A Story About A Story About Stories

By Cara Ellison on July 29th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.

The Kiss creator and poet Dan Waber wrote to me and Porpentine with a very personal story about how the games community, specifically the Twine community and RPS readers, have embraced him more forcefully than the literature community has. I was quite moved by his candour in talking about his newest readers, and I asked him if I could publish his letter here. He said yes. Here are his words.

In 2010 I was noodling around with a free tool for creating hypertext stories and interactive fictions called Twine when I had an idea for a piece that would be perfect to make with it.

Early on in the process I started to experience some very difficult to deal with slowdowns from the visual editor so I contacted the author of the software, Chris Klimas, who was extremely helpful. After sending him my working file to demonstrate what I was experiencing he made some changes to the software to improve the situation, and made a suggestion for a MUCH better way to structure the map. The way was so much better that I am not sure I would have been able to finish what became a novel-length text if it had been structured differently. I had started with what was basically a top-down hierarchical tree, and he suggested a beginning-in-the-center shape, which crystallized my hazy plan perfectly. During one later exchange he told me that he was pretty sure it was the largest project anyone had attempted with Twine.

So when I got this novel-length hypertext finished, completely proofed and corrected and ready for the world I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I’m kind of a control freak when it comes to the presentation of my work, and I’d recently had yet another very dissatisfying episode dealing with someone else publishing something of mine, so I said you know what, screw it, I’m going to publish it myself at my website logolalia.com and I’ll post a screen capture of the whole map, and write an introduction to it, and then put it behind a very small pay-wall. $5. Well, not all experiments work. Two people in the first week and none in the two years that followed. Pretty bleak.

Then in 2012 I got a very kind invitation from an online literary journal to send work for their soon-to-launch next issue. I’ve had a couple of things published there in the past, and they’ve always been very supportive of the electronic literature community, so I offered them this piece. The issue that it appears in came out in June. Here’s where it starts to get numerically interesting.

One thing that I added to the Twine code is some tracking code that shows me in real time when people are visiting which pages. When I gave the file to the journal I figured they would probably comb through the code in order to change the visual look of the piece to match their issue and figured there was a decent chance that tracking code wouldn’t make it into the final version that went online. However, what they did was make a frame on the page that loads my original from my site.

So I was able to watch, in real time, how many people were reading this piece, and for how long. I also have my server logs to reference the aggregate numbers. I looked at this as a fun experiment in traffic watching. That journal has about 7200 Twitter followers. I don’t know their Facebook numbers because I refuse to use Facebook.

Then, about a week later, because I had contributed some columns to their e-issues, a well-respected print poetry journal sent out a tweet linking directly to my piece in the issue, not to the issue in general. They have about 5600 followers. There’s bound to be some overlap, of course, but just for roundness, let’s say that’s 10,000 people who saw tweets about the issue launch, or my piece directly.

It was fun to watch people visit, watch the time they stayed, and how many pages they read. The piece has 1001 passages, but most people viewed just a tiny fraction of them. I thought, man, I am a crappy writer, I guess. Now, to be fair, some people engaged with the work, and my wife read to me an interesting discussion that happened on Facebook among some Canadian writers we know and some we don’t, but–and I wasn’t keeping super-strict check on it (and I only watch from 8-5 my time, so have NO idea what happened off hours)–my general impression was that it was being briefly considered. I think the most pages I saw any one person view was in the teens. Hardly anyone stayed with it for longer than a few minutes.

Then I was AFK for a week on vacation.

Then, something really fun happened. I learned that there’s a lot of people out there who use Twine to make text-based games. I saw one tweet from one gamer blossom in about two weeks. At first they came to visit in numbers about twice what I’d seen from the literary communities, then Porpentine posted a link to it on freeindiegam.es (http://www.freeindiegam.es/2013/07/a-kiss-dan-waber/), and someone else commented that SURELY it hadn’t been made in the Twine GUI, so I posted a reply saying it had been, along with a link to the node-map, which Porpentine posted to a collection of Twine node maps and then wrote a review of the piece, as a game, on RPS.

The node map from The Kiss

The traffic from that is just now starting to die down, and this is what I learned by watching in real time and reviewing server logs.

In June, when the issue launched, and the literary announcements went out, the file that is my story was loaded n times.

