by Harris Frost
The piece of hypertext fiction Howling Dogs is a very persuasive piece of evidence supporting Montfort’s argument that text-based games should be studied in literary contexts. As Montfort asserts, the creation of narrative in this work comes about neither purely from the work itself nor purely from the user, but from the interaction between the two entities. In fact, instead of offering a world to be explored and/or a quest to be completed like Adventure and its ilk, Howling Dogs takes advantage of the medium’s unique relationship with the user to create an inscrutable, modernist and at times claustrophobic text. As Montfort says, too often is IF pigeonholed into the framework of “games” as we traditionally understand them.
Howling Dogs, instead of presenting a straightforward challenge, testing the user’s ability to make the right decisions, instead presents as a challenging text, whose interactive elements serve mainly as devices to heighten the user’s experience in consuming and analyzing it. By forcing the user to perform the same series of actions multiple times in order to access new passages, the game communicates the main character’s powerlessness, claustrophobia and despair directly to the viewer. And once the game has trained the user to do certain things before entering the activity room (the place wherein the bulk of the game’s content is accessed), like eating, drinking, showering and throwing away garbage, the game slowly begins to make these actions impossible to perform. This takes advantage of a user’s expectations when engaging with a piece of interactive fiction. Instead of having the character suffer the negative consequences of the user’s choices, the user is completely powerless to maintain the character’s health and cleanliness and can simply watch as the text describing the state of the character and their surroundings becomes more and more dire.
One of the pleasures of interactive fiction as described by Montfort is the process of discovering the logic and rules of the game. Though he was principally discussing traditional interactive fiction and not hypertext fiction, this concept does apply to Howling Dogs. The user gradually learns the nature of each room and that each in-game day will bring with it another activity in the activity room. The extremely limited description of the character’s situation as well as the surreal dream-like nature of the scenarios in the activity room (heavily implied to be computer simulations or dreams of some sort) serve to enhance the player’s curiosity and befuddlement at the workings of the game. Although instead of the user discovering what commands can or cannot be understood by the program, the user is instead tasked with understanding the nature of the game as a work of literature. While certainly not exactly what Montfort envisioned, Howling Dogs does present a compelling case for how interactive fiction and hypertext fiction offer unique ways of using text as a form of artist expression beyond what one might dub a “game” or a “text adventure.”
Montfort, Nick. “The Pleasure of the Text Adventure.” In Twisty Little Passages. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. 1-36.