made them or their brain is calibrated to approach this work in a certain way. So when I knew Sabbat was going to be in the book, I thought, "I want Imogen [Binnie] to write about this, because it's about weird witch shit and getting high and communism, and obviously she'll want to write about that."
One of the things I love about that format is that it really foregrounds ... subjectivity. And one of my favourite themes that emerges in the book is the way conventional games—you're not supposed to get hurt, you know? You're not allowed moments of weakness or vulnerability, which is what intimacy is, really.
Yeah, people stereotype Twine games as being sad-personal-feelings games, but if you look at the context that they're in, obviously people are going to be doing stuff about this kind of affect, because there isn't any of that in the space that they're working in. So it's totally reasonable to me that a lot of the works people would be creating are like that.
I think that's also why mainstream games are so bad with sex, because it's all, like, beep-boop puzzle solving or conversational branches, whereas sex as it actually exists is a ritual and a problem and a phenomenon. I hadn't played Cara Ellison's game [Sacrilege] until reading this and I thought she was so great at suggesting the whole social context of it. I know that you recently did a talk with her about sex in games ...
I think this is something that we both thought about a lot, because she had a column at Rock, Paper, Shotgun for a while that just ended a week or two ago called S.exe, and I've been thinking about this for a couple of years. We talked about a lot of Twine games, just because I feel like text—even putting aside the problem of power fantasies in mainstream games, I feel like it's still really creepy to see two rendered models awkwardly interfacing with each other. Part of that is the legacy of technological development, where we have refined models for ray casting and tracing projectile paths and impacts and collisions, but not really for the kinds of contact that you would need to model intimacy.
But that's not because those things are harder to model, it's because early on games decided that they were about hitting people with swords and shooting things, not about kissing or whatever [laughs]. Even watching Mass Effect cutscenes, which are like the state of the art in terms of sex in mainstream games, it's pretty awkward and weird. So a lot of the most interesting games about sex, I feel like, are being made with Twine, because they don't have that problem of trying to animate a body—because first you have to get beyond plausible and then you have to get to erotic, which is still apparently hard for people.
There's that great line in Cara's game—I think it's the opening line, maybe—"Turn, ravenously, towards the dancefloor." That is also a kind of power fantasy, but one that turns out to be fleeting in her game, and a far more interesting one to me than shooting a bunch of demons with your gun. There's also ... I forget who was talking about this recently, it might have been you ... but I really hate in a lot of games how, like Metroid Prime for example, there are these beautiful, evocative, florid environments, and then the story will just hustle you through them to the next thing instead of actually exploring. It made me think of what Aevee [Bee] says in her piece: "I basically hate narrative." And it's sad, because I feel similarly, and I think the structure of games could be such a good way to escape the prison of a conventional plot. But most of them are just haplessly trying to mimic one.
Totally. When you think about that, the ways that games have tried to mimic narrative, and then you look at the games that people have been making with Twine and other tools like that, and a lot of those people are women—I think Imogen brings this up in the Sabbat playthrough, but Joanna Russ' book How to Suppress Women's Writing talks about how traditional narrative structures fail women, and they don't really work, they're assumed to be these universal structures but they're not. So I think when you see women making games that don't fit that, that's totally unsurprising, and really important to me. There's this weird pushback, I feel like, even from other women in the industry, of saying "we need more women making games," and it's like, well, we are! They just don't look the way you think they should, because you've been immersed in this weird idea of what a narrative or a game should look like.
I know that the most recent game you made under that aegis, Minkomora, is not a Twine game, but do you feel like your work with Soft Chambers ties into this at all?
