Designing Queer Narratives with Twine
Queer stories have long been viewed as an unprofitable niche in the entertainment industry as a whole, and video games in particular. While studios like BioWare have started to include gay characters and same-sex romance options in their games, cisgender and heterosexual protagonists are still the overwhelming rule. If you want to make games with queer protagonists and themes, your chances of getting AAA backing are pretty slim.
For this reason, LGBTQ creators often use whatever game-making tools are most accessible. This includes tools with freeware or low-cost options such as GameMaker Studio and Unity3D, as well as the oft-pirated RPG Maker (a Japanese application translated by fans throughout the early 2000s before official ports were available). In the past few years, many creators’ tool of choice has become Twine.
Created by Baltimore-based developer Chris Klimas, Twine is a user-friendly tool for writing branching narratives that are stored on a single-page website. First released in 2009, Twine gained popularity in the early 2010s.
Three things set Twine apart from other game-making tools: it’s totally free, it’s narrative-focused, and it requires no knowledge of design or code. If you can write a short story, you can create a game in Twine. With so many barriers to entry removed, Twine has empowered creators who might otherwise never have made a game.
DIY creation and distribution channels make Twine perhaps the video game world’s closest thing to a zine culture. The results are more strange, and often more bleak, than anything you’d find in an AAA publisher’s holiday release window.
Twine has been used to create everything from Choose-Your-Own-Adventure text stories like Snow McNally’s magical high-school drama Little Witch Story to surreal audiovisual experiences like Porpentine’s Girlwaste, in which players venture through a hellscape on a quest for estrogen.
And then there’s anna anthropy’s incomparable Queers in Love at the End of the World, a game about facing death with the one you love. You can do anything you want, except survive. You have ten seconds.
(Anthropy uses other tools as well; her Flash game dys4ia may be the first-ever video game about gender transition and hormone replacement therapy.)
Since the tool has proven so valuable, it’s not surprising that LGBTQ game makers have contributed much to the growth of Twine’s community. Anna Anthropy also wrote one of the most common guides to getting started with Twine. In an interview with The Guardian in 2013, Anna described Twine users as “this amazing queer and woman-orientated game-making community that didn’t even exist a year ago.”
While some Twine forums and sites have become derelict, creators continue to make and share games on sites like itch.io. Twine itself has become more accessible than ever, thanks to an online editor that lets users make games without even installing an application.
Queer gamers have long pushed developers and publishers to do better, and while the industry continues to improve, we still have a long way to go (trans and crossdressing characters, in particular, are still more likely to be punchlines than protagonists.) It’s no surprise that when LGBTQ creators have the means to tell their stories through games, audiences readily receive them.
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For more on Twine, LGBTQ creators, and DIY culture in gaming, check out 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.