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Bold, weird dreaming through hypertext innovations, July 18, 2016
(I originally published this review on 1 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 1st of 26 games I reviewed.)
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.