Module 9: Interactive Fiction/Twine Workshop
9.4 Accessibility and Twine
Twine is an open-access videogame creation platform that allows creators to make games that are playable in internet browsers. The program uses text boxes with branching connections and a simple coding language.
Adi Robertson (2021) describes the interface as,
“An architect’s drafting table crossed with a conspiracy chart. Users start by creating a “passage,” or a simple text field, that can be linked to new passages. When you’re done with the story, you “publish” it as a single web file, which you can load in any ordinary browser.”
Twine is an interesting platform when considering accessibility and diversity in games and game creation. Importantly, Twine allows creators to make games with few financial resources, often by themselves or in small groups. As a free-to-use game creation platform, Twine empowers creators from disabled, transgender, or other marginalized communities to explore themes and stories that they would otherwise not be able to in ways that are typically not present in mainstream . Twine games are often likened to , in that they allow people to tell personal stories free from commercial constraints.
Robertson (2021) writes,
“In an industry obsessed with photorealistic graphics, focus-tested gameplay, and ever-evolving open worlds, Twine’s simplicity felt liberating. It imbued games with the DIY spirit of homemade zines, many of them weirder, sharper, and queerer than their mainstream counterparts. According to some of its biggest fans, Twine was nothing short of a revolution.”
As Benjamin Nicoll (2019) argues in his book Minor Platforms in Videogame History:
“[Twine] developer and player communities are largely made up of people whose voices have, historically, been diminutized or excluded in this culture. These communities have mobilized Twine as a videogame-making tool partly in response to the exclusionary values, cultural discourses, and gendered subjectivities that took root in videogame culture in the 1980s and 1990s… but that still remain active today… They often explore themes unacknowledged (or deliberately avoided) by mainstream videogames, such as sexuality, gender, mental health, identity, race, and discrimination. Often, their play structures focus on experiences of disempowerment and marginalization as opposed to agency and power.”
Similarly, Brendan Keogh (2018) writes in A Play of Bodies: How we perceive videogames,
“Because Twine opens up the possibilities of videogame creation to a broader audience, it risks destabilizing the dominant values sedimented in core videogame culture and is thus seen as a threat”
However, as a platform, Twine also presents accessibility issues, as its operation is designed for people with certain abilities. These constraints will be discussed in detail below.
Affordances and Constraints of Twine
Twine opens possibilities for creators to make their games and allow other players to experience them in ways that have not been available in the past. While dominant videogame cultures do not usually engage with themes of representation, diversity, or accessibility, Twine enables creators to make these games with a free, widely available program.
It is important to also consider the kind of games that Twine allows creators to make: predominantly text-based interactive stories. Twine games are not the open-world sandbox games developed by large game studios that offer players as much freedom of choice, player movement, and control as possible. These more mainstream games typically demand a mastery of controls (e.g. quick reaction time and coordination) and environment (e.g. in-depth knowledge of game mechanics and patterns) which can be inaccessible. Forcing players to master skills to advance through games can be read as a kind of ableism, as it demands a certain ability-based playstyle. Additionally, games typically promote player choice (or at least the illusion of choice) as much as possible and are meant to appeal to a very broad audience to be commercially successful.
Twine narratives, on the other hand, are heavily shaped by creators, and so too are the choices available, or not available, to players. For example, as we saw in Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest, restrictions placed on player’s choice are critical to the gameplay, a sentiment echoed by Keogh (2018) when he writes,
“Videogames by marginal developers often communicate more explicitly through a lack of freedom of movement by means of the various constraints placed on the player in videogames.”
However, it is also important to consider how Twine and similar platforms are restrictive to developers and disabled people in their design. Twine, as a platform, can still gain profit from creators making games that are typically distributed for free. Additionally, these games can serve as a kind of research for large game design companies – they may see Twines depicting issues of mental health as becoming popular and decide to incorporate these elements into their game as a way to sell more copies and become more popular in the public eye. Furthermore, it is crucial to consider the affordances Twine does not provide to players. As Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux (2017) write in Metagaming,
“Although videogames always operate as open platforms and elastic equipment for making so many metagames, their screens, interfaces, and protocols can be inaccessible and disabling for many players.”
Despite being free to download, an internet connection and a device that can connect to the internet are needed to use Twine. Twine does not provide accessibility settings like screen reader support – the user must self-accommodate in these situations. Creators must also follow the logic of Twine and make games the way the platform forces them to. These barriers (and others) may preclude some individuals from being able to use this platform to make games.
So while Twine may be a more open and accessible creation process than many others, it still has certain limitations and barriers because it is primarily a visual, computer-based program. It is reliant on the logic of the platform which, like design choices in games, carries certain values and will inevitably preclude some creators. As discussed in the previous module on critical play, games have rules and limitations, and so too does game creation – even game creation that seems widely accessible. However, thinking about play, and playing critically with these platforms and ways of making games, can open up this inaccessibility. In Play Matters, Miguel Sicart (2017) argues,
“We need to see play as both playing systems and playing with systems, as appropriation and resistance of systems. Computers give us the pleasure of bound, limited, logical experiences; play gives the pleasure of breaking those boundaries and making them ours.”
Playing (with) these games critically allows us to interrogate those boundaries and create more accessibility in games and game design.
high-profile, high-budget "blockbuster" games typically produced by large and well-known game publishers.
Zines are paper (or more recently digital) publications made outside of commercial or professional contexts, usually circulated in small batches within communities.