Artists and Hackers

A Podcast On Art, Code and Community

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May 4th, 2022

Ep. 13 - Art Tools: Designing Interactive Fiction with Twine

Summary

Transcript

Chris Klimas is the original creator of Twine, a popular open source expanded toolset for creating branching narratives and interactive experimental stories and game. He talks about its creation, community and where it's going next.

Tags:

Tools
Game Engines
Worldbuilding

Art Tools are our series of mini episodes with the creators of innovative and experimental software and hardware tools for creative expression.

Twine is a tool for creating branching narratives or what some people call Choose Your Own Adventure style games. Originally created in 2009, Twine allows creators to make interactive stories, poems, text games or experimental prose. Twine is free and open source software that runs in a web browser or downloaded as an application, and while most Twine projects are text-only, some feature sound and images. At this point, there are tens of thousands of games, artworks and projects made with Twine, and these works are presented on websites, shared on the game distribution platform Itch.io or even shown in museums like the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Over its 13 years of existence Twine’s been extended in many different directions, with themes and example code. And it’s really easy to get started. Where other interactive fiction software is created solely with text and code, Twine features a visual design tool that feels as easy as creating an email. We talked to Twine’s creator Chris Klimas to find out more about its history and current development and community.


Chris Klimas
Chris Klimas
image description: A black and white headshot of Chris Klimas. Chris is a white man with short hair, metal frame glasses and upturned smiling mouth. He is wearing a white shirt under a black sweatshirt.

Guests

Chris Klimas is a Baltimore-based web developer, game designer, and writer that finds the intersection of words and interactivity irresistible. He created Twine and now work on it with a group of brilliant people all over the world. He’s also a principal at Unmapped Path, a studio he co-founded that creates digital interactive narratives.

Credits

Our audio production is by Max Ludlow. Episode coordination and web design by Caleb Stone.

Our music on today’s episode is Helicopter by Metre, High-rise by Xylo-Ziko, and Creepers by Shaolin Dub.

Additional Resources

Art Tools: Designing Interactive Fiction with Twine

Lee Tusman
You’re listening to Artists and Hackers, a podcast on art, code and community and new digital tools of creation. We talk to programmers, artists, poets, musicians, botmakers, researchers, educators and designers in an effort to critically look at online art making and the history of technology and the internet. We’re interested in where we’ve been and speculative ideas on the future. I’m your host Lee Tusman.

Twine is a tool for creating branching narratives or what some people call Choose Your Own Adventure games. Originally created in 2009, Twine allows creators to make interactive stories, poems, text games or experimental prose. Twine is free and open source software that runs in a web browser or downloaded as an application, and while most Twine projects are text-only, some feature sound and images. At this point, there are tens of thousands of games, artworks and projects made with Twine, and these works are presented on websites, shared on the game distribution platform Itch.io or even shown in museums like the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Originally created by Chris Klimas in 2009, Twine’s been extended in many different directions, with themes and example code and it’s really easy to get started. Where other interactive fiction software is created solely with text and code, Twine features a visual design tool that feels as easy as creating an email. I sat down with Twine’s creator Chris Klimas to find out more about its history and current development and community.

Chris Klimas
I was always writing stories coming up with ideas and stuff like that all through sort of pretty pretty much as long as I can remember really, and so specifically I think there was a particular thread in my own development I guess where I got really interested in text adventures like the kind of games that were built by infocom where you would sort of describe a world. You would type in what your character would do next and it would respond to you and stuff like that.

Lee
And how did that come together where you decided to create Twine originally?

Chris
So Twine was really like one experiment among like five or six at least. It was sort of, it stemmed from, I had been at that point, I had been creating a couple text adventures myself and released them on the internet. I just found after a while like I couldn’t put my finger on why? But I found that ohe particular affordances of text adventures, this idea of you type in a command and you pick things up and you move them around and stuff like that: that part wasn’t really working for me creatively. There’s nothing wrong with that medium and that kind of game at all, but it wasn’t really something, it wasn’t clicking for me anymore. And so I knew whatever I still wanted to continue to work with text primarily but I didn’t know exactly what it was or what form I wanted that to be in. And so I tried a bunch of different things. The thing that kind of clicked for me was a piece of software called TiddlyWiki which was a very strange idea. It was the idea of a webpage that you download to your computer that you open up your browser, you click a save button inside that webpage, and it would change. It would save that change to your computer, which is like not how web browsers are supposed to work at all, right? Like, that’s a security issue. You can’t do it anymore. But you could back then. And the nice thing about it was it was basically let you build these organic kind of story structures and I really liked that aspect of it. The part that leaned a little bit harder into the storytelling and a little bit less into the game mechanics aspect of it. Cause that’s what I think I was trying to figure out. I was trying to figure out, I want to tell a story. Not so much I want to build an interactive game, at least at that point. I really wanted to tell a story. I wanted it to be interactive in some shape or form but not maybe as mechanic heavy as like a quote unquote video game or something like that. Anyways, I really liked working with TiddlyWiki. But I found it sort of tricky at the same time. It was sort of like designing a labyrinth while you’re inside of it. It’s really easy to get lost and forget where was that passage, a piece of text that I wrote it like over there, you have to click around and find it. I mean there’s a search in there but even so it was confusing and so I was trying to think of ways to make that process easier for myself. And so there were a couple of iterations before Twine that were just plain text and kind of followed a traditional compiler kind of metaphor. Those were good but it didn’t really quite one hundred percent hit the mark. I think it was really building Twine and taking it into this you know graphical interface that really I think it all kind of made sense to me.

