A friend of mine is working on a talk about game-making systems and accessibility, and she asked me some questions. My answers were so long that I thought I may as well republish them here, since they include some details about Twine, Siren for Hire, and my other games that I haven't ever written down anywhere else. Enjoy!
Why did you want to make a game (or games in general, if you're plotting to make others)?
I actually had made two other much shorter Twine games before I made Siren for Hire (also with Twine). I can talk more about "why Twine" in the second question, obviously. But why games … hm. That is a much more difficult question.
It might be easier to answer this question about my first game, which I made as part of a game jam that my friend Todd Harper ran. I knew I had to make a Twine game, because I don't know how to code, and I didn't think I would have time within the length of the jam to learn any other system. I had already at least opened Twine before the jam, so I knew how it worked a little bit, and I had a feeling I could make something decent in it within a one-day jam.
For the record, I know Game Maker doesn't require much coding, either, and I actually would love to make a Game Maker or RPG Maker project someday. But I had limited time, because it was a game jam, so I went with the easiest possible system – one that I had already installed and used at least for a few minutes beforehand, etc.
As for why I did the jam in the first place, it was mostly to support my friend Todd. I wanted to participate in the jam because it was his event. So then, I guess you could ask, why did I KEEP making games after that? And also, obviously, I had some desire to make games even before Todd hosted his event, or else he never would have talked me into going at all. So, why games???
I make music and I write articles and fiction and I even like to draw, so there are a lot of other options for potential outlets for storytelling/art for me. So asking "why games" is actually quite a good question, and a very hard one! There really is no reason why I would feel like I "have" to make a game, except to capitalize on the aspects of games that make them unique – but in order to explain what makes games unique, I would have to define "game," and I don't even think I CAN do that. So I guess I'll just say, I liked the idea of creating a piece of art that had multiple branching pathways to choose. I wanted to tell a story that could have multiple options or results. That seemed like a cool way to tell a story, and I would only be able to do it with either a game or a "Choose Your Own Adventure" piece of fiction (which I consider to be a game anyway).
Ironically, only my first game did what I set out to do. Block Party (my first game) has TONS of different endings – too many, really! It's by far my worst game; it was made to be a parody of BioShock: Infinite, and it failed, because no one understood the joke I was trying to make.
My other two games, Over 9000 and Siren for Hire, both have only ONE ending. But they also both have at least one choice you can make within the game. You'll still get the same final outcome, but you can make at least one "big choice" (or a very little choice in Over 9000, but it's the ONLY choice, so maybe that makes it "big").
Making Over 9000 into a game made a lot of sense to me, because it's a game about accruing over 9000 social media followers and I guess I was making some sort of statement about how social media is, itself, a game.
While I was making Siren for Hire in particular, though, I did honestly keep thinking, "why is this a game instead of a short story?" I got angry at myself at times, worrying that it somehow wasn't "interactive" enough, abandoning the project MANY times over the course of almost a year of trying to complete it. (I have definitely internalized all of those definitions of what is and isn't a game, in spite of my attempts not to.)
It was actually a series of tweets from fellow interactive fiction writer Arden that convinced me to keep going. I can't find their specific tweets, but they essentially were also worrying about the exact same thing that I had been. They were talking about how they were working on a Twine game and how it didn't feel interactive enough to them. Even just seeing someone else worrying about my same problem – and knowing that my own response would be, "keep going, Arden!!" – felt like enough for me to tell myself to keep going, too. It worked! Shortly after I saw those tweets, I went back to making my game in earnest and I think I finished it within a month afterward.
Maybe Siren for Hire didn't need to be super interactive, I told myself. It still had enough choices that would necessitate it being told in this format as opposed to a different one. There were still ways to use its "game-hood" to tell a different kind of story than I'd be able to do via a written piece of fiction – for example, I could include timed elements, and I could rely on branching paths to create the illusion of time passing, and so on. The ways in which narrative pacing works in a game can be very different than in a piece of fiction, and I wanted to explore that new territory. That exploration motivated me to complete the game in the end, even though it is much more narrative and actually less "game-y" (whatever the hell that means) than Block Party or Over 9000.
On the other hand, in some ways I'm not sure a game actually was the best way to tell the story that I did. As you know if you played it, Siren for Hire uses magical girls/superheroes as an analogy for how people treat activists. I knew that people who make activist games would be able to relate to the analogy, but I also wanted the story to be about activism in general. So, for that reason, I am sad that I made it a game, because I think it inherently caused people to assume that Siren For Hire was "a game about games."
