Unstyled Twine games and the Comp

I was struck by a brief phrase in Ade’s review of Glimmer–“a short, out of the box Twine UI”–because it directly stated a previously unarticulated concern I often have when looking at the shorter Twine games. When I first open a game, and I see the standard-issue Harlowe or Sugarcube format, I think to myself, “I do not have high hopes for this story.”

I am literally judging a book by its cover. It is unkind, uncharitable, and gatekeeping-y. I should instead be reading the words and judging those. Still, I find it hard to dispossess myself of this prejudice. I think it anyway.

By my reckoning, there are about 7 games in this Comp that use the default style, which accounts for ~10% of the entries.

Again, this has nothing to do with the content itself. But I click on a game like Esther’s, January, or The Thick Table Tavern–none of which I’ve yet played–and they draw me in. I see the care in the author’s design before I read word one.

To put it differently, if one were to go to a social event where others will be well-dressed, should one arrive in something other jeans?

In fact, I wonder if the issue is almost aphoristic: A well-styled Twine story can do poorly in the Comp, but an unstyled Twine story rarely does well.

I’m curious how much of this is an unstated assumption of the voting body at large and how much is my own hang-up. If it’s the former, I think it’d be helpful to let new authors (these stories likewise seem to share a thread of being written by newcomers to the Comp) know that even if the graphic design of a Twine story shouldn’t matter, it does. At a minimum, brief tweaks to some of the fundamental CSS (background, text, and link colors) might be beneficial.

I’m likely confusing correlation and causation, and there are other factors at play. And these thoughts, again, feel gatekeeping-y and defy the everyone-is-welcome ethos of Twine. But ultimately, these games have been submitted to a competition, and they will be judged. And perhaps pre-judged.

I’m happy to have someone provide contemporary counterexamples. I’m equally happy to be told to [[go to Curmudgeon’s Corner]].

Thoughts?

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A big counterexample would be last year’s entry The Best Man, which isn’t fully unstyled but doesn’t deviate far from the default Sugarcube format.

That said, I more or less share your opinions on the default formats - for me, it means the author hasn’t really thought about the full implications of telling a story in IF (or at least choice-based IF). It’s not a full video game, true, but it’s not a book either, so you do have to put some effort in how you present things to your audience. Putting some thought into your color scheme and general layout will help set the tone of your game and also make things look polished. (The fact that the default Sugarcube layout is in my opinion kind of ugly doesn’t help with first impressions either).

Also, I have personal accessibility issues with the default Harlowe and Sugarcube formats, so those will immediately put me off and give me the impression that the author hasn’t taken any other accessibility issues into account. (I have an astigmatism, which makes reading light text on a dark background difficult and will give me eye strain after ~15 minutes).

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I do agree with the sentiment you have when opening a “base-theme” Twine game, especially when it comes to Harlowe games. As much as I look down on the SugarCube base theme (it’s not very pretty), there is something to say about its use of less eye-straining colours in the black/grey/white range compared to the pitch-black/bright-white of Harlowe.

On one hand, since you (universal you) judge a story by its cover, using the base theme may lower your expectation for the game, leaving you pleasantly surprised. It may push people to focus more on the story itself, leaving the reader with less distractions. The base-theme may also add to the atmosphere (especially for horror-like games). Oh the other hand, it may leave you with the feeling that the game is unpolished/unfinished.

Similarly with “better-styled” games, the entry could give you high expectations with its theme but leave you completely underwhelmed by the end because of its lack of substance to back it up.

As there is more and more resources online about how to style your Twine game (there are even many UI templates for SugarCube available for free on itch), there might be a greater expectation towards Twine games to steer away from the basic theme/UI. Doesn’t mean that we should push entries to do so either.

Anyway, even if I try not to, I judge a book by its cover too. Said impression may impact more or less my option of the game when I am done with it.

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Oh boy, conversations about “how judges should vote” can derail in some wild ways, and I think it’d help if you isolated some specific questions to answer.

Have you got personal preferences? Possibly! That doesn’t sound like a crisis, and I’d expect the preferences of individual judges to cancel out.

Can people submit unstyled Twine entries? Sure, why not? (Whether people should expect unstyled Twine entries to do well is a separate conversation.)

I don’t think we should discourage people from submitting entries that use the default presentation. That would be gatekeeping, and if these authors are serious about connecting with an audience, they should try it and see what happens. They can always adapt and adjust as they continue developing works in the future.

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I think this is the part I’m interested in. Absolutely, anyone should be able to enter anything they want. And absolutely, anyone should judge based on their own standards. But if this is a hidden requirement shared by many–if you want to do well, put some effort into the graphic design of the game–I think we should make that explicit so authors are as likely as possible to succeed. (If, indeed, that is their aim–again, they’ve entered a competition, so I would suspect that partially is the goal for most). My suspicion is many people share this assumption, but I could also be greatly mistaken, which is why I’m curious about responses.

This is true, but then the authors would require feedback on the design. I feel good graphic design gets praised in reviews, but maybe there needs to be more direct criticism of less-engaging UIs (from those that feel that way, of course). I’m struggling about whether or not to address this issue as I write my own reviews for the first time. Thanks for helping me think further.