In July, as of yesterday, the file was loaded 10*n times. By this time the literary journal accounted for 0.3*n. The rest were from the gaming community who linked to my original file, not to the journal, which is what made these differences see-able to me. 5*n visitors were the result of Porpentine’s review at RPS.

But the really cool part is how much more time people who approached it as a “game” spent than people who approached it as “literature”. The game community page numbers were consistently in the 50-70 page range, and the highest individual number I saw was 104, by a person with a Munich IP address who spent 4 hours with it. There are some people who haven’t left it. They have simply kept it open in their browsers and once a day for the past week they add a couple of pages to their total count.

It’s enough to make a poet start calling himself a game developer. Because it really seems like if I call a thing I did a poem people say “that’s nice, dear” and pat me on the head like I’m precious. If I say I made a game I get READ.

Regards,
Dan

Thank you Dan. You can play The Kiss here.

__________________

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36 Comments »

  1. Jimanzium The King says:

    The full article is on the homepage.

  2. Porpentine says:

    ::)

  3. Baf says:

    See, this is why the whole “Can games be art?” thing is misguided. It assumes that having your work regarded as Art rather than as Games is something desirable.

    • lowprices says:

      But can art be games?

      Kidding. Given how many comments on Porpentine’s column are complaints about the number of Twines being posted, I am both surprised and heartwarmed by this story. I guess maybe it’s a case of the negative minority being the most vocal.

      • Porpentine says:

        i think one time someone complained about the number of twines in a column where 0 twines were posted

      • MarcP says:

        Of course it is a negative minority. Much like RPS itself would be a negative vocal minority from the point of view of the dozens of millions who enjoy the call of duties of the world, or the hundreds of millions who enjoy cheap mobile games and random flash games. As soon as you exercise some judgement and ask more from your entertainment than the absolute minimum, you’re bound to be part of a minority.

        • Focksbot says:

          “As soon as you exercise some judgement and ask more from your entertainment than the absolute minimum, you’re bound to be part of a minority.”

          You have to be careful with this kind of thinking. It’s not necessarily easy to discern between being discerning and being vacuously judgemental. Personally, I don’t think the people who complain about Twine games are being particularly discerning – they’re more like people who declare themselves bored in the first five minutes of a film if there hasn’t already been an explosion, especially if it’s ‘just people talking’.

          Entertainment is a matter of how you choose to engage with a medium, not just what it ‘does’ to you. Hence why there are still many, many people in the world who don’t find any computer game particularly diverting.

    • MarcP says:

      Indeed, if your main concern is popularity, to ask if games can be art is counterproductive.

      I don’t care for the question myself, but I’d wager people who do are more concerned about recognition, about meeting certain standards based on quality over quantity.

  4. iucounu says:

    Fair warms the cockles, it does.

  5. danwaber says:

    Thanks to everyone who read, and is reading. FWIW, since I wrote this the record (as I’ve seen it) now stands at 205 (unique) passages.

    • Focksbot says:

      Hi Dan – as someone with a connection to the literary community, I think this is a pretty marvellous thing you’ve done. Your findings about reading time aren’t too surprising – one thing to remember about poetry, at least in my experience, is it’s not necessarily something you charge through in one go. I tend to approach poems on the page by skimming them first and then coming back repeatedly for more thorough investigation. This creates issues with a large interactive poem because when you return to it, you’re usually back at the start – unless you’ve saved the url.

      • danwaber says:

        Absolutely, it’s important to be aware that what we’re talking about right now isn’t a “poem” and it isn’t a “game”, either. It’s a novel-length text that probably doesn’t cleanly fit into any one category alone. It includes some poetry and was created with a piece of software often used for making games. So any direct comparison to either a game or a poem is limited. But, in addition to referrer, and unique page views, I also see number of visits (from the same IP/browser pair). And my logs show a comparable disparity in return visits. Gamers are much more likely to return to this piece than people from literary referrers.

        There is a situation that is unclear, which is when people come from “no referrer”. That means they either cut/pasted the URL without clicking on a link, or, possibly bookmarked the link and then returned to it. I don’t have a way to know the origin of those. True of Facebook links, as well, as FB strips all detailed referrer information, so all I can see is that they came from “facebook.com”. I don’t add those numbers/referrers/factors in. I’ve tried in all of this to limit my statements to the stats I know with some level of sureness.

        And it’s important to me to say that I don’t mean any of this information to disparage the literary community, I only mean to show that there are differences in how a piece that fits cleanly into neither community is interacted with by each.

