Queers in Love at the End of the World

Queers in Love at the End of the World, by anna anthropy (2013)

This game may not need much introduction. It certainly among the most well-known Twine games, having been exhibited in the digital art gallery Rhizome and the focus of a 2017 journal article by Claudia Lo that studies the game’s “queer temporality.” Cara Ellison explored her thoughts on it through poetry in The Guardian, reading it as an experience evocative of “the itinerant life.” Personally, I have played the game many times since it first appeared five years ago. Playing the game through to the end always takes ten seconds, an exceedingly brief hypertext fiction regulated in its pacing by how fast you read (or skim), how fast you (want to) make choices, and how fast you (want to) click. Each of those, also, are going to be deeply impacted by how you interpret the game’s title, Queers in Love at the End of the World, and the scant detail of the scenario sketched in the game’s opening screen:

In the end, like you always said, it’s just the two of you together. You have ten seconds, but there’s so much you want to do: kiss her, hold her, take her hand, tell her.

The bolded words indicate clickable links; these links indicate choices; these choices lead to new passages of prose, which in turn lead to new choices. These choices may form a seemingly endless chain of new narrative branches–leaving you clicking to the end, perhaps reaching the countdown before your eyes can even finish reading your current sentence–or they might land you in a moment of stillness and quiet. But “there’s so much you want to do” and you know can’t possibly do all of it, beginning with those first four verbs, leading to different prose branches.

Who are you? Who is she? The thin glimpses the player is granted of this world (your world? our world? every world?) on the brink of annihilation and the briskness of the ten seconds that begin their fateful countdown the moment all but demand the player fill in the blanks, the details. Perhaps there’s a “she” you see every day, who, “just like you always said,” you’ve sworn you’ll be with at the end. Perhaps you miss some such “she.” Perhaps she is fantasy. Perhaps your “she” isn’t a “she” at all in your mind.

When the timer’s ten seconds expire, you are transported away from whatever you’re lookin at to a screen with a simple, final sentence: “Everything is wiped away.” The game has ended and time has with it. What you were reading, whether passionate love-making or a consuming and quiet embrace, has vanished. The frenzy or anticipation you experienced as the clock dwindled has led you here, and a silent game has somehow become more silent.

Below “Everything is wiped away” sits a line with the game’s title and authorial attribution, followed by two links: to view an “Afterword” or to “Restart.”

Restarting the game allows you to dive right back in, to experiment with alternate choices or to click quickly through your last path to get just a bit further. Lo and other writers have focused their readings of the game on exploratory repetition, learning the outlines of the branches you didn’t take before through repeated play, in ways not altogether unlike how a speedrunner might explore every possible action to determine an optimal run or a completionist might achieve 100% on an RPG using New Game-Plus functionality, though this analogy is troubled by the fact that the game has no win states and a single, unavoidable ending. Restarting is a game-endorsed invitation, of course, as witnessed in the game’s immediate prompt once the world has ended, no matter how many times you play.

This potential for endless repetition and the clear availability of every branch are central to Lo’s reading of the game as” grounded in feeling and emotional relations as opposed to linearly temporal, corporeal, or physical relations” (191), a queer exploration of temporality. I like this reading. I’m interested, too, in what it means to take these ten seconds that constitute a single playthrough as the end of the world indeed, to play through the game once and walk away, at least for a time. If you come back to the game after you’ve forgotten the contours of prior playthroughs, I find, the world’s end potently retains its urgency and its crushing finality.

This leads me to the other option once everything is wiped away and something Lo makes no mention of: the afterword.

While the game’s text has thus far all been dynamically rendered by your browser application in a tasteful, regular sans serif font, now your screen is occupied by the messy, almost tactile scrawl of graffiti, it’s letters partially dripping down the screen: “when we have each other we have everything.” The materiality of this image of words is a stark contrast to everything before the afterword, a screen ungoverned by the game’s possible looping, doomed time. Critically, the afterword doesn’t use “you” or “she,” but it does use “we.” Further, the game’s present tense narrative voice gives way to a conditional statement that seems unbound by time. Together, these serve to interrupt and recast the play experience and draw the player into a different dimension.

Below this, again in our webpage font, we see an option to restart but also the note that this was “Inspired by an image I found on tumblr,” with a link to an image that apparently was very directly adapted for the afterword, a photograph of a casual photo of bathroom door with the same text painted on it in black, even with the same drips. With the click of that link, you’re transported away from any “restart button,” closing the potentially unlimited recursive loop from the game.

Both of these links provide exits away from the world we’ve seen end. One returns us to it endlessly, to inhabit the open possibilities of the scenario. One brings us back to dingy reality, juxtaposed with a sweeping statement of expansive love.

Is Queers in Love at the End of the World a rehearsal for the coming end of the world? Is it a prism? A laboratory for imagining lovers real and imaginary? A fantasy of escaping death through its embrace, so long as you have one to embrace? I suppose the answer to all the above is, well, yes. Queers in Love at the End of the World is wonderful.

Queers in Love at the End of the World is playable in-browser at itch.io.