howling dogs by Porpentine [XYZZY]

[I originally reviewed this game for the XYZZY Awards, as part of a project to review all the 2012 nominees for Best Writing. howling dogs took home the Best Writing award, which shows you how out of step I apparently am with that year’s voters.]

IFDB page: howling dogs

So it turns out there’s this unfortunate consequence to not paying attention, which is that you don’t know about stuff. Case in point: there is someone called Porpentine, who has written a number of IF games in different formats, as well as poetry, fiction, essays, and various other work. I had never heard of her prior to opening this game, probably because I am pretty detached from the IF scene nowadays. In any case, she apparently has quite a fan base, or at least this game does, judging from its 5 XYZZY nominations, including one for Best Game. However, I am sorry to say that I am not among its fans.

Part of this comes down to taste. I’ve mentioned in the past that I have trouble relating to games that get too abstract. When metaphor piles upon metaphor, with nothing concrete underpinning them, the whole thing tends to kind of slide off me. When the base scenario is a futuristic metal cube (or hamster cage, or something) with no exit and no explanation of why you’re imprisoned there, and we launch from that into (for instance) hallucinatory dreamscapes of invasion by it’s-not-clear-what, or maybe you’re the one doing the invading (it’s not clear), while inanimate objects and landscape features talk to you, only to be interrupted by a sub-hallucination of a tranquil tea party… well, my mind starts asking why I should care, and what is the point exactly? I know there are people who really dig this kind of thing. I’m just not one of them, despite my nagging feeling that this distaste will prevent me from hanging out with the cool kids.

That’s not to say that I need metaphor-free quest plots where everything is spelled out in big block letters. Some of my very favorite writers can be so bizarre and elliptical that it is sometimes almost impossible to detect what they’re on about — Emily Dickinson, Tori Amos, and Stevie Nicks come to mind. Yes, these are writers of poetry and lyrics, where perhaps a great remove is easier to tolerate, but I’ve enjoyed many a surreal IF game too — Blue Chairs, For A Change, Shrapnel, and so forth. I think it comes down to trust. I can let my mind and emotions fall backward into some pretty strange territory as long as I trust that I’m in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing. Unfortunately, my trust was immediately blown, right out of the gate, by this game’s opening text:

One morning at dawn the nurse shook him awake because his sobs were being heard in the next room. Once he was awake he could hear that not only was the patient next door but the two hundred dogs kept in the hospital courtyard for use in the laboratory had also been threatened by his sobbing and clearly were howling still

I looked at this and thought, “Best writing? But… it’s incoherent!” Even setting aside the fact that the total lack of commas makes the whole thing feel extremely plodding, it’s just nonsensical. Taking out some of the extraneous stuff, I get this sentence: “Not only was the patient but the dogs had also been threatened.” It simply does not parse.

Then a bit more of the passage revealed itself, and I saw that it was not by Porpentine at all, but rather by someone called Kenzaburo Oe. Since I was disengaged from the story anyway at this point, I googled the name to see if he is a real person. Yep, he’s a real person who, uh, seems to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Say wha? Now I was really confused. Maybe it made sense in the original Japanese, and was badly translated? After further googling I determined that no, it made sense in the original English, before it was mangled. Here’s Oe’s original sentence, from his novella The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away:

Once he was awake he could hear that not only the patient next door but the two hundred dogs kept in the hospital courtyard for use in the laboratory had also been threatened by his sobbing and clearly were howling still

If I boil this one as I did the other one, I get: “Not only the patient but the dogs had also been threatened.” That’s a sentence that works just fine, because it doesn’t have an errant “was” inserted between “only” and “the”. The entire passage is Oe’s work, except for the “was”, which I have to assume came from Porpentine. He Himself is about someone who (maybe) has cancer, so perhaps the idea here is that the “was” is the cancer that infects the sentence? It certainly kills the thing stone dead. Having left the story almost immediately to do this much research, I was not inclined to be so charitable. To me it seemed like a fundamental error, one which bespoke a basic disinterest in comprehensible language, coming as it does in the crucial first sentences of the game. While the rest of howling dogs did in fact parse (well, most of it), I didn’t find much to contradict that belief.

Take, for instance, the description of the central room, one of the most frequently repeated passages of the game:

A room of dark metal. Fluorescent lights embedded in the ceiling.

The activity room is in the north wall. The lavatory entrance, west, next to the trash disposal and the nutrient dispensers. The sanity room is in the east wall.

