A Calling of Dogs

by Arabella Collins


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Intensely unpleasant (but in a good way!), December 6, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

So this is quite a good game that I really did not enjoy in the slightest. It starts in medias res, but the premise is immediately grabby: your character has been kidnapped by a serial killer with (thankfully) unknown predilections, and must try to manipulate him into creating an opening that would allow her to fight back and escape the murderdungeon. The prose makes this premise no idle backdrop: it’s sweaty, immediate, and immersive, planting you inside the main character’s head in the middle of a deeply, traumatic event – and it doesn’t let up over the course of the days you spend in the basement, until you reach the incredibly violent climax.

ACoD doesn’t wallow in awfulness, let me be clear: there are ways of doing this setup that would objectify the main character’s suffering, or that would linger on the awful things the killer has and will do to her, and the game steers clear of them. And I got to a “happy” ending that was quite grisly, per the prominent content warnings, but did allow the protagonist to get out. I wouldn’t say it’s a tasteful take on the in-the-den-of-a-killer genre, because what would that even mean, but it’s not out to purposefully alienate the player or push any buttons just for the sake of getting a response. In fact, in my playthrough at least, the killer, while clearly plotting something awful, never made any overt moves towards violence, and stayed relatively polite throughout. The violence came from the protagonist, who in addition to envisioning the awful fate awaiting her, also vividly fantasizes about wreaking bloody revenge against her captor (and then, of course, actually does so). This is an interesting reversal because it puts the violence more under the control of the player, or at least the player character. It also highlights that while the killer presents a bit of a social puzzle to solve, as you try to figure out how to build his empathy and lull him into letting his guard down, so too is the protagonist something of a conundrum.

She’s by no means a blank slate, and there are hints of backstory sprinkled through the game. They’re appropriately vague and allusive – she’s hardly going to be putting her memoirs in mental order under the circumstances – but I found them the most intriguing bit of the game. There’s one that I think provides the title for the game, where she reflects on the way attractive women get cat-called, while unattractive ones (like her, the implication goes) are called dogs, which triggers her towards anger. She also seems very comfortable self-consciously playing a role and suppressing her actual feelings so that others will see her differently, so much so that for the first few minutes of the game I half-thought that this might be a really, really intense S&M roleplay session. And while being fixated on violent escape makes sense in the circumstances, my impression at least was that she was far more likely to dwell on inflicting (deserved!) harm on the killer than on the possibility of being able to get away and live. These hints weren’t paid off in the ending that I got, unfortunately, because while I obviously was invested in trying to help her escape, I was more interested in figuring out what was going on with the protagonist.

Implementation-wise, there are a few stray typos and possibly-intentional comma splices. I did find a few places where the choices went wonky or there appeared to be continuity errors (the options for what to eat for lunch sometimes repeated oddly, and in the first sequence, the main character starts referring to a cookie that I don’t think had been previously mentioned). But on the whole things were solid, and the choices really feel like they have weight, forcing you to sweat as you realize that one wrong move could have catastrophic consequences. So all told this is a well-put-together entry in the Comp, with more going on than it needed to have and strong writing that really puts you in the situation. As I mentioned in my opening, I very much did not enjoy it because this is not my preferred genre or style in the slightest, but that’s on me – and of the number of games in the Comp with somewhat adjacent themes, ACoD seems to me to be the strongest so far.

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