A Hasty Review: Howling Dogs

It’s been nearly a year since I finished any writing for this “culture consumption” blog, in part because of other projects and in part because I end up feeling unsatisfied with whatever I start. Today, two things I’d noticed recently intersected in my mind:

  1. There is only one lengthy, in-depth review of Howling Dogs by Porpentine. This one review was written by Emily Short, who’s one of my favorite game critics (in addition to being an excellent storyteller and game designer). I may be saying that in part because she’s responsible for my favorite ever review of a game I worked on. In any case, Howling Dogs is part of a set of ambitious, experimental works which have been batted around quite a bit recently — as if they were just object-lessons or beach balls — in a hoary “what are games” debate that involves formalisms battling anti-formalisms and narrative being at odds with gameplay and so on and so forth. I came out of those conversations feeling like more justice ought to be done for many of these works by examining them as games — not just as beautiful eccentricities, collections of well-turned phrases, or controversial position statements. 
  2. Zach Gage recently posted his own attempt at defining what a game is, which he wrote a while back. Unlike many definitions, it involves an attempt to be broad, inclusive, and centered on player experience.
    "A game is from the player's point of view.
    A player is playing a game when they are engaging in critical
    thinking about the interactive decisions they are making with
    regard to the system they are engaging with.
    We can also colloquially use the term 'game' to describe a
    system typically engaged with by players in a game-like
    fashion."

    Definitions should be useful, and I find this one very useful. What’s more, it seems like it would be useful for understanding more about Howling Dogs. When I first played that game, I was definitely engaging in critical thinking about what words I was clicking on. I don’t know if Zach’s definitely is completely self-consistent or seamless or whatever–for instance, I would add that a player is only playing a game if they are “playing” which involves a different attitude about what you’re doing than “working.” For example, you can be making critical-thinking decisions in an Excel spreadsheet, balancing your budget, and you are not playing a game. However, you can “play” that activity as well, if you figure out how and want to; again, it depends on the player. OK, enough self-indulgent fun with definitions.

So here is what happened when I played Howling Dogs; this is the critical thinking I experienced, with further thoughts and reactions occasioned by that process. I am not going to attempt to describe the game in detail, because this is not a review to help you decide whether to play it. It is a free game that is worth the time it takes to play; you should play it yourself before reading this. I had to play it again myself just now, to try to remember what my initial reactions were; Howling Dogs is a work that changes significantly upon repeated experience.

Howling Dogs begins by asking you to unfold a Kenzaburo Oe quote which mentions the howling dogs of the title. From the tone and content, I thought I might be recognizing an excerpt from The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away. (I was.) To me, that story is about believing that you are trapped: trapped by choices your parents made, trapped by illness, trapped by history, trapped by inevitability. It’s a strong and memorable story for me–in part because Oe is from the same generation as my mother, who also grew up in war-torn Japan and was forever shaped by that experience. (Her experience, inevitably, has shaped mine.)

You appear to be imprisoned in Howling Dogs. The nature of your confinement isn’t clear. The first thing I did was pace the contours of that confinement through exploration, feeling out the space. My search acquired some information: you are given some basic means of self-care. Your supplies are rationed for “mission success.” You have considered escaping down a trash chute. The other thing in the space with you is a virtual reality simulator. When I discovered what this was I immediately backed out of the decision to use it, because a virtual reality simulator in confinement speaks to me of distrust. The choice to enter it reminded me of the high value of televisions in prisons, where they’re used as bribes for pacification and collusion. Still, there was nothing else to do after I exhausted the available rituals of self-care.

Many games that advertise choices actually seem to be telling stories about inevitability, fatalism, or not having any choices. There’s been a trend lately: Bioshock Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line, to name some of the bigger-budget, higher profile examples, where everything violently devolves due to choices made before the player even started playing. The Walking Dead is another example; a lot of the choices in that game end up being about how you live your life and react to situations, even futile ones. They’re not choices about “affecting the game state” that let you “reach a different ending,” they’re part of the texture of living through a hard situation. The trend may be related to a feeling on the part of designers, critics, even players, that a pre-defined, scripted set of choices doesn’t resemble true agency at all… so why bother? This fatalism about choice is part of why I invoked Zach Gage’s definition, with its emphasis on what the player’s thinking. The “narrative choices” in these games still allow players to engage in critical thinking about what they’re going to do given the system they’re presented with. That critical thinking is enabled by the fact that the player has not solved the entire game yet, does not have complete insight into the full tree of decisions. If they did, then the choices would involve far less critical thinking, just as making a choice in tic-tac-toe has less meaning when you’ve already solved that entire system. If you could solve chess yourself, those choices would become practically non-choices as well; but before you have done so, all of these choices are ambiguous, and you must make them based on your understanding of the system.

Back to Howling Dogs, which feels to me like it may have inverted this question. More conventional games spotlight the player into an important position of agency: what are you going to do now? How are you going to do it? It’s up to you! Fatalist games then slide down a slope into questioning whether any of this matters when you run into situations of inevitability, strong historical currents, or the infinite regress of prior decisions and events. Howling Dogs starts at the bottom of that slope: you are confined, without any idea why. There seems to be nothing to do but consume what you are given and march forward. The structure and context make you wonder whether there’s any way out. (There is a way out, and there is a riddle to be solved.)

