It would be foolish to deny that a new sociopolitical context seems to be emerging at the heart of the gaming industry. From featuring female protagonists, to the inclusion of queer romances in big title releases and to the wider diversity of ethnicities shown taking center stage in gaming narratives, the shift in the individuals that now comprise the large receptive audience of video games is directly seen in the changes of who is being represented in them. Although it remains largely heterosexually and male dominate, the gaming industry seems to be trying to respond to the vocal demand for more representation of minorities. However, in the same way as other industries, the gaming industry remains limited by economic and capitalist motivations on how much they can deviate from the established social mold in their games, and more importantly, of how much they understand of the marginalized group of people they’re aiming to pander to. Independent games offer an alternative platform on which this portrayal of the audience can run truer to nature, while also leaving room for a greater creative exploration of the different game forms, such as interactive fiction. In this manner, Porpentine’s Howling Dogs allows for a greater exploration of outsider identities through its unconventional form. The minimalistic textual quality of the game enables an exploration of more progressive identities that fall outside of the gaming community by the deeper involvement and closer accuracy to the author’s voice in its structure. Howling Dogs consequentially presses the player to a position of vulnerability and ultimately severs their ties with any preconceived notion of their own identity to establish an open and neutral ground for understanding of the underrepresented audience.
The accessibility and simplicity of the Twine platform allows for the narratives of unconventional identities within the gaming community to be explored and executed in accordance to the will of the creator. Part of what defines video games as a medium is the way in which the player controls the events occurring within the game. The game play mechanics are what secures the place of video games as a standalone as a genre, but also what creates a direct connection between the fiction being shown and reality. Through manipulating what is on the screen, a spectator is able to become the player. Howling Dogs does exactly that, but in a different way. This text-based game is not controlled by moving a sprite or a 3D model; the player simply clicks. Through Twine, players are able to create hypertext games that are simplistic in function, but just as expressive as a visually-focused game. The player is expected to imagine a customized setting based on what is given, which only does more to form a connection between the player and the experience. The click-style adventure is an emotional journey; the melancholy emphasizes both an eerie and hopeless feeling. With each click comes a vivid, well-thought of description of an action, or a setting.In Howling Dogs, the creator, Porpentine, puts the player through the click-controlled lives of various female figures in perilous and strange scenarios. Although the scenarios presented can seemingly be manipulated, persona and the overall outcome of the period of simulated reality. This shows much control on the part of the creator, as she is in control of who the player is in this game. As mentioned in the article by Alison Harvey, “Through this personal perspective, Twine games often challenge many of the dominant norms and values of mainstream game design…”; forcing the player to be female in mainstream titles is very uncommon, as the gaming industry would complain that a “majority” of the gaming community, which is presumed to be male, will dislike their inability to completely to relate to the character they must control for the entirety of the game (Alison Harvey 5). Twine is a free program that requires the user to use their imagination and basic HTML skills to weave an interactive story. The creator is not looking to please an industry looking to make a profit for a successful game; this is s pure form of self-expression, and a means of branching out to those who feel underrepresented in an industry meant to entertain the masses. Harvey refers to this as the “queering of game design”, as the availability of free and non-profit game-creating programs allow for LGBT creators to create the things they could not within a large-scale gaming company. As Porpentine stresses, a game designer should “make for people like you… and for “people who don’t exist yet” (Porpentine). Howling Dogs also puts you in a situation where your life is being completely controlled by another person or group of people. The player is being held captive by people who control if they can shower, eat, and stay intact mentally. The way the game functions makes the player hope for a variation and builds anticipation. There is a point in the game where they can no longer shower, as the water has been cut off. However, impulse makes the player click on the link anyway, despite knowing that they will still not be able to bathe.In this game, the player is alone. The only person dear to them is shown in a lone photograph that loses its appeal over the time. They are an outsider. They don’t fit into whatever world lies out there, and are therefore being punished. They must wait as your life goes by, their only entertainment a machine that drops you into various existences where you must fight to survive or let yourself die. The layout of Twine helps keep the player captivated; they want to know what happens when they click the next hyperlink. This is something that could only really be intriguing when presented in this format.
