~ghost funeral~Read More
I love my home state, and it saddens me that this ban was ever established. I know Ben Milano, one of the plaintiffs; I hope he, his husband, and all the other couples aren’t denied the rights they deserve any longer.
So, okay! Something a little different. I’ll be attending the Seattle International Film Festival this year and trying to write up some impressions on whatever it is that I end up watching. Probably these will be even less coherent than what I’ve been putting up the last couple weeks, but, heck, like I keep trying to tell myself: FILDI.Read More
So having spent the last two-ish weeks trying to articulate exactly what Porpentine’s game howling dogs means to me in sort of a critical way, I’m going to have to declare intellectual bankruptcy. I suspect in my current state that I’ll never to able to get any sort of coherent post out of all this.
I find it very personal.
SO FUCK IT
I like howling dogs. That’s putting it lightly, but I don’t want to gush too much. It has probably become my favorite game. It has reduced me to tears on the two occasions that I played it, each time for very different reasons. It once filled me with what Richard Hofmeier described as “holy dread”.
From the time that I first completed it (many months ago) up until the second time that I played it (not many weeks ago), I completely agreed with his sentiment. The game indeed inspired in me a respect founded on “holy dread”—not simply because Porpentine is a very skilled writer in describing the bleak situation of the game, but because of what might clinically be described as my excessively negative self-absorption. The first time around, playing through howling dogs was like wincing at my reflection in a mirror. The sort of self-involved, repetitious prison that the game plunges players into is just about as good a metaphor for the kind of emotional blockade that yt. (or anyone), with an impressive amount self-loathing, might create.
I fear that I have just used that phrase lightly. “Self-loathing.” And I do not want to take this phrase lightly. “Self-loathing.” I think it’s easy to pass off; just another degree of self-deprecating humor. I know I’ve done it before. (The exact count is left as an exercise for you, dear Readership.) But the normalization of this whole “self-loathing” concept, setting up this whole iterative cycle of feeling progressively more shitty about myself for myriad (generally insignificant) reasons—and yet for an extended, irreparable period, this is what I was doing. (I am still doing it. Less often, one hopes.) 
STARVED TO DEATH BECAUSE YOU WERE FED BIRDSEED
Something that I find personally difficult about howling dogs’ mechanics: self-care is an option. You’re forced to eat and drink to continue; those things are the bare minimum that anyone has to do to stay alive. But what about the wrappers that your food comes in? The bottles of water that you drink? Do you send those down the trash chute? Do you bathe yourself? That level of self-care is barely a step above not-being-dead. Yet the option remains: is that what you do? Or do you let the trash pile up, ignore the itch of your unwashed skin, so you can tether yourself to some illusory world before the crushing reality of your situation has time to sink in?
Something I find even more difficult: the choice between embracing the visor and embracing the room of dark metal—between glorious escapism and crushing reality—eventually proves to be no choice at all; it’s a red herring. The visor inevitably expels you from its world, and each time you encounter what’s effectively a game over signal:
Which one might expect from such a thing.
But the cell offers nary a hint as to its inner workings. There’s nothing to suggest the possibility of escape, no subtle gap in its walls, no door that could suddenly slide open. And once the system starts breaking down—when the water ration turns tepid, when the “sanity room” fills with white noise—forget it; if the system did have a path for escape, that machinery has surely broken down, too.
Clearly there is a prison to escape; it’s just not clear what the prison actually is.
The stones wonder if it is interesting to suffer.
The end of howling dogs see you entering another world generated by the visor—it is a sequence I remember very well from my first playthrough. This world is by all accounts the most fascinating yet:
A square of leaves dipped in silver, hissing with wind, bristling with night.
The bedroom window. You are awake. You consider going back to sleep, then remember:
I am awake now because it would be most interesting to be awake now.
So you get up.
The patter of interesting things on the sill, on the threshold, at the door. Uncohered interesting things still forming at the corners of your eyes, latent fascinators prickling, swirling just out of sight.
The calendar has no days and the clock, no hours.
Which life was this again?
Most interesting. Interesting. Interesting. And yet there is no substance. But there is a question about worth. “Which life was this again?”
Immediately before you plunge into this, you can look at your photograph in your cell one last time:
You no longer see the appeal of this photo.
Contrast with what you feel looking on it, just a few days before:
Every day you think of ways this photo could have been improved: better lighting, better surroundings, closer to see the subtleties in her expression, further back to see her form and better imagine embracing her…
There is a question about worth.
Bluntly: I replayed howling dogs when I was in a recent dark moment and had a perverse desire to return to its world, where worth (by any definition) was not determined by lasting value but merely by immediate captivation. Like following a dowsing rod from one resonance to another. Latent fascinators.
