SPOILERS: Play Howling Dogs!

Written for Blogs of the Round Table (May/June 2013) at Critical Distance.

Howling Dogs is far too big a game to discuss exhaustively. Porpentine’s words rattle around my inner pinball machine for an unexpectedly long time and every time I play the game, as I am now, they strike new and unforeseen angles. It is one of the few videogames I know that gets progressively more complex, and more compelling, the more times you play it. I very much hope that it will become a classic.

I have shied away from writing about the game on this blog because it is such a big game. However, the May/June theme for Blogs of the Round Table, the topic of nature and the environment provides a useful hook for exploring a few of the threads running through the game. The proviso is that this post is a narrow look at Howling Dogs from a couple of angles, informed by my own problematic mental furniture and with no attempt or expectation to examine the game in the round.

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Presentations of landscape, and aspects of the natural world, run throughout Howling Dogs. However, the starting position of the game is expressed as an absolute segregation from the natural world. “A room of dark metal. Fluorescent lights embedded in its ceiling.” A prison cell. The trash disposal chute vanishes into the distance. There is no indication of any midden or rubbish heap at the end of it. There isn’t even any reported smell of decay. The need to eat, a process that even in the most constructed environment stretches a thread to the cultivation of land and livestock, is satisfied by nutrient bars that are defined in terms of abstract flavour rather than by any reference to content or real ingredients. There are no windows or doors, actual or symbolic, to the natural environment.

Exploring the segregated environment of this prison cell, it divides into three clusters of activity. The immediate cluster of activity in the main room incorporates the looping behaviours of captivity. Eating, drinking, showering, throwing out the trash. Gazing repeatedly at the photograph pinned to the bunk. The prisoner’s, and the player’s, freedom of action is almost entirely exhausted by the few actions available in the main room. All that remains is the very limited interaction with the two adjoining rooms: the sanity room and the activity room.

The sanity room is misnamed. In a prison cell, surely a key to remaining sane is to preserve an ability to act, even within limited constraints: tapping messages to another inmate on a radiator, befriending a bird at the window, scratching images and stories on the wall. The sanity room offers no opportunity for action at all. You can enter it. You can leave it. It leads nowhere. As a game element it is profoundly boring. What you find inside is a room covered with glowing screens depicting, initially, “a meadow of green grass and breezy flowers. The wind rises and falls with your heartbeat. In the distance, a thin strip of forest.

A great landscape painting can let you explore, interpret, react, feel. The sanity room has none of that. The landscape depicted is banal and inert. A meadow, with little detail, a thin border of trees defining the edge of the screen, a breeze blowing across flowers: enough, perhaps, to hold the eye for a moment but not enough to really change the environment depicted. This is wind as eye-candy and contrasts with the active and meaningful wind that is encountered later in the game. The first landscape presented by the sanity room appears in my mind as the classic Windows XP ‘bliss’ desktop. There is no context, memory or contrast to give it meaning.

Later iterations of the sanity room are little better, except that the technology begins to degrade as the game progresses: “Bamboo stalks bend in the breeze”; “A road winding through winter woods”; “Reeds along a misty river”. It’s still very much the Windows desktop school of art.

Aside from the main room, with its routine life functions, and the sanity room, the third space is the activity room. Here a single activity is presented: the act of plugging in to a fully immersive simulation, within which is the core of the game.

Each session within the simulator is a self-contained episode that reveals a narrow slice of someone’s life and world. In a couple of cases, it is suggested that we may be looking into the same world from a different angle, removed in time and/or space. In other cases, the worlds seem totally self-contained. At least one appears to be an actual historical episode, others are clearly fantastical.

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In the first episode an observer stares through a narrow slit in a piece of opaque black paper evaluating a garden. The purpose of the slitted paper is apparently to ensure objectivity. However, the question put to the observer, and the player, reveals that any assessment is so subjective that it is meaningless to even compare different approaches. The value system brought to bear by the observer is arbitrary. The player can choose to adopt an aesthetic frame of reference, or a bureaucratic one or a horticultural one. The objectivity desired, it is implied, is freedom from context: freedom from knowing what this garden represents in the social order. Who owns it? Who designed it? However, the possible answers to the question reveal that those social constructions are already ingrained in the observer. Not knowing the context of the garden does not turn the observer into a pure fool, able to make a ‘natural’ assessment free from social constraints.

The three options presented, aesthetic, bureaucratic, or horticultural, are framed as descriptions of the garden. However, this presentation is misleading. Looking more closely each assessment is, in reality, a judgment on the people responsible for designing and maintaining the garden. The aesthetic assessment praises the designer as “a soul in accordance with heaven”. The bureaucratic assessment comments, implicitly, on the failure of the gardeners to maintain the trees at regulation height. The horticultural assessment approves of the effective irrigation systems and maintenance.