As I said, my first instinct was to look for a path that seemed less accepting of what I’d been handed. When it became clear there wasn’t one, I thought of the kind of compromise that prisoners of many kinds of have faced: if I am deprived of my freedom, I still have my will, my mind, my body. So I resolved to at least diligently take care of myself as the days ticked by. If Howling Dogs had allowed me to do push-ups to maintain physical fitness, I would have worked that into my routine as well. The choice of diligent self-care in an absence of freedom, however, gets revealed as a false path: your means of self-care start to break down, eventually leaving you with nothing but bare sustenance. Before long there’s no shower, no way to clean your space, no purportedly calming visual meditation.

Although I felt an idea being conveyed here (“only taking care of your simplest needs is not enough”) there doesn’t seem to be a diegetic reason for it — what is causing your situation outside of virtual reality to deteriorate? Is this part of your punishment, or an indication of meaningless, dysfunctional systems governing your fate? I don’t think it matters, actually. As far as my perceptions are concerned, Howling Dogs doesn’t HAVE a setting, world-building, a plot or characters that develops and is resolved in the same way that we’re accustomed to think about this things. It is a single scenario studded with other, fragmentary scenes that you dip in and out of.

Any of the fragmentary scenes could be an entire complex story-world in its own right, but they are not. They’re lushly illustrated for a moment, windows into possible worlds — nearly all with echoes of confinement (a weaponized coffin, a garden that may be the view from a prison, the cell of Jeanne d’Arc, life with your abuser). You cannot escape these situations; before long you are thrown back out into the framing scene, into bodily need. The full shape of the game poses a single riddle through dozens of dizzying flights of prose, but that riddle is redolent with enough meaning for a much longer experience.

Another form of refusal occurred to me, one which players have given to fatalistic games before: simply quitting the game rather than drenching imprisonment in fantasy. This didn’t feel right in this case, though; if I refuse to play a game where I have no choice but to gun down innocents or dream racist counter-revolutionary scenarios into being, I return to my own life, where I can refuse the falsehood of such choices. If I refuse to accept that I am imprisoned in a game, I also enter into a denial that my own, real life is laden with confinement, problems and weights that just as surely demand escape. What’s more, Howling Dogs contains games within games; when you quit one, there’s another waiting. You can refuse some choices (no, I won’t help you kill) but so what? Your entertainment activity simply moves to the next title in the stack, no escape from escapism.

The fragmentary worlds of the virtual reality simulator contain many “obvious story choices” which do, in fact, alter the state of what happens in each sub-game and recapitulate several “types of choice” that have been explored by other games and interactive fiction pieces. In the first scene, when you choose a modality of seeing for a garden, the entire reality of the garden changes, an entire reality is branched. In the second, your identity as a player is decoupled from a character who has suffered something prior to your arrival, and your choices do not affect the resolve of that character for revenge; you are an unseen rider in thoughts, and reality changes only in your observer-interlocutor relationship to transpiring events. In the third, the virtual reality attempts to understand your preferences and mold itself to your desire or antipathy towards violence; if you express distaste, you’re milksopped with a faintly overlaid reality involving a tea party. The fourth scenario is a re-enactment of historical events, but one which can be derailed by a choice that didn’t happen; you can keep Joan of Arc from being recognized as a saint, but this outcome has the tang of a loss condition, a “desynchronization” from “what actually happened.” The fifth scenario is the most obviously fatalistic in theme: as an empress prescribed to be assassinated, you learn your fate as a child and make a procession of choices as an adult, both symbolic and political. Cities are tortured or trees hatch birds; these outcomes are amazing but do not change the inevitability of your assassination any more than players of Mass Effect or The Walking Dead could save their favorite protagonists. The final scenario is one of utter resignation to arbitrarily assigned goals and actions, a kind of lowest level of game-agency hell.

These choices lull you into familiar patterns, familiar ways of thinking about choices; they also condition you to recognize the “Game Over” symbol of this world, the recurring {*}. It wasn’t until I had nearly won the game that I recognized quitting each game early as another choice that, as I said, simply leads to a cycle of more virtual reality games. Howling Dogs does have a win condition and a loss condition, like many games, although it is an ambiguous enough work that many players probably don’t realize that continuing the cycle of “quit out of game, play next game” leads to the bad ending, the false terminus. The puzzle that must be solved to find the second ending — what might be called the “True Ending” or maybe the “canonical ending” in other games — is rich enough that it casts light across the shadows of the choice-play of the preceding scenes.

To win at Howling Dogs — and yes, that still feels to me like the correct term — is to escape these overtly samsaric cycles. To escape, you must resist the droning call of all the aforementioned kinds of choices to find a subtle, errant note that you only notice if you’re reading the text of the game carefully. It’s a perceptual challenge amidst a wall of fascinating distractions, and finding the correct move in the game requires skill at comprehending narrative and description. I’m certain that skill at navigating and understanding the tropes and structures of interactive fiction would also help a player locate the necessary clue and choices more reliably. That ability isn’t too different from that of experienced readers of mystery novels who can quickly solve them, or from the skill needed to solve and complete a single-player adventure game. (Yes, you can play a novel like a game if you wish.) I would wager money that players who found Howling Dogs via the IF community were more likely to win, and more quickly. Games do tend to develop and reward skill, after all.