I suppose that would have been that but for stumbling, basically by accident, upon the game’s elusive Secret Ending—which is really no secret at all. While discovering it does involve a challenge of sorts, the solution lies more in player perception—yes, you, the player, the person reading these words—rather than in mastering some game-like system. There’s no stat to raise, no energy meter to fill.
And on this “true” ending, the false choice between reality and escapism falls away. You are in another visor world, assuming the role of an empress doomed to perish by assassination. (The next in a long line of assassinated empresses.) But if one unlocks the particular secret of this world, the demarcation of visor and cell crumbles with the arrival of a woman referred to as Sky Mask. As she rescues you from your assassin, you realize something vital:
And how didn’t you notice all these days that the material of every surface in every world was black metal and that every light was like something mosquitos kill themselves on.
Everything was dark metal, fluorescent. Neither visor nor cell; they are as good as the same. They imprison, it has to be said, but the prison is something else.
By this point in the game, I was devouring each passage, clicking for the next as quickly as I could. I get the sense that anybody who’d seen me in that moment would have thought I was nuts. Tears welling up.
I imagine one of the most torturous experiences I could will upon myself is continuing that cycle of feeling shitty for insignificant reasons. The weight of each minor moment of self-loathing exacting its price in self-worth.
A “recent” dark moment. “And how didn’t you notice all these days…”
I had a question about my worth.
You understand why the photograph was so frustrating.
The (truly) final sequence of howling dogs sees you fleeing with Sky Mask while the walls move to lock you in. Even after overcoming so much danger, the way remains difficult, and the slightest misstep will plunge you back into your prison. The two of you enter a strange library, Sky Mask leading you across:
Running through the darkness, a library of hearts rises up around you. You feel an aching hollow as your gaze twists across the beautiful hearts, the bold hearts, the true hearts.
"don’t stop, please
they’re just showing you what you already have"
And that was enough. I left my room and climbed to the top of a nearby hill, wiping my eyes. I stayed there for a long time, watching the moon rise over the eastern shore.
Basics: howling dogs is a Twine game with a vaguely sci-fi bent.
You awake in a small cell (“A room of dark metal. Fluorescent lights embedded in the ceiling”) with little to do except accept and consume your daily ration of food (some variety of flavored nutrient bar) and water (cool and refreshing) from a dispensing machine. You can take a shower and tidy up your space, if you want. There is a “sanity room,” filled with screens projecting some naturalistic, ostensibly calming scene. Eventually, once you’ve exhausted your options (or even if you haven’t), you strap a visor onto your face and play with the lights flashing past your eyes until the next day comes; each scenario that the visor presents you with, so vivid and real, provides relief to what would otherwise be a hopeless prison. Why you’re in this situation, exactly, is never explained (though if you attempt to take more than your allotted food or water ration: “Preserving rations is vital for mission success”). But by the time the game opens, it likely no longer matters; a counter tells you that this is the 367th time you’ve done this.
There’s also a photograph. ↩
Ouch, did that hurt to write. ↩
C.f. Ultra Business Tycoon III, another of Porpentine's games. Kind of a parodic love letter-turned-deconstruction of the unabashed time-suck games that lonely, nerdy people (e.g. me) grew up with. It’s a tender, nostalgic thing, shedding layers of cynical video game insanity to reveal a bright emotional core in its final paragraphs. I feel like it covers a lot of similar ground as howling dogs, thematically, although it is much more of a “game” (OH BOY TIME TO TALK ABOUT WHAT GAMES “ARE”) and eventually becomes more direct in its message. I suppose howling dogs is like looking at yourself in a mirror; UBTIII is your sibling banging on the bathroom door, wondering why you’re taking so long. ↩
Even the barest luxury of chilled drinking water can be taken for granted. ↩
Misery loves company, they say. ↩
On Porpentine’s page for the game, in lieu of a description: “two endings.” ↩
More subtly, in another passage: “[Y]ou balance yourself against statues of her eminence the empress carved in the twilight mode.” Which is an odd way to phrase it, unless one is not an empress. ↩
Let me talk to you about Netrunner.
Leigh Alexander wrote an excellent feature for Shut Up and Sit Down, reflecting on her own experience learning to play the game:
I can’t. I mean, it’s just a goddamn card game, but this is the part where I get up and leave the room, and slip into my bedroom. There is a perfectly reasonable part of me that is trying to process information. Oh kay. You just got a bit frustrated. It’s a complicated game. Shake it off.
The other part of me wants to fling myself bodily across the bed and cry like a child, hiding among Ikea furniture and the ghostly shapes of unwashed clothes. Ridiculous.