There is a fourth assessment of the garden which is more honest and direct: it is the interior monologue of the observer as they peer through the slit. It describes the feeling of privacy engendered by the garden and the fresh smell of water and leaves. However, this description cannot be offered in answer to the task. The game sets up a contrast between the observer’s private reaction to the landscape and the range of publicly acceptable responses. Despite the efforts to assure objectivity and freedom from context, in reality there is no freedom. The observer cannot simply react to the garden. By responding to the task, the observer partakes in the wider social game and so their responses are limited to those moves permitted under the rules and structures of that game.

A garden is nature as structured by human hands. In this episode, the natural environment is reworked twice over. First by being cultivated into a garden and then a second time when that garden, rather than being celebrated in its own right, becomes the mere arena for a further socially constructed game. The garden of Howling Dogs is a ball to be passed between players in a social drama. After the choice has been made, these dramas become explicit: depending on the player’s choices, the garden becomes a source of oppression for a struggling worker, or a drug plantation to be bloodily fought over, or a prison warden’s private (but not private) indulgence.

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The second episode strips back its representation of the natural world to an austere minimalism. The setting is a rectangular brutalist house set on a moor. The landscape is painted in delicate shades of colour: light which is soft and blue, soft grey clouds shot with silver, the grey/green moor. This is landscape reduced to its structural essentials.

The landscape is pushed into the background by the house, the architecture of which is again stripped back to its structural essentials in the brutalist tradition. While the garden of the first episode represents nature as structured and cultivated by humankind. In the second episode the moor is untamed and naked. The house sits on it, apparently dominating it, but is not part of it. It is a temporary imposition. This moor will no doubt appear largely unchanged long after the house has been eroded to dust.

The contrast with the first episode is also reflected in the protagonists: the observer of the garden is deeply embedded, conditioned and cultivated by the surrounding social structures; the protagonist of episode two appears to be dominated by her captor but actually remains apart. She characterises herself as a forever blossoming eternal forest, rushing from the earth. Her captor ‘does not deserve to touch this body or occupy her thoughts’.

There is a third example of false dominance in the choices presented to the player during the episode. The expected dynamic of any videogame is that the player acts and the player character reacts. In a hypertext game, and in Howling Dogs up to this point, the player is presented with choices and the characters act out those choices. This dominance is a given. In episode two, however, the dominance is challenged and undermined.

At first it is quite subtle: certain passages – moving through the house or the protagonist’s lengthy meditation on her separateness – will arise more or less unchanged notwithstanding different choices. Then the separateness of the protagonist is made more explicit: she addresses the player directly soliciting help and, by implication, making it clear that she is not you. Finally, as the drama unfolds she decides to proceed irrespective of whether or not you agree to help and when, at the critical moment, you are given the opportunity to hesitate she ignores you.

She slips a noose over her captor’s head and pulls tight, killing the ‘hulking, muscular bull-man’ – shattering both his and the player’s apparent dominance over her. She opens all the windows and the “cold moor wind” floods in. This wind contrasts with the cosmetic wind of the sanity room. It is not decorative animation. It represents the agency of the moor flowing through the structure that has been imposed upon it and beginning the slow slow process of grinding it back into dust as the landscape reasserts itself. The protagonist rushes to, and through, the door. But the player character does not: she is pulled from the simulation at the point of reaching the soft grey clouds and soft blue light of the unbuilt-upon moor.

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After the intensity of the house on the moor, episode three is a light-hearted palate cleanser. I’ve always had a guilty fondness for Warhammer and here Porpentine does the high-camp of 40K even better than Games Workshop, painting with only a handful of short passages a chaotic eternal war between undead space marines and their human adversaries. Drop-coffins, reliquary tanks, sepulchral bunks and giant-skulled Saints – I love it all!

After the cultivated landscape of episode one and the built-upon landscape of episode two, the landscape of episode three is one of churned and disrupted soil and earth. “Grains of earth grind at your back” when in the drop-coffin, which hits with “a thunderslap of soil”. This is landscape as seen from below, from the perspective of a buried corpse. The earth that for most animals remains largely hidden is exposed and catastrophically disrupted by humans when we build, farm, fight wars and bury our dead. In so far as there is any relic of the plant kingdom in the world depicted, it is the ‘living pillars they call trees’ which have been chopped down to be repurposed as a military stockade.

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The grass outside is no different from the floor of this cell.” The next episode is historical, an account of the imprisonment and trial of Joan of Arc. Joan’s captivity mirrors, but contrasts with, the cell in which the player character is imprisoned. In contrast to our first impressions of the player character’s cell, Joan recognises that her cell is a construction within the natural world, that the floor of her cell, albeit transformed by human hands, is as much a part of creation as the grass outside.

Joan has scratched scenes in the wall with her fingernails: “I see the forest near my mother’s home, I see the meadow where I walked and talked with spiritual advisors as a child”. The contrast with the sanity room is striking. For the player character, and for the player, the sanity room seems to to do nothing: its glossy but artificial landscapes are a meaningless attempt at corporate anaesthesia. Joan’s images are the opposite. Despite being barely legible they are given meaning by the context of her memories and by her effort and torn fingernails in making them. This is landscape as womb, representing the place of safety, the place where Joan simply ‘was’ before the structures of medieval society interpreted her, fought over her and ultimately killed her. Joan scratches scenes that rather than seeking to ape the real in all its HD glory allow her to find refuge in the more true landscapes of her memories.