The final choices preceding victory in Howling Dogs felt the most fraught with meaning to me; they are the moments where you must decide what’s important in all of this: escaping one layer of virtual reality into another where you have to eat and drink? Defeating an opponent? Getting away? My ability to analyze falters here; the final moments of the game are the widest spaces for interpretation. Even without fully understanding their meaning (and not knowing if the author does, either) the last choice made me ache the most, a choice that seemed heavy with meaning: beautiful, bold or true? These were yet more false choices, it turns out; I picked one, then realized my mistake. Fortunately I had just saved, by which I mean I could click my browser’s back button. The final “correct” choice towards the ending had flavors my palate could not name: Love? Passion? Prophecy? The realness of connection in spirit beyond dichotomies of body or mind? A refusal to abdicate the beauty of dreams for the lower Maslow levels of material need? A lightness, mixed with a heaviness. Despite moving through so many layers of reality fraught with painful imagery, I didn’t shed a tear until I reached Porpentine’s dedication at the last leaf. Then I spent a long time looking out my own window, into the sky.

17 thoughts on “A Hasty Review: Howling Dogs

  1. […] [formal analysis by naomi clark] […]

  2. Keith Burgun says:

    >>We can also colloquially use the term ‘game’ to describe a system typically engaged with by players in a game-like
    fashion.”

    “Game like fashion” can’t really be in the definition…

    Also what does “A game is from the player’s point of view” mean? It’s just weirdly phrased, like it’s missing a verb. “A game is… SEEN from the player’s point of view? TOLD? PLAYED?” I think these are ways of completing that sentence but I don’t think the sentence has a ton of utility no matter how you fix it.

    >>Many games that advertise choices actually seem to be telling stories about inevitability, fatalism, or not having any choices.

    My response: how convenient. We collectively understand the moving parts of storytelling (even if videogames tend to not do a fantastic job of that either), so by selecting a theme that is about “not having choices”, we effectively dodge the responsibility of crafting a system that forces the user to make difficult choices (which is both very hard, and largely unexplored territory).

    >>The trend may be related to a feeling on the part of designers, critics, even players, that a pre-defined, scripted set of choices doesn’t resemble true agency at all… so why bother?

    This line of thought is moving in the right direction but it’s just not quite there. The real thing to ask is “if the player’s input doesn’t make a difference, why bother them for it?” Bioshock Infinite should have been a movie, it would be vastly better without giving the player CHORES to do.

    I think the biggest point about this whole discussion that’s going on is I’ve read like 5 articles today and you’re the first person to even MENTION decision-making.

    As for Howling Dogs, if they want I could call it a *bad* game, on the grounds that 1. its objectives are unclear, and 2. it’s easily solved. It fares much better as a puzzle – the puzzle really being “what is the objective of this system?” Once you put that together, you’re kind of done with it.

    • naomi says:

      Re: “game-like fashion” and “from the player’s point of view”
      this is my fault, there is a more complete definition here that does a better job of explaining this part. I didn’t want to spend too long on just the definition in the above post since I wanted to focus on Howling Dogs. Also, it’s worth noting that Zach is dipping a toe in the water, the definition’s meant to be a conversation-starter and a thought in progress more than anything finished. (I’m saying this in part because I feel guilty for exposing the wee definition to more light than it might be ready for!) But here’s what I understand that to mean, as someone who didn’t write that definition: a game is not really a “thing” or an “object”; it is not even the system that we design, it’s not the collection of code or rules+game tokens, etc. It is a process or experience that only comes into existence when it is played, and should be understood from the perspective of a player. It is not an object that the player is apprehending, seeing, interacting with. Maybe you could say (although this doesn’t quite make sense) it exists in the minds of players.

      Another way to look at this: let’s say three of us are playing Risk, and you’re playing to win, but I’m not even trying to win, I have completely different goals, like spoiling or kingmaking. Although we are using the same set of materials (which help create the game) and even rules of operation I am playing a very different game than you, which is part of what “wrecks” the game. “I don’t know what you’re doing but you’re playing some other game!” In that sense, the game exists consensually between us as a process, a conversation, an agreement. OK so, if that’s what “from the player’s point of view” means then the last sentence, “game-like fashion?” It’s just there as a convenience, it’s not really part of the formal definition. It just says, for convenience’ sake, we can also use the word “game” to describe the system that usually produces games. So we would not call “Microsoft Excel” a game, colloquially, because it does not usually produce games, even though it can if interacted with in a certain way, even if I don’t bother to set up a whole system within it.

