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Brutal yet thoughtful thriller, March 16, 2021
A Calling of Dogs is, at its heart, a character-focused work. Solving the problem of survival is a large part of the experience, but what makes it truly distinctive is the extent to which one gets to know the protagonist along the way.
The prose is highly effective: punchy, dripping with tension, and revealing much through a mix of subtle and not-so-subtle details. The surface-level stuff is told directly, but much deeper characterization is revealed through other means, shown rather than told. Subtle tonal shifts; the nature of the options presented to the player; the choice of things which the protagonist notices or remarks upon in their internal monologue - all of these devices are used to craft a rich sense of who they are.
I feel that the game achieves an excellent balance between acknowledging the protagonist's present victimhood, and the constraints it entails, while also acknowledging their agency and their broader identity. (Spoiler - click to show)They, the protagonist, are capable of exceptionally cold logic in spite of their hidden rage. They are capable of exceptional deception and manipulation, weaponizing their own sense of empathy for those purposes, in a calculated yet desperate drive for survival. This isn't who they normally are, and indeed, they do a complete emotional 180 and have a breakdown as soon as safety gives them the luxury of doing so. It is clear that the circumstances of their confinement forced them into an extraordinary headspace. Even so, their reaction to these circumstances speaks to who they are more generally. One gets the sense that they draw upon skills and attitudes learned over a life that has often been punishing. This should probably go without saying after everything I just wrote, but I feel that the protagonist is a complex, well-realized character with the ring of verisimilitude, and this is something I appreciate greatly.
I encountered some technical issues: occasional typos and a continuity error (Spoiler - click to show)where the antagonist looks at himself after the protagonist has already destroyed his eyeballs, but I felt that they just barely detracted from an otherwise deeply gripping, emotionally-charged experience.
*Edit a few hours later. Now that I've thought about it some more, I think there is a strong symbolic component to this piece as well. (Spoiler - click to show)Consider that the protagonist, according to a flashback, is implied to be someone who was assigned female at birth but who does not identify as a woman (that's why I've been saying "they" all this time - for lack of a better term since their actual gender identity/preferred pronoun was never clearly revealed in my playthroughs). And then consider that, according to the protagonist's observations, the antagonist's previous victims (i.e. the previous occupants of the cage in which the protagonist is trapped) have been women. Some of the language also seems to imply that the antagonist perceives the protagonist as a woman, i.e. he does not know about their gender identity. It's fair to say that the protagonist is fighting to escape from a cage, and a fate, to which womanhood is attached in some sense. This can easily be read as a metaphor for, or a parallel to, a struggle against the confines of gender norms.