So far so good with the first part — two terse Emily Shortesque sentence fragments sketch a grim, depressing cell. Their sparseness is in keeping with the spartan accommodations. However, things start to go wrong in the second part. Two rooms are described as “in” walls. In? How can a room be in a wall, when it’s walls that define rooms? The image I got was of an indentation in the wall, though when I followed the leads, the game treated them as separate locations. That suggested to me that although the use of the word “in” had to be intentional (it happens twice, after all), it was not used to create a pervasive effect as much as to inject alienating and unfamiliar diction for its own sake.

Between these two sentences is another fragment, but this one doesn’t work nearly so well as the first ones. The short appositive and the long prepositional phrase that follow the subject had me waiting for a verb. “The lavatory entrance, yes, yes… what about it?” Then I thought perhaps that this was a case of a word wrongly removed rather than wrongly inserted. “The lavatory entrance is west…” would have worked just fine. It was a little bit funny that the lavatory is the only space grand enough to rate an actual entrance, rather than just being “in” the wall, but I don’t think the humor was intentional. For that matter, I found very little humor of any kind in howling dogs. This is a dour game, which is fine as an artistic choice, but puts further pressure on the language to live up to the apparently Very Serious intentions behind it.

So that I don’t spend this entire review excoriating and picking apart the game’s writing, I will note that there were some striking parts. As I said, I’m not much for the highly abstract, but when the action neared the ground, I found it pretty compelling. The murder scene is gripping and dramatic — I particularly liked the detached observation about the knot. The advice on how best to be assassinated was clever, and did a good job of cueing the right word in the “giant wodge of text” scene. I’ll note, though, that it’s only thanks to the “howling dogs spoilers” text file that I knew there was such a thing as a “right word” in that scene, which suggests that the game’s design fails to stand up on its own. I certainly would have given up on it without that file. For that matter, it led me to the “correct” ending (the one that isn’t marked “false terminus”), which was my favorite part of the game, particularly the “gap” effect.

That scene was the closest I came to an emotional connection with howling dogs, but by that time it was far too late — I had already checked out. I could cite many more places where the writing falls down, but I think I’ve made my point, so instead I’ll end by stepping out of my prescribed area, because I think this is important. Game designers, if you want to make a game with a repetitive structure, in which progress depends on returning again and again to the same mechanic, DO NOT frontload that mechanic with arbitrary, unrewarding actions. When I found out I had to follow the whole “nutrient dispensers” path each and every time I wanted to see the next scene, I groaned aloud. Long ago, Graham Nelson wrote a Bill of Player’s Rights, one of which was “Not to need to do boring things for the sake of it.” howling dogs really should have heeded that advice — tedium adds neither fun nor gravitas to a story. In fact, I could say the same thing for layers of abstraction and self-consciously serious prose.

Interview from SPAG [Misc]

[Duncan Stevens interviewed me in SPAG #31, the 2002 IF competition special. It’s rather odd to be interviewed in one’s own zine, but SPAG has a tradition of interviewing the top three finishers in the IF comp, and I won that year. However, when I won the next time, SPAG interviewed finishers 2-4. As with the other interviews, I’ve edited the text and added links as appropriate. The first paragraph is in my voice.]

For the annual competition issue, SPAG traditionally interviews the highest-placing authors in the comp, but I faced some rather unprecedented challenges when putting together this issue’s interviews. For one thing, since I won the comp, there really ought to be an interview with me, but for me to interview myself would be a little… unseemly, as Primo Varicella might say. As he has so often in SPAG‘s history, Duncan Stevens came to the rescue, crafting a set of interview questions which I could then answer without feeling too much like I had multiple personality disorder. Thanks, Duncan…

Paul O’Brian, author of Another Earth, Another Sky

SPAG: Well, you often ask SPAG interviewees to tell a bit about themselves, but SPAG‘s readers may not know much about you, so — out with it. Name, rank, and serial number?

PO: Okay, fair enough. I’m 32, which put me in my teen years during the Infocom boom — just about the perfect age to be, since I was old enough to understand and succeed at the games and young enough to have lots of free time to devote to them. I’ve lived in Colorado all my life, save for one ill-starred year in New York City, and I currently work in Boulder at the University of Colorado, where I got my degrees. My job there is in the Financial Aid office, as an “IT professional,” which basically means that I do all sorts of technical stuff, from programming to maintaining the network to creating queries that pull data from the university’s mainframe.