Aaand, oops. That’s the part that wins.
It would be understatement to say that I related.
Netrunner is a cyberpunk-themed card game pitting a hacker (the “runner”) and a corporation (the, uh, “corporation”) against each other. Both can win the game by scoring agenda points: the corp scores by spending time and resources to protect and advance agendas while fending off the runner’s trespasses; the runner scores by circumventing said security and stealing the agendas while the corp fumes silently.
Given that it’s a card game, and a geekily themed one on at that, naturally there’s a pile of rules built on that theme; and even with a decent grasp on the rules, there’s a decent of number crunching that a player will have to do at any given moment. Throw in deck-building and the metagame layer, and the complexity of the game can spin out of control pretty quickly.
All of which is not to say that Netrunner is a hard game to learn. It isn’t, not really. On the contrary, moment-to-moment play actually feels really smooth and even intuitive. I’d say almost anyone can play it with a base level of confidence.
Almost anyone. Not me.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not the math; I’m okay at math. It’s not the rules. I’m fine with those; heck, I even like them. Netrunner’s is very well designed. It feels natural and balanced. It feels like the best parts of math—less made, more discovered. There are protocols—a certain way that things happen. I do this and you do that and we do it in such-and-such order. And this is the kind of thing I like: protocols and systems. A system has kind of a tangibility to it. A system implies that a certain input will result in a consistent, predictable output. Once you understand the rules, once you can shine a light into that black box and see all the interactions, you have grasped the tangible element of that system.
It’s for this reason that I always liked (or had the compulsion to play) Japanese RPGs as a kid; in the end, those games are basically spreadsheets with the goal of creating ever bigger numbers. Those games’ systems are, if nothing else, exceptionally consistent.
So when I heard about Netrunner and all its mathematics and its timings and rules, I asked a friend who played to explain it to me. It was a curiosity. I’d learn the game and be done with it after a couple weeks, if that. I thought it would be a pleasant diversion.
The first practice game of Netrunner that I ever played wasn’t hard to get through, per se; like I said, there’s a lot of rules and number crunching, but I was generally okay with that. I was learning the game. There’s a certain expectation from pretty much everyone that of course I’m going to mix up all the rules. Same with the second game. Even the third. By the fourth, I knew that I couldn’t lean on that excuse anymore. Which was unfortunate, because I was losing spectacularly. This had become anything but a pleasant diversion.
I couldn’t understand what was happening. I knew the rules. I’d built a competent deck, numbers-wise. I knew this combination of cards would do this and that combination would do that, and I’d even pulled those combinations off with aplomb in my games. I had grasped the system. I thought I’d felt the game click. And I was still losing. What. The. Heck. Well, Netrunner has a system. It’s a very elegant one. But having a system is not the same as being a system. Sometimes there are no rules.
I am going to admit something now: I like the game, but I don’t enjoy playing it. Every time I play a card, I might as well be pulling out one of my teeth. Each turn is an exercise in frustration. Each game leaves me confused and vulnerable no matter how well I do. I could be a runner and drive myself nuts face-planting into one Ice Wall after another. Or I could be a corp and see my defenses crumple beneath a flurry of events and a Femme Fatale. It’s not just the transactional nature of these actions. The costs are part of the system.
But I’ve always been the kind of person who does not want to run aground in front of people. And in Netrunner, you are always in front of someone, and you are almost always running aground. Being in front of a person and failing in small but significant ways. Death by a thousand popup windows, as it were. The game makes me want to do nothing except curl inward.
Readership, you don’t have to explain to me how insane and melodramatic this sounds. I’m here writing this thing, and I can barely believe it myself, that I’m getting hung up on this. The messy stuff that algebra can’t solve, where cards are just an excuse. The part with a person on the other side of the table. No system could ever capture that. The impossibility of it.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Netrunner
I have not been well, lately.
I think a lot about something May Kasahara says in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle:
“I think you kinda had the wrong idea from the very beginning. You know what I mean, Mr. Wind-Up Bird? What you were just talking about…I don’t know, it’s kind of impossible for anybody to do that stuff, like ‘OK, now I’m gonna make a whole new world’ or ‘OK, now I’m gonna make a whole new self.’ That’s what I think. You might think you made a new world or a new self, but your old self is always gonna be there, just below the surface, and if something happens, it’ll stick its head out and say ‘Hi.’ You don’t seem to realize that. You were made somewhere else. And even this idea you have of remaking yourself: even that was made somewhere else. Even I know that much, Mr. Wind-Up Bird. You’re a grown-up, aren’t you? How come you don’t get it? That’s a big problem, if you ask me. And that’s what you’re being punished for—by all kinds of things: by the world you tried to get rid of, or by the self you tried to get rid of. Do you see what I’m saying?”
