A conversation with a Twine game
The following is a book extract from Videogames for Humans, a book that puts Twine authors, literary writers, and game critics into conversation with one another’s work. It's published by Instar Books, and edited by artist and game designer merritt kopas.
a game by Winter Lake
played by eva problems
Two years ago, in the summer of 2012, I wasn’t even a girl yet. I was living in a nice old apartment with my girlfriend at the time, I had a job, I was in between school semesters, I did things with friends. Life was good just often enough that I could tell myself it was working. Life was bad just often enough that it didn’t completely fall apart for a while.
Summer was a good time, though. We would all get together at the apartment for some tabletops every other week or so and shoot the shit when we were done. One of these weeks, while everyone was hanging out, I checked Winter Lake’s site to see if maybe monster killers was going to come off hiatus. I had followed her work since the start of demon planet, ages ago, and I always recommended it to my friends, but it never seemed to grip them like it did me. I couldn’t really explain why it was so important and so influential to me.
Well, monster killers was dead and wasn’t coming back anytime soon, but there was something else there.
This hallways looks very clean. Here’s the android sweeper does its job polish the white tile. Closer inspection, you seeing it’s clear plastic on top the white tile. Well, the red music coming out down the hall with a balmy scent breeze like bath oils, relaxation steam, lotion drinks, jelly pool. How long you been on this space station, long enough lol. Well, you found some good planets today, chicken dinner waiting back in your Quarters.
Return to Quarters.
Unleash Rat Chaos.
The elegant Sugarcane theme, so familiar now, was something strange and exotic. I had never seen a Twine before. But there was her art, seemingly crude, effortless, unconcerned with proper anatomy or perspective, but compelling, dynamic, and surely the product of considerable labor, and there was her writing, purposefully stilted, jarring, distant but charming like a bad translation of some obscure third party RPG for some forgotten console, and it welcomed me into this new format. I started reading, briefly, then stopped, told everyone about it, started over, started reading it out loud.
This isn’t that playthrough, but I’ll show you what I read. I’ll show you rat chaos.
> unleash rat chaos
The vast, cold dining hall is filled with chattering species who scrape their forks on metal discs and spread the word of Gossip: that Captain chose to unleash Rat Chaos.
Now they’re drinking all their juice up, well, who can blame them.
The way they designed this, you climb up the big trapezoid and the tables are up there. That’s where you sit when you eat. Then the big yellow cylinders are the trash, and you have to throw out your trash and put the tray away by yourself.
Enter the White Corridor
Unleash more Rat Chaos
This is such a good passage. I’m probably gonna be saying that a lot. The fact that she’s established the setting as this vague and surreal space station going out and looking for new planets, and you’re the captain, and there are countless fantastic species never before imagined under your command, and what Winter chooses to show you out of all of this are the specific dreary mechanics of what you would do in the dining hall when you came in to get a meal. That’s such a good joke, and when you’re feeling like shit but you don’t know why because everything around you is fine and wonderful, that’s poignant as hell.
Let’s back off a little from rat chaos for a bit. What happens when you don’t unleash rat chaos is just as important and illuminating, in its own way, as what happens when you do.
> Enter the White Corridor
Down the White Corridor in your little golf kart. It suddenly overturns, pinning you under its weight, but wait, the fun balloons burst. The entire cockpit is rapidly filling with water. You remember your training and refuse to breathe it, taking in gulps of air instead, but the air is disappearing because the cockpit is filling with water. The flare gun in your pocket is now damp and useless. The book of matches becomes damp and useless. The revolver is soaked with water (uesless.) Your vintage magazines have been ruined. Your hair and skin have become damp and useless.
I discarded all the useless items for you.
Her jokes are so bleak and so good and I love them. I don’t want to focus on the humor too much, though. It’s a big part of what makes her stuff so enjoyable, but it’s not the only thing that makes it good, and no one should have to be relegated to just “the funny one.” That kills you.
I’ll say that the humor is great because of where it comes from and who it’s meant for and what it says about things we’ve gone through when we’re feeling crushed and fucked up and like we can’t even move. We try to repeat things just because it worked once and it might work again, but it’s too different, or you can’t get it right, or you’ve burned out on it. We try to get help but the structure that help comes in is all wrong and does more harm than good before you can even stop it.
> flooded cockpit
You are drowning. You must exit the cockpit within 2 minutes, but which exit?
Swim North to the Grand Ballroom, its entry doors blocked by collapsed marble statuary.
Swim East to the Kitchen, guarded by Riddling Hydra.
Swim Southwest to Haunted Cemetery.
Swim West to Jungle Chaos.
Well, we fucked up this time. It’s a pretty fatalistic Twine sometimes. It gives you plenty of options but they just end up leading to the same place. It’s great.
> Jungle Chaos
Buddy, this isn’t “Jungle Chaos,” this is Rat Chaos. If you think Jungle Chaos is gonna save you here, it won’t.
However, the fairies have turned you into a water-baby.
For the characters in the Twine, nebulous as they are, it’s better to stick to routine, to avoid introspection, to avoid change. It lets them tell themselves they got the good end without actually growing in any way. Where does it leave us as the readers, the players? Well, pretty good in a way because it’s still enjoyable, but that’s beside the point. Let’s go back to when we first unleashed Rat Chaos.
This time, we’re gonna do things differently. This is Rat Chaos, and by god, we are going to unleash as much Rat Chaos as physically possible.
