“These Things, They Take Twine”
A message for video game narrative designers who are scared of code
I had no idea what I was thinking when I decided to go to school for game writing. Sure, I had plenty of creative game ideas swirling around in my head, but it had been a while since I put pen to paper. More importantly, there was one thing I was convinced I’d never be able to do: code.
Here’s the thing about me. I spent high school avoiding as many academics as possible. I took the easiest science courses I could. I took standard English class despite knowing that I could have taken AP. I dropped out of Grade 12 Math literally moments before my graduation ceremony because it’d be better for my GPA at that point. When I did graduate, I thought I was going to theatre school, with days of decently singing and poorly dancing ahead of me.
For some reason, whenever I thought about code, I thought about numbers — and I absolutely hate numbers. If I was actually going to school for game writing, I knew I’d certainly have to get comfortable with code. Maybe it was the recruiter’s charm, or maybe it was the pressure to go to post-secondary finally, but I dove into the program headfirst. After all, there was no way they would get me coding on the first day.
Since my program also covered TV and Film Writing for the first half of the year, I was thrown in with a lovely group of international students who were already directors, poets, and even radio personalities in their own countries. Many of their experiences with video games didn’t go further than Minecraft or FIFA. Yet, by the time we were all making our first text-based games, it seemed like they had known how to code their whole lives.
In retrospect, our assignment was extremely simple: make a 50-passage dialogue tree in Twine using conditional statements. If you’re anything like I was, the first question you might ask is “what the heck is Twine?!” The twinery.org website explains it best:
“Twine is an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories.”
It’s essentially a program that allows you to make games that mostly consist of text and the ability to choose different options to proceed.
First off, I was terrified. I’d never made a nonlinear story before, let alone in a weird program I never heard of. Most of my game documents up to that point were cute, wishlist ideas for the next Dynasty Warriors spin-off in a messy Google Doc.
Science says procrastination isn’t derived from laziness, but rather a fear of failure. Exhibit A: Me trying to get this awful game done. By the time I had squeaked out my 40th passage in the story, I had watched all my classmates deliver solid, engaging, and stylistic choose-your-own-adventure games. When my presentation rolled around, my game was virtually unplayable due to the sheer amount of broken code. I was so embarrassed. At that moment, I told myself that I would never be able to code, and I even considered switching my specialty to TV writing for the rest of the year. Thankfully, I didn’t.
What I’d learn in the coming year is that not being good at code does not bar you from the game-writing industry. Despite this revelation, I was still pretty down on myself when I graduated, with imposter syndrome only amplified by my diploma. A week before I graduated, an external mentor from EA reviewed my portfolio and absolutely dunked on it for half an hour. After we ran out of time, he said he’d send me constructive feedback over email which I still haven’t received to this day. That was pretty much rock-bottom, and it came at the worst possible time of the year.
Months passed and I hadn’t written anything besides a few fluff articles and some questions to ask guests on my podcast. As I spent my days on Twitter searching for the odd voice role and planning out future episodes, I came across some opportunities to write visual novels. With a few months to clear my head, I begrudgingly dug up my game writing portfolio to assess the damage. Within it, I found my error-ridden Twine game. I played it through, and while the code was broken, my concept wasn’t too shabby. Then suddenly, all the possibilities of stories I could tell with this format became clear.
My passion for creative writing was reignited. If I just dedicated a week to re-learning and researching Twine, I might finally have a portfolio piece I could be happy with. So I took one of my stronger concepts for a D&D campaign I had written and got to work translating it into Twine.
There was a lot of trial and error, and long hours spent in front of the computer with no breaks. Some of the answers I needed were deeply buried in forums from 2010, while others only required a quick Google search. Finally making some sense of the program, and with no one’s pressure but my own, I created The Seraph’s Palace. The story is 35,825 words long, with 222 different passages for players to traverse through. The difference between this polished project and the abomination I made in school is night and day.
The purpose of me writing this article is to give hope to writers that are scared of the code. I am like you. Use Twine. Use it online, and just allow yourself to experiment. I am by no means an expert by anyone’s standards, but I am far better than I was, all because I faced my fear. Of course, I’m grateful that my school introduced me to it and taught me the basics, but I learned even more about it on my own. So D&D writers, novel writers, and anyone out there with a decent story idea; be patient, be bold, and let me be your Gabe Newell. These things, they take time.
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