howling dogs is a link-based story game made with Twine. Around the time I started writing this up, Emily Short did an interview with Porpentine, which you should read if you’ve played the game, but, really, also if you haven’t played the game: they discuss Twine and the IF community and escapism, among other things.
Escape rarely resembles our fantasy of escape. Sometimes escape is getting on a bus with what you have in your bag or driving 400 miles too tired to say a word. Sometimes, often, even, escape is an accident, escape is confusing, we don’t know escape until it’s already happened.
howling dogs is beautiful and strange and surprising, and worth experiencing more than once, I think, though I hesitate to attach a term like “replay value” to something structured so little like a game. It’s hypertext interactive fiction in the most literal sense of the term and Twine’s a good engine for that: it’s also arguably metafiction, since your choices within an apparent VR simulator form the central experiences in the story. I enjoyed it and it got me to thinking afterward.
General: howling dogs is a link-based game from the perspective of a narrator who undergoes multiple virtual reality simulations while trapped in a room, which may be a hospital room, a prison, or anything else. My knee-jerk reading was a hospital room in a psychiatric hospital, so I went in feeling an immediate connection to it as an allegory for mental illness, the dehumanizing treatments for it, and the unlivable grind that the very experience of mental illness is or can be, anyway: arguably the room could also be something like depression itself, the constraints of a stagnant and unresponsive reality that doesn’t seem to change no matter what you do to it. Porpentine has since pointed out (in the aforementioned interview) that there are other sorts of trapped lives that the room in howling dogs could represent, so take my interpretation as my interpretation alone. It’s not really a game that can be summarized, at any rate.
In a separate Gamasutra column in 2010 Emily Short had some things to say about the concept of pretentiousness: I understand why people use it. Often we call something pretentious when we think the artist might be concealing a lack of meaning or vision behind obscurity, jargon, or a set of conventions currently hallowed by the art establishment. It’s a way of saying “I don’t get this, and I don’t know that there’s anything to get” that shifts the blame (if blame even applies in so subjective an area as one’s response to artwork) onto the artist rather than ourselves. “I don’t get this, and I don’t know that there’s anything to get” is an excellent summation of what the label “pretentious” means to the layperson, I think: you get the sense of this suspicion the person has that they’re being made to feel intellectually or emotionally inferior by a work because they didn’t respond to it in the intended way and they resent the (often implied or feared) accusation that this is their own fault. There’s also an overtone of the Emperor’s clothes; no one wants to feel like they’ve been played for a fool, and the idea of wracking your brain looking for meaning in something that was purposely intended to confuse you while the creator laughs all the way to some rhetorical bank worries people a bit. The media’s full of narratives where painters slap paint randomly onto canvases and have a good chortle and turn a tidy profit when art critics take it seriously, after all.
I have my own frustrations with how often “pretentious” is tossed about when words like “unclear” or “confusing” or other, franker subjective experiences — I don’t see anything wrong, for instance, with admitting you just found something boring –because it’s got a very anti-intellectual tint. It’s a favorite word among people who dislike the implication that they ought to think more than they already do, or that media shouldn’t cater to what they already like and know. Ah, ought, shouldn’t, now those are words that inspire a lot of navelgazing metawanking in art criticism. Anyway, in media I’ve certainly run into examples of shallow creation that used ambiguity as a substitute for meaning, not a tool for complicating it, but those are works I’d call exactly that: shallow, confusing, empty, meaningless. Pretentious is just a shorthand for all of that plus a certain personality trait you’re implying the author has and it’s loaded with a lot of unfortunate connotations. I’m not going to swear off using it in reviews for the rest of forever because it is a useful shorthand, but it’s worth a call-out, particularly in popular entertainment and art forms derived from it where often Entertainment is worshiped as God and by extension, the Consumer. See: the whole Penny Arcade kerfuffle over China Miéville. (For the record, I don’t really care for Miéville either for reasons more like this, but that’s not really the point.) Also, if I could defenestrate a person every time they told me, with smug false self-deprecation, that they do not read “important” or “literary” work, just “fun” books — especially if they are a college-educated Anglophone without other language or educational barriers — the world’s windows would be getting a lot more traffic.
