Twine is a open-source tool that allows you to tell stories and present scenarios in which the reader takes an active role in determining the outcome. These types of non-linear narratives have certainly existed before (remember “Choose Your Own Adventure”?). While the narrative can still be complicated to write well, the affordances of the digital environment and hypertext make this kind of storytelling much easier.
I stumbled across Twine a few years ago, but didn’t have the time back then to play around with it. I came back to it recently as I was doing some reading about branched scenarios. Scenarios can be great for students who are learning to work with new knowledge. By working through made-up, but realistic scenarios first, students can make errors and self-correct, all without having to worry (yet) about real-world consequences. Since learners are practicing in a virtual space, they are free to experiment and try things out. And because the consequences of their choices are temporary and reversible, students may in fact be more willing to engage with the material than if they didn’t get the scenario practice.
“Choosing a General Topic” Scenario
Having taught basic library research methods to new researchers (high school/early college students), I decided to create a scenario for students that would help take them through one of the more difficult steps in a research project: choosing a general topic. Students stumble in this first step for a variety of reasons, but a big one is just that finding a research topic is a very “wide task” (Don Norman‘s terminology, meaning “lots of possible choices”). And students know that this task is just the gateway to a series of “wide” research tasks, each one of which requires significant decision making. Being able to handle so many choices at each step of the research process is a hallmark of an expert researcher. New researchers, however, are likely to get overwhelmed and become uncertain about exactly where to start. When overwhelmed, students tend to procrastinate. When procrastination happens at the beginning stage of a research project students get in trouble. By waiting to make decisions about topic focus students reduce the amount of time they have for the other stages of research.
To play the scenario, click here:
By creating a branched scenario I wanted to give students a chance to explore different possible paths to a good, general research topic. I also wanted to show them how some paths are more efficient and effective than others. The branched scenario could be used as a kind of application exercise. For example, the student could first read about finding and fact tools in a guidebook like Mary W. George’s The Elements of Library Research: What Every Student Needs to Know. They then could work through the scenario to explore the kinds of research help those tools provide. I conceived of the scenario, however, as an exercise students could complete before even discussing differences between reference tools or the steps of a research project. By using the scenario to get some exposure to how the tools can be used and what searching for a topic can look like, students may have an easier time later when they are asked to explain how different kinds of reference tools are connected to the research process.
Using Twine to Create Branched Scenarios
On the whole, I found Twine fairly straightforward to use. The user interface is kept pretty simple, and there are only a few things you can do in the main story editor: create a new passage, edit an existing passage, test a passage (to see if it displays they way you want), and play the scenario. Individual passages within the story are created with a click of a button. Once you get the hang of it, you can create choices within a single passage that then automatically link to new, discrete passages (this is the branching part). In the story editor, curved arrows indicate the direction of the linking. Another good thing about Twine is that it is free. You can download a version of it to your desktop, or work with it online.
The difficulty with Twine comes when you want to do something more than create a simple branched narrative. There are three built-in style sets, but if you want to choose different fonts and colors, you will need to know some CSS. Similarly, if you want add variables or special data you will need to know some basic markup language. Since I have very little experience with these, I chose not to make my first Twine project too complicated. However, I did manage to learn how to make a numbered list! The current version of Twine also isn’t easily set up for embedding multimedia. Hopefully that will come along in a later version.
The other difficulty I came across had less to do with the software and more to do with writing a non-linear narrative. The more branches I added to the scenario, the harder it became to keep the different lines of the story straight. I wished there were some way of highlighting (or color-coding) different lines in the story, so that I could follow the progression more closely. Without this, however, I’ll need to come up with a better solution for keeping track of how passages are connected. I read somewhere that it’s best to start with your scenario endings, limiting them to three or four. I tried to do that, but it still seemed to get a bit convoluted in the middle. If anyone has suggestions for keeping track of the narrative lines, please leave me a comment!