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Having now played most of the Texture entries this year and seeing most have a very simple and similar design, I do wonder about a somewhat related topic:
Do we maybe have a different standard/expectation for Twine games, because we know there is more space for customisation compared to other programs?

[Or I could just be missing the point completely here.]

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I think there’s something to this - when I boot up a game in what I think is the default Ink style, I usually think “ah, an Ink game, how attractive.” Part of the issue might be that the default Twine format is sort of hideous (I think I heard intentionally, as a way to encourage customization?)

Speaking personally, I find it works as a bit of a heuristic that the author might not be an expert at the system and/or might not be that familiar with how IF conventions have built over time - in my brain it works almost exactly the same way as when I type X ME at the beginning of a parser game and get “as good looking as ever”.

There are definitely games without a PC description that I’ve enjoyed, and it’s certainly the same with default-Twine presentation, so I don’t think it’s usually too hard for me to get over those preconceptions if a game is good, though I suspect they do color my sense of why a game that’s mediocre might have turned out that way.

(I also try to be forgiving because the idea of having to come up with like a visual design to write IF fills me with anxiety - thankfully writing bog-standard Inform games relieves me of having to do that!)

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Who says it’s a requirement? Or that it’s hidden? You’re a judge, you’re challenging your own assumptions, and there’s no reason to think that other judges are any less conscientious when they approach entries.

That’s why I’m wary of trying to update comp recommendations. It raises the barriers to entry that might discourage new authors. And in this case, it suggests that such a recommendation is necessary because judges are frail creatures who are incapable of resisting simple tricks and shiny objects.

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As a Twine writer relatively new to this space, I really, really hate the presumption that in order to be considered good Twine games shouldn’t use the basic format. Non-interactive story authors don’t have to be good at visual design, other choice based IF authors (for example Ink authors) don’t have to be good at visual design and, most annoyingly for me, parser authors don’t have to be good at visual design. In other words I think Manon is correct in saying:

But my thoughts are that just because it’s possible to add pictures to a book doesn’t mean that every book should be a picture book. Games like this year’s Esther and last year’s Goat Story are great and their visuals really do add a lot. But that’s because they fit with the style. I am convinced that the game I entered this year would be nothing but worse if I had tried to bumble may way through making it look different from the default.

Personally, and I try to hold back on this, I breathe a little sigh of relief when I see basic Harlow. To me it means that this author spent 100% of their time on the story and writing. I’d much rather that than a game someone spent just a little bit of time fiddling with (for example last year’s we, the remained was excellent, but I found the text colour hard to read against the background and would have preferred it if the author had just kept with a more basic colour scheme). If the visual design isn’t a fantastic or integral part of the game, then I’d prefer it just be kept default.

HAVING SAID ALL OF THAT accessibility is something I haven’t given as much thought to as I should have. One of my usual testers has an eye condition (I don’t remember the name), but his advice is always to leave it white on black, a.k.a. the Harlow basic. I’d be interested to hear what specifically I could do better @Encorm? Even then though, I would find it galling to have my entry marked down for not being a certain standard of pretty when I’ve never seen anyone mark down a parser game for looking ugly.

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I have a different perspective. Because of my huge reading problems from a neurological disease I adjust the visual view of IF often far from what the authors intended or expected. That’s the case in web/choice games, and parser using my preferred interpreter. I’ll make the font gigantic, I work in a very low resolution small size window, I tweak the colours.

For me the default version of Twine isn’t a put off at all. I can work nicely with it. I am far more put off if a game has design elements that I can’t adjust to be readable for me e.g. only working with a large pixel size window, or having a fixed font as in a home brew.

I suppose what I’m saying is I rarely play IF directly in the visual format intended by the author. So I’m not one for judging the book by its cover. It’s the content that counts for me, assuming I can get that into a format I can play.

If I was a newbie to Twine I’m far from convinced that I’d think of changing the default design early on. I don’t want new entrants to be put off, when it’s ultimately their creativity with the text that counts.

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Small tweaks will generally be enough for me. Any dark text on a light background will do, and if not then thinner fonts help a lot. (I’ve had relatively few problems so far with Prism and Cannelé and Nomnom this year, while I couldn’t get more than a few pages into The Best Man).

That said, there’s other visual disabilities out there that benefit from light-on-dark, so you do start running into the issue of competing needs. Accessibility in IF is a very tricky thing, as @vivdunstan has already attested to.

As an addendum, default Harlowe is IMHO less ugly than default Sugarcube so I personally am less judgy about people using it. That said, I suspect 90% of players wouldn’t pick on a game using one of the default templates with the colors and maaaaaaybe the font tweaked? (I, at least, would be a massive hypocrite for doing that.) I think this discussion has given the impression that the bar is higher than it actually is in terms of Twine styling.