      difficult choices in storytelling
      so, we know how difficult choices can happen emergently in like, sports or competitive games, but I agree that it’s unexplored territory in say, a game where you are making some kind of decision that has “story” impact (even if we’re not talking about an authored story). At least I think that’s what you’re talking about. Various kinds of branching are unsatisfying because like I said, it doesn’t resemble “true agency.” But I think there’s actually a philosophical problem here that deals with agency in the first place, that I can’t quite put my finger on but has to do with how games often involve a temporary surrender of agency (c.f. “inefficient means” and subordination of goals, etc) and a quality of unreality (what i do doesn’t necessarily have productive / real world consequences because this is play). We’re always playing in an arena whose walls are created by someone else, etc. So yeah — what I was trying to say about the trend and the feeling on the part of designers & critics of “why bother” is mostly about those branching-choice games and the sense of always being trapped in (for instance) Ken Levine’s structure. I thought of one way out of this recently after a conversation at GDC: the difficult decision of what trooper to deploy in X-Com because you’ve come to like that little guy, and he was given a nickname by the game even though it has NO mechanical import, and you just don’t want him to die. Layering in even more emotional cues of the kind of we often associate with “story” could make that decision even harder, even though the decision is simultaneously a strategic, ambiguous one that emerges from a complex system like X-Com. I’m curious whether you would see that as “noise” or “interference” from messy emotions (and anthropomorphization of units) that just gets in the way of strategic decision!

      howling dogs
      Yeah, I’m always going to fight you on this one, because I care about fundamentally different things in games. I agree that howling dogs is a bad “game of strategy.” That’s what I auto-substitute when you refer to your definition of “game,” since it captures well for me what you’re talking about (and also allows conversation to proceed in a much less antagonistic way!) And I am pretty much solidly convinced that narrow constructions of “game” are pernicious in the same way as a narrow definition of how public airwaves are allowed to be used; “game” has too much value as a label. But yeah, so I think lots of good games have unclear objectives, and I derive tremendous value from this unclearness as a player who is making decisions that way. (Obviously I don’t consider unclearness a requirement, though.) I actually had difficulty solving Howling Dogs, even though I’ve played hundreds of IF games back to Adventure, and that difficulty made it enjoyable. Plus, I think it’s worth noting that not all games have to be long or hard or even replayable (I consider an easily solved game to still be in the category of game) as long as they involve some critical thinking.

      This is why I mentioned tic-tac-toe: once solved, if it doesn’t require any critical thinking, it isn’t really a game for the player who has solved it. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game for a small child who hasn’t solved it: again, the importance of foregrounding the player. I think I have pretty much solved Howling Dogs in a formal sense (in part because i read the source after) even if I have not “solved” the meaning carried by the words within it. So maybe it will not become a game again if *I* play it again, but Howling Dogs is still a system which will produce games when played by new players. But yeah, interactive fiction is obviously a sector of games with a strong puzzley tradition in that way. Last point. about being done with it quickly: Howling Dogs was made in a week, and I would consider it something like a sketch; I wish we had MORE sketches being published in games. I can go to an art museum and see brilliant, beautiful sketches by famous artists, and I evaluate them a little differently than I would a painting that took months or years by the same artist, but there’s still beauty and value there. Porpentine was kind of lamenting on Twitter that it’s a sketch, and has talked about how she wishes she could have made it fuller in various ways, but I think it’s great as a sketch.

      But thanks, Keith — that evaluation of Howling Dogs as a “bad game” is a very clear example of what it sounds like when someone evaluates a work by a completely different set of formal criteria than the context, intention, etc. of the project provide. Or even the formal properties, if we want to avoid the intentional fallacy, since we can deduce much about what a thing could from its shape! Does Howling Dogs need to have clearness in objective, are we using the right frame to interpret it? From its shape, it probably doesn’t. I see a little more clearly now why that kind of critique is like looking at a plane and saying “what’s wrong with this vehicle? these wheels and this body width are completely unsuited for everyday freeway driving! what a bad vehicle.” Comes across pretty rude unless you really agree with the critic about how “vehicle” ought to be narrowly defined. (And yes, I find your definition of “game” kind of similar.)

      • Alex Swaim says:

        I love this response Naomi, especially the description of the debate in that last paragraph. It also frames the problem as I’ve seen it:

        A group of people are talking about how to build the best vehicle for everyday freeway driving – with the unique set of challenges and benefits that restriction contains – and they start by giving a narrow definition of vehicle that makes sense for this context. Somebody else walks up and starts talking about how the out-of-intended-context repercussions of that definition are bad and any discussion on that topic must be stopped before it causes harm.

        I agree definition bleeding out of intended context is a problem, but how does the group discuss how to improve at freeway driving without creating a definition that causes some of the same invalidation effects? Even changing all the words used causes an implicit effect.

        I don’t think “never talk about this” is a valid answer, but it seems to be the response that’s being given. I’d love to hear your view on this problem.

        • naomi says:

          So, my very simple answer is just that changing all the words probably works just fine. Just like it would in my silly metaphor: if the freeway-vehicle people just said “car” instead of “vehicle,” there probably wouldn’t be harm. A car can be defined as a type of vehicle that among other things, needs to be useful for freeway driving.

