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About the Storydeath cube sim | galactic survey | visionatrix | facet machine | power gardens | women | fascination
two significant endings
11th Place - 18th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2012)
Nominee, Best Game; Winner, Best Writing; Winner, Best Story; Nominee, Best Setting; Nominee, Best Use of Innovation - 2012 XYZZY Awards
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Number of Reviews: 7
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This review was originally posted as part of the 2012 Semi-Official Xyzzy Reviews series, and focuses on the game's nomination in the Best Story category.)
howling dogs is an interesting choice for Best Story, because at first glance it doesn’t precisely have a story. Not a single story, at any rate. Rather, it has several disparate narratives contained in a fairly loosely sketched frame.
The frame concerns a person trapped in a cell of some sort experiences the other stories as virtual reality scenarios while their (her?) real-life surroundings slowly decay. For company, the protagonist has only the photo of a woman–a former lover, perhaps–who becomes harder to remember with each passing day. Besides the gradual deterioration of the cell and the protagonist’s memories, not much happens in this layer of the story–which is probably the point.
The VR-scenario stories start short and simple and get longer and more involved as they go. The first, in which the player must choose to describe a garden from one of several different perspectives, is almost more the kind of thought-experiment you’d expect to find in a philosophy text than it is a narrative. Then there’s a memorably chilling piece in which a woman decides to kill her romantic partner (having been driven to the act by an incident a year before which is never specified) which takes an interesting approach to the question of player complicity. The narrator in this section is an “I”, not a “you”, and while the player may choose to condone her actions or not, she’ll carry out her plan regardless. The next is an especially odd piece involving a soldier involved in a surreal battle who may reject this reality in favor of an equally surreal peaceful teatime; after that is a well-written if somewhat standard take on the trial of Joan of Arc (or someone very like her).
The stand-out, though, is definitely the last and longest one, the tale of an empress who has been trained all her life to eventually die in an aesthetically pleasing manner. This story manages to fit a lot of worldbuilding into a small space gracefully enough that it doesn’t feel forced or confusing, and the world it paints is fascinating. It is a world of living cities that grow like plants and plains full of buried gods and bone-footed empresses who seem to wield supreme power but ultimately do not own their lives or their deaths. We follow one of these empresses through her youthful lessons in how to be beautiful in the face of her inevitable assassination. We see her come into her power and decide how to deal with several situations that require her attention. Then we are transported to the eve of the assassination–which, as it turns out, is not quite so inevitable as one might think, as long as the player is paying attention. If you play your cards (or click your links) right, the empress can decide to go against the fate that has been determined for her since birth and fight back against her would-be assassin. It’s a storyline that’s exciting on a surface level, but also laden with all kinds of deeper resonances regarding women and power and appearance and societal expectations, and the execution is fantastic on both (all?) levels.
The empress story is also the only one to explicitly relate back to the main storyline, as towards the end (in the “good” ending) the lines separating the VR scenario from the frame story’s reality begin to blur; the empress is identified with the frame story’s PC, and the woman who aids her in escaping assassination is identified with the woman in the photograph. The empress’s escape becomes the protagonist’s escape.
So the parallels in these two stories are made fairly explicit, but what about the rest? Do they hang together, or is howling dogs really as fragmentary as it first appears? Well, some of them are a little harder to figure out than others (I’m still not sure quite what’s going on with the battle/teatime episode), but there are strong thematic connections running through all the disparate parts of the piece. Gender and the position of women in society is one of the most explicit concerns of the piece, clearly visible in the stories of the empress, Joan of Arc, and the woman who kills her partner. In addition, there are themes of figurative and literal confinement present to some extent in nearly all of the stories (including the frame, but excluding the bit about the garden), appearances versus reality (which is inherent in the entire concept of VR as well as appearing in many of the sub-stories), death and decay, and probably many other things I haven’t noticed yet. For all that it’s short, it’s a dense piece of work, the kind that offers up new discoveries each time you go through it.
The individual parts of howling dogs are fascinating and they come together into a cohesive whole better than one might expect. The game may lack an overarching plot in the traditional sense, but it still feels like it’s telling a single story through different lenses. The fact that its approach to story is unusual for IF only makes this layered and thought-provoking work that much more memorable.