I’ve been married for a little over six years, to someone who isn’t an IF aficionado but who is wonderful about supporting my work and my ambitions. I’m very verbally oriented (you may have noticed) and love the complex uses of language. I also really enjoy programming, so of course I’m a perfect candidate to love IF. Aside from that, my other passions are music and comics, the latter of which has made the Earth And Sky series such a fun project to do.

SPAG: How did you get interested in IF, and what led you to start writing your own IF?

PO: The long answer to this question is the editorial I wrote for my first issue of SPAG, number 18. In a nutshell: my dad is a computer enthusiast, and we were sort of “first on the block” with a home computer — initially an Atari 400, then upgrading to the sooper-big-time Atari 800. The first games I played on those machines either came in cartridge form or on cassette tapes, but shortly after he acquired a disk drive, he brought home Zork I for us to try together. He loves to bring home the coolest new things, and that was especially true when I was a kid; at that point the cool new thing was Zork. He lost interest in it before too long, but I was enchanted, and became a major Infocom devotee for as long as the company existed.

I learned about the Internet right around the same time I was writing a paper about IF for a graduate class, and so of course some of my first Gopher searches were on “Infocom” and “interactive fiction.” That led me to Curses, and once I figured out that there was a freely available language that would let me write Infocom-style games, suddenly a childhood fantasy was within reach. Being an Infocom implementor is still my dream job — pity about living in the wrong time and place for it.

SPAG: You’ve written four games now. What keeps you writing IF?

PO: Well, in the case of the last game and the next one, it’s the fact that I’ve made a promise to myself and to the audience that I won’t leave the storyline hanging. Other than that, I suppose it’s just the fact that I seem to have an unflagging interest in the medium. My first game was written to fulfill my dream of writing an Infocom-ish game, as I said above. LASH was just an idea that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go, and I knew that IF was the perfect medium for it. A lot of the drive to write the Earth And Sky games has to do with the fact that I really, really wanted to play a good superhero game, and I wasn’t entirely satisfied with any of the ones that had been released up to that point. So I wrote it because I wanted to play it.

SPAG: Another Earth, Another Sky is the second in a series. What led you to make a full-blown series out of this story, rather than a single self-contained game?

PO: One of the things I loved about superhero comics as a kid was their episodic nature. I really dug the way the stories just kept going and going, with characters and themes woven through the whole thing, disappearing and reappearing as the saga unfolded. Now, with the emphasis on story arcs that can be collected into trade paperbacks, that’s becoming less true in comics, but when I decided to write a superhero game, I knew it needed to be episodic. Besides, I really wanted to take another shot at the competition, and didn’t want to write something so big that it wouldn’t be appropriate for the comp. Also, as a corollary to that, I guess, I really wanted more and faster feedback than writing the whole thing as an epic would have given me. LASH took a very long time to write, and I wanted my next piece to be a bit smaller in scope.

SPAG: The first installment was essentially a superhero game, but Another Earth, Another Sky has sci-fi elements along with the superhero aspect. Is the series becoming a sci-fi series, or are there more genre twists ahead?

PO: I wouldn’t say it’s becoming science fiction, really, and I didn’t set out to do any genre blending with this game. What is true, though, is that these games are heavily influenced by the old Marvel comics from the 1960s, particularly The Fantastic Four — one of the reasons I chose “Lee Kirby” as my pseudonym for the first game was to acknowledge my debt to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who wrote many of those early comics. The tropes of alien invasion and Big Science were intrinsic to many of Lee and Kirby’s stories, probably as an outgrowth of the science fiction comics that preceded that period’s big superhero revival, so that’s why you see those themes reflected in my games. Ultimately, though, I see superheroes as more a subgenre of fantasy than of science fiction, if the division has to be made.

SPAG: There seem to be allusions to other IF games here and there in AEAS — the setting for a large part of the game is reminiscent of Small World, the dome in the desert evokes So Far, the underwater scene has echoes of Photopia, and the touchplates reminded me of Spider and Web. Or am I imagining these connections?

PO: I wouldn’t say you’re imagining them, but I also didn’t consciously try to pay homage to any of those games with the elements you mention. However, I have played all of them, and there’s no question that everything that goes into my brain has an influence on me. Lots of people have mentioned the Small World connection, and I certainly remember feeling delighted with an IF landscape that formed a sphere, but the idea of having the PC be able to travel between disparate locales by means of superhuman leaps came more from old issues of The Hulk than from any particular IF game.

