Building a Game from Twine and Amniotic Fluid

I made a game. It was a strange set of circumstances that drove me to it and to be fair, the results are hardly going to win awards. But it’s been quite an education and I’m proud of the results. Ten days ago I published my interview with Brendan Drain, Massively’s EVE Online columnist and […]

I made a game.

It was a strange set of circumstances that drove me to it and to be fair, the results are hardly going to win awards. But it’s been quite an education and I’m proud of the results.

Ten days ago I published my interview with Brendan Drain, Massively’s EVE Online columnist and – more importantly – budding game developer who is working on his debut 4X title, Predestination.

At EVE Online‘s Fanfest in April, the Second Decade Collectors Edition pack was announced, which includes a “190-page Hardcover ‘Into the Second Decade’ fully-illustrated history book, celebrating the EVE Universe,” in which both Brendan and I share the byline with some great writers. Chief amongst them is Jim Rossignol, another writer (Rock, Paper, Shotgun) who has made the leap to game development with his amusingly English “Tweedpunk” survival horror, Sir, You Are Being Hunted.

I was inspired.

Only a couple of years ago I was juggling vomit and organs in the back of an ambulance, but now I was part of a digital sci-fi zeitgeist – positive, creative and completely disease-free. From dashing around in Iceland helping co-ordinate documentaries with respected journalists like IGN’s Keza MacDonald and erudite Swedish freelancer Petter Mårtensson, to working on writing projects alongside actual game developers like Brendan and Jim, I was living the dream.

Except they all had big projects to sink their teeth into, whereas I was somewhat rudderless (although I did help make a tiny human this year, which ranks pretty high in terms of creation, thank you very much).

That Extra Push

The twin motivations of professional envy and the desire to push beyond the treadmill of scattershot journalistic work had me primed for a bigger project.

A timely and fortuitous call from a friend led to discussing the idea of making games. We arranged to meet and one coffee-fuelled brainstorm later found us swimming in a sea of disjointed but exciting ideas, from high concepts to core game mechanics and even marketing strategies.

We settled on one key concept and then parted, each of us with a clear idea of what we needed to explore and develop next in order to move our chosen idea forward. It was going to be amazing.

I then spent the next ten days working obsessively on something entirely different.

Preparation or Distraction?

We knew what kind of game we wanted to make, but as it was our first foray into game development, we needed to keep our ambitions in check.

My job was to find an accessible platform we could work with to develop prototypes and test core mechanics. This sounds very fancy, but it basically means we got sick of doing the calculations for every possible outcome using lots of hand-written tables and ten-sided dice. 

We needed to harness the magical computing power of, erm… computers!

It was during this research (largely helped by some wonderfully useful GameSkinny articles on free game development suites by MirandaCB) that I discovered Twine. We’d been drooling over the possibilities of using the Unity platform, which was behind the award-winning yet elegantly simple Thomas Was Alone by Mike Bithell, the aforementioned Sir, You Are Being Hunted as well as many others. But Unity was a bit daunting for rookie game designers with zero coding ability.

Twine, on the other hand, was basically the Lego DUPLO system of game design. It was a very accessible and simple tool for making “interactive stories”. It wasn’t really what we needed for our project; but as a writer, it piqued my interest. Twine had no sharp edges I could hurt myself on and had the flexibility to allow for some basic tinkering from its own simple code, advancing on to CSS and Java.

It seemed like a good way to cut my teeth on just the idea of making a game. If I could put something together from start to finish that actually worked and I could call a game (however loosely), then maybe – just maybe – my friend and I could actually make our big concept happen.

I Chose My Own Adventure

I needed a concept I could fit easily into Twine. I considered Sir, You are Being Texted and Thomas Was A Tilde, but they say “write what you know”. I know EVE Online and CCP Games

A couple of years ago, during a period of EVE Online‘s history that its creators would rather forget, I put together a blog which masqueraded as a “choose your own adventure”, but was essentially just a series of blogposts hyperlinked together. It was the same principle that Twine was built around. So, using my old Incarna: The Text Adventure as a base, I was able to build out and experiment with presentation concepts and introduce actual gameplay elements that weren’t possible with blogposts alone.

I revised the existing text and more than doubled the word count, introduced a visual component, attempted (but failed) to include sound, but – most importantly – I had the opportunity to point and laugh at my favourite game developers again. I just hope that this time they have a sense of humour.

From the ashes of Incarna: The Text Adventure, may I present:

EVE Online: The Text Adventure – Chapter One: The Broken Capsule.

It’s slightly terrible, but I had fun making it. Over the next few weeks, I aim to examine my Twine journey so far, explain what I’ve learned and hope to learn and explore what possibilities it offers the rookie writer/game designer.

Hey Brendan, that’s my 4Xs. Oh wait, that’s only three.

I think learning to code may take some time…



[Edit: EVE Online players may be interested in a related contest I’m running over on my Freebooted blog. Win ISK from the comfort of your quarters.]

About the author

Mat Westhorpe

Broken paramedic and coffee-drinking Englishman whose favourite dumb animal is an oxymoron. After over a decade of humping and dumping the fat and the dead, my lower spine did things normally reserved for Rubik's cubes, bringing my career as a medical clinician to an unexpectedly early end. Fortunately, my real passion is in writing and given that I'm now highly qualified in the art of sitting down, I have the time to pursue it. Having blogged about video games (well, mostly EVE Online) for years, I hope to channel my enjoyment of wordcraft and my hobby of gaming into one handy new career that doesn't involve other people's vomit.