Game Plan asks game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, ANIMAL spoke with Anna Anthropy about Star Court, a sci-fi text adventure with countless branching paths.
There was a time when text adventures were the most popular kind of video game available. As computers got more powerful, graphics improved along with them. But in some communities, like the one that uses the interactive story platform Twine to make and play games with the written word—text, games are very much alive.
Twine is what makes a game like Anna Anthropy’s Star Court possible. It’s like a digital choose-your-own-adventure book, with decision trees that take players down one branch or another depending on the choices they make. In Star Court, those choices include what kind of robot lawyer to hire, how best to intimidate a vampiric prosecutor, and whether it’s wise to fight an experienced psychic on the astral plane of your mind.
Playing Star Court to completion can take anywhere from one to ten minutes. You can do it in your internet browser, or you can download a version to play on your desktop. It involves nothing more than reading text and clicking links; like a multiple choice quiz where your answers shape the events that unfold. But there’s a lot of randomness at play, as well.
Anthropy, who also goes by Auntie Pixelante, was inspired to try her hand at an absurdist courtroom drama after playing an obscure 1991 text game called Kangaroo Court on a friend’s ancient Apple computer. The game was built on an Apple platform called HyperCard, the same engine that powered the popular game Myst and countless others. But most HyperCard games were far simpler than that, their legacy evident in today’s Twine scene.
“The judge is a kangaroo, and is very biased against you,” Anthropy told ANIMAL. “Sometimes the judge asks you to write poems about how much you like kangaroos, as an act of penance.” She was struck by a thought: “This is like the sort of thing that I would write.” And just like that, Star Court was born.
“The laser gavel pounds. The Robailiff boots up. Somewhere, a gong sounds. Star Court is now in session,” reads the game’s opening. That intro is always the same, but the details of your trial differ every time you play. The judge is a space pirate you betrayed in the past, or a cousin who never liked you, or the head of a rival gang. You’re accused of stealing the diamond core of Jupiter, or smuggling contraband holograms, or “throwing a laser party without a permit.” Your first choice is what kind of lawyer to hire—-an expensive one that costs you a favor you might have used later, or the “Public Defendroid” the court throws at you. And from there, the choices spiral down an infinite number of possible branches.
Star Court fully embraces the surreal. Witnesses like time travelers, psychics and vampire queens materialize in the court room to give their testimony as you attempt to bribe or coerce them into corroborating your alibi. One option during the trial is to “invoke the Ancient Rite,” which can involve being voluntarily poisoned, playing “raygun roulette,” or letting a room full of cats decide your fate.
Despite being only a few minutes long, the game is comprised of more than 30,000 words. But you only see about 5% of that every time you play through it, Anthropy said. It’s easily her largest Twine game ever, and it took her way longer than she expected — the better part of a month — to write and map out all its paths and variables. “This is a problem I’m having more and more with my Twine work,” she said. “It has a ridiculous amount of branches. The Twine source file, like the flow chart, just looks like an amazing spiderweb.”
Star Court leaves a lot to the imagination, including the identity of its protagonist. All of Anthropy’s descriptors are carefully gender-neutral, which as a trans woman, she feels is important. “I tried to be deliberately vague about details that concern the identity of the protagonist and leave a lot of stuff open, like the protagonist’s gender [and] their identity,” she said. “I’m definitely interested in moving our conversations around character creation and about romance in games beyond ‘Are you a man or a woman? Are you gay or straight?’”
Where in the Galaxy is Kremlin San Antonio?, another of Anthropy’s Twine games, lets players design certain aspects of their characters. In most video games, this involves choosing their gender, skin color and other physical attributes. But for Anthropy, it means “you can choose, like, the number of tentacles you have, or whether you have fur or scales or skin,” she said. “But you can’t pick your gender, you can’t pick whether you’re gay or straight, because those choices are not important to the story.”
In Star Court, that ambiguity is also crucial to the surreal sci-fi universe Anthropy is building throughout all her Twine games, including Kremlin, Star Court and others, like The Hunt for the Gay Planet. The ways in which they all fit together are purposefully left open to interpretation, although they definitely take place in the same world. “Maybe [Kremlin] sold you out and now you’re on trial, or maybe this game is about her trial,” Anthropy teased. “I’m not super interested in explicitly enforcing continuity myself, but definitely to allow for it, to encourage it.”
Another thing Anthropy left up in the air is whether Star Court’s defendant actually committed the crime for which they’re being tried. She wanted to avoid a typical pulpy detective-type story about a wrongly-accused antihero. It’s more fun if it’s ambiguous, and some branches even suggest that the protagonist is guilty…that “the only way they bungled it was by getting caught.”
That, and settling for the Public Defendroid — that thing is beyond useless.