Breaking Bandersnatch: Using Twine to Teach Digital Project Development

Collage of visualizations of Choose Your Own Adventure narrative structures and Twine narrative trajectories
How to make a Space Vampire: Just Add Twine

In the press that followed the December 2018 release of the Netflix interactive film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, several references were made to the use of Twine in the project’s development process. While early stages of planning utilized Post-it notes and whiteboards, the Bandersnatch team eventually turned to Twine, “which is often used to design video games with multiple story branches,” and even provided actors with copies of the script written and published in the program so “they could navigate” the various threads of the project. Many instructors and students in digital humanities, media studies, and game studies courses have gravitated towards Twine in and around the higher ed classroom, and most of this pedagogical work has focused on the immediate contexts of games and interactive fiction. Until reading the press around the making of Bandersnatch, I hadn’t thought of this software’s potential in the context of digital project development.

As an instructor in a two-year Master’s Program in Public Humanities, I’ve tried to design readings, assignments, and exercises that more immediately attend to the many professional contexts that our students tend to gravitate towards in practicums and postgraduate work: museums, archives, galleries, nonprofits, public sector work. In many of these contexts, it can be difficult to devote time, money, and staffing to wireframing, interface design, and user testing, stages in project development needed to create digital initiatives that resonate with desired audiences. There’s obviously a continued need to argue that these forms of digital knowledge production are valuable and require sustainable and ethical commitments to people and resources, and I have made these arguments in and beyond the classroom during my time at Brown. I’ve also argued that digital humanities in academic contexts often encounters challenges when it takes on digital public humanities initiatives that require expertise in digital storytelling, work that extends beyond digitization, preservation, and networked data (though these areas would additionally benefit from further considerations of the many stories audiences might tell with these digitized cultural objects). So while the particular use of Twine described here resides in the context of a graduate-level course in a Public Humanities program, my hope is that its pedagogical aims and approaches resonate with a wide range of courses invested in various ways in the creation and dissemination of digital projects.

In the Spring of 2019 I taught a course in “Digital Storytelling” at Brown. Prior to encountering Bandersnatch I had already decided to frame the course around the “mechanics” of storytelling in digital spaces or with the aid of digital tools (in exhibitions, augmented reality contexts, and elsewhere). An earlier iteration of “Digital Storytelling” I taught focused on ways that digital contexts creatively and productively distorted and transformed (or uncreatively and unproductively cemented and remediated) cultural objects and their reception and uses. As I was re-thinking and revising course materials, I decided to shift the focus of the syllabi to storytelling fundamentals and how they might get applied to digital contexts. Before we considered distortion, transformation, and remix aesthetics, I wanted to devote time to discussing, defining, and implementing digital storytelling fundamentals.

Screenshot of narrative paths drafted by the protagonist of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch for his video game project.
Screenshot from Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

Twine and Bandersnatch were a useful case study in this context. Bandersnatch centers on Stefan Butler, a young man living with his father in 1980s England who is hired to create his dream video game project: an adaptation of an experiment in speculative fiction that borrowed from the structures of “Choose Your Own Adventure” texts.  The experience of “playing” the Netflix interactive film begins in a straightforward manner where users make specific choices that seem to instruct them on how certain decisions will lead them down particular narrative paths. But things quickly get disorienting and strange as our decisions begin to have a wider range of consequences, as the reality of Stefan’s world begins to behave more like a video game, as characters who “die” as a result of previous bad decisions made by users seem to recall their past lives in the “reset” narrative, as our protagonist seemingly becomes aware of his loss of agency.

