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Tools like Twine have made it easier than ever to make interactive text-based games. But while they can be simple to make, that doesn’t make it any easier to tell an engaging story. As a writer, you have nowhere to hide: there aren’t graphical avatars for the player to control or music and voice acting to help tell the story. It’s just words and hyperlinks. Despite that, games like Lionkiller show just how engaging and powerful interactive fiction can be — even if they only have words to work with.
Lionkiller is a reinterpretation of the legend of famous 4th or 5th century female Chinese warrior Hua Mulan. It deviates from the original source material and the well-known Disney adaptation by setting the story during the first part of the mid-19th century Opium Wars between the Chinese and British. It’s a war that started due to British merchants illegally smuggling and selling highly addictive opium to try to balance their trade deficit for luxury goods from China. The Chinese government was not particularly keen on this, to say the least.
Lionkiller starts with Mulan working at a flower shop, and the choices you make influence how her story plays out in both big and small ways, much like they do in games like Life is Strange or Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Does Mulan join the army to keep their father from getting drafted? Or her brother who has fled? Or maybe in place of her love interest so that she can live her dream?
It’s not these choices that keep you engaged and interacting with the story. Instead, it is a combination of the writing — which is brief but impactful — and the way it uses text links almost like cuts in a film or TV show. Effectively, all Twine games are a number of webpages full of text, in which there are colored text links you click to go from one page to another, or sometimes they add, remove, or change the text on the current page.
In Lionkiller each of these pages feels less like reading a page of a book and more like a shot or moment in a larger movie scene, with the links that go between pages feeling like cuts between shots or scenes. The links that add or change the text work much like if you were a film editor, giving you moments where it adds or changes a shot to more explicitly express the subtext of a scene. And with these links being optional, your choice to interact with them feels as though you are helping to create the scene.
What’s great about these interactions is the way they become as automatic as turning a page in a book. It just sort of happens and becomes part of the flow of reading. You’re never overly conscious of how much you are interacting, but you also don’t settle in as a passive reader where the appearance of an interaction feels surprising.
Aside from being a great game, Lionkiller is also a great reminder of how rarely interactive fiction games are recognized beyond their niche. This is despite the fact that they’re often incredibly accessible to play, only requiring a web browser. Given the amount of reading the average person does, it’s a style of game that should appeal to more people — and it deserves more attention than it currently gets.
Lionkiller was created by Sisi Jiang. You can get it on Itch.io (Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, and Android) for $10. It takes about two hours to finish.