Power to the People: The Text Adventures of Twine

Carolyn Petit considers the importance of a new tool that makes it possible for almost anyone to create a game.


Stealthy assassins. Dashing adventurers. Gun-toting soldiers and space marines. You see these types of protagonists surface again and again in mainstream games, and as the process of producing games becomes more and more costly, the games that feature heroes like these take fewer and fewer risks and become increasingly predictable. Developers rely on what they know works in order to increase the likelihood of financial success, and graphic violence is becoming more common as it gives games a way to surprise and excite players, since the formulaic gameplay and familiar subject matter aren't likely to.

Meanwhile, far from the games designed by committees at mega-developers, all the way at the other end of the game creation spectrum, a new tool has emerged that empowers just about anyone to create a game. It's called Twine. It's extremely easy to use, and it has already given rise to a lively and diverse development scene.

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It was a tweet by game designer Anna Anthropy, a vocal champion of Twine, that first made me take notice. Referring to Memorial by Travis Megill, she wrote, "we live in a world now where someone can make a videogame as a memorial to a sibling. let that shake you to your core pls." It worked on me.

…it's no surprise that so many people look at games and think, "They have nothing to offer me."
No programming knowledge is needed to use Twine. It allows you to link passages of text via links, which has led many people to compare games made with Twine to old Choose Your Own Adventure books. But Twine allows you to do things that those books never could. Games can keep track of decisions made and actions taken by players much earlier in the game--what type of weapon they selected, for instance, or whether or not they collected a particular key. With a bit of creativity on the part of the creator, games can have puzzles that players can't quickly "solve" by just trying each of a few options. Games can also include images and videos, and with a bit of extra know-how, you can also employ basic effects, such as flashing text, which can do a good deal to foster a particular mood in your game.

There's some debate about whether or not Twine games are actually games, and whether such games have any value. My feeling is that not everything created with Twine is a game. Some things, like Travis Megill's Vacuum, an intimate tale about a mother's love for her schizophrenic son, are more like stories in which you're an active observer rather than a participant. You have no impact on the events, but you can move among them to some extent, perhaps choosing to examine an environmental detail or to follow a character's train of thought as she's flooded with memories. It's not a game, exactly, but there's still enough participation on your part to make the experience feel different from that of reading a book.

Other experiences created with Twine are definitely games, in my opinion. A great example of Twine's potential for games is Beginning, a fantasy adventure by the writer known as WelshPixie. Here, you are an active participant. You name your character and make decisions that affect the course of the story. It has a few visual touches--a portrait of a character you interact with, and a map of the area--but these aren't what makes Beginning a game, nor does their absence from other Twine projects prevent them from being games. The Infocom text adventures of the '70s and '80s, such as Zork and Planetfall, were certainly games. And clicking on text is as legitimate a way of participating in a game as anything else; after all, that's the primary way you perform actions in Maniac Mansion, and that's definitely a game.

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Of course, no Twine game is going to be the next Call of Duty. So what? No independently printed short story is going to be the next New York Times best-seller. No indie film made on a shoestring budget is going to be the next box-office smash. That doesn't diminish the importance of those works. They assert that literature and film are not just the realms of the privileged few who have the backing of big studios and publishers. True, Twine only allows people to create text-based games. But there's tremendous freedom in that. There are no limits to setting or subject matter. You'll probably never see a big-budget, mainstream game designed to speak primarily to young people contemplating suicide, or to people struggling with drug addiction. But Twine games can be about and for any group of people, however big or small. And of course, Twine games can also be about fighting interstellar wars, surviving on dinosaur-infested islands, and pulling off missions as a superspy. There are no limits.

Of course, no Twine game is going to be the next Call of Duty. So what?
Naturally, a large number of people will have no interest in any games made with Twine. But graphics aren't inherently better than text, any more than movies are inherently better than books. They're just different. I've already played Twine games with beautiful language that put me in the hearts and minds of their characters in ways that cutscenes in games rarely do. I've played Twine games that have made me feel dread, horror, and excitement. If people keep experimenting with Twine, and get better at taking Anna Anthropy's advice about designing around verbs and objects to make players feel like empowered participants in the story, I think we could see some great things come out of this scene.

I can't help but hope that Twine is just an early example of what will become a variety of production tools that empower individuals who don't have the money to finance game production or the financial backing of game publishers. I've long felt that games are for everyone, not just the stereotypical young male "gamer." But with so many games rehashing the same well-covered territory populated by assassins and space marines, it's no surprise that so many people look at games and think, "They have nothing to offer me." As mainstream games become more and more homogenous, a diverse array of creators taking some ownership of the medium, even if it's at the fringes, can and should shake things up, making it so that games are not just by and for the few. When games are by the people--by women and gay people and poor people and the culturally marginalized and kids growing up in Iran and not just primarily by the people who are paid to make them by companies selling products designed to appeal to as many customers as possible--they will inevitably be for the people, too. Twine is a small but important step in this direction.


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Avatar image for ztab

I can also suggest you a freeware called ZTAB (Ze Text Adventure game Builder), that is very easy to use and can generate .tws (Twine files).

