Say When, And The Use Of Mechanics And Perspective

Last night around 4AM I knew I had to go to bed to get up in four short hours, but before I stepped away from my computer I decided to finally try something my friends have recommended and spoken about constantly.

I decided to try a Twine game for the first time.

It had been sitting in my leftmost tab, patiently waiting for me to work through my reading backlog, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it.

Say When was written by Kait Tremblay and has art penned by Emilie Majarian, and honestly that art was what got me to look into it. The more easily noticeable reason was the way the jaw dissolves into strings of blood, but the other thing I noticed was the fingers being pressed into the woman’s throat. The blood was alarming sure, but the way the hands and throat were drawn just looked so uncomfortable to me. That feeling stuck with me until I finally put everything else away and began.

I admit, upon first starting the game, I was a bit put off by the minimalist design of the interface and text. When I made decisions I couldn’t help but feel like I had no idea what the outcome could have been.

In Say When I took on the role of Lily, a girl who is, literally and metaphorically, trying to fill up her life with, she hopes, things that make her happy. The entire crux of the system involves choosing an action like “drink coffee” or “take a shower”, reading what happens, and seeing if her sanity (represented by a positive or negative number) goes up or down. In the beginning I didn’t quite understand the system and it produced a problem for me. Since I wasn’t Lily I didn’t know what would or would not drain her sanity. In the cases where you interact with other people (like phoning friends or coworkers) I can understand not knowing the result because I can’t predict other people, but how would I know if painting or playing video games was something she enjoyed. I had no context.

Slowly I settled in and started to notice the specific wording in the text. When I finished the game for the first time it gave me a paragraph explaining how Lily felt after all this and it ended with,

“…but you were kind to Lily.

And kindness goes a long way.”

I then understood that the game was not about me trying to be Lily, but to merely help her. It was like I existed as some kind of ethereal force that could give her advice on things to do, but only observe the result.

And that became extremely apparent when I chose the selection “metal arms”.

“Lily cuts out sections of the flesh on her arms, using her nails like a scalpel, and restores her flesh with squares of sheet metal. Armour.

Lily’s gained the Special Condition: Metal Arms.

Lily’s sanity increased by 3.”

I sat there for a moment, the visual running through my head. There were no visuals to attempt to help me. The game bills itself as “a sci-fi story”, but something told me this wasn’t what it said; it was just what Lily wanted to think.

The striking bit was the text “Lily’s sanity increased by 3.”. From a purely mechanical point of view I had made a good choice. It made her feel better, but it didn’t make me feel proud of my choice.

As I sat and observed the final wall of text the second time around I came to realize why this movement of independent games/ alt games matter so much to people. For the creators it’s a way to express to someone some aspect of their life through mechanics that run deeper than films or books. For the players it helps achieve a better understanding of the social and physical issues that exist in our world today, and how to better combat them.

You can play Say When here.

If you know of a Twine game that might interest me please send me an email to or tweet at me with a link to it.

Published by

Sam Callahan

Filmmaker by day, writer by night.

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