IFComp 2012: howling dogs

And now, over a month late, just in time to give this blog a post for the month of December, the last of my Comp reviews. Spoilers follow the break.

howling dogs 1The title is specifically lower-cased, which always presents difficulties on beginning a sentence. is a sequence of vignettes, framed by a repeated scene of a small suite of metal rooms with no physical exits, just a visor that you wear to enter the various sub-scenarios. These scenarios read like Borges, mundane details largely omitted, leaving just the surprising and otherworldly. (“We have succeeded in making clippings from the church and are using them to grow new churches…”)

Just what connects the scenarios, what justifies making a single work out of them, is difficult to pin down. There’s a persistent mood, certainly. Most of them have something to do with death, or the anticipation of death — in particular, the longest of the scenes puts you into the role of an Empress whose principal duty is to be assassinated, and who spends her life preparing for that moment.

Maybe it’s just me, but it also seems like a lot of it can be taken as metaphors for interactive storytelling, or even just storytelling in general. This starts with the frame-tale, of course: the visor is itself a storytelling device. The first brief sub-scenario puts you in the shoes of someone tasked with describing a garden, but viewing it through a slit in an opaque sheet of paper (“to assure objectivity”), much as the player of a branching work gets only one sliver of the whole at a time, or the author has to fit a world into a sequence of sentences. A later scene contains these lines: “You are something I digest and shit out. Something warm I leave behind that becomes cold then disintegrates/fades into the ground/edge of my perception. I am the eternal forest, forever blossoming, forever rushing from the earth to drag the sun into my branches. Beyond me are dead trees and further on, mere fog.” They appear to be addressed to a lover no longer loved, but they could just as easily describe the relationship of the player to the work, alive during the moment of interactivity, leaving behind mere static text — “dead trees”.

But any sufficiently enigmatic prose acts as a mirror, reflecting back whatever the reader puts there. I will say, however, that meta-commentary of this sort at least seems plausible because the author has clearly thought a lot about the medium, as is clear from the technique on display — more technique, perhaps, than I thought the medium of mere hypertext supported. For example:

  • Use of repetition with variations. Whenever you return to the hub, you get the same rooms with the same hyperlinks, and have to perform a small ritual of using the nutrient dispensers before you’re allowed to continue to the next sub-scenario. Over the course of the work, the features of the room (the shower, the garbage chute, etc.) start breaking down, probably to reiterate the anticipation-of-death theme. This only works as well as it does because the changes are so small at first. This is a fairly common technique in games, but it strikes me as notable in a hypertext/CYOA work.
  • Variation in the the domain of interaction. In the hub, you click on links to interact with particular objects in a manner similar to a typical adventure game: walking from one room to another, operating the food dispenser, examining a photograph. In the sub-scenarios, clicking a link is more often an action on the plot level: deciding how to reply to the inquisitor interrogating you, for example, or deciding whether you want to actively assist the narrator in committing murder. The result is that the hub has a very different feel from the sub-scenarios, kind of like the effect produced by the shift between first-person and third-person views in Silent Hill 4, or the shift between close and long views in Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Notably, this is a kind of variation that’s more or less unique to the hypertext/CYOA format. It would be very difficult to pull off in parser-based IF.
  • At one point, it spends a whole page elaborately describing a festival and its various attractions. In contrast with most of the work, which puts only a few links at most per page (and often only one), this page has dozens of links, at least one for each thing mentioned. However, every single one of them — except for the one at the bottom that ends the scene — just takes you to a page that says “How interesting!” with a return link. By showing us a wealth of links that are fundamentally not even worth clicking on, it effectively portrays the player character getting tired of the festival and choosing to leave it behind mostly unexplored. Note again that this only works because of its contrast to its context. If you tried to do it in an adventure game, it would probably just come off as laziness.

So, it’s kind of show-offy. But that’s probably what CYOA needs in the Comp right now: something to illustrate the form’s potential, so we don’t go dismissing it offhand or, worse, overpraising works that don’t use that potential. If nothing else, it’s certainly gotten IF fans talking, and being so unclear about what it’s all supposed to mean is probably part of that.

1 The title is specifically lower-cased, which always presents difficulties on beginning a sentence.

2 Comments so far

  1. Greg on 1 Jan 2013

    I’m pretty sure the festival scene had a couple of items that seemed out of place in the description and had different details. I haven’t replayed the game, but I think there’s an “avoid being poisoned” subplot happening in that scene that triggers by clicking on certain of the links.

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 6 Jan 2013

    I kind of suspected there might be something hidden in all those links, but I’m comfortable calling it an easter egg.

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