> Unleash more Rat Chaos
“Yes...yes, Captain, can you hear me....but no...you are no Space Ship Captain...Computer User, I know your soul. I know about it. How you managed to unleash this much Rat Chaos...I can not guess. But we get ahead of our selfs. First, the formal introductions. I am New Rat City, Avatar of Rats. And your name? (SAY NAME OUT LOUD)
...aaaah, what an interesting name. Well, [YOUR NAME,] you are ready for more responsibility. Journey with me to Planet of Rat.”
I want to do it.
Take me to Planet of Rat.
I have always wanted to do this.
Only you can take me there.
but you’re a rat
I love New Rat City. This page was a delight to read out loud to my friends back in that summer.
I’m ready for the Planet of Rat. Are you ready?
> I have always wanted to do this
New Rat City needs a lot of love. Help New Rat City with his needs.
“I’m getting lots of exercise.”
“I would like you to construct a large, pink cube.”
“I feel fucking miserable.”
Feed NRC a pellet
Construct large, pink cube
“Do you need to talk?”
With this adoption of a new layer of video game artifice, we are poised on the precipice of shit getting real. We could tend to NRC’s immediate physical needs, certainly, and maybe NRC would think everything was great. Maybe we’d be great. Maybe we could keep grinding away in awful trajectories because they hadn’t killed us yet and probably wouldn’t for a while if we kept our basic needs met.
We’re not going to do that, though. I needed to talk but didn’t know how on that summer afternoon in the living room with my friends. I didn’t know what I would even talk about. There was still some distance inside me that felt the need to retreat onto my computer in the midst of familiar company, the only difference was that time I found something there I wanted to share.
> “Do you need to talk?”
“I feel like I make everyone uncomfortable. I feel like I’m making you uncomfortable right now. I look at people the wrong way. I react the wrong way. I’m never myself. I get nervous and then I’m being puppeteered by this awful thing. My face freezes up. I can track back to when I was 12? 13? That was a conscious choice, I would try to just stop emoting. If I laughed, if I smiled, it was a sign of weakness. I was used to being attacked. Not physically, after a while, just emotionally. It’s almost better the other way, when you’re small, when some kid has a problem and they try to beat your ass, so you beat them back, harder. Then you get punished. They punish both of you, because they’re cowards. Those kids wise up, they realize they don’t have to go through all that. They just call you a faggot, and they watch what happens when that hits you, completes a circuit with the awareness inside that there are people called faggots, and you know who they are, and you know you’re one of them, and these guys must be able to tell somehow. No Internet to read, no one to talk to, the entire universe is you and your parents and the TV and the Nintendo.”
Ride dune buggy to:
I didn’t have it this bad. I lucked out in a lot of ways and I continue to luck out, and I try to enjoy that as much as I can and keep the feeling like consequences will catch up to me to a minimum. But even at the time, enough of this page resonated with me that this was hard to read.
Sometimes when you’re writing something and just want to get it all out you realize you’re getting too vulnerable. Sometimes you back off, sometimes you keep going, sometimes you throw in a little winking thing for plausible deniability, or like a tether to the distance you’re used to. Sometimes you need that.
> PARTS DEPOT
“So I hated myself, created this second self to exist in my place. He wanted shitty, unhealthy things. He was just trying to execute his cultural program. He was an android. The people who knew him think I’m being too harsh, or that I’m overreacting. They don’t know what it was like. This thing with my face trying to live my life for me. My real self like this tiny fetal entity, incapable of growing. It wasn’t just because of teasing, you could guess as much. When areas of your mind are radioactive zones you have to stay out of, it’s impossible to build an identity.”
You have 8000 gold
SOLAR SHIELD : “It didn’t help that I was chronically physically ill,”
FUSION PAK : “felt disgusting, hated my body to the point that I didn’t want to leave the house,”
GHOST FOOD : “and stayed this way well into my 20s.
I think my voice broke reading this one. That would be a good story, even if it might not be true. The mask was probably a little too secure, but this gave it a good shake. I could tell myself this wasn’t about me—and it’s not, it’s not about me—but all the same it’s about someone who’s a lot like me in a lot of ways—but I started reading it to my friends because of the jokes, and I knew this wasn’t a joke anymore.
I know my voice would break if I read it to someone these days.
> GHOST FOOD
“Creeping forward now, finally, but the god damn regret. All those years. Of course you can’t do that to yourself, it’s just more shame. Shame on top of shame. Shame for feeling ashamed. Shame for feeling ashamed for feeling ashamed. A life dominated by shame and fear. If fear is ignorance, maybe shame is fear of the self. It always came back to the same idea: ‘everyone is thinking the worst possible thing about me, and maybe they’re right.’ Well of course they fucking weren’t, but that’s how it feels when the bottom falls out and you start spiraling. The later you interrupt that, the harder you crash.”
I wasn’t. I was floundering, and it was all the worse because I couldn’t even see what I was floundering in. I didn’t want to think about anything, but Rat Chaos forced me to, in a way. It showed me that in some ways, I wasn’t alone. That there was a deeper aspect to why Winter Lake’s art and writing resonated with me so much.
> DATA PIT
(New Rat City is distracted by text message)
(New Rat City looks up from phone)
“What? Oh. I don’t know.”
(New Rat City stares out the window, at nothing.)
It’s not a comfortable ending, or a neat one, because we don’t get those—and because it shouldn’t be an ending. It’s a way to a new beginning, or a way to keep going if you’ve already started. We live our lives, we figure out gender shit, we do frivolous little things because we can now. We figure out how we’re hurting, we address it, we fix it if it’s in our power, and we move on as best we can.
Part of how I did that was through Twine, so that’s what Twine means to me. I couldn’t have asked for a better or more meaningful or more personally resonant piece to introduce me to Twine than Winter Lake’s Rat Chaos.
(Extracted from Videogames for Humans)