Aquarium started as a prompt from a friend: “the aquarium, our aquarium, stood there”. The “our” in the prompt interested me: not so much the ownership, but more the plurality. I’d been reading The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater which includes posh boys with an abundance of feelings, while Sebastian’s existed in my head for a long time (his first outing was a flippant but driven playwright in his late twenties in the Luxley Family mod for Baldur’s Gate II), as has the protagonist in various forms.
I was planning to write a piece of short fiction about the characters, but then remembered my forays into Twine a few months back. I would write an interactive story instead!
Spoilers for the game below.
From my earlier experiments, I knew the basics and how to set variables, but suddenly there were all these developments I hadn’t known about. There followed a prolonged period of searching for Twine effects I didn’t know the names of – replace and revise macros, it turned out. While writing, I played Swan Hill and read Laura Michet’s notes, which influenced me to follow Swan Hill’s lead and differentiate replace text and links with colour. I wouldn’t have been able to make Aquarium without standing on the shoulders of others’ work.
I sketched out the basic shape: start –> hub –> exploring aquarium areas –> cafe –> end. (Out of interest, the order I wrote the exploratory sections was rays, sharks, eels, tropical fish.) Different items would be picked up and used in other areas, in different situations. Some items are only accessible or usable under more specific circumstances (the pens, for instance), while others are easier (the scarf is very easy to get). Initially there was a gift shop sequence before the cafe where Sebastian shoplifted some souvenirs, but I decided to make the final sequence quieter and more conversational.
The most challenging part was sorting out all the threads and possibilities during the cafe section. Thankfully, my experience modding versed me well in nesting endless conditional text. The game tracks a variable called $seblike which runs from negative numbers to 12, and the cafe sequence includes 5 different threads representing how much Sebastian likes the protagonist. It was important that each thread showed something unique, rather than simply more fondness = more content, which meant that for several evenings I ended up staring at walls of conditional text gnashing my teeth and wondering why on earth I’d decided such a thing.
When I played The Walking Dead, I continually volunteered to do the selfless, most stressful thing for him. I hoped that when it all got too much Lee would heft his fireaxe, slump, and just say, “No, I can’t do this. I’m sorry, [NPC].”
In Aquarium the stakes are very different, but I wanted to include that tension between what the player wants and what the character can handle. If Sebastian likes the protagonist enough, a series of dialogue options come up close to the end where the protagonist can open up if zie wishes, and I enjoyed demonstrating that the protagonist may not want to do what zie’s told.
I wrote Aquarium in a month and am immensely proud of having learned to use Twine and put a game together that I’m comfortable sharing with others. My anxiety twitches about sharing my writing, but somehow sharing a game doesn’t worry me so much. After all, it’s meant to be played!