          Changing words works because it’s the connotations and repercussions that are problematic, and when you change the word, the connotations all change (or vanish, with a neologism or nonce word) and the repercussions become MUCH more limited as well. “Game” appears to be the word with the most weight here.

          I know some of the positions in this discussion have been summarized as “never talk about this” or “do not level criticism at a personal work” — heck, maybe those exact words got said somewhere — but my interpretation of those responses was that it was more about how it’s rudely dismissive when someone won’t critique a game on its own terms (using freeway criteria for winged vehicles) and feels like an exclusionary power play, even if that’s not intended. Also, that some critiques are offered with an assumption that they’ll be heard as if given in an atmosphere of friendliness and trust, when that’s definitely not a shared atmosphere for those that feel they’ve been excluded for a long time.

        • Jesse Fuchs says:

          I think that this is where the hard work of coming up with actual distinct jargon comes in: this is why Richard Garfield refers to these as “ortho games”. Which is kind of a clunky term that doesn’t have an obvious inverse, but he’s trying: there’s also “closed” vs. “open” or “formal” vs. “informal”, both of which unfortunately have some connotational valence in one direction or the other, but do the job and don’t have the semantic trainwreck you get when you just take a commonplace fuzzy word and try to give it a hard-edged and implicitly normative definition.

          • Jesse Fuchs says:

            One postscript I thought of because it was just RPG week at NYU: I suspect one major reason that Dungeons and Dragons is arguably the most influential game of the last 50 years is that it not only can occupy the entire spectrum of formal-to-open, but, in the hands of a skilled and simpatico group, can shift along that spectrum from encounter to encounter or even moment to moment, often for reasons of consensus that are purely tacit or even subconscious. Or very different individuals can wind up in very different places on the spectrum, and it can be an awesome hilarious train wreck.

      • Keith Burgun says:

        >I have completely different goals, like spoiling or kingmaking.

        No game functions if players don’t agree to the rules. One of the rules is the objective, and the objective of risk is “winning”, not spoiling or kingmaking. So if you’re doing those things, you’re not following the objective, and you’re not playing by the rules.

        Essentially what I’m saying is, those kinds of behaviors are cheating. I would be happy to have rulebooks be more explicit about this in the future if you think it’s necessary (but I personally don’t think it is).

        I don’t understand why we can’t just say that a game is a set of rules that people agree to play by. Like, I kind of even think that that’s IMPLICIT in the word “rule”.

        >>I’m curious whether you would see that as “noise” or “interference” from messy emotions and anthropomorphization of units that just get in the way of strategic decision!

        Well in the case of nicknames, units get nicknames when they reach a certain rank I believe, so I think there IS a connection between “this guy has a nickname” and “this guy has more value than the others who don’t have nicknames”. If instead it was totally random I think it would not factor in. I think that when it comes time to make a hard choice, the first thing we do subconsciously is ask “okay, what are the important relevant variables here”. It’s like when you are asked to solve a math problem quickly, your brain discards information like “the handwriting that the problem was written in” or “the color of the text”. We are thinking entirely about numbers, because we HAVE TO, because it’s hard.

        This is one of the interesting aspects to videogames specifically: they aren’t hard, and so our minds are kind of free to wander and make “style-points” decisions, and choose stuff based on which hair-style we prefer and such. But, if they are doing their job and delivering difficult choices, we won’t do this.

        >> I agree that howling dogs is a bad “game of strategy.” That’s what I auto-substitute when you refer to your definition of “game,” since it captures well for me what you’re talking about

        100% happy with that substitution. I should note that I don’t think Howling Dogs is *trying* to be a game of strategy, which is why I referred to it as a puzzle.

        >so I think lots of good games have unclear objectives

        Did you read this article I wrote? I feel like it’s relevant here: http://keithburgun.net/game-systems-as-engines/

        What I would say in response to this is that a work that has unclear objectives has to be really clear about the fact that its objectives are unclear. In this way, it QUICKLY should send the message to the player, “Hey, the CLEAR OBJECTIVE of this system is to piece together what the objective is”. So it’s an objective inside of an objective, and the outer objective is “figure out what the inner objective is”.

        I hope that I made that above point clear, let me know if I didn’t. What I’m saying is HOWLING DOGS *is* indeed clear about its objective, because its true objective is “figure out the objective”.

        >>Plus, I think it’s worth noting that not all games have to be long or hard or even replayable

        Again, this is covered when you consider it a puzzle, which is about finding a solution. No one expects that a crossword puzzle or a Portal puzzle should be replayable.

        >>But thanks, Keith — that evaluation of Howling Dogs as a “bad game” is a very clear example of what it sounds like when someone evaluates a work by a completely different set of formal criteria than the context, intention, etc. of the project provide

        This is why I said it fares better as, and was certainly intended to be, a puzzle, by my definition.

        • Zach says:

          I’m a bit uncomfortable that you label player-behaviors that differ from the norm as ‘cheating’.

          I think what is beautiful about games is their ability to provide spaces to be explored creatively. Someone following all of the rules but not exhibiting the expected behavior is certainly not cheating by it’s definition. In fact, I think this unexpected player behavior is the most interesting and worthwhile part of games, and play in general.