Here is the URL : http://sourceforge.net/projects/ztab/

Avatar image for salvucci91

Never go away, Carolyn; your thoughts are always interesting.

Avatar image for _Roo_

Love your off the wall articles. Keep up the good work.

Avatar image for Sakuban

Thank you Carolyn Petit for this article. I never heard of Twine before and now i'm trying it. And i must say, i'm amazed. It's a great tool for creating interactive fiction. I'll advise it to my students in creative writing class tomorrow.

Avatar image for drgribb

@Sakuban You use IF as a tool in your creative writing classes??

Why can't I take writing classes with you?

Avatar image for Sakuban

@drgribb @Sakuban I'm glad to hear such nice words. The most of my students are happy with it too. Infact i don't understand why noone else use them. Quality literature comes in many forms. Comics, graphic novels, computer games are parts of it too. And they are also the result of the writing act.

Avatar image for iiraidenii

I have tried Twine and, while good, it does not really fulfill its role as a game creation tool for developers. Check out our Divine Gamebook Creator at divinegames.it and see the difference.

Avatar image for Senor_Kami

This reminds me of choose your own adventure stories that I used to write in Basic way back in my elementary school days. I might check this out just for funsies.

Avatar image for gothemile

Writers block sucks

Avatar image for ninja1507

Brings back memories as the first game engine I ever wrote was one of these bad boys.

Might dig through and give the code out if I find it.

Avatar image for gatsbythepig


a hollow voice says 'plugh'

Avatar image for fbgbdk4

@gatsbythepig a hollow voice says 'fool' ;)

Avatar image for NeoIostars

excellent read. Thanks for the heads up, Carolyn. I never played Zork, but I grew up in the 90s playing nearly all of Sierra's text-based adventure games (their trademark Quest series) and the classic Ultima. There's something about well-written script and the power of imagination that really helped create some of the most memorable gaming experiences in my childhood. I'll definitely give Twine a try.

Avatar image for the_link_keeper

This is an excellent article and I can't wait to try out twine. On the other hand I don't think that gaming is necessarily going to become stagnant. Between Android, Steam, Kickstarter and other open platforms and alternatives to large publishers I think that we will see all kinds of new gaming experiences evolve over the next few years. I don't think that consoles and closed systems are going away just yet but change is happening nonetheless.

Avatar image for starduke

Thanks for mentioning this!

I started writing a story as soon as I downloaded Twine. Right now, I'm surprising myself with how morbid it is. The first room already has three ways to die. It's pretty much writing itself, like always happens when I write something.

Avatar image for konokonohamaru

For anyone who likes interactive fiction, i.e. text adventures, there is one I highly recommend called "Anchorhead". Just google it, you will find it.

Avatar image for Myst17

Love you articles, Carolyn. You always write about the non-mainstream issues. That's why I go to Gamespot. :)

Avatar image for getbent57

This is very cool. Just might have to make one myself.

Avatar image for Saketume

Ever since

Shoot'Em-Up Construction Kit was all the rage I've been waiting for decent high level software to create my own games. I feel we're still stuck in the 80s with this however.

As for text adventures there are a multitude of tools for creating those.

Here's a fun example of a game created.

It's a zombie survival text adventure. If you liked The Walking Dead Telltale game it's pretty much like that.


Avatar image for VelvetKevorkian

I'm gonna check this out.

Avatar image for eternal_blade3

Text-based games are still pretty cool, frankly. The good old days of Zork and whatnot...

Avatar image for _Roo_

@eternal_blade3 One of the only good things about BO2 was the Zork Easter egg.

Avatar image for USAPATRIOT21

This is exactly what walking dead is and that won goty for many websites.

Avatar image for DuaMn

Thanks you very much for this. Expecting more articles about game development.

Avatar image for SciFiCat

I absolutely love the fact that as time passes more and more creativity tools are being made available for free for people to be able to bring to fruition all kind of entertainment content. The obstacle for people to let their creativity fly and be experienced by others is their own imagination and the time these can spend on producing such content.

Avatar image for uglypinkmoose

sounds neat....all I've worked with that actually turned out somewhat successful was Game Maker

Avatar image for _Judas_

I used to make games all the time using Clickteam's "Click & Play" and "The Games Factory". Read all about it in my latest blog...or don't :p

Avatar image for maitkarro

Nice, also there are other programs that's let's you make games in same ways, like BYOND or RPGmaker though more advanced.

Avatar image for Granpire

To me, a better analogy would have been, "But graphics aren't inherently better than text, any more than picture books are inherently better than novels."

Avatar image for SsangyongKYRON


Thank . you

Avatar image for drgribb

Awesome! Carolyn, thanks for this feature on interactive fiction!! Too often, I.F. and text-based adventures are seen as "not real games" and not worthy of notice. I love text-based games and I really appreciate the heads up on this one. Very cool

Avatar image for drgribb

Also, anyone interested is text-based games, I highly recommend checking out the documentary "Get Lamp." The director even put it up on youtube as part of a google tech talk!