  6. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Awesome. I’m awaiting the Twine-bashing with baited breath, though. Because, apparently, Twine is inferior.

    • The Random One says:

      Damn right! Everyone knows parser based IF is the one true IF, and TWINE is for lazy posers! I’ve written a comment that will convince all of you and now I’ll post it!

      > POST COMMENT ON SITE
      I don’t know how to “post”.
      > WRITE COMMENT ON SITE
      What do you want to write with?
      > KEYBOARD
      You can’t get on top of the site!
      > WRITE COMMENT
      What do you want to write with?
      > KEYBOARD
      The comment’s already written! Now you just need to publish it!
      > PUBLISH COMMENT
      I don’t know how to “publish”.
      > WRITE ON SITE
      What do you want to write on the site?
      > COMMENT
      You can’t get on top of the site!
      > FUCK THIS SHIT
      The pile of manure is indifferent to your sexual advances.

      • MadTinkerer says:

        If you’re not punching holes in paper tape at some point, you’re using one of the lazy text adventure interfaces.

      • Mo6eB says:

        > PRESENT COMMENT TO CHIPMUNK

        You present your comment to your trusty computer, who you’ve nicknamed “Chipmunk”, on account of his chippy internals. Chipmunk processes your comment in an internet-digestible form and flushes it down the international supertubes. Soon this bitsludge will be leaving letter-stains upon other people’s monitoring devices, hopefully ones they can read.

  7. Skabooga says:

    Allow me to sensationalize the headline: “Video game players read more than the literary community”.

    • Mo6eB says:

      Well, that’s understandable. The literary community is stuck in a “deep”, “art” phase and I seriously doubt any of them read for such puerile reasons as “fun”. Though I guess “stuck” isn’t the verb I need here, since they are at that stage in full conscious of their standing and with no desire of attempt to break away or move on.

  8. The Random One says:

    What a beautiful story about a beautiful story. I’m regretful to report I only read a few pages of Kiss, but I loved what I read and am certain to return to it.

    Though I gotta say I found that whole n thing a tad confusing. Are you saying that the literary community accounted for 3% if accesses and Porp & Co for 50%?

    • danwaber says:

      Sorry for that confusion, I mean to show that Porp @ Co, in a matter of days, resulted in almost 10x the number of readers as the literary community did in a month.

      But it wasn’t simply the quantity that was significant to me. It was the quality, it was the depth to which those readers engaged with the work. To be “widely” read means little, but to be “well” read, now that’s something all writers who share what they do hope for.

  9. Peptidix says:

    Thank you for repeatedly posting about this. Because I managed to only look at it shallowly until now, and it is certainly something worth exploring. It is always nice to experience a captured moment in this loving detail.

  10. AlexStoic says:

    I think there is a great distinction to make here. Getting anyone to read poetry is always going to be an uphill battle, even for the poet laureate. We’re barraged by opinions and feelings from all angles, why should the average person actually put effort into deciphering yours? (I’m talking about ‘in general’ of course, not specifically this author)

    Buuuut, you make it a game and now there’s a goal and I want to achieve it. Sure, it’s poetry about a kiss, but in game form it’s actually a mystery. It’s like finding an old picture in an attic of two people kissing, and following the clues to find out who they are and why they’re kissing and what they’re doing now and how they feel about it. That’s intriguing, and gamers can’t resist a good puzzle mystery.

    In fact, if you framed it this way (instead of ‘a poem about a kiss’) I bet you’d get even more traffic.

    • danwaber says:

      Your’re correct, of course. And it’s a very interesting point in any discussion about the convergence of literature and videogames, because of how it speaks to both intention (on the part of the one who made it) and expectation (of those who interact with it). Personally, I believe with Canadian poet bpNichol that “All theory comes after the fact of creation.” and I find it a very exciting time to be in when people can make anything they want and then talk about what it IS afterwards.

      • BooleanBob says:

        If you really want to get gamers reading, you should set up progress bars and achievements. Maybe a map of all the passages, with the visited ones getting coloured in.

        • SuicideKing says:

          Yes, Steam achievements and Cloud saves add to the fun.

