[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.