Flesh & TwineA New Storytelling Platform Explores Gender Horror with Each Click

 Illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino.

The horror fan in me loves to be grossed out and to squirm in my seat—there’s something pleasantly visceral about experiencing depravity and gore in a controlled environment. But what’s beyond the cheap jump scare and torture porn? 

Twine, a new platform for interactive fiction, has allowed its creators and users to explore this question by expanding the horror genre. Twine games are purely text-based, choose-your-own-adventure-style experiences that you can play on a web browser—and there is a gory subgenre focused solely on expressing anxieties specific to women. The games are experimental, literary, deeply disturbing interactions with monsters and “gender horror” that depict a specifically female experience in a way rarely seen in other media. Twine horror games can act as catharsis for both creators and players by claiming ownership of fictionalized terror and fear. In a lot of cases, they come from people who want to make a statement about how the physical body is connected to that female experience.

“Lights Out, Please” is a collection of horror Twine games curated by writer and gamemaker Kaitlin Tremblay, who describes how people may interact with fear within fiction and in daily life: “The fear shown in horror games and films isn’t a unique horror—for many people, it is part of a daily lived reality. Many marginalized people live with a certain kind of fear in their everyday lives. Whether this is a fear of getting home safely without being harassed or assaulted with hate speech, or a fear of being alone in their own apartment due to break-ins, or even a fear of simply leaving the house.”

Gender horror combines the grotesqueness of “body horror”—which explores the disfigurement and deterioration of the body—with a focus on the objectification of women’s bodies. The genre questions beauty ideals, explores the idea of how we interact with our own flesh, and looks at how women respond to attacks on their bodies. 

Although I hadn’t purposely set out to do so, I created my own piece of gender horror for my contribution to “Lights Out, Please.” My first Twine game, The Slit-Mouthed Woman, was based on a Japanese urban legend about the spirit of a dead woman with a disfigured mouth who kidnapped children. In my Twine, I channeled feelings about abuse and assault, creating a narrative in which I had the opportunity to get vengeance on those who had hurt me. 

My game appears in red text on a grey screen. Hyperlinks at the end of paragraphsmove the story along—an interactive book that slowly unfolds with each click in your browser. At times, players have the choice of more than one link, and different stories are revealed depending on what path you decide to follow. 

The most horrific thing about my game was that I forced the player to become an abuser. The protagonist is a typical, 9-to-5 office worker. He wears a tie, goes to work, comes home, engages in heterosexual relationships—but at some point, he killed his lover. The woman was beautiful, with a captivating smile, but had poor self-esteem; when she felt insignificant she shut herself off. The protagonist felt it reflected on him poorly as a man when she was unhappy. He forced her to smile, slitting her mouth and mutilating her. In the game, she comes back as a vengeful spirit that kidnaps children, stalks the protagonist, and gives him an ultimatum: Either he acknowledges what he has done to her or she kills him. 

Almost a year later, I think constantly about the man I created. I think about how much of an asshole he is, how much he deserved to be haunted by the slit-mouthed woman. While I was making the game, I thought about giving the player reasons to opt out, but instead longed to make them feel cruel as well. My players have no real choices until the end, letting him decide if he wants to atone for the murder. However, through every step of the game, the player is the abuser. 

mouth biting on twine

Women have been socialized to be acutely aware of the space their bodies take up and what it means to those around them. In gender horror, we see female bodies reconfigured in sometimes gruesome ways, which lends itself to a more personal, terrifying connection to those stories for women. The genre allows for vivid and grotesque representations of their realities—in a metaphorical way, without directly broaching the topic of their own trauma. 

“There is definitely horror that is specific to female or male bodies, and some of it is cultural and some of it is physical,” says Liz England, a Twine game developer. “I’m a proponent of horror as very political.” Horror can be a means by which marginalized voices can fully express the deep-seated fears of living in a world where they’ve been shut down. 

England noticed that while many games gave the player choices, it was more interesting to give the player the illusion of choice—or to give them all the wrong options, making them feel helpless and trapped. “I like that kind of disconnect, especially in horror,” England says. “What we end up doing is giving the players a set of choices. And lots of times the player doesn’t want to take any of them.” 