Back to howling dogs. That all being said, whatever meaning you personally do or don’t derive from it, I think it’s pretty hard to play howling dogs and imagine that the author created some shallow, self-congratulatory work without emotional investment and intended meaning on their part. howling dogs is a very accessible game: the Twine engine is good for this. It is very linear, for how meta it is, and the player has no real impact on how the story progresses; it’s more of a short story told in an immersive fashion through hyperlinks than anything else. I know a few magazines that keep expressing interest in hyperfiction that seem like they’d be interested, actually. Anyway, a game like this stands on or falls from its own writing.
Writing: Happily enough, howling dogs is quite well-written on a sentence level, as they say in editorial. One of the game’s most stand-out sections is one where the narrator/player assumes the role of a young Empress in a surreal, speculative world:
The empress has always saved herself for death, because death will only accept a maiden. If the empress is not pure in death, how can she birth the next empress? For all know each empress is born of the union between woman and death, and they are known by the fleshless foot that tears their mother. These foot-boned children are found no later than a year after the death of each empress. By this sign the circle is unbroken.
howling dogs is full of lovely and succinct turns of phrase that sketch out a world in a few words: the first sentence of this paragraph is a fine example. ”The empress has always saved herself for death, because death will only accept a maiden.” What a delicious sentence! I mean it, I really just want to eat that sentence up, it unfolds all sorts of wondrous fractal possibilities about a world we just barely see, like all the best short SFF.
Some of the other VR scenarios evoke less expansive, more claustrophobic or emotionally wrenching situations: one seems to put you in the position of a person deciding to kill or not kill (but without too much spoiling, this keeps also to the theme of inevitability and recursive powerlessness in the game) an abusive lover, another in the shoes of Joan of Arc, not in so many words. The threads strung through these narratives made me wonder if I was overall assuming the role of a trapped, marginalized woman understanding and coping with her situation through imagining the narratives of many other trapped women, and I loved both that theme and that uncertainty. In other words, I have virtually no complaints about the writing in howling dogs. If anything I would’ve liked more detail in the frame story of the room, but I suppose that bareness itself served a purpose.
Design: Interaction with howling dogs is propelled by links, which appear often as text within sentences, sometimes as commands at the ends of them. The most curiously repetitive mechanic here is the necessity to keep interacting with the food/drink in the player’s room in order to go back to the VR: everything else in the room is static and descriptive of time passing, more or less, as the garbage chute implies the narrator’s considered escaping before and the shower stops working at a certain point, much to their discomfort. However, the player must keep eating and drinking in order to access each stage of VR. It’s interesting, a bit tedious but also a bit reminiscent of the notion of self-care and the monotony of maintaining holding pattern in life in between jaunts into escapism. But probably that’s my reading things into it again.
I have nothing critical to say on the matter of the hypertext design in the VR sections: they function exactly as intended, as Twine has a tendency to, I think. I also understand why — unlike with the occasional well-done but strangely overcluttered interactive story or visual novel — this story, despite its linear nature, was told in hypertext form, because the nature of my involvement with it felt like I was constantly endeavoring to exert control that I didn’t have: very thematic and very claustrophobic. I identified with the narrator fairly viscerally, which might not’ve been easy in a non-interactive story of similar lyricism and ambiguity. My main point of dissatisfaction had more to do with what felt like the underexploration/predictability of the room section — I understand the purpose it served, but I feel like the hyperlink mechanics could’ve been utilized to greater effect even in underscoring the narrator’s powerlessness and repetition in this situation.
Overall I confess howling dogs is a game stylistically very much to my preferences, and also very hard to rate because impatience, frustration, and limitation were all parts of the game design: when the author’s goals aren’t immediately clear (and aren’t meant to be clear, either), how does one entirely rate how well they’re met? I don’t know how limiting, or frustrating, the style of howling dogs was meant to be and how much more could’ve been done with the medium; I do know that I enjoyed it a great deal and I’d go through it again just to enjoy the prose. In some ways it cut very close to the bone, and I always appreciate that in a story.