Home > Twine, Uncategorized > The Problem of Historical Choices in Twine Game Design – A Response to Neville Morley

The Problem of Historical Choices in Twine Game Design – A Response to Neville Morley

Neville Morley (@NevilleMorley)and I (@gamingthpast)have been exploring the ramifications of Twine for developing interactive historical texts. My main ongoing experiment is the Path of Honors project, an interactive text about a fictional Roman aristocrat going through the very historical process of pursuing an aristocratic career. I call this sort of interactive text an “every person” approach in that it focuses on a historical situation but has a protagonist that did not exist, in an authentic set of circumstances. Neville is working on Might and Right, an investigation of the Athenian treatment of the polis of Melos in the Peloponnesian War. Neville’s text is what I would characterize as a “specific agent” approach, in that the player takes the role of Cleomedes, an Athenian general who was, in fact, in a command position at Melos in 416.  A very quick bit of historical setup, quoted from Neville’s Twine:

The small island of Melos in the Cyclades, halfway between Athens and Crete, was originally a Spartan colony, and so had refused to join the Athenian alliance. Officially the Melians remain neutral, but in recent years their leaders have sided openly with Sparta. Now the Athenians have sent an expedition of 38 ships and 2,000 troops to demand the island’s unconditional surrender.

Neville has finished a version where the Athenian player, as Cleomedes, determines the fate of the Melians.

In a recent tweet I made a light-hearted, yet serious, attempt to propose a rule about historical game development in choice-based work that I jokingly titled, McCall’s Rule of Good Choices in a Historical Game: “The Designer must provide situations where there is more than one viable choice, and the historical choice cannot always be the only viable choice.” 

Interested readers can read some of the thinking behind this in my post on Meaningful Choices in Historical Twines. Neville, who is working through the problem of the Melians in his interactive text tweeted back some great questions:

Does the existence of several viable choices imply existence of different outcomes, or only different routes to the same likely outcome? I’m continuing to think of the Melians, and whether there is any historically plausible way in which they might ‘win’… …beyond simply hoping that something, like a Spartan fleet, will turn up to save them. Do *they* have viable choices?)

So just to make sure everyone is with us: how does one design the Melian side of this interactive text, be historically authentic, yet actually provide viable choices for the Melians? Melos was small; Athens was huge. The Melians could not defeat the Athenians, nor could they last forever if the Athenians besieged the city. Assuming the Athenians chose to take the city, there was essentially nothing the Melians could do to prevent it. But Neville intended to craft a Twine that would allow the player to take both Athenian and Melian characters and see the conflict through different agents.

So, how does one follow McCall’s Rule of Good Choices in a Historical Game when the player-agent historically has no options?

Some possibilities for tackling this problem. Let’s assume we’re talking about Twine or other choice-based interactive histories–the discussion will be relevant for any historical game with narrative choices, and probably for most historical games, period. Let’s also assume that the point, as it is for Neville and me, to develop interactive history that authentically, in a counterfactual yet evidence supported manner, allows one to explore plausibly different choices in the past.

Here are the three answers that occur to me at the moment.

Approach #1: Don’t give the Melians their own Twine. Don’t try to give only unrealistic choices for an agent.

Though it may seem like a cop-out, this is an important option. Arguably, the Melians should not have a Twine, at least not one that focuses on the same period and types of decision-making as that of the Athenians. If the point is to make an authentic historical Twine, counterfactual but solidly based in the evidence of what was realistically possible, the options available to the representatives of Melo were practically non-existent in terms of diplomatic and military options. Designing a Twine that suggests otherwise is historically problematic. From a pedagogical perspective, the follow up intellectual exercise could be to discuss whether this view of Melian options is accurate. Does the evidence really suggest the Melians had no plausible diplomatic and military choices they could make (just a note: I agree that Melian options were slight at best; my point here is that the discussion is worth having with other students of history; the exercise itself can build historical reasoning skills)

Approach #2: Give them plausible choices in that they could have opted to do X but have the effects be historically/realistically non-productive.

Jillian Jevack led the way here with her MA Thesis at Ohio State in the form of an interactive scholarly text on purchasing a home in Chicago in 1960. The text is researched, footnoted, and high quality work. What is worth noting here is how the different protagonists fare. It’s been awhile since I’ve played it, but what I haven’t forgotton is how differently the white and black families fare in their aspiration to own a house in Chicago’s suburbs. If the player chooses the white family as their “character” they have all manner of options for purchasing houses in all manner of neighborhoods. Playing the black family results in a great deal of frustration. In this case, the player can attempt to buy homes in different places, but is blocked in their attempts every step of the way. This leads to a sense of frustration for the player, which I assume is one the main points of the thesis.

So, following this route, the Melian player is given military and diplomatic choices that Neville knows will assuredly fail. So, for example, the Melian player could have the choice of leading a phalanx out of the city to confront the Athenian force in pitched battle. The tiny Melian force would assuredly have been overwhelmed. But let’s assume the player does not know that. Having this as a choice allows the Melian player agency and a “viable” “plausible” choice, but has historical effects for that hypothetical choice: destruction. Surely the Melians could have opted to fight, to make a last stand, despite the odds?

This approach is a really important one and requires more discussion, no doubt, but I’ll leave it at this and hope there’s enough to spark more conversation.

Approach #3: Reconceptualize what kind of choices and agents are picked.

 This approach blurs with #2 and #3. Simply put, if the Melians polis as a collective had no choices of this kind at the point the Athenians arrived, could selecting different but related agents and decisions points for the Melian playthrough yield fruitful results? Perhaps one could be an individual Melian choosing whether to defect to Athens, to try to slip out of the city, etc.? That may be too counterfactually fuzzy, however, and not serve. Could the Melian game start back when they had the choice of whether or not to aid Sparta?
I’d love to hear comments on this from anyone interested.
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