          Rules are rules, not orders?


          I think we can’t say games are a set of rules that people follow because saying that excludes a lot of games from being games, like you do when you say Howling Dogs is a puzzle.

          I think this line of reasoning can be useful in narrow academic contexts where shorthand is required to be able to get to the meat of a conversation, but for general use, especially use about specific games, this kind of structure can be very harmful.

          I think the value that a conversation about whether howling dogs is a ‘game’ or a ‘puzzle’ actually has is largely self-referential. It pulls the conversation away from the game itself and begins talking about the definition and the segregation. The definition in this context fails to be the nice transparent object that definitions are meant to be.

          Isn’t it far more interesting and worthwhile to read an article like naomi’s that explores how Howling Dogs DOES function as a game through a comparative and loose structure like the one in the definition I attempted? Instead of arguing semantics and politics of exclusion, we’re discussing actual qualities of the game itself.

          Isn’t the role of definitions to give meaning and worth to our conversations?

          • Keith Burgun says:

            Rules are there to give meaning to actions. If you and I are not playing by the same rules, then our actions can’t have endogenous meaning in the system.

            >Someone following all of the rules but not exhibiting the expected behavior is certainly not cheating by it’s definition.

            I think you might be confusing what I said with being against “emergent complexity”? It’s a good thing when players can be creative inside of the ruleset. I’m all for unexpected player behavior, but that’s not the same thing as breaking the rules.

            I suspect that you are pointing to the value of just “open play”, like you’d get in Minecraft or Garry’s Mod. I would call these kinds of systems “toys”, which are every bit as valuable as what I would call “games”, just different in that they don’t require the agreement on rules.

            >rules are rules, not orders

            A game operates only when participants agree to rules. Once you’ve agreed to them, if you break them, that’s throwing the game out.

            >I think we can’t say games are a set of rules that people follow because saying that excludes a lot of games from being games,

            This cost (arguably not a cost at all, mind you) is justifiable if we are achieving clarity in our communication.

            >I think this line of reasoning can be useful in narrow academic contexts where shorthand is required to be able to get to the meat of a conversation

            Yep, that’s all I want, and that’s what we’re having right now.

        • naomi says:

          Essentially what I’m saying is, those kinds of behaviors are cheating.
          Yes, we’re in agreement here, although cheating may just be from your perspective, since you’re playing a game with certain objectives and I’m playing a different game. Different games are “cheating” relative to each other, I guess! And it’s not exactly cheating in the sense of “violating written rules that say you can’t do something.” (What if I just care LESS about the objective than you? What if I kind of want YOU to lose? Is that a rule? About people’s feelings?) What I was trying to say with that example is pretty much the same, in any case: those kinds of behaviors effectively destroy the game (like cheating would) because we’re no longer playing the same game. We have different goals, I have stopped caring about reaching the win condition. Even though no written rule says “you must care,” it’s necessary, implicit for the game to exist between us. TThe game exists because of the kind of agreement you mention.

          I don’t understand why we can’t just say that a game is a set of rules that people agree to play by.
          Yeah, the only difference here between what we’re saying is that the focus is shifted onto the “agreement.” Then Zach’s last sentence allows what you’re saying as a colloquial shortcut — we can also refer to the system itself as a “game” since it allows games to happen. But the rules themselves are not the game, they are only a potential game waiting to happen. A sheet of musical notation is instructions for making music happen; a sheet of game rules is instructions for making a game happen. We refer to both colloquially as “music” and “game” but they’re not sufficient. This is an important part of a current of thought (which you may not agree with!) to say “hey, we must not forget the process of actually playing when talking about games — the existence of a player is super-important.” So the player is in the definition; in Zach’s definition, the player is at the heart of the definition, on purpose. Part of what this enables is that something could be talked about as “more of a game” for one person and “less of a game” for another person, like the tic-tac-toe example. It’s fine to play tic-tac-toe if you have not solved it yet, in fact it’s great. It only becomes “less of a game” somehow if you have solved it — I think this has a nice concordance with your thoughts about solved games and puzzles not having ambiguous decisions, but in a way that focuses on the player. (Ambiguity is partly in the mind of the beholder.)

          I think that when it comes time to make a hard choice, the first thing we do subconsciously is ask “okay, what are the important relevant variables here.”
          The X-Com example came from a conversation at GDC with a couple designers, and part of it was about how we’d made choices about which units to save/sacrifice which were irrational in terms of math or strategy, because our minds had started constructing personas around the art, name, and some mechanical attributes of the nicknamed units. And some nicknamed units more than others, even if they were less valuable! Clearly, the “surface elements” had become a relevant variable, even though as players (who also made games) we were clear that this was not a purely by-the-numbers choice. We were talking about this as one of the things that makes X-Com such an intense, valuable experience. So yeah, when it comes time to make a hard choice? Human beings consider a LOT of variables, including ones which are not part of the formal system, including irrational feelingy stuff. (And we don’t consider our ideal players to be logic bots, right? I mean, it’s easy enough to design for algorithms to play if that’s what you want to do.) That makes for interesting, difficult choices that involve what could be called “story elements.”

