Interview with Porpentine, author of howling dogs

Throughout the competition season, I’ve been talking with Porpentine, the author of howling dogs — about Twine, about participating in the IF Comp, and about the meaning of various passages. After a little while it seemed like a good idea to ask for a straight-up interview, which Porpentine was kind enough to agree to.


ES: You and I have spoken a lot lately about how you feel Twine makes authoring interactive stories possible for people who hadn’t been in a position to do that before. What about Twine makes it especially awesome at that? Do you think it’s more effective in that respect than other hypertext or CYOA tools?

Porpentine: I’ve agonized over which tools to use, lately there have been so many, and despite everything that’s come out this year, I keep coming back to Twine’s ultra-minimal elegance.

1) Twine isn’t owned by a company. It isn’t going to restrict part of its functionality behind overly specific social networking sites that not everyone has access to (ahem), start charging to modify the HTML (ahem), or dramatically change in any way. I like that Twine simply exists and doesn’t belong to anyone except everyone.

2) Twine is the simplest game maker on the planet while scaling with the whole legacy of HTML, CSS, and Javascript, stuff that’s super well documented and easy to learn.

3) Instant feedback from the node map showing you the shape of your story as it forms, beautiful, spatial. Stories written in Twine have their own unique structure, like creatures under a microscope or root networks carrying information. I feel most in my aesthetic element when I’m working with Twine.

4) I can work with Twine when I’m too tired to deal with anything else. You don’t have to wrestle with anything between the emotion and the page, your fragile thoughts survive.

ES: One of the things that stands out to me from the authoring perspective is that with most CYOA tools, it is challenging or impossible for an author to do things that appear to the player as obvious bugs — whereas an IF game is exceedingly likely to have rough spots where the simulation behaves poorly unless the author puts a great deal of effort into eradicating such situations. How important is that ease-of-not-screwing-up, do you think, in making for an accessible tool? Or do you think other aspects are more important?

Porpentine: What I’m seeing is that because Twine is so friendly, people aren’t burning out, they make a little game, then maybe their next one is bigger, or incorporates some art they drew, and so on.

Twine lets you focus on what you care about at low cost. I make more traditional games as well so I’m no stranger to long hours of bug testing, and that’s fine when I’m working on mechanics that require that level of complexity. But work is not inherently honorable. You use the right tool for the job, anything else is bullshit.

ES: Are there kinds of interactive experience you wish you could make, but for which the tools just don’t exist or aren’t usable enough?

I’d like something like Twine but for menu-driven games. Menus are the most laborious, annoying thing for me to code while not being a creative problem worthy of that struggle.

What I’d make, I’d make something like the Empress sequence of howling dogs but An Entire Game with narrative driven by politics and material scarcity. I’ve always wanted to simulate groups of autonomous people with almost Dwarf Fortress levels of complexity while still being accessible and manipulable on some level. Like the council from King of Dragon Pass combined with the ad libs and orneriness of Dwarf Fortress citizens. Hopefully one day I’ll merge my weird ideas about those games into one thing and shit it out. If someone made a game engine just for me it’d be based around menus and random generators and I could die happy.

ES: That’s pretty interesting. Though it seems like some level of underlying AI would be needed also, maybe, to direct the autonomous people?

Porpentine: Maybe, depending on how much was abstracted. I’m a big fan of abstracting until only the parts I care about remain.

ES: What Twine work do you wish more IF players were talking about?

Rat Chaos redefined Twine for me. Amazing. Why hasn’t everyone played this.

Highnoon is a remake of a 42 year old BASIC game ported to Twine that I find fascinating–strategic and CYOA elements entwined in a squishy way, intfic bleeding out of the mechanical layer. It’s a Wild West duel that gives you almost as many ways to fail or reject the scenario as to play it. Give me interesting failure or give me death.

Brace. Simple, intimate, two-player game that uses ritualistic meta-game rules. I think this will be the most interesting game that the least people play, because our culture discourages playing delicate close games. Brace is very short but the mechanics are rich and interesting and a hundred people could riff a hundred ideas off it.

weird tape in the mail is just a good, creepy story with lots of art and piss. Piss ethos.

Seven Hours Pass is my favorite Twine vignette, clever and elegant.

Certain lines from Circa Regna Tonat have stuck with me for a long time. Lyrical, melancholy shards of the end of Anne Boleyn.

And so many more!

The IF Community

ES: You’ve mentioned feeling that the IF community is closed to outside influences. How does that manifest itself? What do you think would do the most to make it more open?

It’s just like any community that ends up being dominated and steered by early, visible adopters of a form, adopters which tend to be the most privileged in society along some axis. Part of the solution is more voices and less policing.

We should feel safe sharing games with minority content without accusations of being political or pornographic, those of us approaching from the outside should feel comfortable joining the conversation, and we should be able to make games without someone being like, that’s a black game, or a gay game, or a transgender game.

