“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
The King’s counsel notwithstanding, there’s something to be said for writing that resists a straight-forward reading, plot planted in neat rows of type from one end of the bound book to the other. Not just stories evincing complicated thematics or syntactics, but those in which the reader is themselves complicit, navigating their own route according to their interest or in line with a grander authorial design. Such works fall under what media scholar Espen Aarseth terms ergodic literature (from the Greek for ‘work’ + ‘path’), in which “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text”. Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, with instructions for reading its numbered passages in two entirely different sequences; Only Revolutions, Mark Z. Danielewski’s revolutionary novel in two voices; or B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which forgoes binding altogether, a sheath of loose leaves arranged according to the reader’s whim. However, the exemplar of the form closest to my heart can be found some rungs further down the ladder of cultural significance.
In the eighties and nineties Choose Your Own Adventure books were a school library staple, stories in the second person whose young protagonists were invariably ninja warriors or famed explorers or interstellar travellers. Numbered chunks of narrative were interspersed with instructions to jump forward or back in accordance with decisions at crucial (or seemingly banal) points in the plot (“If you free Danny from the barn even though Uncle Grog might catch you, turn to page 23.“). From these choices, each story would branch and blossom to one of multiple possible outcomes – most often an untimely death, from which only a brace of well-splayed fingers might save you. (For analysis of CYOA structure, see Christian Swinehart’s glorious infographic essay.)
Twenty-odd years later, the interactive, multilinear narrative is undergoing a renaissance, this time in finger-friendly format. In the intervening years we grew accustomed (addicted, even) to the hyperlink, that underlined gateway to the infinite, unlocked with a click of the cursor or (increasingly) tap of the screen. We’ve come back around to the digital manipulation of stories, only now the computer can do the backtracking for us should we stumble and fall (…into a pit full of Flesh Grubs).
In part, the resurgence in interest is thanks to one of the two coolest Twines on the internet today (along with this). Arising like a digital neon phoenix from the codebase of what was once wiki-authoring software, Twine seems to have exploded in popularity in the past year or so, and with good reason: the program is freely available and resulting pieces easily distributable, and works can be written without code and read(/played/preferred-verbed) on almost anything with a web connection. For the author, Twine stories look like index cards scattered across screen, festooned with fine filaments indicating links between passages: these are stories constructed spatially as much as linguistically, built up one passage at a time. For the reader, works in Twine resemble webpages (which they are) through which they click, often partaking of both the branching structure and direct, second-person address of earlier print-based interactive fiction, putting the reader in place of cowpoke or gl1tch-hack or unhappy acolyte or Marxist philosopher making a Twine game (some NSFW, depending on your workplace/political ideology).
As Anna Anthropy suggests in Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, there are parallels between Twine and zine cultures: both can (but don’t have to) lend themselves to the telling of personal stories and the expression of marginalised voices, and both are often produced outside of commercial constraints (which doesn’t preclude work from being sold to support creators). There are those far more qualified who’ve written most eloquently on both the how and why of Twine, as well as a great many stories out there to be experienced. However, should the idea of stories that can roil and split and skitter away beneath the reading gaze pique your interest, try your hand at spinning your own interactive yarn: download Twine here.
Tully Hansen is a sometime writer, technophile and budding #botALLY based in Melbourne and on Twitter in equal measure.
We’d love to see what you make of this technology – go ahead, download Twine and share your inventions with us in the comments!