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Post-Mortem: Rumours & Hearsay

I wouldn’t call myself an experienced writer of fiction, but I’ve certainly had more practice at it than I have at making Twine games. That’s why I decided to write one and why this post-mortem is going to be fairly self-critical.

The elephant in the room with ‘Rumours & Hearsay’ is how ambitious it was. I very quickly decided that the title we were given was a great fit for a duo, and when several days later I re-read China Mieville’s essay ‘From Choice to Polarity: Politics of, and, and in Art’ I wanted to build a game around its ideas. Binary choices are a long-standing conceit in games, made particularly obvious in the “moral choices” (typically ‘are you saintly or are you a monster’ with little or no space for anything in between) offered by games like BioShock, Infamous and others.

Conceptually it was a great fit, but Mieville is a very a clever writer and grappling with something as conceptually dense and difficult to unpick as that essay proved challenging. I had planned for the concept of ‘reparative criticism’ to come to the fore as players approached the end of the game, allowing them to loop back to the original arguments with new options available depending on their prior choices. The original idea for my Twine was so ambitious that everything I had to do was stacked against me and the time limit: planning, structure, technical composition, re-imagining the source of inspiration in a different format, etc.

Fortunately for my sanity I lowered my sights and decided to largely discard the reparative criticism angle, focusing instead on the initial step of rejecting artificial binary choices. I dropped the number of ‘scenes’ from four to three. I also decided to move away from my original idea for stringing together the choices, which was a set of kinetically-written action scenes (I had in mind something akin to the disconnected hyper violence and parkour of this unselfconscious music video), and take a lower-key, mildly comic and slightly sinister approach. I think this worked better as it cleanses the mental palette between the titular duo’s arguments, and the world doesn’t need another largely empty observation that video games have a propensity for violence.

As for characters, the protagonist is deliberately as open and vague as possible, with the narration intended to support that conceit. The intended aim is that players find it natural to imagine themselves in the protagonist’s shoes without adopting a particular role, and thereby focusing on the choices and arguments. Rumours and Hearsay, meanwhile, began in my notes as “a bit like the fast-talking detectives from Barton Fink” but went off in their own direction. In some ways they’re an archetypal comedy duo although this was never a conscious decision; it’s probably an unconscious side effect of wanting the game to have a little humour. Similarly, I’ve no idea why they may or may not be deceased or demonic.

The subject matter for the three arguments took some deliberation. I considered the Corbyn/Smith Labour leadership battle, which is still there in the form of a ‘joke’ about Corbyn and current Prime Minister Theresa May, but I decided the Labour leadership battle was too niche a topic outside Britain and the European left, and besides which it would be over before September was. Also up for consideration were conspiracy theories. I have a friend who is obsessed with finding the kookiest of YouTube kooks promoting stuff like “Obama’s head found on Mars” or “Michele Obama has a penis”. This would have been funny, but wasn’t a good fit for the broader theme.

Instead I found myself watching the first Presidential debate between Clinton and Trump (the rendering of their names as Killary and Drumpf is a tip of the hat to the game Paper Drumpf and the Drumpfinator browser plugin), making notes on their oratory styles and preferred subjects, and re-reading old criticism of Game of Thrones (holla, Tiger Beatdown). It was harder than I expected to espouse antithetical views with which I only partially agreed. My actual opinions on these matters are neither here nor there with regards ‘Rumours & Hearsay’, but I tried to give each perspective its due. This was essential to avoid the entire edifice crumbling into a limp “everyone’s right and everyone’s wrong!” platitude or “extremism in any direction is bad!” wrongheadedness.

Thanks to the shifts between three different subjects, each of which demanded its own language and focuses, my Twine is full of tonal shifts. This was inevitable and essential but I feel like I could have done a better job of managing it, perhaps by strengthening the narrative framework to provide more cohesion. This was another casualty of ambition and time.

Finally, we come to the business of cramming all of this into Twine. I used Twine 2 and the ‘Harlowe’ model. I didn’t consider the others; Harlowe turned out to be the default and I ran with that. I didn’t try to do anything particularly clever with ‘Rumours & Hearsay’ as I didn’t go into this with much idea of what Twine can or cannot do beyond what I’d seen in the two dozen or so Twines I’ve played in the past. There are a few bits in my game that do not work as they should (the way that variables are set at the beginning of scene 2 is broken, for example), but I think those failures are at least concealed. I also flirted with custom stylesheets but found everything I tried out uglier than the clean, simple default style.

There’s a lot of disparity in section lengths. Some of my ‘nodes’ contain only about 50 words whereas a few run to 600 or more. I’ve no idea if this is good or bad in practice; it seems okay, I guess? I feel I should engage closely with other, well-regarded Twines and analyse them critically before I try and do another. Although if I ever revisit ‘Rumours & Hearsay’, to rewrite and improve it, I might experiment with porting it into Inkle’s Inky/Inklewriter format and seeing what I think of that.

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