People project their dysfunctional feelings about queer women into my games but the only person they’re shaming is themselves.

The position of a minority entering that kind of space is constant, wearying bargaining for the most basic, conditional respect. In the end, it’s easier to make our own space than try to convince a community that our consciousness is valid–and we are making that space. That space is made, and it is growing.

Care less about what format, engine, or length a game is and realize there’s room enough for every kind of game. Games aren’t finite, no one is depleting the world’s ambient interactive fiction.

Judge the game by what the game is trying to be, not what you want the game to be. This important principle is strongest when the community is diverse, otherwise you end up having outsider games subject to a limited, toxic scrutiny.

ES: I’m curious about how we could diminish policing. A lot of the major community points of communication — ifwiki, IFDB, the intfiction forum, planet-IF — are open to any contributor, barring obvious spamming or fairly severe abuse.

As far as I know, the only way to guarantee the absence of particular types of feedback would be with more policing, more aggressive moderation to remove comments that some subset of the moderators had determined were harmful. And there are obvious challenges to doing that in any way that won’t further reinforce the prejudices and expectations of the people who have become moderators.

Oh no, not more policing at all, just having everyone show up to the party. Contrasting opinions, a diversity of voices so a monoculture doesn’t dominate. Dissension, not policing.

howling dogs

ES: What was the most challenging aspect of creating “howling dogs”?

Two things.

Making it in a week.

Feeling like I made something true. What I make is often an emotional honoring of other things, the way a song or sentence makes me feel, or some powerful feeling inside me. Struggling to measure up, it’s like swearing a pact or something. Guuuuargh…

ES: You mentioned to me that there is a concrete reading of “howling dogs”, that the virtual reality is trying to adapt itself to produce “endless fascination” while your protagonist stagnates in reality. Do you want to say more about that premise?

The sim keeps you fascinated, calibrating itself (“The stones wonder if it is interesting to suffer.”) to your temperament, giving you false catharsis in the form of these victories–but at the end of the day you’re still in the black room.

This reading makes more sense to those who have lived in that tiny room, with no financial recourse, on the edge of starvation, as refugees in their own country, in increasingly deteriorating circumstances, as you become less and less capable of caring about yourself. And what is the only thing you can afford? Terrible food and some kind of glowing screen, and when you look away from the screen, you’re still in the same place. It isn’t purely about that, ugh, god forbid I be so vulgar as to make something that represents something else, but it is from that. And it is for those people.

Anyways, howling dogs was designed for plural readings. Multiple interpretations make me happy. The interwoven text was not to form some massive fuck-off secret so much as for people who enjoy exploring artifacts and turning things around in their hands.

Of course, the more a game allows the player to think for themselves, the more it opens itself up to charges of pretension.

ES: “Pretentious” is not really a label I’m interested in sticking on things. (I’ve written a big old rant about this in the past.)

Nonetheless I think there are different strategies of reading, and at least for me, howling dogs suggested that it was acceptable and sufficient to respond viscerally to events and to view the story foremost as emotional arc — to say, “okay, yes, I remember being broke, being depressed, not having enough to eat, living in a squalid little apartment where I would have been ashamed ever to have any guests, being injured in the winter because my muscles stiffened so much overnight in the cold” — but viewing it that way meant that I didn’t try so hard for a specific concrete reading.

Mm, yes. I hear you.

Concreteness differs from person to person. For someone like me who is an interstitial communicator, fragments and in media res and glimpses are very telling.

As for emotions, if people don’t read what I do emotionally, there is nothing else to be done. I write for a certain kind of person, like witches and crystal girls and dead people. Anyone else is icing.

Hearing people cried was all I really wanted. I’m really into emotions.

ES: I felt really uneasy during the VR passage about (what I read as) an abuse victim who ultimately strangles the abusive partner. But that segment seemed to me also to be in some sense a linchpin of the whole thing, because it most directly depicts someone who decides to stop being trapped and takes direct if violent action. But there was no similar opportunity for direct action in the framing story, that I saw — there’s no way to try to break out of the prison for yourself, unless I missed it. What does it mean to put that option in the inner story but not the outer one?

Escape rarely resembles our fantasy of escape. Sometimes escape is getting on a bus with what you have in your bag or driving 400 miles too tired to say a word. Sometimes, often, even, escape is an accident, escape is confusing, we don’t know escape until it’s already happened.

What we do for a long time is call things by the name of victory, by the name of love, by the name of escape, when they are ultimately wishful thinking–vivid, fascinating falsity. Many times in my life I have felt this false sense of escape, only to return to the same habits, the same toxic resting position.

I get that people look at this horrible room and think, surely there’s some puzzle that will completely fix my terrible life. I should be able to dismantle this, totally gonna escape this shit, that’s what people do in closed rooms, they escape. For me, escape begins with an internal change–discernment. If nothing changes in our understanding, we remain trapped. I’m not interested in some Matrix ending, some brutal, fatuous demarcation between the physical and virtual world.

