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Rat Chaos and the Preservation of Early Twine Games
Welcome to 2019! I’m thrilled to have a regular column in sub-Q and get the chance to write about interactive fiction.
For my previous essays at the site, I’ve largely written about games from a slightly earlier period of the development of interactive fiction, from the late 90s to the mid-2000s, a period in which a lot of the tropes and tools of the field were established. I often focused on games that presaged important stylistic techniques or expansions of the breadth of interactive fiction, at a time when their impact might have not quite been realized.
“How we preserve our games just as important as how we play them.”
One thing I’ve realized, though—without making an appeal to nostalgia for its own sake—is the push and pull between “obsolescence” and “timelessness.” There are not always clear dividing lines between the two. How we preserve our games just as important as how we play them. And a parser game created with Inform has the same (more or less) consistent architecture as an Inform game from 1997. The latter should still be relatively accessible to find and play. On the other hand, Twine games from the the early years of Twine (say, 2009 to 2013) have sometimes been difficult to find. They were often hosted on sites whose URLs have lapsed as a part of a personal project, or a platform or venue that went belly up.
This brings us to Rat Chaos by Winter Lake (2012).
It’s… well. A short game about a space captain, a talking rat named New Rat City and unleashing rat chaos. Take the ten or fifteen minutes to sift through all of its branches. What is so compelling about it is the imbalance with the abrupt endings that pepper the experience. These are not gimmicky; rather, they are almost like “mulligans”—do-overs that subliminally remind you that the right course of action is rat chaos. It’s only then that the true heart of the game reveals itself—the heartache of New Rat City that’s hiding in plain sight. The sketches that accompany the game further highlight the ravaged emotional state of New Rat City and this world.
This is one of those little masterpieces that was, indeed, created in a couple of hours. And with its black background with white text (which was pretty close to a house style for a certain type of early Twine game), its juxtaposition of the absurd and the intensely personal, and quick playing time, it became an important touchstone game. Lots of other Twine games would try to emulate its style, though the devil, as always, was in the details and was certainly Harder than It Looked. It (deservedly) won an XYZZY Award for Best Individual NPC and received glowing reviews. It had clearly struck a mark with players.
And it disappeared for awhile. I can’t think of another time when a XYZZY winner was simply not readily available online. Thankfully, someone re-uploaded another copy of it, but that disappearance gave me pause.
“Over the last 20 years, it’s been easy to get lulled into the security that everything ever made will last forever. But art from the margins has the greatest chance of slipping from our grasp.”
There are likely hundreds of early Twine games that might find themselves difficult to find very soon, and surely some have already been lost. Efforts have been made to preserve Twine games, particularly by the IF Tech Foundation. Over the last 20 years, it’s been easy to get lulled into the security that everything ever made will last forever. But art from the margins has the greatest chance of slipping from our grasp.