You break the vessel and are surprised when water returns to the earth.” At Joan’s trial the player, and player character, are given a choice: whether to acknowledge Joan’s status as a prophet or to deny it. If you deny it the simulation throws you out. It appears to be a fail state. If you acknowledge it, Joan is burned at the stake. “The candles wonder if it is interesting to be victorious”. Like spilt water, Joan is freed to return to to the land but must be destroyed in the process.

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The Empress of the Starry Diadem is the protagonist of the fifth episode – a child, initially. While the previous episodes have all been vignettes, taking place over the course of a few hours and one key event, this episode presents a near complete arc encompassing decades of the protagonist’s life.

The Empress rules over huge swathes of territory but she, and we, never gets to experience that landscape directly. The first part of the episode deals with her childhood, under the guidance of a sharp tutor. She sits under a table waiting for something to happen while her tutor sits by the window – again access to the natural world is blocked – and it becomes apparent that her education is of a particularly horrible sort. She is taught to die and to remain an Empress while doing so. She is warned about the ‘brutal light of the sun’, instructed to stay shut away indoors so as not to be murdered in the unflattering light of midday. Her education is series of lessons that teach her to deny her natural instincts: the instinct to go outside in the sunshine or to flinch from pain. She studies the huge varieties of ways in which people have been murdered for resisting or challenging the social structures of their times.

In an awful perversion of childhood imagination she fantasises about her death and considers the aesthetic possibilities of dying in the garden, by the pond: “bare feet stained with dew and sticking with white petals”. Again, the game takes us to a garden – landscape captured and controlled. Like the garden of the first episode, the white petals are doubly removed from their natural state, being transformed into a symbol used to assert the constructions which interpret and enforce the Empress’s death.

The middle part of the episode deals with the Empress’s adulthood. However, even as absolute ruler she is still confined to her court, which may be themed by lilac, jasmine or stone. The landscape over which she rules is shown to her via the reports from her bureaucracy and soldiery. Her connection to nature is mediated by her role as apparent leader and within those structures her choices bear little meaning. She is given the option to capture or destroy a living city. Either way, the judgment on her actions is trite: “wisdom invincible”. Similarly with the next choice to bury or plunder a fantastic jewelled bird. Depending on the choice made, the Empress may unlock some improvements to her realm: a crop of budding churches or a complete aviary. However, there is otherwise little consequence and the Empress never experiences directly the impact of her decisions on the landscape that she notionally rules.

The final part of the Empress’s story is the great festival of sleep. Where she is entertained by a bloated feature list of interesting things and awaits the inevitability of her assassination.

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In the prelude to episode six, the sanity room has finally broken down entirely. Red screens and dead pixels. The water offered is by now tepid. It is several days since the shower or trash disposal worked. The systems containing and maintaining the player character have clearly broken down. This is the beginning of the long, slow dismantling of the works of humankind as entropy goes to work and our footprint on the world is gradually erased. It will be too late for the player character. With no way out, she will either starve or die of thirst depending on which machine breaks first.

Going into the simulation the final time, the player is met with “a square of leaves dipped in silver, hissing with wind, bristling with night”. It’s a window, a bedroom window, onto a swaying moonlit tree. The simulation again shows the player character that connection to the natural world which is starkly absent from their prison cell. It echoes the slitted paper of episode one, the window onto the moor of episode two, the scratched scenes of episode four, the reports and tower windows of episode five. Yet again, the player character is shown the open space of nature but cannot access it directly. Structures surround, control and separate her from it. Instead, she is offered a wealth of “interesting things”. Interesting but meaningless things. “Latent fascinators” designed specifically to stimulate and attract but meaningless for precisely that reason. The wind hisses but little changes. No leaves drop. No branches bang against the window.

The simulation has been reduced to an analogue for the sanity room at the beginning of the game. In the end, whatever the function of the simulations, they have failed as completely as that sanity room and the shower and the trash disposal. “Which life was this again?”

It’s bleak. But when you consider where the works of man, and I use the term ‘man’ advisedly, might lead, perhaps it’s not so bleak as the alternative. Maybe there is hope but perhaps that hope comes only after everything is destroyed.

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At the beginning of this post I said that Howling Dogs is too big a game to write about comprehensively. That caveat bears repeating. Any threads I have picked out in this post are an imposition of one particular filter and are not even representative of my own complete reactions to the game. However, on one reading – at least with my mental furniture – the game can be an account of the relationship between humankind and nature: both as animals transforming, destroying and appropriating the landscape in which we evolved and as societies structuring, constraining and – yes – destroying the nature of those born into them. Humans need to run in open space but the structures we build destroy those spaces and close off those possibilities with walls and expectations, making it impossible to find a way through.

Or maybe that’s not right at all. Maybe there is a way through. Maybe there is a “lone error the builders made, [a] gap of misjudged proportions.” Maybe there is an overlooked window through which we can slip away, if only we can find it.

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