By: Alex Marcarelli
Interactive fiction can include quite a variety of games from the Stanley Parable to Howling Dogs to more traditional parser adventure games such as the Zork series. Interactive fiction is a rather new experience for me. Having not played many interactive fiction games, I approached the assigned games of the week with an open mind, uncertain of what to expect. Howling Dogs really stuck out to me as unique and thought provoking. After several playthroughs of the game, the following paper will cover my initial reaction to it, how my thoughts of the game changed over time and why Howling Dogs and similar works are important for video games as a whole.
My initial reaction to Howling Dogs was one of both confusion and intrigue. I honestly was uncertain of what exactly was going on and what was expected of me. I was expecting a chronological series of events that would change based on player choice. This wasn’t the case as there was no clear story of interrelated events. There is some choice as to which links to click on that will affect the description of events. At different points in the game, the player is presented with choices ranging from ‘sleep now’ or ‘continue’ to ‘choosing to help strangle a man to death’ or ‘not’.
According to Porpentine (the author of Howling Dogs), there are two principal text based modes of interactive fiction being parser and hypertext. Howling dogs is a hypertext adventure. As a hypertext fiction work, there are limitations on the game’s mechanics and on player input. The player is in a small, dark room with very little food and water. The room is filthy and quite empty except for a photograph of a woman you can’t remember. There is also a sanity room, lavatory room and activity room that the player has access to. The game is entirely text based save for a few still images of colored pixels representing the pulses from a visor in an activity room. The main component of the game is using the visor to experience unrelated events via visual pulses. These events include a woman trying to kill her sleeping husband, a chaotic military battle, exploring a garden, etc. Players can only click on highlighted links of text that either continue the ‘story’ or present details about elements in the world. For example, clicking on the photograph link will result in a detailed description of the picture itself that changes as time progresses in game.
This limited illustration of the game world forces the player to use his or her imagination to visualize what is being described. This creates a very personal experience between the game and the player much like the relationship between a novel and its reader. In an interview by Emily Short, Porpentine states, “Games are perhaps the most intimate art because the player must remain touching at all times”. She then adds “I try to make every word count so people can experience my stories at the rate I’m feeling them…so there can be as little separation as possible”.
It is a game that encourages multiple playthroughs. During her interview Porpentine states, “howling dogs was designed for plural readings. Multiple interpretations make me happy”. Players will interpret the events of the adventure differently. There is no clear solution or goal in mind; it is simply a game depicting escapism. It can be argued that the visor in the activity room is referring to television or even video games in general. It illustrates how a screen is a way of escaping one’s current predicament. In fact, one could probably relate the circumstances of the character in Howling Dogs to Porpentine’s argument in Creation Under Capitalism and the Twine Revolution. It is argued that minorities don’t have the time or means to create games in the standard, modern way that is demanded of them. Twine is a tool to clear the entry barriers to creation and is something that allows a larger group of creators to contribute to the video game world. Why bring up Twine? It’s very accessible and as Porpentine states in Creation Under Capitalism, “Twine is the invitation to be personal”, which is what Howling Dogs is all about.
So what does all of this mean for gamers? Video games are simply a medium through which gamers have fun, explore new ideas, etc. Countless games rely on statistics or artificial ways of keeping track of growth in a game. Levelling up in the typical RPG, kill death ratios and player stats in the average sports game are some examples. Personally, my enjoyment of FIFA 2004 was based entirely on numbers and results. Many games also suffer from a lack of intimacy. Porpentine in her interview argues, “Many games are designed on the principle of the hover hand, an embarrassing disavowal of this intimate relationship…where nothing surprises us”.
Many in the gaming community often say that games are becoming easier. In an industry where arguably many games hold the players’ hand and outright tell you what you’re supposed to be thinking and how you’re supposed to react to a given situation, it is intriguing and refreshing to experience games like Howling Dogs that do the exact opposite. There doesn’t always have to be some clear goal or grand solution. My initial reaction to playing the game was one of disinterest, confusion and even boredom. I feel that in a way I’ve been ‘conditioned’ to prefer games that stress quick gratification. This was a much slower experience that evolves and changes as the player pays careful attention to the chosen wording. It evolves as the player’s understanding of the game and of the game’s place in the industry evolves. Howling dogs does a lot with very little and illustrates how intimate, thought provoking experiences should be a part of every gamers life.
Porpentine. Interview by Emily Short. “Interview with Porpentine, author of howling dogs.” WordPress. 2012. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.
Porpentine. “Creation Under Capitalism and The Twine Revolution.” Nightmare Mode. 25 November 2012.