The textual quality of the Twine platform used by the game itself encourages the player to adopt this alternative notion of identity through the specific mechanism of their own game play. Indeed, Howling Dogs goes beyond simple guidance and actively makes use of its game structure to force the player in a position of marginalization, through the nature of their interaction with the game. It presents these instances of dominance over the player, the first of which is centred around the complete removal of their sense of agency within the game mechanism. Shortly after being introduced to the player character’s use of virtual reality, a choice is given within the narrative to aid in the murder of a seemingly controlling partner. The player is offered the possibility to either accept or decline, but unbeknownst to them, the result of this choice is the same: the protagonist kills their partner.In Nick Montfort’s text, the existence of three different identities is established within the interactive fiction genre: “the person typing and reading (‘player’), the main character within the story (‘protagonist’), and the voice speaking about what this character sees and feels (‘narrator’)” (Monfort 30). By disregarding the choice made by the player and forcing them to kill despite their wishes, Porpentine shifts the control of the game and the protagonist identity from the player to the narrator. The person typing and reading ceases to possess control over the game play. In that moment, the game directly opposes the usual player authoritarian system over the platform, and instead turns the player into a tool for the execution of the programmed narrative sequence of the game. In addition to seizing power away from their ability to decide, Howling Dogs undermines any remaining authority the player might hold through their complete disorientation in pivotal points of the game play. The creator makes use of an overwhelming abundance of choice, a direct contrast to the previous lack of it, to destabilize the player.Although, at first glance, this passage seems to mark the introduction to a seemingly infinite number of narrative paths to diverge on, the game establishes a second type of dominance over the player that relies on their estrangement from the familiar game play mechanism of it. From the first interaction with the game, a specific system of navigation through hyperlinks is reinforced. Marie-Laure Ryan states that the classical structure of the network in hyperlink games is often given the form of a labyrinth, through their use of loops to make different paths converge at a same node, and creating in that manner a circular experiencing of the narrative (Ryan 41). To access another page, progress further into the story or gain some knowledge to help them puzzle out the narrative, the player must click a word within the text of the page. The majority of the links from that page however, all lead to the same impasse.Their progression in the game is their reward, therefore Porpentine’s inclusion of a cemetery of dead-ends within the story, devoid of any narrative impact, has the potential to create a sense of panic and loss of control in the player and forces them to submit entirely to the vulnerability their role as protagonist has carefully prepared them to adopt. Within Howling Dogs, the player is far from possessing a godlike sense of grandeur, since the game is structured in a way to prevent them from fully reaching autonomy. They remain, throughout the entirety of it, dependent on this dominant nature of the game mechanism and limited by what it allows them to do at that given moment. Similar to the role of the protagonist in the narrative, the player is in a position of marginal importance, influence or power, leaving them as a spectator to their own fate in the game and mirroring through it the limiting sociopolitical context that follows marginalized identities.
In addition, the branching and episodic narrative structure that Porpentine employs separates the player from their familiar pre existent social identity. These narrative jumps from one virtual reality to another make the players disassociate from the main “cell” protagonist and instead immerse themselves into the other alternate universes. This forces the players to identify with all of the other characters as the “dark room” protagonist is just a link used to discover the rest of the stories of the other characters. As the players play the game more and more, they will just use the “dark room” protagonist as a link to explore and instead invest themselves more into the other narratives. They will become more enthralled by the new stories and protagonists which removes the stand in figure of player in the game and therefore, forces them to identify with all of these other characters outside of their own social context. The overwhelming numerous, alternative story lines also incite feelings of alienation from the game player because they don’t just follow one linear protagonist. Instead they get fragments of many different parts of the other characters’ lives. Additionally, the subject matter of the of the alternative story line all emit themes of darkness and imprisonment which could suggest that the “dark room” protagonist is a version of all of the other characters when they were imprisoned. The dark themes of the game also allows for the exploration of marginalized identities. The setting of the game itself, with the dark and isolated atmosphere causes the players to already detach themselves from social norms or stereotypical game play. The game experience in Howling Dogs immerses the player into these grim and foreboding situations. The characters in those worlds are social outcasts which is why they all end up in the “dark room”. They’re not the stereotypical hero in the game; at times they barely have a resolution as the scenes always seem to end abruptly and the protagonist goes to “Sleep”.After the protagonist kills their partner, there is no closure, no extended explanation as to why he wanted to kill them. The page simply ends and the protagonist has no choice but to go to “Sleep”. This could suggest how a member of society becomes an outsider in the first place. The “Sleep” suggests an outsider’s detachment from society. In addition, after the protagonist goes to “Sleep“ he is refreshed back to the “dark room” which reinforces the detachment that outsiders feel towards society. “Sleep” is a form of escape that the protagonists use to remove themselves from the harrowing events that they had just experienced. It could also suggest the silence of their actions; outsiders aren’t noticed in society as they have no role to play in it. The sleep could suggest that they are passive and uninterested in the day to day of any society.
