The future of video games will be shaped by a new generation of designers who grew up on a healthy diet of coding and game design principles.
The self-taught, homebrew developers of today’s video game industry are proof of this. In the last ten years, independent games have blossomed into a market of their own. Now, anyone who can code, and has a keen eye for story or visual flair, can create and publish a game. Some games are made in a few days, or even a few hours. The one thing they have in common is that they aren’t seeking mainstream approval or industry accolades; often, they are made to illuminate a moment or a feeling.
Twine was created by a web developer named Chris Klimas in 2009. While in graduate school at the University of Baltimore’s Interaction Design and Information Architecture program, Klimas began writing what he calls “hypertext fiction”—playing with interactivity and narrative outside a game. In order to make life easier for himself, he invented a set of tools that turned source code into interactive HTML. He showed them around to some friends, but no one seemed particularly interested, mostly because they were heavy on programming language and hard to comprehend.
At first, Klimas didn’t think of Twine—the name he later gave to the program—as a game-making tool. It wasn’t until he went public that he noticed that’s what the majority of people were using it for. Not that a lot of people were downloading it: maybe a total of one hundred people actually used the first version of the program. But word spread quickly. Soon, independent developers were posting Twine games on their sites. Some were straightforward, choose-your-own adventure games. Others had complex, nonlinear storylines. In one, Queers in Love at the End of the World, two lovers have ten seconds left before the end of the world. The game is played in real-time. Players can make the lovers hold hands, cry, talk, fight. Each choice leads to a different outcome. When the timer hits zero, the game ends. Other games went the whole hog: sounds, pictures, music. One Twine game called The Terror Aboard The Speedwell is 50,000 words long.
There are now more than a hundred downloads of Twine per day. Klimas updated the software and moved it to a web-based platform. (The initial version required a download onto a PC.) Now, users can operate it straight from the website. There’s even a tablet version. “I wanted people whose only access to computers is through a public library to have a chance to use it, and to meet halfway those whose primary experience with computers is a tablet,” Klimas said.
Twine has certainly changed the way people think about games. It’s given established game designers and enthusiasts a platform to challenge the notion that video games have to look and feel a certain way. Anna Anthropy, a celebrated game designer who helped spread the word about Twine, has been doing this for years. Her game Dys4ia, which is about gender identity disorder, has long been held as a leading example of games’ ability to explore marginalized issues with emotional depth.
Born in the Bronx, New York, Anthropy got into gaming through another DIY tool, shareware called ZZT. Like Twine, it didn’t require previous programming knowledge. Anthropy was ten when she first started playing around with it; her dad was into gaming and had her hooked on Missile Command and Ms. Pac Man. When her family bought a computer, Anthropy’s first thought was to make her own games. She didn’t know any programming, and at the time, there weren’t a lot of resources for kids who wanted to learn it. All she had was a book about QBasic, a programming language, which proved to be a bad starting point. “It was totally incomprehensible,” she said recently.
One afternoon, she stumbled upon ZZT, an ANSI character-based video game made by legendary game designer Tim Sweeney in 1991. (Sweeney later founded Epic Games.) It was a DOS game, and it took place in text mode. Every graphic was composed of text characters—letters, numbers, playing card suites. (Hearts could represent health, for example.)
Like all teenagers, Anthropy eventually became infatuated with other things—drawing, comic books—and stopped playing around in ZZT. But she continued playing games. It wasn’t until college that she stumbled upon a program called GameMaker. She was wary at first—it looked too technical—but her life circumstances soon became so turbulent that she turned to game design almost as a kind of therapy. She was at the State University of New York Purchase, doing a dual creative writing and women’s studies major. But she didn’t see a future in it, and she didn’t want to be stuck in school forever. Plus, she’d had some bad experiences on campus. As a transgender woman, she’d requested accommodation in the female dorms. But, according to Anthropy, the university insisted that she needed to be in the male dorms. So she moved off campus, to White Plains in Westchester County. But the commute was long, and she couldn’t keep up the rent payments. “I didn’t feel like I was ever going to get my degree done, because I wasn’t interested in my classes. I wasn’t interested in academia in general.” So she dropped out.
To take her mind off things, she began using GameMaker. Her first game was called Jay Walker. Players must run across the street at just the right moment to get as many cars as possible to crash into each other. Next, she tried something political. It was a shooting game called Kill Your Television, in which players shot at television screens playing different advertisements. Anthropy enrolled in Southern Methodist University’s Guildhall video game development program in Texas, but she didn’t fit in there, either. “Their whole strategy was that they’d prepare you for the worst practices of the video game industry by making you go through them, one by one,” she said. The work was tedious. One programming exercise called for students to create video game characters based on outdated clichés—ninja, pirate, robot, monkey and so on. “They basically told me I could leave or get a better attitude. So I left.”
In 2009, Anthropy returned to New York and began making Flash games. She wanted to make enough money to move to San Francisco. A small community of independent game developers was forming there, and she knew that’s where she’d find her niche. Flash games had become something of a phenomenon around that time, and she earned money from companies like Adult Swim by making Flash games for their site. She worked until she had enough money to move, and then relocated to San Francisco.
She created Dys4ia in 2012. The game documents a six-month period in a transwoman’s life, touching on every frustration she encountered, from the drugs in the transitioning process to dealing with social prejudices. The game was small, and basic, but it received international attention. Critics were intrigued by its honesty, and at Anthropy’s ability to effectively communicate the emotional underpinnings of such a personal, private experience.
Eventually, people began referring to Dys4ia as an “empathy game”, a label that Anthropy is uncomfortable with. “You can’t just play [Dys4ia] and suddenly know everything there is to know about being a transgender woman,” she said. After Dys4ia was released, Anthropy began getting requests to exhibit the game at game festivals. She was invited to speak at galleries specializing in interactive art. No one seemed particularly interested in her other work; they just wanted to know more about this game. So she stopped promoting the game, and began charging a fee to show the game in public. (She once received an email from a curator in New York who was putting together an exhibition of empathy games at a gallery and wanted to exhibit Dys4ia. Anthropy told him he couldn’t display the game, but that she would send him a pair of her old shoes instead. If people were so keen to learn what being a transwoman is like, they could literally walk in her shoes.)
When Anthropy discovered Twine and began making games with it, the games took off. And Twine along with them. Anthropy and Klimas met face-to-face for the first time at a conference two years ago. “It was emotional—we had steered each other’s careers,” Anthropy said.
Her next project is a children’s book about DIY game creation, using free software like Twine. “The idea is that as long as you have a computer and an internet connection, you can do everything.” According to Anthropy, part of the problem with empathy games is that it tries to condense games to a message in order to teach, or incite action. This ignores the art of games. She wants kids to grow up knowing how to make games the way she did, without necessarily needing a higher concept to aspire to.
“I want kids to grow up understanding games as just another artform,” she said. “Not that they’re better than comics or writing or whatever, but just another avenue to express what’s going on with them. Games deserve that too—they deserve to be a thing people fill with the truth of themselves.”
An excerpt from Power Play by Asi Burak and Laura Parker. Copyright (c) 2017 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press.