          (just kidding :3 )

  11. Serenegoose says:

    In my experience (as an author with one finished novel) it is generally a nightmare to get people to read anything if you call it a book, novel, or anything that implies that it’s words on a page. People will, in fact, come up with truly, truly spectacular amounts of excuses as to why reading’s ‘too much effort’ as they dive into their daily check of the 83 webcomics they read. Before playing an RPG.
    Call it a game, call it a webcomic, call it even a visual novel (though look how much more niche some incredibly well written visual novels are compared to say, planescape torment… a visual novel that doesn’t identify as such) and people will look at it. Call it a book and they’ll do it tomorrow.

    People might call me bitter over this. In my darker moments, I am. But the observation I’m trying to make is not a slight on games, webcomics, or whatever (things I enjoy tremendously) but that for some reason we’ve created a societal mental block on words like ‘book’, ‘poem’, ‘novel’, etc. It doesn’t surprise me that their work took off the moment it was identified by others as a game, and not a poem.

    • frightlever says:

      I’m on a reading tear at the minute. Point me at your novel and if it’s affordable and vaguely interesting looking, I’ll read it. If it’s about a sleepy coastal town with a dying fishing industry then screw you, I’m not getting burned like that again.

    • BooleanBob says:

      See also cracked.com’s successful list article model, which really just consists of medium length op-eds disguised with a few arbitrary bullet points.

  12. JackShandy says:

    This is great to know. I wonder what causes it?

    • Temple says:

      Surely I’m not the only one who is thinking once Dan wrote “since I wrote this the record (as I’ve seen it) now stands at 205 (unique) passages” is not THAT many passages and I can easily beat that.

      And that person in Munich, 4 hours? Pffft I spent over 18 hours on Civ 4 yesterday I can easily take the longest record for this as well.

      Gamers. And as someone commented mental block on reading, but ‘games’ are fun though. I always say I have short attention span, but can spend hours with a game. TV I flick, books a few hours, games all day.

  13. frightlever says:

    Virtually everyone who writes, reads, edits, proofs and links to literary journals wants to be recognised as a writer. For the most part they’re more interested in being part of a literary circle than actually reading any of it. If you want to get published in a literary journal, start your own literary journal first and make it clear you won’t be publishing your own work – you will in fact be concentrating on publishing work by editors of other literary journals.

    Because the barrier to entry is higher (though not THAT much higher to be honest – the tools available now are incredible) most gamers are content to just play games and have few aspirations to make them.

    Twine is great for quickly turning out a narrative led games and Inform 7 is virtually no more difficult to get into if you want to make more traditional adventures. Mind you, some of the stuff being done in Twine now is epic.

  14. edwardoka says:

    First of all, the effort required to make something of this scale is amazing, so congratulations on completing such a mammoth endeavour.

    I think that Interactive Fiction is a format that works very well in the hands of gifted authors – I loved Save the Date, for instance (although I don’t think it was made in Twine, I’d consider it to be very much a twinelike)

    I personally don’t like Twine, but my issue with it isn’t down to the format, per se. My issue with is down to the fact that the relative barrier to entry is incredibly low – anyone can download the software, write a piece in very short order and dunt it on the web without requiring any kind of training, expertise, or self-restraint.

    Everyone at some point in their lives believes that they can write good narratives (I include myself in that, I’ve written short stories, which, on re-reading them years later, left me with no illusions about my ability as a writer).

    In my experience, the vast majority of Twines I’ve encountered have been forgettable, self-indulgent pieces of poorly-written twaddle, notable only for the fact that they are interactive (and often, they don’t even manage that).

    • frightlever says:

      That’s why gate-keepers are important. Porpentine et al are gate-keepers for the good Twine stuff. Even then the stuff that floats to the surfacel isn’t going to appeal to everyone. What you’ve done is discovered that, say, novels exist and then started reading every novel that’s available. There are a lot of really bad novels but that doesn’t invalidate the novel as an art form, or the typewriter or word-processor used to create it.

      There have been attempts to maintain strict control over creativity, in word or art, generally enforced by a system of patronage (a loaded word), certification or public immolation. Nowadays we can all be artists, even if we’re bad artists and yet, some of us, heh, would rather divert our energies into writing snarky, unhelpful comments. Ah, when will we learn, you and I, who are identical, when will we learn?

  15. waltC says:

    Thanks! I’ve always wondered what the hopelessly, criminally insane at Bellevue U. do for relaxation. That is, when they aren’t physically operating invisible spinning wheels for Greta’s hair, and so on. Good to know. I ‘spose.