That. I think about that a lot.
I swear I must do a reboot of my blog every year or two, thinking, “Yes, now is the time. I will do this.” As if the flow of these specific electrons will start some sort of sea change across every little arena of my life. So I try to do it. And I manage it, for a little bit. The last little while that I had this going, I think I was doing okay. Not good, but okay. I wasn’t, honestly, writing a whole heck of a lot. I swore, e.g., that I didn’t want to crank, and I ended up cranking quite a bit—but I think that was fine, necessary even, because that was how I picked up enough momentum to start (and finish) doing some capital-W Writing. And, in fact, the stuff that I tried to capital-W Write, I felt good about. I knew that it wasn’t actually especially well-constructed and/or insightful, but I enjoyed it; I was proud of the warts; I liked that I was writing about something that I cared about. It was a strange feeling. It was scary, actually, a little, that tension. “Why am I proud of this shitty review of Kentucky Route Zero? Am I really going to try to do a writeup on my bank? Nobody is going to like my overwrought Proteus article. Who would care why Lord of the Rings matters to me? Are you really going to expose myself like this? Leave myself vulnerable like that?” That type of thing.
But I tried. It felt like it was worth it. I liked to think I tried. I’d tap out sentences on my phone during my bus commute and feel pretty happy about them. Then I came back to my apartment and deleted them with extreme prejudice. Who cared? Who would ever care? Did I care? If I cared, wouldn’t I have not deleted it? Is this even about the writing? Do I care about anything at all? Shouldn’t I just be another shmuck on the bus, killing time until the next commute? But regardless of “should” or “shouldn’t,” it’s hell of easy to just…recede. Especially if you are anything like yrs. truly. Forcing yourself to be truly alone. Until being in a crowd and being at the bottom of a well are equal in their alienation.
May Kasahara might not be right about everyone, but she’s at least right about me. I’m not the type of person that can just snap my fingers and be a different person. (Not saying that there’s anyone that can do this, but some people are surely more disposed to it.) I can’t walk into a room of strangers and overcome my own anxieties about being around people. Sure, I could try to force the issue; I could move somewhere where I don’t know a single person’s name, but chances are good that I’d end up doing the same thing I’ve done before, which is to say: curl inward.
This is the part of me that has never gone away. I have a lot of weird, stupid, self-harming things about me, but this little ball of fear and anxiety often feels like the small, hard, blackened core of who I am. I try to cut into it, to split it open and eradicate it, focusing myself laser-like, deeply inward at this single thing; but the deeper I cut, the harder, more blackened each layer is.
Even I know that much, Mr. Wind-Up Bird. How come you don’t get it?
And, honestly, I don’t know quite what to do.
I’m little but I’m coming for the crown
So, instead, I am trying to look at it differently. Each little inward focusing I do shrinks the bubble in which I am able to operate as an actual person. But maybe it works the other way, too.
Better. Better. Better. Then, better.
I dearly wish I could say that this has all been leading up to a success story. Fact is, Netrunner really has little to do with anything. It is a means, but there are probably plenty of things that could work as well or better; Netrunner just got there first. So I don’t know if I can ever be well. I don’t know if it’s sustainable to view the game in these self-healing terms; maybe it’s just a detour. I don’t know if it is “good” for me. I can’t “just” be better.
I know that it is good for me to try. And silly as it might be, Netrunner is how I am trying. It draws out my deepest vulnerabilities and shuffles them into my deck and makes me play them onto the table like I’d play an event card. In this territory, there are no rules to fall back on, no way for me to explain or understand or even cope. But the game accommodates, in its way; underneath the glitzy cyberpunk theme, crunched between the mathematics of its myriad systems, is a language that I can just almost make out. Not simply game jargon—it stretches beyond advancement counters, beyond rigs and servers; it’s the language of effort and loss and success, of confidence and vulnerability. It is language of presence: spoken in quiet moments and in being known. I know there are no guarantees. But I think it is a language I would like to speak.
I was disproportionately proud of my word blur effect. So proud. Holy cow. ↩
Simple, for what it’s worth, and yes, I did try. In one sentence: It’s an online bank, and I like it.
Can you believe I agonized over how to say that? ↩
You can’t drive fast in winter. You can’t walk the dog quickly, either. Even getting ready to go outside takes longer than it usually does. And while you’re moving so slowly, look around. The snow is really beautiful.
Winter also reminds us not to worry too much about how our hair looks, or if we’ve got nice clothes. None of that matters when it’s 13ºF.