This is the fifth of my six initial author highlights. After this, I’ll be slowing down in case people are trying out some of the games.
Porpentine is the author who popularized Twine. A web-based text engine created in 2009, Twine had had some authors achieve moderate success before Porpentine, but she is the one who helped it really take off.
Unlike earlier parser authors, many of whom were working with text out of nostalgia, Porpentine and other LGBTQ authors (such as the earlier Anna Anthropy) turned to text as a barrier-free medium for creating games, since representation was not available in AAA games and other media-heavy contexts.
Since she has gained recognition, including being featured at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Porpentine has received access to more gaming resources and now makes games that includes graphics, animation, and sound. This essay covers her earlier, text-based works.
Porpentine actually began with parser games, such as the pizza-based game Funeral for a Friend, but her parser games did not receive a great deal of attention, leading her to switch to Twine.
This is one of Porpentine’s earliest Twine works. It has a ‘time cave’, where the story branches wildly and different options can lead to completely different stories.
It contains many of her classic tropes, like bodily fluids, insectoids, and bizarre surreal experiences. While Porpentine had already settled her writing style in these early games, her multimedia techniques would only improve over time.
Howling Dogs (2012)
This game is Porpentine’s most well-known game, a feminist masterpiece set in what seems to be a prison. You play a character trapped in a cell with nothing to do all day but eat, drink, shower, and experience virtual reality.
The game makes uses of pixel-art images and cinematic-style quotes and colors. The virutal reality experiences are centered on experiences of oppressed women, including Joan of Arc and a wife in an abusive relationship.
The writing is heavy and expressive, evoking slime and half-death. Many elements in the game can be interpreted as a metaphor for the trans experience. The game makes use of a clever trick to provide a choice-based puzzle, and set the tone not only for Porpentine’s later work, but also most Twine games of the next few years. Popular games like Horse Master, Magical Makeover, and King of Bees in Fantasyland are clearly influenced by Howling Dogs, and the idea of representing the trans experience in Twine helped others represent other personal issues in Twine, such as Depression Quest and Hana Feels.
This is Porpentine’s most violent and shocking work (among her well-known games). It is body horror strongly influenced by the game System Shock.
In a metaphor for the trans experience, you are captured by a sadistic space station AI who tortures you in every way imaginable and alters your body. The game puts a heavy emphasis on fluids and body change.
Cry$tal Warrior Ke$ha (2013)
This game is one of the most multimedia-filled early Porpentine games. It is a simple tale of Ke$ha turned into a sort of magical crystal/glitter-human hybrid that goes on a war against time warriors.
The visual effects include text that expands and emits sparkles on hover, as well as images of Ke$ha. The sounds have the Ke$ha song ‘Warrior’ on a loop. Some readers found that the text and the sound matched up exactly.
Ultra Business Tycoon (2013)
This game, nominated for XYZZY Best Game (as was Howling Dogs), is set up as a retro video game described completely in text.
As you play the game, which involves running a mega corporation and searching oozing, slime-filled trash pits with weird creatures, the game narrates a side-story in italics about real-life events: your feelings about your gender identity, your relationship with your brother, etc.
Whether it was the first in the genre or not, this game spawned many imitators who wrote retro-style grinding games that had a serious subtext to them (like last year’s Unofficial Sea-Monkey Simulation or TOMBS of Reschette or so on).
Their Angelical Understanding (2013)
This game starts with you retrieving you face from a bottle deep in monastery. A surreal game, it uses a whole raft of programming techniques to promote interaction. Between cycling through body features (a common Porpentine trick), using text input for dramatic effect, inventory management, etc.
The topics covered can be summarized with Porpentine’s trigger warning list: “Suicidal ideation, ableism, abuse, possible epilepsy trigger”.
The fantasy story is overlaid with a real-life story, with the main nemesis characters (the angels) representing abuse. There are several different endings resulting from moral choices, with an end choice that somehow reminds me of Emily Short’s Floatpoint in terms of moral choice.
With Those We Love Alive (2014)
Porpentine has described this as her most popular game. It certainly is my favorite.
This game casts you as an artisan for an enormous insectoid fantasy death queen. You are taking hormones (in the form of sigils you place on your body), and you must craft an object of power for the queen.
You can find friends and enemies. There is background music by brenda neotenomie. The game follows a rhythmic pattern of work and sleep over several days until society begins to break down.
The game is notable for asking you to draw symbols on yourself at key points in the story.
This Spring Thing game from 2015 casts you as a sort of interstellar scavenger. You can create and destroy yourself.
This game makes use of text entry in an unusual way, requiring you to type in the name of various locales to teleport there. It deals with topics of transformation and identity, the idea of being malleable in body and identity.
Porpentine’s games can almost all be read as metaphors for being a transgender woman. Body modification, obsession with showering and genitals, fluids, hormones, and self-destruction are all common elements.
Another strong theme is neologisms. Porpentine makes up many new words, such as luckgel, slimedaughter, trashscape, etc.
Finally, Porpentine has increasingly turned to multimedia as her increased renown has afforded her more funding and more support. I don’t know of any other interactive fiction author who has become as well-known in the humanities world.
In terms of influence, Porpentine is like the Infocom of Twine. Not the developer or the first author, but making the most well-known games and leaving an indelible mark on the future. Just like early parser games all contained hunger timers, mazes, or non-sensical mashups of time periods and genres, copying Zork, many early Twine games were about body horror, slime, and the transgender experience.
Many of the best Twine games of the last few years would never have been created without the trickle-down effect of Porpentine, including Birdland, Open Sorcery, and Cactus Blue Motel. In fact, parser fiction would likely not have experienced the resurgence it has in the last few years if Porpentine hadn’t drawn more attention to IFComp with her brilliant and controversial games.