But what feels like a trip down the rabbit hole (a setting known from the work of Lewis Carroll, also the creator of the Bandersnatch creature this production borrows its title from) looks much more manageable when choices and plot points are visualized on charts. Remediating the story in this manner may defuse or demystify its creative magic in the eyes of some players or viewers, but for me the work done by “Reddit detectives” to map particular choices and their implications in Bandersnatch was instructive, in that these visualizations demonstrated how even the disorienting effects of speculative, postmodern experiments in fiction were the result of careful attention to narrative structures. Tracing these storytelling paths back to their finished product further reinforced my belief that Twine could be productively presented to students as a useful tool in project development. Back in 2009, Mark Sample felt compelled to document “A History of Choose Your Own Adventure Visualizations.Bandersnatch obviously led to another period of rediscovery. “I imagine we haven’t seen the last of these maps,” Sample wrote a decade ago. 

“Digital Storytelling” kicked off with a unit on “Iterative and Interactive Storytelling,” and Bandersnatch was among the first batch of assigned course materials. The interactive film was paired with Depression Quest, a critically-acclaimed work created in Twine by Zoë Quinn (in collaboration with Patrick Lindsay and Isaac Schankler), as well as Colossal Cave Adventure and Galatea, two precursors to Twine from gaming and interactive fiction contexts. Supplementary course readings included academic scholarship on text-based interactive fiction and Videogames for Humans: Twine Authors in Conversation, a2015 anthology. While I wanted students to think about potential uses for Twine beyond game studies and electronic literature, I also wanted them to have a sense of why this tool was popular and how it had been utilized in these contexts.

After an initial discussion of these readings in class and via Slack (which we used for short and informal commentary at times in the semester), we devoted an entire class period (80 minutes) to a Twine workshop. I provided students with a two-page prompt (circulated physically and digitally) that documented workshop learning goals, broke down our use of time into three stages, and offered reference points about Twine mechanics and interactive fiction structures. Students formed four teams, to encourage collaborative digital storytelling creation. As the documentation notes, our goal was not to create three fully-functional games or works of interactive fiction for public consumption. I was more invested in having the class apply our initial conversations about the mechanics of Bandersnatch, Colossal Cave Adventure, Galatea, and other works to the creation of a narrative they could shape and dictate.

I intentionally decided not to spend a portion of our workshop slowly walking through the storytelling options in Twine. Students were instead provided with links to Anastasia Salter’s digital Twine workshop (created with Twine!) and the Twine Cookbook (a digital reference shelf for Twine users that surveyed basic options and functions). Students were aware that they were creating narratives driven by user-derived choices, and I wanted them to begin by brainstorming and revising a story based around these conditions, rather than walk them mechanically through a tutorial. Once each group came up with an idea for their project (which they then reported back to the class), they then turned to Twine to investigate the storytelling possibilities possible within the constraints of this particular tool. We concluded our workshop with a “User Testing” module, in which our groups swapped Twines-in-progress with one another to see if sample audiences found their work engaging.

My assignment prompt breaks down our various workshop stages and contexts in greater detail. One goal of the workshop was to introduce three general stages of project development — drafting, revision, and user testing — early on in the semester. User testing was particularly important to me, as I believe academics interested in digital storytelling and other digital initiatives could devote more time and energy to this essential component of project development. Our Twine workshop and its major components were referenced later on in the semester, as students began work on audio stories and other digital projects.

I’m planning to use Twine again in courses focused on digital project development. I will likely expand the amount of time spent developing and reflecting on work created in Twine for the class, though I’d like to retain the speculative dimensions of this exercise. While a public humanities program obviously values the creation and dissemination of public-facing work, I find that creating pedagogical conditions where publication is not the end-goal can encourage more creative and exploratory work. But I’m still thinking about whether it would be useful to make Twine a more explicit (or even required) part of the digital project development process, and how I might deploy Twine in the service of creating specific kinds of digital initiatives: curatorial contexts for digitized cultural objects, augmented reality contexts. In fact, I experimented with the latter in a “Tiny Exhibits” installation staged in the Spring of 2019 at the Center for Public Humanities. What most excites me about Twine is the way that the tool quickly and effectively challenges its users to consider why they are making particular narrative and design choices. Attending to such matters will make all of the adventures we choose to embark on more exciting and interesting.

Questions, comments? Feel free to email me at james_mcgrath@brown.edu, or get in touch with me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.

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