We’re continuing to interview prominent SFF and IF authors about craft in specific works. This week, Cat interviews Brendan Patrick Hennessy, whose Twine game Birdland took 4th place in the 2015 IF Comp and recently picked up six XYZZY nominations.
2013 was a good year for you—you had You Will Select A Decision, KING OF BEES IN FANTASY LAND, The Thing About Dungeons, and Bell Park, Youth Detective. You got XYZZY nominations for two of those games, including best writing.
Haha okay. First off I love that you refer to that two year gap as “a break”. For me that was like not a relaxing breather in between projects but a long slog where I was not able to make any headway on anything. I tried to start maybe a dozen games in this time? Including a failed early version of Birdland and an abandoned Bell Park sequel set at an elite yacht club high school in the year 2017. It was very depressing to feel so unproductive for so long!
But then you did produce Birdland, and we’ve already discussed some of the ways in which it works. You’ve said before that critique on Bell Park, Youth Detective changed some things about how you approached Birdland. Do you mind elaborating on what that feedback was, and how that impacted your work going forward?
There were definitely people who liked Bell Park, but generally I found the mixed-to-negative reviews were the most helpful. They’re definitely the reviews I most agree with, looking back on it. There are whole passages in Birdland which are more or less direct responses to specific reviews. Any time Bell talks about the events of the previous game that is basically me as the author going “Yep, Reviewer X, you were entirely right about how messed up that game was. Hoo boy.”
A lot of complaints about the story — that it felt abrupt, that it felt too linear especially towards the end, that you don’t really spend enough time actually solving the mystery yourself — were all clearly tied to the fact that I hadn’t given myself enough time to write the damn thing. I started Bell Park a month before the deadline. A month! Birdland was more like four. Having that long gave me ample time to refine the plot and do actual testing, which I had completely neglected on Bell Park. (Seriously, not a single person besides me had read it before release. What was I even thinking?) It also meant I could manage to commission illustrations for the game, which ended up being hugely important. I don’t think there’d be even a shred of fan-art for this thing if I hadn’t had Izzy’s amazing illustrations in there.
Some things I took to heart were weirdly specific. Like one review pointed out that the language in Bell Park gets very sweary around halfway through, which wasn’t really in keeping with the earlier kid detective tone. This was maybe half a sentence in one review but it stuck with me because I realized like that wasn’t a specific choice I made in that piece, that was me being thoughtless about swearing and using lots of swear words because I love to cuss. So in Birdland I was very conscious of my language and went back and toned down the swearing whenever I slipped it in accidentally. Which turned out great. Because A) it made the story feel more sweet and silly and B) when I did drop an F-Bomb in the “I Hate Myself” dream song, it stood out so much more and really worked for maximum comic effect.
A lot of reviewers felt that the mystery story didn’t really work as a mystery, which I definitely agreed with. I went into that project having never really read much of the mystery genre. (And for that matter I hadn’t even looked at kid detective books since I was in the target demographic.) So I was flying blind. I didn’t really have much of a sense of the genre I was working in. So when Birdland came around I read like a truckload of LGBT YA books. Probably over a hundred books in the span of a few months. Generally the focus was on lesbian books specifically — I think I more or less exhausted that entire subgenre — but I tried to get examples from across the spectrum. Reading those books, thinking about how I would have reacted to them as a kid, figuring out what distinguished the books I enjoyed from the books I didn’t, all that work really helped me shape the story.
Before I started reading that stuff I actually was going to stop short of a full-on relationship between Bridget and Bell. But after doing all that research I was like, “No. Not only do they have to kiss, but they have to have way more build-up to that kiss earlier on in the story. And then after that kiss there has to be a fun cute scene where they’re just happy and officially together. And someone has to find out and be really happy for them. And it’s going to be awesome.” It was like this list of like completely self-indulgent stuff that I knew deep down I would have wanted to see as a teen. The game wouldn’t have worked at all if I hadn’t gone down that path.
Oh, absolutely. I remember being thrilled at that point of the game: I just wanted Bridget to be happy. Speaking of Bridget, she’s nominated for best Individual PC in the XYZZY awards this year. Tell us a little bit more about her—where did she come from; how easy was it to find her voice?
So when I first took my first crack at Birdland in 2014, the game was very different. I was super inspired by The Yawhg at that point, and originally I wanted to have a total blank slate main character. I wasn’t even sure I was going to give them a name or a gender. That version of the game did not work even a little so I shelved it. It was only months later (while watching some people stream Life is Strange, of all things) that I had this epiphany like “oh, the thing that was missing from that game was the actual emotional experience of being a fourteen-year-old.” Which like, no duh, right? But for some reason I was so into this idea of aliens taking over a summer camp that I hadn’t even considered the importance of dealing with actual teen business.
Bridget came out of that readjustment. She was basically all of my teenage anxieties multiplied by a thousand. At her age I was struggling a lot with the idea of being queer, so it was an obvious choice to have her be dealing with her sexual orientation as well. On some level she was actually a really easy character to write, since I could just pick out moments from my own life and unapologetically shove them into the story. Like for example, that subplot with the boy that you pretend to have a crush on who then comes around and rejects you? That entire situation is literally just a thing that happened to me in real life except with the genders reversed.
On the other hand, you know, I am not nor have I ever been a fourteen-year-old lesbian. So my own experiences only go so far. Obviously when you’re writing someone who has an identity you don’t share, you have a big responsibility to do it properly, and empathetically, and in a way that doesn’t hurt people. That obligation was weighing on my mind pretty much the entire time I was writing the game, and at the end of the day all I could do was write as carefully as possible and pray to the gods above that I didn’t completely eat shit. Fortunately it seems to have turned out okay.