          I should note that I don’t think Howling Dogs is *trying* to be a game of strategy, which is why I referred to it as a puzzle.
          I think that’s a good distinction to make! So when you said it was a “bad game” you meant that it is bad on its own formal terms — as a readily solvable game (by Zach’s definition of game) where part of what must be solved is understanding what needs to be solved? (I think under these terms, the main thing you were complaining about was length?)

          As an aside about the larger community discussion, I don’t think “puzzle” is as pejorative as simply declaring something is “not a game,” but I think “solvable game” may be more accurate and carry less of the existing, dismissive tang of “that’s not a game… it’s JUST a puzzle” that has been floating around for years. I know you’re aware of this stuff, like how you say “toy is not meant to imply childishness!” Unfortunately, as definitions and statements travel out into the wider world, their disclaimers get lost and the childish connotation sticks MUCH, much harder by weight of history. This is why I keep advocating coming up with accurate and descriptive terms for different kinds of games. So, solvable game? Solvable by who? The player, since the player is at the heart of the definition we are using. For a good chess AI, chess is a solvable game (i.e. a puzzle). If you have not yet entirely figured out the shape of Howling Dogs, it still has ambiguous decisions from YOUR point of view. I think you actually talk about this blurred solved/unsolved puzzle/game distinction in your own definition, Keith, so thanks.

          If we foreground the “solvability” I think it also throws a bunch important design intentions into sharp relief. For example, most deisgners of solvable games want their games to be solved, it’s an intended part of the experience and there are benefits to solvability. This could even be true of multiplayer solvable games, I believe. Cooperative or competitive! And then obviously we would not try to judge / critique a solvable game for its replayability as much (only in the same sense that it’s often nice to revisit a work you have already experienced).

          I hope that I made that above point clear, let me know if I didn’t. What I’m saying is HOWLING DOGS *is* indeed clear about its objective, because its true objective is “figure out the objective”.
          Right, I agree! Howling Dogs clearly sets the player up in a context where it’s not clear what’s going on or what to do. In some ways you could say all games that successfully convey this sense of disorientation and lack of objective (rather than trying to disguise the lack of objective) do this. Howling Dogs also presents you with a whole lot of false objectives as obstacles to navigate, and some of the challenge in dealing with these is that the false objectives have emotional resonance of the kind I was talking about with X-Com units. Some of those emotional resonances made me lose the game at the last move. (Even though there was a clear warning not to.) And then there’s the question you’re left with of “why was that the objective?” … which I think has been around with us for a very long time in the space surrounding games, the context that is always there somehow, maybe ever since Mancala resembled seed planting & harvesting. Totally going to read your “game systems as engines” post!

          • Keith Burgun says:

            >Yes, we’re in agreement here, although cheating may just be from your perspective, since you’re playing a game with certain objectives and I’m playing a different game.

            No no – what I’m saying is, if we play a game, we have to decide on the rules before we even start. We have to agree on what the rules are so that our actions have meaning.

            >What if I just care LESS about the objective than you?

            Perfect illustration of what I mean. This is the problem: if BOTH players do not agree that the objective is to capture resource X first, then NEITHER player can engage in that race. Like, if I’m racing to get the resource, but I have no one to race against since my opponent is, I don’t know, doing some other thing, then that other player has robbed me of the opportunity to race for it. This is why “agreeing on rules/objectives beforehand” is a requirement for games.

            >we can also refer to the system itself as a “game” since it allows games to happen

            Let’s use a different word for “the game while it’s happening”, say “match”. So a game is a set of rules, and a match is those rules in motion. Just for clarity.

            >So when you said it was a “bad game” you meant that it is bad on its own formal terms

            I mean if you judge it as a contest of decision making, it’s bad at that, but that’s ok, because it’s not trying to be that anyway.

            I actually have zero complaints about Howling Dogs, I think it’s fine. Not really my thing personally but I have no issues with it.

            >I think “solvable game” may be more accurate and carry less of the existing

            Well, all games are technically solvable so that might be a little fuzzy. But maybe I’d be OK with like “Solution Game” or something, to imply that this is a game meant to be solved (whereas Chess is designed not to be solved).

            • naomi says:

              No no – what I’m saying is, if we play a game, we have to decide on the rules before we even start.
              Yeah, I’m on board with that. But there’s actually a relevant reason why games don’t usually try to prescribe “you MUST care strongly about accomplishing the objective of the game” as one of the rules. It’s very hard to legislate people’s feelings and motivation, certainly not to a level where everyone’s operating by the same “rules.” Let’s say we start playing the game with the same objective, and both abide by the same rules the whole time. But then I get kind of disinvested, or my feelings change; I know that the objective of the game is to win, and I’m not breaking any rules, but I start thinking… god, if at least KEITH doesn’t win, he’s been beating on me this whole time. So I help Jesse a little. Maybe I’m also still trying to win, but I’m influencing the state of the game by throwing Jesse some help in a way that’s not in concordance with the objective. By a strict interpretation of what kind of objectives are all right, that’s cheating. Except it’s not by any common understanding. Incrementally (or across a larger set of players) this could change outcomes of games, although I know this isn’t considered a desirable state of affairs for boardgame designers if it becomes a dominant factor. Why am I saying all this? Just because I think it’s worth noting that the “game” exists in a slippery consensual space, it doesn’t have hard edges. If I start to disinvest in the objective, then I’m starting to fall out of the game. But I’m still kind of in the game. This happens ALL the time in say, Risk or Diplomacy or what have you. It’s part of why games aren’t just rules, they are in players’ collective mental space to a degree that can’t even be governed by rules.

