Hypersexed Hypertext: Porpentine and the Twine text game revolution

Cara Ellison at

Richard Hofmeier's graffiti on his Cart Life stand at the IGF Pavilion, GDC 2013

Porpentine is a game designer, writer, and curator for freeindiegam.es. She primarily makes Twine games, which are choose your own adventure style games that are accessible, short, and welcoming. You can play them in a browser on your lunchbreak with some headphones on.

But in my mind Porpentine looks like a hot cyberpunk cyborg, eyes aglow, a textual goddess alight with burning fluorescent punctuation. She does not walk anywhere: she glides, riffing in smeared lipstick, sly grin, sylph-like limbs; those she touches have typography bleed up their arms and flash into their bursting hearts. I am Molly from Neuromancer interfacing with her as I listen to percussive pop beats, type questions to her in IM. Gchat is now an early 90s cyberconduit to the Porpentine mainframe. She’s a queer tranarchafeminist, a cyberqueen, a Twine weaver, and so many other things besides. Her tendrils stroke the internet, provoking.

Cyberqueen cover

The ‘Twine revolution’ has roots in the game developer Anna Anthropy’s book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form, where Anthropy advocates small personal works made about subjects not traditionally addressed by the largely male-dominated big money games industry. Also used by Anthropy to make games, Twine is a very simple text game engine that generates html-based files. They are easy to make, and easy to publish, but much less easy to make interesting or fun, and require a skilled dialogue writer to make them engaging. Daphny David, Anna Anthropy’s PR, had a few things to say about Porpentine’s work with Twine games and why they are special.

“She fucking breaks Twine apart,” Daphny writes. “Every time I play her games I’m like WHOA I DIDN’T KNOW TWINE COULD DO THAT.” Porpentine’s transparency in her working methods, openness about her inspirations and the help she has received are dramatically different from the working practices of high budget commercial works. “Everyone’s telling everyone what tools they're using and building each other up instead of hiding ‘trade secrets'," says Daphny. "There’s no profit to be made, so theres no ‘product’ to protect. It’s a really big fucking orgy of creativity and Porp and Anna are making it flow.”

Porpentine's newest game made me so happy I cried.

MAINFRAME LOG ON

SUBJECT: CARACHAN1.

GOING HOT

TEXT INPUT: TWEET USER “PORPENTINE”...........

Carachan1: I loved your game ‘Hypertext’.

TEXT INCOMING: GCHAT

Porpentine: What is ‘Hypertext’?

Carachan1: http://aliendovecote.com/uploads/twine/powerful.html that not its name? THIS MADE ME SO HAPPY. THIS GAME. I LOVE YOU.

Porpentine: ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL OF MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL.

ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL OF MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL: The actual title was so much better. But all of Porpentine’s games are a strong lesson in hypertext. They play with our ideas of what a text is. We think text is static, an immovable object, but they exist interlinked with the world around them. Those Fighting Fantasy books we used to stick our fingers in: those digits are keys or mouse buttons now. Those early parser text adventures are now in tabs on a browser, and text moves and is in colour and has music, sfx, and can be embedded with moving images, can respond to you, talk back, can play with that old idea that text might be flat transmission only. And the text can play tricks on us in ways we never dreamed when we were playing Acheton on a BBC Micro and thinking that there was nothing more potent than white text on black.

ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL OF MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL is a Twine text game written by Porpentine that begins in white text on black. It waits for my input, silently, in surroundings with obsidian trappings. It wants me to go on a job in a gypsum desert. I click. It wants me to have sex and not feel anything. I click to destroy myself. It wants me to have a repetitive time, where every night I die and the next day I am given the tools for my next violent job.

TEXT INPUT:

Carachan1 [huskily, pouring another glass of data]: Should I stop there? It could get spoileriffic.

TEXT INCOMING:

Porpentine [looking out, omniscient glowing eyes, on the text as I write]: Are you going to type everything I say?

Porpentine: I'D BE TYPING MORE GLAMOROUS IF I KNEW THAT.

Richard Hofmeier, the maker of Cart Life, won the Seumas McNally Award for Best Independent Game, the Best Narrative Award and the Nuovo Award at the IGF a few days ago. He said of Howling Dogs, "I’d enjoy seeing IGF give their highest endorsement to Porpentine’s Howling Dogs, which is a dour enchantment in that holy dread kind of way, but, because it’s text-based and rarely classified with other videogames, it’s largely unplayed by people interested in good games."

The day after winning, Richard graffitied his own stand at the IGF Pavilion to say ‘Howling Dogs’ and put Porpentine's game on show for all to play. It was freaking cool.

Carachan1 lights another cigarette, demurely, brushing pixels from her collar, winks at Porpentine. Porpentine giggles, and tosses fluorescent digital hair. She wears the internet.

TEXT INCOMING:

Porpentine: i was surprised. it's a certain kind of feeling when your art ripples out past the months

and someone feels it

like

a gesture like that

or act of praxis rather

is unexpected

...realizing that someone was that deeply affected by something you made.