In England’s game Her Pound of Flesh, the protagonist is blindly motivated by a selfish, narcissistic, impossible goal: He wants to resurrect his girlfriend using nothing but a pink blob of cells and skin, some hair, and undefinable science. She is not in his life anymore and he wants to fix that. But instead, he just creates a blob of flesh that moves and eats.

The player decides how to treat this growing, evolving pound of flesh. It grows hair, a mouth, and seems to reach out for you, but you don’t have to indulge it. You can lock it in a box, embarrassed by its inhuman existence, and hope it just goes away. You can love it and help it grow. But regardless of how you treat the mass, it’s still not your girlfriend. It can never be human. And as it evolves, it becomes more monstrous. 

Through body horror, writers exaggerate the squishing, goopy mess contained within the flimsy shell of skin that we walk around in. After all, our bodies are kind of gross. They’re this moving mass of trillions of cells, sometimes reacting in ways that betray us. “Everybody has a body, and everybody has a weird relationship with their bodies,” England says. “Our bodies are things that we need to survive, but at the same time they’re kind of like strangers. I don’t understand how my organs work or how they’re in there, but I hope they don’t get out.” 

Say When, a game by Kaitlin Tremblay, also features elements of body horror. The protagonist, Lily, gets the chance to turn herself into a cyborg in order to combat mental anguish, in the same way that self-harm is often used as catharsis for people suffering from emotional pain. However, it’s her replacement parts—a metal arm, a bionic eye—that isolate her even more in the world of the game.

“With horror, you can more easily show people these feelings, without just telling them. It gets under your skin better,” Tremblay says. “I always think metaphors are better ways of expressing a truth than just straight-up saying it.”

An illustrated cover for the game Say When by Kaitlin Tremblay that features a feminine figure with a face dripping, possibly with blood

Tremblay also sees the potential in altering a player’s agency. “You are offered a level of control, but then this control is taken away from you at specific moments, specifically through cutscenes,” says Tremblay, referring to the unplayable scenes that break up the action in games. “It’s this sadistic way of allowing the player [the ability] to fight back against their fear and then taking it away from them that piques my curiosity the most.”

The gamemaker Porpentine creates work that often looks at how the body breaks down, immobilizing and silencing its players. In Cyberqueen, the player tries to escape a ship that has been taken over by a malicious artificial intelligence. When the machine finally manages to capture you, it spends the rest of the agonizingly long game tearing you apart, replacing your limbs with cybernetic parts, and getting aroused from the act of deconstruction. There is a lot of creamy, white goo involved, a lot of implied breathy tones and heavy breathing; the machine’s moaning escalates the more you are dehumanized. Porpentine’s games are often heavily laced with these kinds of scenes, showing how the body breaks down as a way to simulate a lack of control with both internal and external forces. 

In some of her other games, Porpentine creates worlds that you want to explore but can’t. In Howling Dogs, the player wakes up in an enclosed test facility and is given only a few choices of where to go. You can go to a number of different rooms, but are ultimately forced into going into one specific area. In Cyberqueen, meanwhile, the player begins with too many choices. You have several weapons to choose from and four corridors to explore. However, once you get captured by artificial intelligence, your free will disappears, and any choices you previously made become useless.

At most, you can select a way to interact with the torture you will face, but the effect is still the same. While initially giving you some semblance of movement in the world, Porpentine abruptly takes it away.

These games are very often reflections of real-life dynamics, especially for marginalized groups of people. Many people inhabit a world where they feel as though they’re only offered the illusion of choice while working within systems of oppression. While the myth of the American dream perpetuates the idea that one can achieve success and security if only they work hard enough, the reality is that things such as racial profiling and sexual discrimination dehumanize entire communities regardless of their personal histories and choices. To seek survival as a marginalized person is to navigate within these “choices” and confront one’s own vulnerability.

"You’re kind of cheating yourself in talking about vulnerability if you don’t talk about powerful feminine voices,” Porpentine says. “As a trans, feminine person, I have inhabited, for most of my life, this weird-ass pocket dimension where you get treated differently, but nobody else can really see it. That’s a lot of what horror is, just feeling like you’re crazy for having horrible stuff happen to you.”