I think all games are about games, even when they don't intend to be; every piece of art is also simultaneously about the process of making that art. You can't really remove that process from the final product, and that's why art is cool (and frustrating). So, even though I really wanted people to see Siren For Hire as being about the more general struggles that marginalized people face as activists, and how a lot of activists struggle with very similar problems (I know activists in other fields, I know artists in other fields, and at least when it comes to these problems I don't think games are "unique" at all) -- I think people basically said, "this is about games." I think they did that because it was a game, and because it was made by me, a person who is "in games."
I think games can be very insular and self-perpetuating of that insularity, moreso than other types of art communities of which I am a part (such as music). So it is almost too bad that I chose to make Siren For Hire a game, because I think I unwittingly prevented it from ever getting any coverage or visibility outside of games spaces. That does bother me, because I actually did try to make it a more universal story, one that could be enjoyed by people who are not "in games" or "gamers" or whatever else. And, obviously, I don't see myself as a game developer so it is definitely an "outsider" type of piece in one sense or other. But also I have made three games, why don't I see myself as a developer? Ugh, videogames!!!!!
Why did you pick Twine as your system?
Because it is very easy to use. NEXT QUESTION!
But seriously though, it's so easy. Even the coding aspects are very easy to do, compared to my experiences trying to learn programming languages (I have taken multiple classes on Ruby and I'm still terrible at it).
The entire set-up of Twine, from the moment you open up your first empty story, felt welcoming to me. Also, there's already a lot of existing documentation on Twine. Also, I already know a lot of other people who make games in Twine, so I felt able to ask my friends and peers for help.
It's probably important to note here that part of why I felt so comfortable is that a lot of people I know who make games in Twine are women or otherwise marginalized people, and I tend to feel more comfortable asking those people for help, rather than my more privileged peers. I am often paranoid about "looking stupid," so it's hard for me to ask for help. It's also gone badly for me in the past – I had a male friend teaching me how to code once and sometimes he could be very condescending without even intending to be. Whereas all of the experiences I've had with my friends who know Twine have been much easier for me.
I can't "prove" anything here, but I think that change in attitude has to do with the types of people who tend to use Twine: marginalized people are already used to being condescended to and treated as though they are "less than." So, when teaching others, they already know what phrases not to say. As a result of that, my experience learning more about Twine from my friends, and from other documentation online – much of which has been written by marginalized people – has been extremely positive and welcoming.
If it were impossible to make games without learning programming first, would you still have chosen to make a game?
I might have, but I think it would have taken me significantly longer. It's possible I never would have been able to do it, though, simply because of the time commitment.
I made Block Party and Over 9000 in a few hours, each. So that was obviously not a big time commitment. Siren for Hire took much longer but that was for creative reasons, not "code" reasons.
I was making Siren For Hire in my "free time" in addition to working full-time, and I frankly didn't have time to take programming classes, even though I wanted to do so then and I actually still do now. But it's a big commitment to learn to code, plus it's expensive if you take classes (let alone buy more software, etc). Twine was free, and easy, and my friends were available to help me. Without that resource, I'm not sure I would have ever completed any of my three games. Maybe I would still be working on one. I don't know.
I actually have a game that I've had in my mind for literally years that will require me to learn some more programming in order to do, because it's not a game that can be made with Twine. And, clearly, I have not even come close to completing it! I have a single design document for it on my computer, but that's as far as I've gotten with it, other than it being a project that I think about from time to time and wish I had the skills to make.
If I COULD make that dream game in Twine, I would, but I want it to be a game with actual animated figures, so it needs to be in Game Maker or Unity. It won't work as a text adventure, at least that isn't how I envision it. But, as you can see, I haven't made it, because I don't know HOW to make it – and I worry I simply don't have the time to do it. There's a huge hurdle for making even a game with 2D sprites in it. I would have no clue where to begin. But, from what I know about Game Maker, it's not as hard as I think. So … I don't know. Maybe it will happen. But if it does happen, it will be because the systems have gotten easy enough for someone like me to use them – which is to say, someone who knows a little code and is willing to learn more but doesn't have a lot of free time to do as much as she'd like to do.
Maybe it wouldn't even take as much time as I think it would to learn these other systems. Maybe I just PERCEIVE those other systems as more complicated than they really are. But if that's the case, I'm not sure that's entirely my fault. A lot of game-making still seems to be wrapped up in very intimidating language, and I hate to admit it, but I think I have internalized a lot of that stuff even though I've tried not to. Twine doesn't have those problems, so I've ended up making interactive fiction, even though I'm not necessarily drawn to that format in particular really. I would love to be able to make other kinds of games. But it seems too hard, at least from my vantage point. I don't think I could, for example, whip together a 2D sprite game in a day because I just don't know how – if I did know, then I could do it, probably. But I don't know how! Twine games, though, I do know how to do and they feel "easy" to me. I can make a Twine game in a day. I can work nights after work on a Twine game and see my progress. So, that's why it's been possible for me to do games at all, I would bet.