IF Comp 2012: howling dogs (Porpentine)

howling dogs is a Twine-based CYOA concerning… I’m not sure quite what, but it involves repeated sessions with a virtual reality. Per tradition, I will put my spoiler-free comments after the jump, then spoiler space if there is anything spoilery to follow.

howling dogs sets the player down in some sort of cell, which might be a hospital or possibly a prison or, just conceivably, a ship on its way somewhere. The player eats, the player drinks, the player uses the virtual reality visor; and there is evening and there is morning, and there is more eating and drinking and another bout with the visor. Things seen in the VR are more vivid and more interesting than those experienced in the cell (unsurprisingly), but it is not clear how they relate to the real world, whatever that might be. Gradually conditions in the cell degrade, but it is hard to know how this relates to the VR.

Structurally, it’s highly linear: there is to the best of my knowledge only one point of choice that has any long-term effect. Link clicking instead mostly achieves work that must be done (like the daily eating and drinking that you have to do before dipping back into the virtual reality), or allows you to explore or by-pass tangential information. Though people often refer to Twine as a CYOA tool, it’s more accurate to call this particular piece hypertext. And howling dogs demonstrates a very finely tuned sensibility about how to do hypertext: where to put pauses, where to put the links, how to create pace, how to give the illusion that there is a world model or the illusion that there isn’t, how to make a reading feel very constrained or very open or like very hard work, how to use options to invite the reader/player to express curiosity or hesitation or complicity or avoidance. The density of links varies quite a lot from one page to the next, one context to another. Sometimes links are words, sometimes punctuation. Sometimes a linked piece is an explicit command at the end of the text, and sometimes it’s a phrase embedded in the middle. Sometimes it’s obvious what the link does and sometimes not remotely obvious at all. And all of these variations work, in the context in which they appear. I came away thinking howling dogs should be an assigned text of study for people considering writing link-based fictions.

So the interaction is meaningful, and there are some decisions to make here and there, but it is a piece whose interaction is not primarily concerned with choice. (An entire tangential rant could go here about the fact that so many people conflate “interactive fiction” with “fiction in which the reader can alter the plot”, when there are so many other artistically interesting things that interaction can do. I will however omit this rant for now.) howling dogs not only doesn’t allow very much alteration, it could barely be said to have a plot at all.

The reviews I’ve seen of howling dogs mostly say “I don’t quite get this but I thought it was cool.” I fear I don’t completely get it either, in the sense that I could confidently say, “okay, here’s what happened, here’s what it’s about, here’s what it meant.” I feel like I did get it as an experience, though: a string of events that created certain sensations, certain emotions.

Mild spoilers follow, I guess, though I am not really sure how much the concept of spoilers applies to something that is so much about texture and so little about challenges, discoveries, or narrative outcomes. All the same, just in case…

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Some of the VR sessions clearly refer to known things, such as the imprisonment and martyrdom of Joan of Arc. Others suggest fantasy or science fiction worlds, including an especially evocative one concerning an empress born, ritually, with a bone foot, who spends her childhood being tutored in how best to die when she is inevitably assassinated. There were some points when I was reminded of Calvino because of the rapid presentation of evocative images, and the intentional toying with narrative style and chronology. The bit where the player is asked how she prefers to describe a garden reminded me, obliquely, of Borges’ Celestial Emporium, because of the way it implies very alien styles of knowing and categorizing. Many of the images are brilliant and horrible. Many of the sentences require imagining an entire alternate universe in which they could be true.

Example: there is a passing reference to needing to find a part of the land in which legends say no gods are buried; which requires a world in which, legendarily, the graves of gods are scattered all over the place; which in turn requires that gods die, and do so corporeally on earthly soil, or at least were thought to do so in some mythical or ritual tradition. Moreover this tradition is one that still carries significant force in the present day, in the demarcation of sacred and taboo space.

howling dogs bristles all over with sentences like this.

In the disparate and dizzying content, certain ideas recur. Cages, traps, ways of being stuck, some of which are physical. Dreams and waking. Questions of perception. A garden is (or becomes) what we say it is, a saint is not a saint until declared so after the fact. And sometimes someone else gets to label the meaning of your existence and actions (especially in the Joan of Arc section), because for some social or political reason you are not considered worthy of labeling it yourself.

It’s hard work, this piece, for all that it’s parserless and nearly puzzleless. I have had a bad experience with some hypertext works that present disjointed realities of dream and half-dream and memory, which too often come out like a rumpled linen suit, lots of expensive material but no shape. In the case of howling dogs, I did not feel cheated in this way. I am still not sure whether there was something more I should have extracted from it, but it required a lot of attention and care to read, and there are many pieces I thought about over and over after reading.

11 thoughts on “IF Comp 2012: howling dogs (Porpentine)

  1. I think part of the story rests on WHO the author is. Of course, I can’t discuss this during the Comp, so that’s all, for now.

    Hope I will remember what I mean when the Comp is over.

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  4. “I came away thinking howling dogs should be an assigned text of study for people considering writing link-based fictions.”

    Care to share any suggestions for others?

    I’m trying to put together a list. For my purposes I wanted to subdivide by genre/style. There’s an overwhelming number of fantasy and scifi ones (many of which are stunningly great, and are often as much magic-realist as fantasy) and a few historical fictions (or, at least, things set in the past – not sure if that qualifies as “historical fiction” really) but I’m a bit light on other genres.

    For realism I have only “Bee”, and for out-and-out comedy, I have “The Cavity of Time”.

    I am actually not sure where to place “Howling Dogs”, except “all of the above”. Obviously the fact that it completely messes up my categories is a pretty good reason to include it. (Though perhaps my categories are silly to begin with…)

    • There are quite a few romantic/slice-of-life ones, of varying degrees of seriousness. Sam Ashwell has written up “Night of a Thousand Boyfriends” and some others. In general, you might find his CYOA-structure reviews interesting. Some of those are for paper-book items but many are available via Kindle and so on.

      There’s also an interesting list in the article Porpentine recently wrote at Nightmare Mode.

      And if you’re willing to include Bee generically, even though it is a bit more open-ended in shape, then you might be interested in recent StoryNexus work: Zero Summer and Samsara are apocalyptic-western and historical fantasy respectively, and might round things out a little.

      And I have a soft spot for Deirdra Kiai’s comp-placing “The Play” from last year, which, though comedic, doesn’t contain anything that absolutely couldn’t happen in real life.

      The reason I recommended “howling dogs” in the terms I did, though, is that it features so many different types of link use and shows off so many types of way that the player’s input can be construed. It toys with complicity during the strangulation section (do you want to help or not? if you choose not to, the wording is different but the story still goes ahead). It demonstrates a type of puzzle during the dream sequence. Sometimes it uses embedded links to invite the player to explore more deeply into backstory. Sometimes it puts choices out explicitly at the end of a passage of text. Parts of the story suggest a definite world model (the accumulating wrappers on the ground) and other parts suggest the opposite.

      Doing a really close, screen-by-screen reading of this piece (why are the links here? what do they do when you click them? how do you feel about that? what relationship does it imply between you and the text? how is this screen different from other screens in the same work?) would in my view be a great jumpstart for people who wanted to learn technique.

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