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The poignant vocabulary of Porpentine's Ultra Business Tycoon III

Twine creatrix Porpentine discusses her largest text-based world to date, Ultra Business Tycoon III, and its commentary on the language of games.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

August 19, 2013

7 Min Read

Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander speaks with Howling Dogs and Ultra Business Tycoon III creator Porpentine. A key feature among Porpentine's games is her uncanny knack for creating a sense of place using only text. It's not simply her gift for language, with evocative descriptions and clever tonalities that often alternate brash humor with restrained poignancy. It's that her Twine work, despite being fundamentally sets of hyperlinks, tends to summon an actual geography in a way few others achieve. Her acclaimed 2012 game Howling Dogs is to me an intricate essay in confinement, self-care and the way technology enables escapism, and its sense of place is strong: The player interacts with an unexplained prison, repeating machine-assisted rituals within a space that slowly, with dread calm, begins to decompose. Amid discussions of "definitions" in designed interaction, designer Naomi Clark wrote an in-depth critical analysis of Howling Dogs, focusing on its use of choice and its fascinatingly-ambiguous win condition.

"A big amalgam of lots of video game feelings"

Porpentine's newest work is the recently-released Ultra Business Tycoon III, and she tells me it's her largest Twine world yet. She describes it as a port-and-crack of a rare 90s edutainment game, complete with nostalgic ASCII NFO sheet to help players pass the Shareware wall (and it's indeed necessary). Ostensibly, the player needs to earn $1 million to pass through the fabled Mammon Gates. In practice, though, the game's an elaborate rendition of games themselves, their specific vocabulary -- and how closely those experiences can be tied to our memories. "Ultra Business Tycoon is this big amalgam of lots of video game feelings," Porpentine tells me via Gchat, linking to an essay, "Especially this kind." Throughout the player's interaction with the world, the dissonance between player and game is emphasized to often-powerful effect, whether through the wry humor of recognition (the game's LOAD screen advises you not to fuck with your big sister's save file) to later moments that underline, with subtle but striking humanity, that games are contained things that exist as components of our real lives, and that our experience of them is always informed by the real-world contexts in which we play. Ultra Business Tycoon's world is assembled of tantalizingly-foreign landscapes, vividly described. The fashion in which the world is alienating is intimately familiar; the feeling (hope) that it might, might just be breakable in a way that could permit progress for the frustrated. One zone is the subject of internet rumors about being able to view a woman's intimate parts, even at a point in life when such things feel like nonsense-thought, the forbidding unknown. The sense of engaging with a system that compels in spite of its capricious, shrouded logic is delightfully nostalgic. "A definitive childhood memory of games was trying to crack each of the specific 500 shareware protections on a shareware disc," Porpentine recalls. "In the old Exile games by Spiderweb software, a demon would stop you, I think, and I always wondered if that invisible barrier was broken, at any point." It felt like "if I just wandered through the right tunnel or glitched through a wall, I could just open up this whole other part of the game that was tantalizingly forbidden to me," she adds. Some elements of the game -- the player finds herself mesmerized by an ongoing animation, unwilling to press the spacebar to progress, or finds herself making her character leap in order to see the top of a statue that looms out of frame ("you feel weird doing this") -- feel so specific that one presumes they're borrowed from specific experiences, but Porpentine says they're composites of striking memories influenced by a youth spent with HyperCard and shareware collections and MECC Software (Oregon Trail, Odell Lake, DinoPark Tycoon). "The moment something in a game becomes barricaded to me, my interest rises," she says.

"Trash is where we go when we stop struggling"

Ultra Business Tycoon III often uses starkly playful language to satirize thoughtless earning, using the lens of games ("why is this elevator cutscene so long," sulks the player's internal narrative as she enters the Corporate Fortress Skyscraper to make use of the Embezzlertron). In the Oasis Zone IV, the player can collect various fronds for no known reason, simply because it seems to be a soothing activity. When the player sails toward the edge of the map and an uncertain fate, an uninhibited ditty about trash plays. Porpentine often details trash and garbage in her work. This title's "Subterranean Trash Zone II" contains a rain of garbage cans and trash that is "muted, arcane, hyper-dense." She explains, "I love the warm putrid overwhelming nature of trash. Trash is where we go when we stop struggling." Her work, with its uncommonly sophisticated and inventive use of language, can often feel like an alien puzzle or a textured, intricate artifact. And much of it, including Ultra Business Tycoon III, candidly discusses abuse through a personal lens. Nonetheless, she says she's a little fatigued of having her work defined by the things around her she finds gross, by being asked to repeatedly talk about bad things that have happened to her, or of being made a figurehead of a movement in the media. So much of her games creation feels to her like a necessary act, a giving of life that comes from urge and emotion. "I don't really figure it out 'til I'm done," she says. "Sometimes I'm listening to some beautiful music and my emotions cluster around it, a series of visceral images connecting and weaving together." Crystal Warrior Ke$ha is a Porpentine game clearly born from a musical place, simple but colorful and intensely earnest as it is joyful, as the player guides the controversial pop star through an epic battle against the ultimate hater, self-adorning with glitter and cannibalizing adoring male fans along the way. I most recently played it a few months ago at the Different Games conference in New York City, where a room of curious Twine students shouted out their choices as the game was shown before them on a projector. "It's hard for anything I make not to become emotional," says Porpentine. "I feel words, like living things... I see everything that happens in a sentence, like bones and flesh. My writing is a linguistic nervous system flowing from my body, and I shape the words until they stop hurting."

"I put so much of myself out there"

But to call Ultra Business Tycoon III just a commentary on games, or even on grossness, is oversimplifying -- I won't spoil it for you, but it's a story of the poignant, often painful context in which our sinking into gameworlds happens, and the memories and relationships we forge, or lose, around them. I tell her I find her work hard to talk about sometimes, hard to articulate. I'm a big enough fan of the things she creates that, on reflection, I, too, have probably viewed her as a character, as an avatar of a movement. She says sometimes she finds the same challenges in talking about new, experimental and individual games in her ongoing column at Rock Paper Shotgun, where she tries to highlight such work to a PC gaming audience that traditionally might have been primarily engaged in waiting intently for Half Life 3. It's a testament to Porpentine's power over words that the game came over me slowly, like a ticklish little poison, at first familiar and funny and then startling, dark. A lump bloomed in my throat, and by the end I was tear-stricken, unexpectedly. "Thank you," she says, when I tell her. "Others cried too. It was very gratifying for me, to have this real human connection like that... it's interesting that people see me as mysterious, when I put so much of myself out there." For example, like me, Porpentine is a fan of diner ketchup, where fries are primarily a ketchup conveyance. Unlike me, she loves slime, and her next game will be a graphical effort for the first time -- "the main interactions are sliming and talking to people," she says. "I love working with super bright colors and noisy visuals." "It's this big, noisy hand-drawn thing," she explains, "a hand-drawn world... it's not very text-heavy, but there are lots of cool creatures to talk to. I designed it to be the fun part of action-RPGs, for me." I ask her about her thing for slime. Others have asked, too. "It's pretty personal," she says.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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