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I personally don’t know if this is doable with Harlow itself, only have experience with Sugarcube but accessibility will mean different things for different readers. Here are some options to consider:

  • different font sizes
  • different fonts (including some sort of Dyslexic friendly one)
  • different themes (dark mode, sepia mode) with non-straining colours (not too saturated?/less deep black)
  • maybe even line-height/text alignment?
    Edit: also taking into consideration animation (text or otherwise), music (volume/being able to turn it off), etc…
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I feel like it’s a correlation vs causation kind of thing. Writing good IF is hard, and frequently the IF that I enjoy most is written by scrupulous authors who do research into what people like and try to explore every way they can make a game good. This includes player agency, descriptive writing, interesting consequences, etc. And if you’re trying to think of every possible way to improve your game, it’s only natural to consider appearance, so I think most people who are really invested in their twine games tend to do at least one or two things to modify the base appearance (different font, centering, changing the back button, backgrounds, or anything similar).

I think most really good games would still be great with basic styling, so I don’t think styling causes good games, just that authors who write great games tend to fiddle with everything.

One twine game that was in my top 10 of all games before and still in top 20 is Eidolon, which does have some minimal changes (text fading in, no sidebars) but is overall close to base Twine.

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I suspect that digging into this would make a good post comp project. I had a ‘colourblind’ mode in my Ectocomp entry last year, but I suspect that the rest of this would be more complicated, but I think doable. I’ll create a thread in the Twine section of the forums if/when I attempt it (there doesn’t seem to already be one, but I might just be bad at looking)

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I just wanted to say I really appreciate all of these thoughts and perspectives. I’m trying to work through something I don’t like about my own reviewing / judging process, so I really appreciate alternate ways to consider approaching the kinds of games in question. I don’t think I should have suggested there’s some sort of larger consensus, so I apologize for doing so. I’ve been trying to review to some of the lesser-reviewed and shorter games this Comp, and many of them are indeed unstyled Twine games, so I’m looking forward to doing so with a more open mind and heart than before.

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Thank you for starting this conversation still. It was also something that I did not consider I was doing unconsciously too!

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Yeah, for me it’s a correlation thing: I’m definitely not going to lower my vote for default Twine styling, but it is going to make me wonder what other aspects of the craft you haven’t considered.

And I don’t think I have a different standard for Twine: Default Ink styling and things like x me: “as handsome as ever” or giving things similar names so I have to disambiguate parser commands or not having a cover image or having an uninformative blurb, or other similar things have the same effect on me. It’s a missed opportunity: what else have you missed?

Milo’s point about “this author spent 100% of their time on the story and writing” is an interesting thought, but doesn’t hold water for me: if spending a half hour, or an hour, or even a few hours learning how to swap out the font, or picking a background color you like, or some small touch like that… I’m sorry, but if that’s taking a significant amount of polish away from the story and writing then you’re too rushed and your game is going to have other flaws anyway.

Default styling definitely doesn’t always imply other issues, and I’m not going to assume that. But there are times when I just want to try something that I have a good chance of really enjoying, and then… yeah, I’m probably going to pick the one with non-default styling, because a lot of the time it does go along with the author being better at their craft.

And a lot of styling definitely doesn’t indicate a good game: I can think of plenty of games where I felt the author was just procrastinating by playing with images and animation and should have spent more time on the writing and choice design.

I also do intentionally spend time trying different kinds of pieces, and things that I won’t necessarily like, because you never know when you’re going to find something brilliant. So yeah. Styling is there. It’s nice to see someone put at least a little thought into it, but I’m not going to be too fussed about it either way.

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I think that’s sort of what I was aiming at with my ‘100% of the time’ thing, but in a more considered and actually fair way than what I said…

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I think there’s been a lot of good conversation here, it made me think about my own assumptions a little bit. I mean, I can confidently say I’d never think less of a game overall because of its styling. There are a few really good Twine games with default styling that either use that to their advantage or just don’t have a need for anything else. The writing is strong enough that the styling fades into the background.

However, I do see a default Twine theme and think, for better or for worse, “this is likely somebody’s first real attempt at a Twine game.” Part of this is my own experience: I’ve written a few and after the first one I was sick of it, and even during my first one I wanted to add in things like new colors or change my links or use effects. I think, unless you’re using it intentionally, it can kind of signal that you’re not as familiar with the landscape of Twine games specifically. The more you play the more you see how others use things like color to enhance their games, the more likely it is you’ve at least wondered how to do that or thought about taking inspiration. Again, not a guarantee, but somewhat likely.

How much does it influence my opinion? Honestly, not much past the first minute or two where I don’t know what to expect. Am I bracing myself for typos or awkward spacing? A little bit. Will it impact my opinion of an otherwise stellar game? I really don’t think so at all. I’ve seen games I’ve been a little unsure about starting because the cover/styling/description made me a little wary that actually turned out to be some of my favorite and best-rated games.

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I think there’s absolutely something in this. I would never judge a parser game for using black-on-white (even though there are some rare exceptions). I agree with @spellmotif about being sick of using the default format. I hardly got three pages in before changing the font and background colour. Much like designing a webpage, aesthetics are a high-priority concern for some.

I can’t say Glimmer’s formatting stuck out to me, but the Harlowe basic white-on-black does. So perhaps there’s also an element of finding a particular design intrusive, and (because it’s the basic format) wondering if this is an intentional choice or if the author simply didn’t know how to change it.

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