Telling nonlinear stories

Interview with Chris Klimas, creator of Twine

Interactivity and fiction work very well together. Fiction stimulates our imagination and interactivity call us to action. Who can resist to play unlimited adventures? Interactive Fiction (IF) is a genre in its own right, and we can find IF content either in a classic book format (a gamebook such as “Choose your own adventure” series) or digital (a computer game or mobile app).

The popularity of mobile devices and the low production costs of text-based games makes Interactive Fiction an increasingly promising market. The barrier of coding is also lowering thanks to new tools that ease writers to produce text-based games with no need of advanced computer skills. Twine is probably the reference example in this area, a tool for producing nonlinear stories with no need of coding that open the Interactive Fiction doors to thousands of writers. Besides, Twine is free to use and open-source. Those all are more than enough reasons to interview the creator of Twine, Chris Klimas, who kindly accepted to answer TISP’s questions.

Web developer, game designer and writer. Your profile is perfect to combine computing, interactivity and fiction. We think that both technological and creative/artistic skills are more than desirable for smart publishing. On the other hand, academic training at Universities normally focus only on one of them.

How was your academic and professional development to become a web developer, game designer and writer?

As an undergraduate student, I pursued a degree in English with minors in creative writing and computer science. My faculty advisor found it quite puzzling that I wanted to take courses in, for example, Romantic poetry and data structures at the same time. It made sense to me, although it took me a long time to understand exactly why. I think there’s great pressure to be one type of person or another: writer or software developer, for example, instead of writer and software developer. But of course we’re all complicated people, with multiple, sometimes contradictory interests.

How do you think hybrid-skilled people can contribute to innovate content industry?

I think having a holistic point of view is enormously valuable. The concept of the lone artist working for years in isolation is dying out – instead, collaboration is key. Being able to work as part of a team, and in particular understanding someone else’s perspective, whether they’re an artist, coder, or even businessperson, goes a long way.

Interactive Fiction has had some interesting success cases in publishing, such as Choose Your Own Adventure series, as well as in computer games (dungeons and conversational adventures) back in the 80’s. Today, Interactive Fiction is still a thriving topic within the indie community.

Is Interactive Fiction commercially attractive for games or publishing mainstream market today?

Absolutely – it just has transcended that term. Just two recent examples of successful games that I’d consider interactive fiction are Lifeline and 80 Days.

Do you think Interactive Fiction is making the most of smartphones, tablets and mobile paradigm in general?

I think the reason why interactive fiction is commercially viable now is in fact because mobile is such a popular platform. Text is an incredibly economical way of telling a story, and as such is really well-suited to devices with small screens and humble CPUs and memory.

People tend to assume that interactive fiction requires you to type on a keyboard to interact with it, and of course that’s not the best experience on a mobile device. But there are so many other ways to interact with a text-based game.

You launched Twine in 2009. Recently, version 2.0.6 has been released. It has become a reference tool for creating interactive and nonlinear fiction or text-based games.

Could you define what Twine is in just one/two lines?

Twine is an open source application for telling nonlinear stories, where the reader can affect what they are reading.

What was the motivation that prompted you to create this tool?

I created it because I was interested in creating these kinds of stories, but also because I wanted to read more of them myself. I felt there wasn’t a tool out there that resonated with a large population of people — pre-existing ones, including a predecessor of Twine I made myself, expected people to think too much like a programmer instead of a writer.

Twine doesn’t require computing skills to be used, so everybody can create text-based games with no need of writing any code. This characteristic makes Twine accessible to a large community of writers. How many users do you estimate are working with Twine worldwide? Is it used also by publishers?

I don’t have exact usage numbers on Twine as a whole, but the online version of Twine 2 is visited hundreds of times a day. As far as publishers go, I have seen Twine used as a planning tool for branching-path books similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure series. One notable example of that is a book called “To Be Or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure,” an interactive retelling of Hamlet that was funded through Kickstarter.

I’ve also seen it used as a way to make companion pieces for traditionally published books, as well — serving as a teaser, or even a side story, to the main narrative.

Which are in your opinion successful text based games created by using Twine?

It’s difficult to pick favorites. Let me name some authors more or less at random who have done interesting work with Twine: Porpentine, Michael Lutz, Anna Anthropy, Alan DeNiro, Andrea Corbin, Caelyn Sandel.

Twine is open source and free to use. How it is economically supported? How do you think it will evolve in the future?

Right now, I solicit donations for my work on the Twine editor, but there are many other people contributing to it, whether it be through creating a runtime for stories, contributing updates to the editor, localizing it to their native language, and so on– and they all do it on a volunteer basis. As for future directions, my interest is always in expanding the accessibility of the tool. Right now, I’m focusing on non-English speakers, as well as people who are differently-abled.

DOI: 10.17400/SB-2015-07-02

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