CONTINUE

ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL OF MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL needs your speakers up to full volume. It needs your self-esteem at its lowest, in order to induce a heady rush of extreme elation when it returns.

It needs you to realise that your life is changeable, and you can do it through text, subtext, the textual bonds we make between each other. You can change the way the digital landscape lies, if you realise how your constraints work: how the world of words is structured around you. Or perhaps, it is ignorance or disdain of boundaries: or just deliberately forgetting there are any. Yes, it is like seeing the matrix. Like seeing the source code, or the ordered node map in rows, all linked together. Like Burroughs said: a writer is a map maker of psychic areas. Porpentine is a cartographer of cyberpunk arenas, and the map is here. It is with soaring heart I tell you that I am in love with ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL OF MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL, and it is because it has made me feel insanely powerful. It is a story of breaking out. It is as if I have typed IDDQD on life. I tell her this, all my veins rushing with the sound of the beating of my heart. I tell her I am crying.

TEXT INCOMING:

Porpentine: Someone crying is a big deal to me....weeps

Porpentine: All i want is for all my friends to be insanely powerful...

Porpentine: Do you know J Chastain?

Carachan1: Rat Chaos?

Porpentine: She's one of the best games writers/makers...

Porpentine: powerful.html is a valentines to her.

Porpentine: It’s all derived from convos with her or from her writing.

I nod and take a strip of my hair, wind it around my finger: I know of this way of working. I have done it before, twice and in Twine form too, though they were experimental at best. I can’t help that all of my own work is a love letter to something: a game mechanic, a designer, a writer, a love letter sometimes to the very need in all of us to have games be better. I wrote a Twine love letter to Anna Anthropy to honour her belief that anyone can make a game. I feel like I understand. Porpentine’s valentine knits J Chastain’s words into a beautiful kaleidoscope of thoughts that not only are a tribute to her work, but to the medium in which she works.

And yet this valentine uses a tone familiar to me in another manner. The surge of happiness Porpentine creates in the denouement of her story is the same that you feel at the end of Dys4ia, Anna Anthropy’s love letter to her own body - or perhaps, the feeling that it finally belongs to her. They are both about accepting that you need to accept yourself, and to hell with everyone else.

INCOMING RADIO TRANSMISSION: THE GAME POLICE

We have reports of queer cyberhackers in the system, over.

Awaiting instructions, over.

….Should we take them down? Over

They’re in the mainframe. We need instruc

But what of J Chastain? I know of her work, at least, I think I do. But Porpentine sends me some of her finest words, words that I haven’t read before. They are written with so much clarity I want to quote them in their entirety, but there isn’t room. I give you this:

“‘Gamers’ are junkies, games are their junk, and there’s a kind of game criticism that’s primary function is enabling them to deny that. When we don’t ask more from games, it’s because we don’t want them to get better. We’re afraid of the world and we’d rather explore the boundaries of these fake, facile ones. We hate ourselves and we hate our bodies and we’d rather inhabit fake selves, fake bodies. We’re used to this being a lifelong habit. We take it for granted that we’re going to spend a thousand hours slumped in front of a screen, doing the same little actions again and again. People have made interesting things happen within that context, but so what? Try to communicate them to anyone who isn’t already hooked. ‘Slump here for a thousand hours and something cool will happen.’ ‘Stare at this rock until the face of God appears.’”

Chastain believes that our time is precious, and that we forget that asking someone who is not surrounded in years of game nostalgia to invest hours in a game is a somewhat tall order. How can we invite people who have never been into our territory to come and join us? Short games, with high impact. The sort that Anthropy’s Dys4ia is, the sort that Porpentine’s Howling Dogs is, or Chastain’s own Rat Chaos. And they cover diverse topics through interesting voices: Merritt Kopas’ Positive Space is an educational game about sex that intertwines diagrams with pure, expressive feeling.

Twine games are the perfect medium for a quick fix: reading the first text is immediate, and if it doesn’t create a sense of curiosity in you, you close the window and move on. There is no press ‘Start’ to ten minute cutscene; there doesn’t need to be someone leaning over your shoulder saying, “Oh it’ll take a while to get to the good bit”. You can immediately see what a Twine game is: it is text, and it wants to play with you, and the interface of hyperlinks is already second nature to you the internet denizen. If you aren’t curious in the first few seconds about what will happen, it is easier to switch them off: you haven’t paid £40 for it, and the only thing you needed to play it was a PC screen. The onus is on the game designer to plunge you into a world you immediately like, one that provokes your imagination, one that makes you want to explore. Every game designer can learn from scope reduction: be effective, in a tiny space.

TEXT INPUT:

Carachan1 [crossing bionic legs adorned with USB outlets]: Porpentine. Are you there? I want to ask you a question about CyberQueen.

Carachan1: Porpentine?

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