Yeah, that's not really about narratives at all, right? It's about eschewing narrative, about affect and space. And yes, as 3D tools are becoming more accessible, people are doing cool things just building spaces—where the game is, basically, you just occupy this space and move through it. It's not like you're going towards a goal. That's really exciting to me. And Metroid for me too, all the Metroid games I've played have these beautiful environments that I just want to linger in, and not run off to the next encounter with enemies or whatever. Actually, Metroid games were kind of the impetus for that whole project, because Super Metroid is burnt into my psyche, I guess because I played it so young. Getting back to my earliest experiences with games, they weren't around narrative, right? They were around these spaces that you can visit and live in for a little while, and have a weird experience there.
That's what makes Sonic the Hedgehog almost tragic to me [both laugh], these levels ...
You can't even see them at all, because you're moving so fast.
If you stop and look at them, you will literally die. That was my favourite thing about Zelda games of whatever variety, Wind Waker especially, these levels or towns inside of, like, a giant flower ... One of the things I loved about the game Aevee [Bee] did is that it's all about weird old creature designs. Were you into that as a kid?
I never played the games that she was referencing, but I think there was this—I just made this game called Minkomora with my friend Joni Kittaka, and the whole premise of that game was the experience of playing a game as a kid and having this disjuncture between the thing that's represented in the game world and how it's represented outside of that. That disjuncture doesn't exist as much anymore, because games have become more representative or whatever, but that was a lot of the allure, right? Projecting onto these avatars and objects. That's what Aevee's whole game is about, obsessing over this one figure. I think I totally did that with other characters. Like, I became really obsessed with Metroids for a while. Which maybe is a little Freudian.
Well, that whole game is like—how do you get new abilities? You kneel before this avian monk creature.
[laughs] Yeah, Metroids are just vampires, I guess—they're penetrating but also enveloping.
Aevee made me wonder: Have you ever played Phantasy Star IV?
The creatures in that game, by 16-bit standards, they're really fleshy. It was like Cronenberg before I knew who Cronenberg was. There's this one enemy I remember called Piercer, one of whose shoulders is a sort of swollen pustule-brain, and the other one is a big scything claw. And I was not nearly that good, but that was a main form of creativity when I was a kid, designing fake video game enemies. Like cute Sonic the Hedgehog Badniks.
Yeah, totally! I was super into those, or Doctor Robotnik contraptions.
Though those games kind of elide the terrifying aspect of a biological critter trapped inside a robotic body.
"Oh, I guess there's a brain-scythe monster attacking us, okay."
I wanted to ask about resistance to Twine creators, not so much from Gamergate people, because it's—
—it's horrible and boring.
Yeah, they're like the saddest fascist group that ever existed.
I was thinking of subtler pushback—people who belittle them as not being "serious" games.
I think that comes from a few places. On the one hand you have people who say "these don't look like games," which is an aesthetic judgment that they don't have graphics or whatever. And that's pretty easy to dismiss, because text-based games are not new [laughs]. But there's also this other strain of—I don't know what to call them. I think this is increasingly rare, but there are people who are primarily interested in video games for their "game" qualities—how they are a series of rules that govern interactions. And if you're the kind of person who's really interested in games, and you define games as played by one or more people and there's some kind of competition involved, there's skill and challenge, then a lot of Twine game don't fit that description. I think that's becoming rarer. Even establishment design people, who are into video games as just one manifestation of the idea of games, are realizing that it's a really limiting perspective and that it's much more useful to have this broad sense of interactivity.
I think there has been this sense in the last couple of years that no one actually cares what a game is. Those arguments around "are Twine games games?" haven't been coming up as much. I think people just got exhausted. It's weird, because a lot of this stuff is coming from people who grew up with games and are saying, "I want to make things now." The only reason that they're called video games or that [creators] are making them in a video games community is out of convenience. That space right now is full of all these different things that don't really have any relation to one another, and only exist together because of tradition or history. And I think at some point there is going to be more of a splintering, people realizing, "Maybe if I'm interested in really affective interactive fiction, that doesn't actually have much to do with intense roguelike action RPGs." Which maybe could be fun too, but they're not really the same thing, and it's weird that we're trying to match all of this under one label. But for now I guess it all awkwardly or happily coexists.