Can you tell us a bit about how Birdland is structured, and why you chose to lay it out as you did? Basically just give us a quick peek under the hood at the technical details about how you construct a Twine this complex.
Birdland has 74,409 words across 927 passages. It’s split up into 37 distinct scenes, which can be anywhere from 2 to 123 passages long. I can tell you all these numbers because I have a big spreadsheet which tracks all that stuff, which I ended up leaning on a lot.
The structure of the game is very regular, which is partly for my own sanity and partly for the player’s. Every day starts with a big weird dream where you are setting your personality stats. Then you have three shorter activity periods where you’re using those stats. Then back to the dream again. Because the story is so broken down like that it’s a lot more manageable to write. Writing over 900 passages can feel almost impossible, but writing a single scene? That’s doable.
The game is also trying to send signals to the player — although I’ll admit I have no idea if that’s actually working. Like for one thing with a game this long the player probably has no sense of where they are in the story. Everyone knows how long a movie is supposed to be, but how long is a Twine Game? Well it’s somewhere between one minute and four hours I guess. So in Birdland there’s this regular intensification every cycle to help situate you in the overall arc. Every day another counsellor gets taken over by a bird. Every day Bell features more prominently in your dreams. It’s a big ticking clock.
On a plot level the game is a string of scenes one after the other with no major branching. But individual scenes can have very different node structures. In the dream sequences you’re supposed to feel like you can do whatever you want and anything can happen, so those ones are big and open with lots of branching. In the real world you’re more shy and nervous. The daytime scenes are much tighter, shorter and more confined, with lots of personality stat checks gating off choices. But whenever you’re talking with Bell your character is way more comfortable and open, so those daytime scenes spread out a lot more, and have almost no stat checks. (In fact the big campfire scene towards the end has literally no stat checks at all, which is supposed to signify that you’re comfortable enough with this person to basically say anything you think you might want to say.)
These shapes of these scenes literally look different in Twine. When you’re zoomed out all the way and all the passages are just tiny squares, you can still see what role the scene fulfills in the story. So as a writer this is super helpful because I can just like… squint at a scene basically and go “oh well this isn’t bushy enough.” Which I realize makes me sound like the biggest charlatan in history but I swear to god it actually works.
Speaking of that campfire scene, that was a total experiment on my part and I had no idea how it was going to work. I knew it was going to be a scene where the main characters had a serious big bonding moment, after which them getting together was basically inevitable. But that scene is extremely un-linear. It’s the least directed part of the whole game. There are 123 passages and maybe a dozen different outcomes, and everything is looping back on everything else, and literally nothing is on the critical path except the two of you falling asleep next to each other. You can talk explicitly about sexuality but it’s just as likely that you won’t. There are a handful of passages where Bell comes out of the closet to you, but most people won’t see them. She can agree to help you investigate the birds, or she might talk you out of it, or you may never ask her in the first place. You can talk about family, about your life back in Toronto, about other people at camp, about the murder from the previous game, and none of that is guaranteed.
The scene can end with you crying in Bell’s lap or smiling at her like a dope. And the thing is the game doesn’t record any of that. The next scene is the same no matter what happens. And it totally works! People don’t seem to even notice the size of the scene, let alone think that they might have missed something in it.
Are there any other hidden Easter eggs or callbacks people might have missed?
There’s a bunch, yeah! There’s actually lots of little hints about Bridget’s feelings towards Bell sprinkled throughout the dream sequences, starting pretty much from the moment you meet her. One example: In the pirate dream you can get a tarot card reading, which is randomly generated from a pool of accurate predictions. If you’re dealt The Lovers (or “The Romantically Inovlved Individuals” in bird speak) the fortune says: “A companion of yours will prove like-minded in a way that you had intensely hoped but had not allowed yourself to believe.” And Bridget will do a double-take at the line, like “wait, what was that one again?”
In the college student dream there’s one very missable passage where Bridget will just go on a huge long monologue on what it feels like to have a crush on someone. There’s a relatively obscure line of questioning in the detective dream which ends with you asking “You were never interested in someone? Someone you knew you shouldn’t have been? Say a smart and confident friend of yours with really cool hair?” The musician dream is full of little innuendos and hidden meanings — too many to list really. Most players will not see any of this stuff but I like having it in there for the odd person to stumble upon.
A lot of the names in the game are little Toronto/Canada puns. Bridget Leaside = Leaside Bridge, Bellwoods Park = Trinity Bellwoods Park, Elizabeth Wei = the Queen Elizabeth Way, Mackenzie Singh = Mackenzie King. That last one by the way is maybe the best Canadian History pun in the history of interactive fiction and I don’t think I got nearly enough credit for it.
There are totally callbacks to the previous game too. Like in Bell Park Youth Detective there’s a character that’s launching a social media platform called “frthr” and at one point he smugly tells you that “all your little friends will be using it by Christmas.” But in Birdlandtwo years later, Liz is lists off frthr as a famously failed social network. “Like a shittier version of Ello, if that’s even possible.” I have also diabolically planted pre-callbacks to places and things that might come up in future games set in this universe. But those are all secret and you will never find them.
Oh and one last thing which is totally never surfaced to the player: as soon as you get in a relationship with Bell all of your personality statistics even out to normal across the board. Which is supposed to represent the idea that Bridget is arriving at a point where she gets to be her natural self. That’s completely invisible but I really like that the idea is in there mechanically, a coded bit of happiness that quietly executes every time someone beats the game.