howling dogs

by Porpentine profile

Secret
2012

Web Site

Go to the game's main page

Member Reviews

Number of Reviews: 8
Write a review


5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Stories within stories, June 29, 2013
by EJ

(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.