S.EXE: The Arboretum

By Cara Ellison on August 1st, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

This week on S.EXE I am bringing to your attention the slowburning intimate relationship of two people in Matthew S. Burns’ The Arboretum. The Arboretum was just released on the always excellent Unwinnable dot com, a place that welcomes experimental writing and game design and published yours truly before she really knew who she was. The Arboretum is a gentle and deftly-written text adventure, linear and beautiful in texture. It is a delicate exploration of the feelings of two teenagers whose only dating advice came from hentai and anime, and their fumbling fights their own expectations of romance.

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31st July 2014
New York
Someone’s back yard, 1am
Mosquito-bitten

Dear Matthew,

I guess I have been livetweeting my reactions to your game to you as I play it, and we have commenced a sort of light discussion on how text games like your game The Arboretum are not quite accepted in literature, and not quite accepted as games. Instead Twine games – games that are constructed out of hypertext that you click to advance narrative – seem to lie in a No Man’s Land, in a limbo, where there isn’t really a category they can quite sit in comfortably. It seems to make sense to write this in letter form, now, because I feel very much like I want to address this to you as someone who is also intimately acquainted with Twine and its intricate parts. I would like to discuss not only the literary nature of your game, but also the mechanical merits of it, and how they moved me as someone who has made a few Twine games myself.

It is important to me to point out that now as I play this game I am sitting in the tepid humidity of a Manhattan back garden. A gentle, close darkness sits around my shoulders; all the lights are off as I am working late and my hosts are asleep. Far above me a few orange lights are lit in the tall apartment buildings. The grating hum of air conditioning units is vibrating in waves towards me. Sometimes a gentle cool draft brushes my shoulders like it would in an arboretum, pushing aside the muggy cloak. My laptop glows with the pale moleskin palette you have chosen for your game. As I click to advance through your narrative, the sounds you have chosen for each ‘scene’ that you paint, they emanate from my little machine and mixed with the darkness, it informs my imagination all the more urgently.

The words, phrases, sentences you use to tell this story are excellent. As you mentioned, expectations and cultural context have meant that Twine games, though they are word-based, have not been so popular in e-lit communities, despite the fact that a focus on words and the craft of poetry in particular are more of a focus in these games. And Twine games have not entirely been welcomed either by a traditional gaming crowd more obsessed with pointing out when something is ‘not a game’ than engaging with the material inside the container in question. But it’s possible to use ‘game’ language to point out your triumphs here: each ‘room’ of text is minimalist in design, constructed of one or two sentences that are concise, the words chosen for impact. These are the ‘graphics’, if you will, that the player negotiates. If one were so crude as to imagine the eyeline trailing over the words, perhaps we might talk about the sentences as if they were platforms, and the invisible dance our eyes make on the screen as being the phantom avatar. The thicker the words are on the page, the slower your movement through the room – the words become obstacles that you negotiate. The ‘levels’ with the most impact are the ones that are less busy with words, where your eye bounces off the platform the words make. When you click to go to the next ‘room’, it is like going through a door in the mind, and we navigate the dungeon of words this way. But all the real imagery is created in our heads.

Obviously words have a lot to do with how we regard a game. Even games with the traditional graphics we are used to use the power of words not only for instructions, hints and tutorials, but for evoking a certain closeness of the player to the ‘text’ or game. For example, the simple act of being able to rename Link in a Legend of Zelda game is quite a powerful hand extended to the player. Every time ‘your’ name is printed in the game you come to remember that the game welcomes your presence. Unless, like me, you called your hero ‘Poopy’. In which case, it becomes the sort of game you deserve.

In any case, your literary craft has always been excellent – I mean, to read your blog is always a pleasure – but it’s quite thrilling to see someone who has such a handle on words ‘level design’ those words in Twine. Usually I would reserve this sort of appreciation for the sharpened Twine abilities of Porpentine, who also has the gift of a musical vocabulary and a concise, tyrannical poetic structure for her passages. But there’s nothing quite like designing for those boxes inside the Twine editor – building and looking at how the sentences look on the page, where they are positioned, when they appear. You begin with longer narrative passages to introduce the player to your world, and then, as the story winds on, you use one sentence or two sentences screens, sometimes with the sentences staggered in appearance, to give a sense that the two characters are thoughtful. You give the rhythm of thinking, of contemplation, merely through the structure of your text.

But I feel like the reason you chose to tell this story through the means of a particular engine, Twine, is interestingly bound up, as all games should be, in theme. This is a story of two people who are caught up in narratives, narratives that they ostensibly learned from hentai games, which often come in the form of visual novels heavy on text. The hesitant small talk the characters undertake as they tentatively ‘hang out’, go on dates, second guess themselves, overthink things, these are tropes familiar to me, particularly now that I have some experience in the Otome genre too. The two characters are literally bound up in their own text, unable to keep from writing their own narrative, hobbled by their own words.

Sometimes those words are powerful, if you leave them in the centre of the screen, alone. That is a game mechanic.

The sentence, ‘You felt alive and powerful’, sitting alone on a screen with the soothing audio, is something I stared at for a long time. There is only one ‘button’ to click on that screen, and yet I left it manipulating me, the player.

Is it true to say that this is a linear game? The final and only choice is a choice that has no outcome: you make a decision between choosing to contact your long lost love or to not contact them, and the game ends when you choose one – there is no further text. It is left to the imagination to think about whether that was the best outcome for you.

But is that ‘no outcome’? Mechanically speaking, no more text is given. But the choice exists in the head. It was still a choice. I found my mind wandering to all the of the options I had in life, to all of the romances I could have had, or could have left. The hearts I broke, or the times I could not stop my heart being broken. These are real branches of narrative, but they are not written down. These are real levels that never were touched by a level editor. You constructed them as maker of this game.

I guess to a real extent, what your story also did, by your character Derek wondering about his own ‘journalistic integrity’ or independence from subject matter, is make me think about how futile that battle has been for me. I open this piece telling you that my experience of your game was changed just by the atmosphere in which I was sitting. Isn’t everyone’s experience of a game informed by the time and place in which they are playing? Something as simple as my hamster dying made Lemmings suddenly seem the most fucking terrible, repugnant game in the world. Lemmings. You cannot not like Lemmings. Who does not like Lemmings? Those things are adorable. But they do resemble little hamsters if you squint at the Gameboy screen at age twelve when your hamster has just snuffed it at the vet’s.

Perhaps all our memories of our past loves are polished to a fine sheen by the corruption of the mind, and your character, Derek, is right. It is up to us to make our stories, and to decide whether it was worth making that story or not.

But at the heart of this game there is a very honest appraisal of the tension between the design of memory, and how that romanticises and simplifies a story. It connects writing, or narrative structure, directly to game design: we design everything really, by simplifying it into systems of easily consumable narrative.

This game is a very honest game. It is gentle and articulate about love and expectation. It tries to be honest about the dishonesty of our minds, how narratives warp and lead us. What is love if not a narrative that we impress on life? When you drift out of love, how do you know it ever existed?

Oh, and the audio design. Well, the audio design is wonderful.

Matthew, try playing your game outside in the dark. I think that you would like it.

Cara

P.S. The previous S.EXE columns can be found here.

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