This specific game structure sets up a nonlinear situation that requires one to experience the events of the game, rather than to blindly follow a narrative. Past decisions and events within the story line become much more relevant to current or future occurrences and allows for more contextual choices, much like the way philosophers Carr or Hegel viewed time and the human journey. In Howling Dogs, the player is very quickly confronted with feelings of isolation, of entrapment and of being lost within a nonlinear reality, due to the multiple choices and questions surrounding the player. As previously mentioned in the text, the player feels adrift and misplaced through the branching and converging narratives and it provokes an urge to explore the situation, to attempt to find answers in a dark and confusing world. This is comparable to the human condition of being born in a reality faced with the inevitability of death, of a lack of a concrete explanation of what any of it is to fall back to and a need to find meaning to it all. In the game, the player does not proceed in a linear fashion similar to a typical narrative. Instead, the game attempts to be a spontaneous experience with a wide array of choices more akin to the “real world”. For instance, when the player uses the shower, and attempts to come back for another shower, the game informs them that they have used up their rations. This brings the past into play with the present and the future in the sense that a choice in the past remains part of and affects the present game play. This forces the player to figure out a solution and explanation by themselves rather than relying on a narrative to provide them with one. It makes every play-through play out differently. Philosophically, such an idea is similar to what was discussed by the philosopher Carr (whose work is heavily based off an earlier philosopher Hegel). Carr believes that we must view history not merely in a theoretical way – as a narrative in a linear fashion – rather we must realize that it is an ongoing experience and is a part of the present and future, and that we participate in this process as well as experience it rather than simply view it as an unfolding narrative. This is why Carr suggests we view time (past, present, future) as a single entity (Carr 105-140) rather than as a line with the present moving from one extreme to another. This ultimately provides the player with a path to involve themselves and participate in finding solutions rather than to be an outside observer to a linear narrative. Howling Dogs in this sense relates itself to an ongoing journey of humanity, to expand one’s perspective and to provide the player with an experience over a narrative.
Howling Dogs is a journey built within another journey – a connection from player to protagonist to the mysterious roles the protagonists assumes throughout the game. The interactive fiction genre is unique; it allows for representation of what is considered atypical in the mainstream video game industry: queerness, femininity, and other identities that are typically underrepresented. Twine and interactive fiction have allowed for the personalization of games, which in turn, allows for the games created to reach out to certain people; people, who, as stated by Porpentine, the creator of Howling Dogs, need this representation. The main character of this game is an outsider, a prisoner who is constantly thrusted into other outsider identities, forcing the player into a position of ostracization; they are almost always a character that stands out. The player also has limited control in various scenarios, such as the scene where the player must kill the man in the bed whether they choose to or not. The game’s mechanisms also allow it to be nonlinear without becoming a mess or a puzzle for the player to figure out. The game is open-ended to a great extent – the player contemplates, draws from the context as to why the character is in such a position of desperation or danger. Howling Dogs, by granting the player the simple power of the click, unravels a story that experiments with norms and draws out the abnormal, making a medium that is generally limited by capitalism and making it enjoyable for all, and encouraging others to do the same, and create what they want to create.
Questions for discussion
- Video games are becoming more and more synonymous with detailed and almost hyper realistic graphics. How did the experience of playing a game featuring exclusively only text change the way you approached it as a player?
- Would you consider Interactive fiction as games, literary works or both?
- Do you believe there to be a deeper meaning to the scenario in which you are placed in in Howling Dogs? Is the game a metaphor or an example of the creator’s raw creativity?
- Do ambiguous or open-ended games, such as Howling Dog, give you the same satisfaction at completing them? How does this affect their replay value?
Carr, David. “Chapter 5 ‘A Phenomenological Re-reading of the Classical Philosophy of History’.” Experience and History: Phenomenological Perspectives on the Historical World. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014. N. pag. Print.
Harvey, Alison. “Twine’s revolution: Democratization, depoliticization, and the queering of game design.” The Italian Journal of Game Studies. 2014. 1-13.
Montfort, Nick. “The Pleasure of the Text Adventure.” Twisty Little Passages. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. 1-36
Porpentine. “Creation Under Capitalism and the Twine Revolution.” Nightmare Mode. 25 November 2012. http://web.archive.org/web/20150908035725/http://nightmaremode.thegamerstrust.com/2012/11/25/creatio n-under-capitalism/
Porpentine. Howling Dogs, 2012
Ryan, Marie-Laure. “The Interactive Onion.” New Narratives. Ed. Bronwen Thomas and Ruth E. Page. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. Frontiers of Narrative Web. 41-42