Lee
I mean I’m thinking about, you know one of the things I love about Twine is though even even though it is a tool for making kind of branching choose-your-own-adventure style games, since it’s visual based it creates a live map showing you the various routes through your interactive story. This makes me think a little bit about, you were talking about in Infocom text adventure games in the 80s. It makes me think about the hand drawn maps people used to make to track where they were inside these kind of story games and I’m curious how that came about for you to to make Twine visual.

Chris
I think it was just experimentation. It wasn’t like I woke up one day and was like this is the way to do it. Part of it was that also I was doing a master’s degree in user interface interaction design. A lot of the things that I was doing there like I was like I want to apply what I’m learning here to this idea. I want to take my idea and make it easier to use. And so that’s sort of I guess, that’s the little extra push that made it happen for me, that made the idea crystallize. I really want to emphasize it was really a process of experimentation to even make the tool and I was not convinced even necessarily when version one happened that I had figured it all out. I guess that’s the nature of open source and all those kinds of things anyway. But it was just to me like an experiment.

Lee
Yeah, so you just mentioned Twine is open source and I guess I’m thinking a little bit about it as an ecosystem of software. Can you say a little bit about what that entails and the community that works on it now?

Chris
So there’s a small nucleus I would say of people who work on Twine and Twine-adjacent things. The one thing about the technical design of Twine that’s not necessarily immediately apparent is that the editor is very strongly decoupled from what plays your game when you open it in a web browser when you hit the play button. Those are two completely different pieces of software and when Twine first kind of started out I worked on both sides of that equation like the editor and the runtime and what kind of emerged over time was that I just didn’t have the space and time to really maintain both of those sides. And so other people in the community have stepped up and built additional runtimes for Twine. We call them story formats but they’re basically just sort of, they’re kind of like mini engines, mini game engines almost because they all represent different, you know, different ways of building a game. They’re all centered around the idea of hypertext but how they approach that varies quite a lot. And so that’s sort of the next sort of layer outward of the onion as it were and of course there’s a whole other huge community of people. Like there’s a subreddit, there’s a discord, all kinds of communities, online communities that kind of are dedicated to Twine both like helping people out when they’re offering but also playing games and talking about them and stuff like that.

Lee
I think I first learned about Twine from Anna Anthropy’s book Rise of the Video Game Zinesters and I’m curious if you have suggestions for other resources for people that want to learn how to use twine and make their own games or their own stories actually? And maybe that’s a good question too: Do you prefer the word… sounds like… like what do you or how do you describe what’s made with Twine? Would you call it a…?

Chris
I Intentionally make it as confusing as possible! Like I probably interchangeably call them games and stories, not really consciously either. And so depression quest was built in Twine. It’s a really good game and it’s really worth playing. But there was this sort of thread of attack almost that said like, oh, Depression Quest isn’t really a game because anybody, like that was the most appalling part or I don’t even know what the word is for it where people are saying like, oh, it’s so easy to make a game with Twine, like these aren’t really games. Anybody can do it. I’m like, why are you saying this as if it’s like a negative? It was this idea of like, oh making video games has to be hard, has to be challenging, has to be something that people with STEM backgrounds need to, can only do, and things like that which I am completely opposed to of course

Lee
Can you say a little bit about the community that is using twine to make games and stories and weird things?