Snippet from Porpentine's Cyber Queen Twine game. Pink and turquoise text appear on a black background.

In a typical horror story, doubting side characters often downplay a perceived threat, leaving protagonists to battle forces on their own or face their demise with little help. “When you’re watching a horror movie, you’re always so frustrated that the other people won’t believe the main character, who is usually a woman, when she says something bad is happening or that she has a bad feeling,” Tremblay says. “With horror, your audience is already prepared to accept and believe what you are saying: Yes, something is coming for you.”

As I play the games Cyberqueen, Say When, and Her Pound of Flesh, I am keenly aware of how meaningless the act of “winning” is. In each of these instances, the developer offers an impossible goal, a quest that fails spectacularly. In my game, you are stuck in the mind of someone who has enacted violence against another for entirely narcissistic purposes, yet you can’t be redeemed. In Say When, you are tasked with trying to improve the mental health of the character, Lily, by selecting different activities. You can feed her, have her interact with coworkers, go on quests, replace her limbs with cybernetic enhancements. However, each improvement can’t outweigh one slip-up that’ll send you into a negative, inescapable place where few of the clickable options work to help Lily. I ended my playthrough with nothing left to do but lament the harmful choices I had left.

“Lily engages in a lot of self-harming behaviors, and having metal skin is supposed to be a protection against that,” Tremblay says, taking her character’s quest for healing and applying it to her own experiences. “The physical and emotional scars from my own self-harm are these parts of myself I have to learn to forge on ahead with, in much the same way that body horror is about learning to live with your new body.”

These games are mediums to express issues like depression and eating disorders, creating a sympathetic link between the creator and the player, offering a platform to showcase the creator’s experiences even if they are unaware of the motive behind the game.

As a system that, at its core, is about interactivity and sympathy, games can experiment with the idea of the narrator in a way that other mediums can’t. While the printed word can place you into the first-person view of a character, there often remains a distance in that you don’t have to fully inhabit them. In these horror Twines, the world created by the game developer traps a player in a gruesome experience. 

“Nobody wants to hear about a trans person getting assaulted,” Porpentine says. “Making my games is a substitute for violence, kind of a substitute for hurting myself. It’s like an effigy. Seeing a trans piece of art that’s just talking frankly about experiences can be the tipping point for someone who wants to understand their gender.” When somebody sees their experience talked about in a game, it provides a moment of clarity and can build a relationship between the player and the creator. “And that’s the kind of person I write for. I write for the teen me who didn’t have access to that stuff and just kind of languished in this burning, hateful haze.” 

The gamemakers I spoke with have all received similar feedback, with players noting how they have connected their personal struggles to the narratives in their horror games. “I’ve been told my games have helped some people recognize and deal with their own struggles, particularly with disordered eating, and for me, there is nothing better in the world than knowing something I made has helped a person,” Tremblay says.

In a short manifesto, “If I Screamed, Would You Hear Me?,” published in the first issue of the fandom magazine Two Clones, Tremblay states: “[Horror] is the only place where I can feel true and unabashed fear and not be told I’m being oversensitive. Horror is a rare place where fear is taken seriously.” 

In the realm of gender horror, the fears of women can be experienced as actual monstrosities, portraying them in a visceral, visual way. Whether it’s for catharsis or as a way to conceptualize events, it’s a powerful tool and a new way to experience horror. When I wrote about my beautiful, slit-mouthed woman, I thought about how I had been abused, objectified, coerced in my relationships. I had to relive forms of those events, fall back into those painful memories, in order to talk about it. I may not want to actually come back as a malicious spirit and get revenge, but I wanted to create a scenario where I had the control—one click at a time. 

illustration of wound being stitched up

 

by Carli Velocci
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Carli Velocci is a pop culture and technology writer living in the Boston area. You can find her writing at Paste Magazine, Model View Culture, Polygon, and anywhere else brave enough to publish her. She also edits a quarterly webzine called Postmortem Mag, which highlights artist and creator reflections. You can follow her on Twitter @velocciraptor.

This article was published in Blood & Guts Issue #68 | Fall 2015

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