Almost any time I see someone talking about Porpentine’s Howling Dogs they’re talking about what it represents. That may be the rise of small, unconventional games, or the rise of Twine games in particular. The power of personal games, or the difficulty of critiquing personal games. The laudable consequence of new people getting into game development, or the deplorable consequence of new people getting into game development. What is a game and what is not a game, and so on and so forth.
What I don’t see all that often is people talking about Howling Dogs. People talk about what it represents so much that they rarely talk about the game itself. And that’s a great disservice both to the game and to its creator, because while we can use Howling Dogs to represent whatever trends we like, we should remember why we choose to talk about it so often in the first place.
We talk about Howling Dogs so often because it’s a fascinating game – a fiercely intelligent, imaginative work written with a skill, a humour, and a rawness that we very rarely see. And Howling Dogs is not one of my games of the year because of what it represents, but because of what it is, independent of any wider question or debate. It’s a game, a story, a piece of interactive fiction – whatever you want to call it, though I’ll stick with ‘game’ – that does great things.
It places us alone in cramped, isolated living quarters, with no apparent purpose and nothing more than the basic amenities necessary for life. Then, from this confined space we’re shown a virtual reality device that, once a day, can free us from this mundanity. Here we’re shown snapshots of other worlds, and allowed to inhabit the minds of unfamiliar people. We become an empress, a prophet, a killer, a walking corpse, and more. And then the simulation ends, and we sleep, and a new day begins.
I love framed narratives like this – the ones that teem with many seemingly unrelated story fragments that nevertheless come together to form a work of powerful unity. Howling Dogs feels like some wonderful analogue of the Tralfamadorian novels described in Slaughterhouse-Five – “There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.”
At first the scenes that Howling Dogs presents us with seem wholly independent of one another, but it soon becomes clear that there are strong thematic strands linking them together. Throughout, we inhabit scenes where women are used, and abased. A woman driven to murder. Joan of Arc imprisoned and questioned and burned as a heretic. An empress who makes sweeping decisions over the fate of her nation, but who is trained all her life to meet her inevitable assassination with composure and beatitude – to emulate the saints in her death throes and maintain her honour in death. We also see scenes of beauty, and beauty willfully destroyed. A beautiful garden fought and died over. A majestic animal cut up and defiled. A magic city burned to the ground. The dead massacring the living. A loving relationship permanently altered by some unnamed act.
There is a powerful unity here, but it’s not the kind where you can easily sum up the ‘point’ of the game, or what it all specifically means. Instead, Howling Dogs is one of those works that offers up no definitive meaning – and perhaps affords no single interpretation – but nevertheless leaves you with a indescribable feeling of profundity, and shows you an image of life that is beautiful and ugly and surprising and deep, and especially difficult to describe.
And, despite what some like to claim, it’s not just a story stretched over the dry husk of a game; it’s a deeply interactive piece that couldn’t exist as anything other than a game. Many of its most accomplished moments are delivered through the choices the player can make – choices that are core to the game, and which allow you to radically shape the experience. Sure, the story rarely branches off in wildly different directions as a result of your decisions, but that’s not what player agency is all about, especially not here. It’s not just branching paths and the direct physical consequences that make decisions interesting. The ‘choice’ in ‘choice and consequence’ is just as important, if not more important than the ‘consequence’. Howling Dogs understands that, and it plays with choice in a fascinating way.
Except for a few important exceptions, instead of affecting the path you take, your choices in Howling Dogs change the way you experience that path. Seemingly minor, consequence-free decisions add texture to the scenes you’re presented with, and help to change the way you think of the worlds, the societies, and the characters you inhabit. The choice to take part or avoid a murder results in nothing more than a sentence or two of altered text, but it nevertheless feels hugely significant. The various choices you make as empress say more than the combined weight of all the cutscenes in the world. These decisions are powerful – as powerful as any consequence-heavy choice a game has presented me with. You’re given a great deal of expressive ownership over the characters, and when in certain cases you’re denied this ownership it serves an important purpose, and the denial of that ownership is the purpose behind the choice in the first place. When it undermines or otherwise plays with your agency it’s never done out of laziness, or just to push you unwillingly in the direction the author desires. This isn’t Golden Sun asking you ‘Will you save the world?’ over and over again until you just give up and say ‘Yes’. Every time the game undermines or otherwise challenges your choices it does so for a reason, and it’s invariably funny, intelligent, or poignant.
There’s a lot more you can say about Howling Dogs, and I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface here. I want to talk more about the worlds it creates, the structure of the play experience, and the way it deals with player choice, but I’m not sure I have anything much more important to say than ‘Play this game. Play it right now.’ It’s one of the most accomplished releases of last year.
I started this post by ranting about how people too rarely discuss the game itself, but I certainly don’t think that discussion isn’t worthwhile. So I want to finish by talking about what the Howling Dogs represents, or at least what it represents to me: I see it as a shining example of what games can do, and what they can be. I see it as yet one more piece of evidence of the vast benefit of new people making games, in new ways and for new reasons. And I see it as a rallying cry – one that should strike fear into the hearts of everyone who shouts so loudly that games can’t be this or that, and everyone who opposes new directions purely because they’re new and different and unfamiliar.
But while Howling Dogs is one of the leaders of a revolution, we should remember that that’s not all it is. It’s also a work of real, individual power. A profound look at the world, through the lens of the fantastical and the bizarre. A transient dream, the significance of which is vast but incalculable. A series of brief, urgent message describing what it is to be alive.
You can play Howling Dogs here, and you really should.