IF Comp 2012 – Howling Dogs

Continuing with the web-based stories, I tried Howling Dogs, which is written with Twine/TiddlyWiki. I can comment on the medium before the spoiler cut, and leave story-specific details to the side for a moment.

The presentation feels very natural. The typography is modern and clear, and links are obvious. Navigation works just like you’d expect, including the browser back button. I was surprised how well the story conveyed a sense of different rooms and of objects in the current location. The story makes good use of several locations that become familiar, which is a welcome anchor when the story otherwise rockets off into surreal spaces. The author has put to good use the ability of this system to remember prior player actions and to alter text in successive accesses. Because of this, the story does not come across as a flat hypertext document, but a narrative that progresses in time.

Havoc! Now for some spoilers.

This story leans, no,  jumps excitedly off a cliff,  towards interactive poetry rather than prose, but there is a narrative thread that runs through it. While the overall impression is surreal, some repeating motifs that gradually evolve keep this work just this side of being an interactive Principia Discordia.

What exactly is going on is open to interpretation, and I’m curious if other people come to the same understand of the framing story as I have, or if I’ve totally made this up in an effort to impart order on this artificial world. The main character seems to be in a three-room facility, which sees to basic needs, including mental stimulation, hygiene, and nutrition. There’s a hi-tech feeling to this, and the LCD in the sleep room seems to be counting up days, so one possible explanation is that this person is on a long duration space flight. Other possibilities include solitary confinement as a punishment, a treatment facility for mental illness, or a life in a bunker, waiting for fallout to clear. Of these, I like the space one best, but the mental illness one may be most consistent with the opening of the story and the mental drain circling that that the player goes through. I suppose it could also be a clinical study of some treatment, which requires long term observation.

Whatever purpose this confinement serves, it doesn’t seem to be working that well. Maybe the facility has been pushed beyond its design spec, or perhaps never fully tested prior to deployment. Is this a physical breakdown or is the whole thing in someone’s mind, and they’re gradually losing their grip? I suppose that’s possible too.

Each “day”, the main character has an experience in the activity room, and by experience, I mean an acid-trip distortion of reality, in which they are thrust into various situations, where they have some control, but are also somewhat at the mercy of the situation. These experiences are all over the map, but I have a visceral impression of anger just below the surface, and anxiety and aggression towards authority and religion in particular.

So, while I don’t think I entirely understood this piece, it did make an impression, and I felt that time exploring it was well spent. I have to admit that I prefer solving puzzles and zapping aliens in my IF, but this was a nice chance to fly outside my IF comfort zone.

Story: 7

I’ll give the story an above average rating, although I’m not entirely sure what it was or even how it ended (although I suspect the main character went dog-howling bonkers at the end). Nonetheless, it was compelling enough for me to keep at it to the end.

Voice: 8

I do get a strong impression of a voice, although it’s a very strange one.

Play: 6

Play is fluid and after the first few minutes playing, I wasn’t even aware of the hyperlink navigation; it seemed very natural.  Play is limited to a small set of choices at any juncture, though, and the player has limited control.

Polish: 8

The text seemed well written and edited, and I was not distracted by lack of polish. It seemed to me like the author wrote a good deal of text for this project, and I think I saw most of it (maybe one of the benefits of this sort of system versus parser-driven IF: by virtue of wanting to explore every hyperlink, there’s a better chance that the player sees most of what the author wrote).

Technical: 7

I’ll assume that some of the text effects and general flow was handled by Twine. Nonetheless, the author was responsible for managing the state of the game, and giving it a sense of progression. Not having worked in Twine, I’m not sure how difficult this is, but I can say that it was competently done.

Average:  7.2

Every work I’ve reviewed so far as received a “better than average” (relative to past IFcomps) score. Either I’m getting softer on grading, works are getting better, or I’ve been very lucky in my picks so far. Where’s the half-written, raving at the IF community doggerel that we’ve come to know and love? If I don’t get some balancing crappy works, I’ll have to rescale my rating system!

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