Twine, the Poetics of Gaming, and the Game of Poetry

Last summer, a close friend of mine, an indie game developer, told me about something called “Twine.” Twine is a remarkable, free program which makes it easy to write text-based, choose-your-own-adventure style — games? — stories? — prose-poems? Each word seems partly right. What makes the program so exhilarating is that it allows people who are more familiar with creative writing than coding to produce narratives in a new, interactive form, one with new constraints, limitations, and possibilities. Scrolling through the impressive repository of Twine games on suggests the versatility of the medium: authors have created powerful games about social justice, identity, sexuality and body positivity, used the form to critique the conventions of traditional gaming, and produced works that channel interactive weirdness into a delirious kind of beauty.

Two of my favourites are Tower of the Blood Lord and Mastaba Snoopy. The former comes from Michael Lutz, who describes himself on his blog as follows: “I am a graduate student in English literature at a midwestern university.  Principally my interests are Shakespeare and early modern drama, and historical and contemporary theories of (post)humanism.” As an early modernist myself, I was excited to learn that this excellent piece came from one of our own. Without giving too much away*, the game begins with a text-based reconstruction of the beginning of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, but, if a player explores the stock landscapes of barracks and storerooms diligently enough, they will find themselves on an altogether different quest – an exquisitely-written tale incorporating fantasy-fiction courtly intrigue, Lovecraftian horror, confessional monologue, and even a sweet and totally unexpected love story with a bashful amphibian. At the end of the game, one is jettisoned back out into Call of Duty, which naturally seems paltry by comparison.

Mastaba Snoopy, the work of gods17, operates on the brilliant conceit of a horrific alien world created by a metastasizing sentient entity who erroneously takes a Peanuts book to be a manual for “proper protocol for interaction with the human world.” gods17 writes with a confident poetic seriousness (different from mere “deadpan,” which is always itching for the joke to be recognized) that resembles a Borges or a Barthelme story :

“End result: There exists an infinite, nonsensical world with all locations, living things, and social interaction based on half-remembered dreams.

Thousands of years to fester and the memory is going bad, the original book having been long since lost in the constant churning reshaping. This new, living world has been dying for millenia.”

This world should remind us of all text, all narrative or poetic “reshaping.”** Walter Benjamin’s well-known formulation that “[t]he work is the death mask of its conception” is entirely applicable here; we create new poetic life out of the death-vapours of inspirations we no longer really remember. That which Mastaba Snoopy describes – a voracious consciousness that reworks everything it can into a blossoming, rotting organic whole – is also what it effects in the world. After reading/playing, I immediately wanted to write something of my own.

Both Tower of the Blood Lord and Mastaba Snoopy are works which engender more works.

I do not want to belabour the semantic distinctions between “games” and “poems” too much today, but I do at least want to suggest that the collapse of the two terms need not be bad thing, and that it has a longer precedent than we might think. Naturally a contrary, more traditional view exists. T.S. Eliot, writing of Milton’s style, states, “I can enjoy the roll of [there follows nine lines of Milton’s verse] and the rest of it, but I feel that this is not serious poetry, not poetry fully occupied about its business, but rather a solemn game” (264). Gamey poetry, for Eliot, presumably fails to resonate at some crucial emotional or intellectual level, and simply “rolls.”

I am not sure what Eliot would make of the Elizabethan poet Arthur Gorges’ poem, “Her Face.” Jorie Graham very perceptively includes it in her Earth Took of Earth anthology, and I believe it deserves to be widely known. I quote the first “two” “stanzas” to give a sense of its structure:

Her face          Her tongue       Her wit
so fair             so sweet          so sharp
first bent         then drew         then hit
mine eye         mine ear          my heart
Mine eye         Mine ear          My heart
to like             to learn            to love
her face          her tongue       her wit
doth lead         doth teach       doth move

One may read left to right, as usual. One may also read each of the three columns independently. Even more excitingly, one can read only the pairs of words one wants to use, and build an entirely new poem. This poem is a game in the fullest sense, a kind of textual LEGO. Yet I am nevertheless convinced of its seriousness. To play “Her Face” is to learn how to write poems of its kind (specifically, Elizabethan love-lyrics) and to realize the put-togetherness of all verse, all utterance. But to play is also to learn to be at ease with such assembledness. There is no reason why a reader cannot extract something that resonates with them emotionally from the constituent parts Gorges provides for us.

* I could very well devote another post to the relationship of the Twine game to notions of narrative surprise, “spoilers,” and replayability, and whether this relationship inhibits (or should inhibit) critical practice.

** Is it especially or distinctively true of digital text?


2 thoughts on “Twine, the Poetics of Gaming, and the Game of Poetry

  1. Geoffrey,
    It’s safe to say your post has me salivating profusely for our seminar on “Interface Design” this week, because at the crux of your post lies the question of how the reader disrupts/augments/supplements/expands the relationship between author and text–or, perhaps, how the text changes both tangibly and intangibly in the hands of the reader ( and in an especially tangible way in terms of “Twine”). But, while a poem like “Her Face” opens up the poetry to the whims, desires, and experiences of the reader, arguably demonstrating the paradoxically universal and unique nature of love, there’s danger in accepting the “seriousness” of a poem like this–one which I take to be more sardonic and trivializing, or at least potentially mobilized as such by detractors.
    Likewise, Mastaba Snoopy and similar “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories/games/prose-poems seem to intoxicate us with the prospect of endless permutations and actualized reader agency; however, we need to acknowledge the irony inherent in choosing *your own* adventure from a quantifiable and limited authorial pool to properly gauge the risk and reward of projects like this.
    Still, you raise the interesting and astute point that the new e-text interface allows even the technologically inept to create digitized art. While each author creates only a few possible trajectories and outcomes with which to interact, a story never really dies if it inspires players to become developers. The most exciting part is not, as I initially thought, the new mediation of reader between text and author, or perhaps the mediation of text-as-interface between author and reader, but the truly limitless potential of author/reader lineage and the expansion of literature-as-play/art/gaming.

  2. When I refer to the poem’s seriousness I’m imagining a kind of dialectical relationship between both of the qualities you ascribe to it – the “paradoxically universal and unique nature of love” on one hand, and the “sardonic and trivializing” on the other. The poem offers the possibility of sincerity amidst the silliness.

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