Harlowe-quin Romance: Subversive Play at Love (and Sex) with Twine

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model that its own authors rebelled against: “Harlequin thought of everything--except the readers, the authors, and the creative freedom which has traditionally been the cornerstone of literature in Western culture. This publishing giant molded romantic aspirations into super-rationalist forms of communication, the very antithesis of the readers' desires” (“Romance in the Age of Electronics: Harlequin Enterprises,” Feminist Studies 11.1, 54). This description of “molded” aspirations is not so different from the genre molds that dominate the landscape of mainstream gaming: the engines powering franchises place the same inescapable stamp as the Harlequin formula. Romance novels themselves have transformed in the wake of the “e-zines, chat rooms, and bulletin boards” (and their descendants) bringing authors and fans into direct dialogue (Rosalind Gill and Elena Herdieckerhoff, “Rewriting the romance: new femininities in chick lit?” Feminist Media Studies 6.4, 2006). The truest descendants of this resistance of male-mediated, commercially-formulated fiction might perhaps be found in fanfiction, which is in turn frequently remediated through the success of crossover franchises such as E.L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey series (2011) and Anna Todd’s After series (2014). 

However, the intersection of romance and interactive media typically eschews the experimental and queer discourse of fan communities for heteronormative visual novels and forgettable romance “choice-driven” subplots, such as those of Bioware’s games. In Ready Player Two (University of Minnesota Press 2017), Shira Chess posits that the needs of women as the ever-present but frequently ignored player base, or the so-called player two, are becoming an influential force in the landscape of gaming media: the success of titles ranging from Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator (2017) to Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp (2017) reinforces the desire of players for alternative models of play, but within platforms and genres that are inherently normative in their “level-up” approach to romance. Twine, with its personal platform and flexible model of choice-modeling, offers affordances for subverting and building upon the romance genre. 
I examine several works built with Twine that challenge norms of romance novels while reflecting an active female gaze: Soha Kareem's reProgram (2014) explores healing from sexual abuse through a new relationship; Merritt Kopas’s Consensual Torture Simulator evokes BDSM from a knowledgeable perspective that goes far beyond the traditions of E.L James; Snoother's Sleep (2015) explores queer relationships and romance through a lense of anxiety; and KittyHorrorShow’s Wolf Girls in Love (2015) offers a minimalist and tragic lesbian romance. These works serve and reflect the gaze of player two, and perhaps even of Edmond Chang’s posited player three, the queer gamer, while serving simultaneously as a critique of the genre-patterned norms of much of interactive media. By subverting the heteronormative expectations of romance, the “literary” aspirations of electronic literature, and the formulaic choice systems of games, these works are at the heart of Twine as a punk movement.


(Source: ELO2018 Pinpointing Twine's OthersPanel Harlowe-quin Romance: Subversive Play at Love (and Sex) with Twine)

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Amirah Mahomed