The only way to get anywhere in howling dogs is to stop consuming and start paying attention.

I don’t think “inner and outer layers” is a useful distinction by the end of the story. The line about mosquitos and metal refers to this.

ES: Can you talk a little bit about the Joan of Arc sequence? It stood out to me for a lot of different reasons, some of which we’ve talked about before (the ambiguous relationship one can have to religious experiences of other people). At the same time, it felt in some ways more clear than other parts, because it tied to a historical event that I immediately recognized, whereas I felt that I had to try really hard to understand what world/what kind of world we were imagining in some of the other sequences. So I’m curious about the intentions behind it.

Porpentine: I really like your interpretations. I think they’re all meaningful and moving and worthy of their own individual stories and explorations.

That sequence is inspired by my friend Erin talking about how much she liked the 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, without me actually seeing the film. I still haven’t seen it.

After I showed howling dogs to another friend, she told me that the sequence reminded her of The Passion of Joan of Arc. So me feeling someone elses emotions about the film conveyed those emotions to someone else. That is beautiful to me.

Joan of Arc is amazing because her story combines suggestions of mental illness, which has always been used to silence and deride women, and defiance of gender rules. That confluence is incredibly meaningful and rich on so many levels.

I also read through the trial transcripts. This woman who was killed for wearing men’s clothes, who history could not erase, fascinates me. Powerful women throughout history move me because they acted in a world where they were often the sole ratifiers of their sanity–where they didn’t even have the reassurance we have now that at least someone somewhere feels the same as we do. They fought for the world we now inhabit.

What else. I thought about how humans are obsessed with winning. If we cannot win, we lower our standards, we move the goal posts. What victory remains when we’re imprisoned, starving, helpless? Victory of the mind, victory of sacrifice, inverting conventional standards of victory which are built on external displays of power.

I am very interested in suffering and passion, the concept of beautiful suffering, transfiguration through pain. So some of that.

Thinking back, I think another influence may have been the beginning of Jasmine Choinski’s Circa Regna Tonat.

ES: I think there is a significant challenge — this isn’t a critique of howling dogs exactly, just a thought — I think there’s a significant challenge about representing internal changes and realizations in interactive stories. Because you don’t control when the reader makes a given realization; it might happen right away, long before you’ve provided any mechanism to enact that realization interactively, or it might happen late, so that the mechanism for change you’ve given them doesn’t make any sense to them yet, when it does appear.

Very true.

I’m happy with the experiment. I enjoy seeing what happens when I make something I don’t fully understand, with little conscious thought involved. I don’t make from a position of craft, except perhaps in the oldest sense of the word.

Playing around with hypertext mechanics is fun because you can’t rely on traditional tools or ways of thinking, which is good because I don’t particularly like puzzles. Most of the crunchy bits in my games are just crystallizations of narrative, emerging and receding interfaces–a system for traversing your lover’s back or a crowd turning into a flurry of links.

The purpose of a puzzle is to provide resistance. For me, that resistance doesn’t need to be coercive or challenging, just interesting and aesthetic. My mechanics are to be touched. Games are perhaps the most intimate art because the player must remain touching at all times. They must touch or the game does not exist.

Many games are designed on the principle of the hover hand, an embarrassing disavowal of this intimate relationship. And furthermore they are designed to connect with the worst in us, a bloodless, sexless part of our brain where nothing can surprise us, where “Nothing would ever change; nothing new could ever be expected.”

So I think a lot about transferring emotions from one body to another–I try to make every word count so people can experience my stories at the rate I’m feeling them, like a heartbeat, so we can be intimate, so there can be as little separation as possible.

And it could be said that I’ve developed a kind of language anorexia where I’m acutely aware of the words I generate as if they were an extension of my body and I feel unwell if they are corpulent, imprecise, I can’t sleep. I have beaten the physical form of this but the intense need for spareness still lingers, fighting the words which are part of my body because words never stop, they grow like cells, that “resisting organism of the word”.

Seeing my own words is bizarre to me, like looking at stalactites or some other frozen accretion of an ordinarily fluid thing. My friend Erin said, “it can be very hard to maintain what is called “writerly control” when with every passing second, words on the page feel different.” I agree.

30 thoughts on “Interview with Porpentine, author of howling dogs”

  1. “Games are perhaps the most intimate art because the player must remain touching at all times.”

    What a wonderful interview, thank you.

  2. Wow, this is a lovely interview, and altogether too timely. We should feel safe sharing games with minority content without accusations of being political or pornographic, those of us approaching from the outside should feel comfortable joining the conversation, and we should be able to make games without someone being like, that’s a black game, or a gay game, or a transgender game. Yes, all of this.

  3. cut word lines –

    but also, thanks for the nice words to read with my morning coffee
    you people are great, and also creative and smart
    i like it

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