Twine thoughts

As I mentioned a few months back, I’m writing interactive fiction now. I’ve been planning one called The Anitra Incident, which I envision as a kind of prequel to my Orphans of the Stars novel series. (The second, which I’m actually in the process of writing, is…something else that I’ll never attach my real name to.)

In the previous post, I looked at what I consider the top four tools for creating interactive fiction: Inform 7, Twine, Ren’Py, and Ink. I think I made it clear then why I felt Twine was the best choice for what I’m writing. Now that I’ve been working with it for a while, I have some thoughts to share. These are more of a ramble than even my usual posts here, so bear with me.

Ditch the editor

Twine’s biggest draw is that it has its own editor, with a nifty little drag-and-drop visual tool to organize your stories. It looks good, and it helps to get people interested in creating, rather than whining about how they don’t want to have to learn anything.

But it sucks.

Yes, the editor works just fine for small-scale constructions. Twine divides its stories into passages, which are just that: bits of text that can be anywhere from a few words to an entire chapter, with all the necessary logic for interactivity sprinkled in. A big story with a lot of branching points, arcs, and the like is going to have hundreds, if not thousands, of passages. (Case in point: my unnamed side project has 232 total passages already, and that’s not much more than a set of locations and a handful of conversation scenes.) Trying to keep all that straight will quickly become impossible.

On top of that, the editor’s structure makes it difficult to write code. There isn’t much room for "metadata" on a passage; for the most part, that’s limited to a series of tags, which you have to edit using the "chip" style of tagging that web devs love for some inexplicable reason. But that means you have to put all the code in that little box, even if you’re using a tool that expects tags. In my case, that’s TinyQBN, a library for implementing what the creators of Sunless Sea call "storylets".

I could rant about the editor for another few posts, but I just don’t bother using it, so I won’t bother discussing it further. Yes, setting up a custom workflow is a bit more difficult. Yes, it’s worth it in the end. After doing the work, I can now write my story in Vim and my code in, er, Code. And it all comes out the same, except that I also have better handling of external JS libraries, static analysis tools that can run automatically, and so much more that I’m used to from my life as a developer.

People are stupid

Which brings me to my next point. The average Twine user is not a professional developer or a professional author. Worse yet, neither are the Twine power users. As far as I can tell, I’m just about the only one using Twine who does both. Believe me, it shows.

Most Twine tutorials are written for someone who has never so much as looked at code, and who barely even knows what fiction is, let alone how to write it. I don’t know why Twine’s community targets journalists as its intended audience, but that’s how it is.

For someone who knows both fields, it’s just frustrating. I’ve already read the intro material. I know what a macro is. But no one out there is creating any resources for the intermediate or advanced users. How should I structure a story in terms of source files? What are some common design patterns in interactive fiction, and how do I apply them in Twine? When should I break a scene across multiple passages, and what’s the best way to handle that?

I get that much of writing fiction is an art. I’m well aware that there’s no one-size-fits-all method for creating a novel. But to assume that everyone is forever going to be stuck at the beginner stage is doing the rest of us a disservice. I’m aware that zoomers, degenerates, and progressives (the main components of the intfiction.org "community") don’t know how to learn; people who look to Tumblr for knowledge and wisdom have shown pretty definitively that they have neither. Surely somebody out there cares about the rest of us, though.

If not, maybe I should work on that myself.

Wokeness taints everything

Allegedly, the interactive fiction community is thriving, and Twine is a big part of that. In reality, there’s not much of a community. Much like any other hobby (people don’t generally make a living off adventure stories, unless they work for Failbetter), the anti-human rot of progressivism infects every large gathering that would have the chance to become a community. Those of us who prefer free expression to censorship are, as usual, labeled extremists for the radical view that words are just words. Strange for a hobby built around words, but that’s the whole point of the woke ideology: to tear apart any gathering of like-minded individuals by setting them against one another.

So there’s an interactive fiction forum, but it’s so heavily censored that you get banned just for saying something that someone might think is "bad" in some ill-defined way. There’s a group on Reddit, but that’s…well, Reddit. It’s the Mos Eisley of the internet. Your other major option is Discord, which might be even worse!

Interactive fiction started in the days before the web. It became popular because of technologies like Usenet, where you were expected to be civil, yes, but you weren’t coddled. To have its gathering places be nothing more than wastelands of diversity, mere online versions of Portland and Detroit, is just sad.

(This isn’t specific to Twine, mind you. The Inform community goes even farther. They not only stand against freedom of speech, but also anonymity.)

Tech is tech

Beneath it all, Twine is nothing more than a very weird SPA framework. Sure, you have to compile the source, but the end result is an HTML page and a bunch of assets. It’s like Svelte in a way, except that (as far as I’m aware) the Twine authors don’t openly support child trafficking and religious persecution. As a developer, I think looking at it as a web framework has helped me better understand how to use it as an authoring tool.

This is where my earlier point about getting rid of the Twine IDE as soon as possible comes back into play. Once you abandon that crutch, you realize just how much freedom you have, with all that entails. For my current story, I’ve added the Pure CSS library to help with some layout issues. On my initial draft of The Anitra Incident, I’d used Moment.js for timekeeping; now, somebody finally made a decent native date system macro that does most of what you’d need in a story.

The output is HTML, meaning that you get to use CSS for styling, Javascript for scripting, and all that good stuff. People have managed to integrate Phaser, a 2D sprite-based game engine, into Twine stories, and I’ve been looking at how they did that. I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody even tried combining Twine with React and a full-stack framework. (Come to think of it, that’s not a bad idea. Okay, maybe not React, but Vue and Nuxt…)

One true format

Twine comes prepackaged with a number of "story formats", which are combinations of style templates and authoring DSLs. I briefly went over them in the previous post on this topic. In short, Chapbook is new, and mostly unused. Snowman is not much more than raw Javascript with a parser.

The other two are the most popular: Harlowe and Sugarcube. Harlowe is the default format in the Twine IDE, so it’s the one most newcomers learn first, but I think that’s a horrible decision. If you want to do anything even remotely complex, you’ll quickly run into the limitations of Harlowe. Far worse, however, is the fact that those limitations are by design. The authors, much like Apple, go out of their way to break any attempt at getting outside their sandbox.

In other words, there’s really no reason not to go straight to Sugarcube and stay there. It works. It’s not difficult to pick up. Most of the libraries out there are for it. (A few are format-agnostic, I’ll admit.) And you won’t be supporting the intentional hobbling of technology.

Conclusion

To sum up, then, what I’ve learned about Twine from using it is that it’s a great tool for what it does. It has some extraneous bits, and these are unfortunately the same bits that newcomers are pushed towards. If you’re willing to take the time to set up your own dev environment, use Sugarcube and a compiler like Tweego, and live with the fact that you’ll get no help from the community beyond "here’s how to make text red" and "here’s how to let your players make up their own words to use as pronouns", you won’t have any problems.

Writing a novel is a lot of work. Writing a program is a lot of work. Trying to do both, which is all interactive fiction really is, can be a monumental undertaking. But it’s fun, too. That’s what I’ve discovered in the past few months.