On howling dogs

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.[1] 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.) [2]

STARVED TO DEATH BECAUSE YOU WERE FED BIRDSEED[3]

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,[4] 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[5] 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.[6] 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[7] 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.

*


  1. 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.  ↩

  2. Ouch, did that hurt to write.  ↩

  3. 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.  ↩

  4. Even the barest luxury of chilled drinking water can be taken for granted.  ↩

  5. Misery loves company, they say.  ↩

  6. On Porpentine’s page for the game, in lieu of a description: “two endings.”  ↩

  7. 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.  ↩