Chris
That’s the funny part about being an open source creator I would actually say. I have a window into that community. For my own mental health sometimes I don’t fully engage with that community at all and everybody in it because it would be just, it’s just overwhelming. Everybody tends to have an opinion about what Twine does right, what it does wrong, how it should be improved, and stuff like that. And there’s only so much you can kind of do, I feel like, or can handle with that. Because it’s just, it’s really easy to take it personally. It’s really easy when people are unhappy with Twine to be like, oh I did a bad job. They don’t like me. Or you know, Twine crashes and they lose all their work. That’s heartbreaking. And so I have to keep a little bit of a distance and so just in general that’s the, I think that’s just the nature of the beast is there’s only a certain part of it that I’m really witness to. I sit on the Discord or a Discord anyway, and so I kind of listen in on discussions. I don’t really participate that much. Same thing with the Subreddit and so forth, and so the funny part to me is I’m really actually, I feel like when people ask me tell about the community I feel like I’m not necessarily that well-equipped or well I don’t, I don’t have that much ground to stand on because I see this little part of it. But I think there are parts of it that I’m just not even aware of. And so to try to characterize it is really really hard. But it’s really, I guess the thing in general, the patterns I see are that there are, it is for sure made up of quite a lot of people who are first getting started making games or working with interactive things, building interactive things. And they all have, at least a lot of the people that I’ve encountered, have really big visions of things they want to build. And so it can be frustrating for them when it’s not easy to fulfill that vision. It can also be really, really satisfying when they figure it out or when it does sort of meet their needs and they’re able to kind of carry this stuff out. But to say what kinds of games the people make, what kind of stories, and stuff like that, that’s really hard. Because it’s more like it’s not exactly a medium unto itself. But it is a pretty blank canvas.

Lee
Twine, you know one version of Twine that runs in the browser is at twinery.org and one of the things that’s great about going there is not only can you just jump into and start using Twine and there’s documentation and links to resources. But there’s always a random sampling of stories and games that have been made with Twine. So right now I’m looking on the front page and there’s Death by Powerpoint by Jack Welch, Anamalia by Ian Michael Waddell, Horizon Chapter One by Storysmash, and Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World by Jedediah Berry. And I love that each time I kind of reload this page or visit there’ll be different things up there to check out.

Chris
Yeah, those listings come from a free resource called the interactive fiction database and folks can list their own works there. So it just pulls a sprinkling of stuff or sprinkling of games that were built with Twine there.

Lee
So Twine’s been around since 2009. Here it is 2022. Any thoughts on Twine’s future or long term goals?

Chris
Yeah I think that there are a couple of gaps that exist with Twine. This is the hard part is that because working on Twine isn’t my full time job, my biggest constraint, I suppose my biggest constraint is money because although I have a Patreon, I don’t like pull down a salary per se or anything like that. But I feel like my biggest constraint is actually time and so it’s kind of a little, it’s just tough because I think about things that I would like to do with Twine. But then I think wow that’s going to take probably years to actually accomplish and so it can be kind of daunting. Like the biggest things that I’d like trying to expand on are its ability to or the ability for people to collaborate using it because it came from the world of 2009, and the world where the cloud is it definitely existed in 2009 but it’s not such a dominant paradigm I guess. But that’s for sure a big need that people ask for is they want to be able to collaborate. It just makes sense right? Video game making in particular is a really collaborative thing. Like it’s very rare that people make games entirely by themselves. But obviously it does happen but it’s not the usual case. And so like that’s this technical stuff that I think of as like what is the future of Twine? Where should it go? And things like that. But apart from that I think it is I’m hoping I guess, it seems like it’s not really my place to pronounce it this way. But I think that it feels like Twine is migrating or moving into direction where it is sort of the, I wouldn’t say default. But it is sort of like when people say I want to build an interactive story, a text-based story, it is kind of like an obvious choice. I Guess that’s maybe my humble way to put it. It’s the obvious choice for making an interactive story. A text based story. And that doesn’t mean that it’s the best choice and the most full featured or anything like that. But it’s a good starting place. I Guess that’s even a better way to put it is that it can be a good starting place for people and I think that’s something that won’t change. I think that seems to be like a kind of enduring thing or enduring enduring aspect about Twine.

Lee
You’re listening to Artists and Hackers: art tools. Our guest today is Chris Klimas, the original creator of Twine, a web-based and downloadable tool for creating branching narratives, text adventures and more. We have a transcript of this episode, links to Twine resources, and all of our past episodes at artistsandhackers.org. Our audio engineer is Max Ludlow. Design by Caleb Stone. My name is Lee Tusman. Our audio for this episode is Helicopter by Metre. High rise by Xylo-Ziko, and Creepers by Shaolin Dub. We’re on twitter at artistshacking, instagram at artistsandhackers, and we have a newsletter, RSS feed, and more resources on our website artistsandhackers.org.

Stay tuned for season 2, presented with the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law and Policy where we go deep into the ecosystem of how arts, culture and technology projects are created and shared, looking at things like how the law supports or limits ideas of collective ownership, and how creators try to hack it. We look at things like creative commons, public domain, fair use and use labels . If you liked this episode, please let a friend know, and we’d appreciate if you could leave a review on your favorite podcasting app. Thanks.

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