I thought that kicking off my IFComp 2012 quest with a hyperlink powered game à la howling dogs might somehow ease my brain into the gear required for the more typically strenuous parser fare to come. I was wrong; howling dogs brought the strenuous straight away. This piece is an ominous and often perplexing journey through poetic language, virtual reality-ish dreaming and shifting female roles. Beyond its subject matter, it also forced me to immediately confront a bunch of issues concerning different kinds of interactivity in text games I'd rather have put off until later. howling dogs is dynamically beautiful and writerly, but I would point out now for consumers that it is essentially not a game-state game. It's a text with many digressions and some strong aesthetic tricks. It's also pretty weird. To learn more, you may read beyond this paragraph into my more content (but not puzzle) spoiling territory.
The player's initial situation is sparse and sparsely depicted. You're trapped in some kind of quarters with a shower, food, a room whose nature screen keeps you sane, and the 'activity' room where you can go to have virtual reality experiences that aren't of your choice. By the bed is a photo of a woman you once knew. Ultimately the only thing you can do to escape each day's monotony is plug yourself into the activity room. In each of the ensuing virtual realities you seem to be a different person in a different situation, and at the conclusion of each dream you wake up back in your quarters.
The scope of the dreams (and I use the term loosely – there's no certainty that they are dreams) is wide ranging, to say the least. There's a gory phantasmagorical war produced by some entity which bends slightly to your resistance – or lack thereof – to its choice of material. There's a Zen experience involving describing a garden viewed through a paper slot. The ultimate, lavish scenario follows the growth of a prophesied empress with a bone foot.
The series of shorter dreams which come first and flit about in subject matter seem pretty resistant to interpretation on a first play, but the later and longer scenarios start to draw out a theme of the persistent and constricting roles for women which have been laid down over the ages. In one story you're Joan of Arc waiting to be burned. By the game's end you're an empress, arguably powerful but still bound to various aesthetic and behavioural expectations, deciding which masks to wear and which of various predetermined actions to take. The empress story reminded me of some of Tanith Lee's books; Vivia (about an impotent vampire princess) and Law of the Wolf Tower (the adventures of a harried quasi-princess teen). The game's final quote from John Wesley about the indefatigable evil of angels also reminded me of Lars Von Trier's film Antichrist and its concerns with myths of the perpetual evil of women.
These are my ideas and not stone, for this is plainly a game open to wide interpretation. I describe it as dynamically beautiful as it demonstrates a perfect sense of timing and flow in its aesthetics. Not just in the language but in the visual delivery of the game; the pace at which the text appears, the moments the game chooses to repeat things. Some tricks it has which are minimally visceral, like lines which fade or flicker like a broken light, weird links hidden in punctuation, deliberately blurred text. This is some of the most interesting use of this hyperlink format I've seen to date. However, I rarely found much use for the 'Rewind' link, having much more luck with my browser's 'Back' button, and occasionally the need to drag the mouse back and forth over links became laborious – particularly on one rather amazing screen which apparently leads to an alternate ending. I was unable to find that ending, but the need to repeatedly move between links in the text and the 'Back' link which kept reappearing in the corner was more than my RSI could stand.
howling dogs was a very interesting and promising introduction to this year's competition for me, and also demonstrates further innovation in the area of hyperlink pieces. The writing is fine, the dynamics excellent, the imagery clear and strange.
I've played through it twice now, and gotten both endings, and to be honest I still can't tell you exactly what it is about, not fully. It is not a story, so much as it is a semi-interactive piece of art, and as that it succeeds very well... I suspect that I will still be thinking about this game long after, something that I can't say for a lot of games that I enjoyed a lot more than this one.
Many other reviews talk about how much this game has to say about women, and looking back that is definitely a theme running strong within the disjointed scenes. Equally fascinating though, as with much Art, is how much of what you see is what you brought with you. In my first play through, it never occurred to me the protagonist might be female. It also never occurred to me that the prophet was a "joan of arc" figure, as in my mind they were also male.
Reading it the second time, I projected a female PC, and a Joan of Arc figure, and it worked equally well - the writing is beautifully designed that way, to magnify your own prejudices and allow you to see your own reflection.
I play for enjoyment, and I didn't enjoy this a great deal, hence the 3 stars. It was confusing, it was confronting, and as Art it succeeded in unbalancing me. It was quite well done.
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