SPAG: The game is sprinkled with Emily Dickinson quotes. Any particular reason for relying on that particular poet?

PO: Well, aside from the fact that she’s pretty much my favorite canonical poet, Dickinson was also part of the genesis of the series. I went through a period where I decided to read every Dickinson poem, but I found it too exhausting to just read them one after another, so I interspersed them with comics. Indulging in this weird combination while thinking about what I wanted to write next gave birth to this superhero series where the codenames are some of Dickinson’s favorite touchstones, and the protagonists are named after the poet and her brother. The title and part of the inspiration for Another Earth, Another Sky came from the Dickinson poem that begins “There is another sky.”

SPAG: Will the third installment wrap up the series?

PO: That’s the plan at this point. I love writing these games, but it’s a little disheartening to realize that each episode takes about a year to complete. I certainly wouldn’t rule out further Earth And Sky games somewhere down the line, but I’ll be ready for a break from them once the third episode is finished.

SPAG: Any other plans for more IF writing?

PO: Beyond the third Earth And Sky game, I’m not sure. I think I’ll probably want to turn towards writing static fiction for a while, but I plan to keep editing SPAG, and I don’t see myself leaving the IF community unless it seriously deteriorates. So I’d say there’s an excellent chance I’ll find myself struck with some great IF idea and banging out code again sometime in the future.

A Night Guest by Valentine Kopteltsev as Dr. Inkalot [Comp01]

IFDB page: A Night Guest
Final placement: 16th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Here’s a new approach to interactive poetry: write the poem in advance, and then create the game as a sort of adaptation of the poem. I’m reading lots of Dickinson these days, and that’s what I tend to think of when I think about poetry — short, rather abstract verses, capturing an image or making an observation in compact, dense language. This sort of poem would be ill suited to the adaptation approach, but there are other poetic traditions, one of which is the grand narrative poem, as practiced by Renaissance poets like Spenser, as well as Pope, Tennyson, and more modern versifiers such as, well, Dr. Seuss. This sort of poem tells a story, and presumably that story can be adapted to an interactive form using the same techniques one might use to adapt a prose story.

Of course, the danger of adapting any story is that it’s difficult to inject interactivity into an already extant plot structure, since plots are full of dependencies that are weakened every time a choice is given to the player. Consequently, the temptation is to give the interactive form nearly as rigid a structure as the non-interactive one, and that’s certainly what happens here. Because the game has the poem preconceived, the player has no choice but to follow its path. Consequently, what passes for interactivity is a series of one-choice nodes, where the player keeps trying various things until she hits upon what the game wants her to type. When the magic command is found, the game rewards the player by displaying the next section of verse.

The verse itself is more or less doggerel, a mock epic in Seussian meter, though without the nonsense words or moral messages we tend to associate with Dr. Seuss. The story it tells is a brief one, almost like a fable, except that its rogue hero is never redeemed, and the moral is muddy at best. Still, not every poem needs to be sublime, nor every story uplifting, and the poem (as a poem) had its pleasures. There were some rather clever rhymes, and some nice bits of characterization. The meter mostly kept a pleasant, singsong pace, though there were times it stumbled quite badly, usually on the last line of a stanza.

The illustrations, similarly, were not of the highest quality but some of the better ones definitely made a positive contribution towards enhancing the game’s mood. One well-used feature was the way the game changed to centered text and a monospace font when displaying the poem, but stuck with left-aligned proportional text for the actual interaction. This formatting choice set off the poem nicely, though it did emphasize the schism between poem and game, thus making it plain just how much the latter was grafted onto the former.

That’s basically the problem with A Night Guest. It’s an amusing poem (what there is of it, anyway — the whole thing is quite short), but it’s very clear that the game was built around the poem rather than vice versa. Thus, it feels rather like reading a book that forces you to say a magic word before you can turn the page. The “puzzles” (really just figuring out how to respond to the game’s cues) don’t add much, and I was left with the feeling that the whole thing would have been much more pleasant had it been just an illustrated chapbook rather than a narrative poem pretending to be interactive. Of course, I recognize how amazingly difficult it would be to create a game that actually expressed itself in verse but was a game first and foremost. No doubt that’s why it hasn’t been done yet.

Rating: 5.3