Cultural Studies Leuven

Hypertextual trauma: Porpentine’s Twine games and the borders of self-narration

By Kahn Faassen
(Student Advanced Master in Literary Studies)

Many interesting narrative experiments have hatched in the margins of the Internet. The paper I wrote for the course Literature and Psychoanalysis in the Advanced Master in Literary Studies gave me the opportunity to take a closer look at a very particular type of textual art that has developed online: Twine games.

Twine is a free, user-friendly indie game engine which allows a very broad audience to create, share, and experience interactive stories. Many of these new game developers are not part of the demographic usually working for, or targeted by, the mainstream gaming industry and it shows in the works they create. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender (LGBT) artists find in Twine a very useful platform to tell the kind of stories they are interested in, and these stories are markedly different from the narratives primarily written by and marketed towards cisgender heterosexual men. Whereas most games of the latter variety are competitive and control-based, and the player’s primary objective is beating them, many Twine games focus on making the most of their medium’s interactive and storytelling potential, and primarily emphasise player affect and experience.

One game developer in particular jumps out for using Twine to tell stories that matter to her: an online artist named Porpentine. As a transgender woman who struggles with the debilitating effects of trauma and disability, her games are for her a way to authentically deal with gender dysphoria, social stigmatisation and depression, and to reach out to other people who are in similar situations. In my paper I looked at her work as a new form of autopathography, an autobiographical illness narrative irreverently straining the limits of literature, using its medium to the fullest extent to create a rapprochement between the game and the writing subject (as a self-narrative, a kind of textual therapy), and between game and gamer (which gives it an interesting political dimension).

In order to create this proximity of lived experiences, Porpentine uses the Twine game mechanics to create a sense of intimacy, intending her games to be what she calls “sensory plugins for the brain”, which give the player an impression of what it is like to live with certain constrains. The way in which the games attempt to make a deeply personal therapeutic struggle with illness and trauma into an interactive experience is a de-pathologising move, and opens up the possibility of a profound subversion of widely accepted ideas concerning embodiment, gender and normalcy by facilitating player identification.

In her games, Porpentine works with and against constraining elements in a variety of ways. Sometimes she actively pushes against them, such as when she is confronted with the perceived limitations of a programme such as Twine. She constantly experiments with the restrictions of digital media, trying to bridge the gap between what is often thought of as a cold, impersonal means of communication and the intimate, personal stories she wants to tell. One of her games, With Those We Love Alive, introduces a particularly interactive element to involve the player, asking them to mark their skin with ‘sigils’, specific symbols which to them personally signify concepts such as ‘severing’, ‘pain’ or ‘shame’, in the course of the story. This turns the game into a physical experience which the player quite literally carries with them even after the game has ended.

Other times, she exploits the particular structure of the Twine engine, which uses clickable hyperlinks to propel the narrative in ways that allow her to curtail the player’s agency. She does this by forcing the player to go through the same repetitive actions, visiting the same places (links) before allowing him or her to progress with the story. As a consequence, the spatial structure of the games starts to feel claustrophobic and even hostile, creating the impression that its protagonists are stuck in a system that is alienating, harmful, or even deadly, but which they nevertheless help perpetuate. This is a clever and very effective way to implicate an immersed player in a system of violence which, implicitly or explicitly, turns against him- or herself.

The confrontation with these kinds of suffocating systems often culminates in an escape and a self-assertion of the queer disabled subject, who never succeeds in heroically vanquishing the system, but whose very existence challenges it. Motifs of abjection (slime, garbage, etc.) abound as the protagonist assumes a new liminal identity, no longer constrained by a discourse that necrotises their bodies and their modes of self-expression. Not being destroyed by structural violence is shown to be a radical act in and of itself.

The choice for a kind of art that focusses on boundaries, restrictions and liminality is evidently not an arbitrary one. Porpentine herself is constrained by the lasting effects trauma and chronic pain have on her art, which results in her deliberate choice for what she calls ‘trash art’. Trash art is an art of conscious failure, a kind of paradigmatic shift which recognises that illness and disability have a profound impact on the artist as well as on the art which they produce. It takes into account that poor and socially marginalised artists are stuck in systems centred around productivity which are heavily informed by a discourse based on the normalisation of a particular type of individuals and the exclusion and pathologisation of others. Trash art is an attempt to no longer be part of a structure that actively works against the artist, a choice made out of the pure necessity to create art in accordance with the body, to work around the restrictions one’s mental or physical health and socio-economic situation imposes upon the artistic process. It is a manifesto for art that can be characterised by interruptions (for medication, rest, etc.), for art that is fragmentary, transitory, unfinished, and often made out of the only materials that are available to a poor and socially marginalised artist: garbage. This new paradigm opens up the possibility for disabled subjects to reject a discourse that has rejected them, which allows them to make art that is no longer immaculate and bloodless, but actually focusses on how self-expression and embodiment intersect.

Porpentine’s games are remarkable not only because of the complex position they occupy at the junction of queer identity and disability, but also because of her use of an unconventional platform such as Twine in order to explore new ways to reach her audience, facilitate player identification, and in doing so challenge the stifling discourse on the subject of pathology and marginalised identities. Despite (or perhaps because of) her attempts to communicate herself authentically and create stories which focus on emotional proximity and empathy, she frequently brushes against the limitations of language, which leads to interesting experiments with metaphor as the games struggle to come to terms with the inherent resistance and opacity of language. There is no doubt that, whether they are seen as authopathographies, queer narratives, or simply novel intermedial experiments, the works created by artists such as Porpentine are rich and rewarding to investigate, but it remains to be seen if the unconventional hypertext stories that are being written in the dark recesses of the Internet will ever get the mainstream attention they deserve.