              Let’s use a different word for “the game while it’s happening”, say “match”. So a game is a set of rules, and a match is those rules in motion. Just for clarity.
              Sure, if you like, for this conversation. I think it’s super clear to say “Rules refers to a set of rules. Games happen when rules are in motion.” — you can even eliminate the first sentence — but if you want to say “Game refers to a set of rules. Matches happen when games are in motion,” I’m not gonna stop you and I’ll understand what you mean. The semantic loss there, I think, is all about that “games are something that players do” thing. I really don’t think you can have a “game” without anyone playing it; you can have materials and rules for a game. My feeling is that to only focus on rules in the core idea of “game” is a little dehumanizing and loses focus on the act of sharing with each other, the commonality of human experience that happens through play. Rules make all that possible, of course, but they are a means to that end, not the end in and of themselves. It’s really just about what you want to throw into focus.

              I mean if you judge it as a contest of decision making, it’s bad at that, but that’s ok, because it’s not trying to be that anyway.
              Right, as a “game of strategy.” I guess we’re back where we started — that when you said “game” originally that’s what you meant. I guess I’m also proposing a new suggestion of etiquette for talking about each others’ games: don’t judge them for what they’re not trying to be. (And I get that at this point, you’re not.) As for decision making, I agree that it’s not really a contest or intended to be — although like I noted, there are skills involved that would allow some players to fail less or succeed faster, I think that’s pretty irrelevant to the game and now I’m not sure why I mentioned it other than categorical wankery. However, I still think there were some very interesting ambiguous decisions involved in Howling Dogs, it’s part of what made it really work for me and think critically about what was going on and what those decisions represented inside and outside of the space of the game. They aren’t ambiguous after playing the game thoroughly, but that’s also totally fine since it’s a solvable game.

              Well, all games are technically solvable so that might be a little fuzzy. But maybe I’d be OK with like “Solution Game” or something, to imply that this is a game meant to be solved (whereas Chess is designed not to be solved).
              I see what you mean, technically. Human-solvable game. (We do not count transhuman processing power!) Intentionally solvable game (kinda what you said). Something like that; not trying to etch this stuff in stone, which is the whole point. I’m sure some formalists would highly object to foregrounding the intention of the designer, but that’s another debate entirely :)

              • Jesse Fuchs says:

                I just made a comment about D&D as a reply to another comment, but it seems at least as relevant here, so, uh, see above. I’d add that different players (or even the DM) occupying different spaces on the spectrum, in the context of a D&D session, can be complimentary and part of that whole simpatico thing (or maybe just a fruitful friction), as well as a hilarious trainwreck. As they say, it takes all kinds.

              • Keith Burgun says:

                You can’t legislate feelings, but feelings aren’t actually important. You can tell the player that they must be trying to achieve the goal (again, this is implicit in the word “goal”, so you don’t need to really say this). Basically what I’m saying is, not following the goal is the same as not following a rule that says you can’t just grab a handful of victory point chips and dump them on your score card.

                >>But then I get kind of disinvested, or my feelings change; I know that the objective of the game is to win, and I’m not breaking any rules, but I start thinking… god, if at least KEITH doesn’t win, he’s been beating on me this whole time. So I help Jesse a little.

                I have two answers for this. If you’re disinvested and feel you can’t win, you should be able and willing to resign. That is doing the other player(s) the biggest favor. Multiplayer games should do one of these things:

                1. Allow resignation without breaking the game, or, much less preferably…

                2. Do that Eurogame thing and obscure the final score until the end of the game.

                3. Some games avoid having “kingmaking” by embracing the social aspect, i.e. Diplomacy, Cosmic Encounter and maybe even trading games like Bohnanza

                Games like Diplomacy or Cosmic Encounter do not have what I would call “kingmaking”, really. They are games of emergent, dynamic alliances that are really all ABOUT social “I like you, I don’t like him” type stuff, so when people “kingmake” in those games, that’s just the game working as intended.

  3. Bill Coberly says:

    I really enjoyed this review — howling dogs is one of the coolest games I’ve played recently, and I’m always excited to read analyses of it.

    On that note, you link to an Ontological Geek piece in your article — I actually wrote a big review of howling dogs there in January which you might be interested in: http://ontologicalgeek.com/a-eulogy-for-kuranes/

    • naomi says:

      It’s been said that the most apt response, or even “review” for a game is probably, ideally, another game. So I’m psyched you did that in Twine, it works very well! I’m gonna have to edit a link to it into the beginning of this review at some point…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>