March 29, 2013 3:00 PM | Staff
Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life earned multiple awards at this year's Independent Games Festival, including the grand prize. But at Cart Life's booth on the IGF pavilion today, the game on show was Porpentine's Howling Dogs -- Cart Life's own marquee had been spraypainted over, and attendees who came to the booth looking for the game saw Porpentine's haunting interactive fiction instead.
The architect of the change-up was Hofmeier himself, who last night accepted awards by saying anyone could replace him. He tells Gamasutra he'd thought about displaying Howling Dogs even before the awards, having decided that if he won he'd use the opportunity to promote an indie he loves: "It felt like Cart Life had overstayed its welcome already... I wanted people to see this game," he says.
Built in Twine and assisted by Porpentine's own digital artwork, Howling Dogs is an abstract, often surreal experience centralized on the concept of confinement; even though it's a text game, it feels spatial and non-linear, as the player must repeat certain conventions of self-maintenance. These behaviors -- eating and drinking, sleeping, bathing -- surround the player's primary occupation, which is to engage with visions and memories from an unexplained machine.
The prose is poignant and tactile, and the space in which the player's confined begins to degrade, and during the story self-care becomes harder as a result. In an interesting way, Howling Dogs can be said to approach similar themes to Cart Life, which deals with the stress of limited resources, the often-brutal repetitions of daily life and the quiet beauty in daily, tiny victories. Both are neither traditionally "fun" or simple games, but they're expressive.
"It's really dear to me, this game... it's fucked with my guts in a way that nothing else has," he says.
"I don't want to say that it's fun or I love it... it's instilled me with what I call 'holy dread,' Hofmeier reflects. "It's a very special kind of territory. Pragmatic, mechanical games can't touch that kind of territory."
Hofmeier's rebellious, incredible generosity elevates an important undertone of this year's independent game community: A passionate interest in being outspoken in support for previously-unheard creators, in promoting accessible tools and new voices, and in games' potential for individual self-expression. This includes Twine games and small games, he notes.
Definitions about 'what games are' are not constructive, and insistence on descriptors -- for example, what is and isn't a game -- "constitutes a major impediment, and disallows more imaginitive work [from] taking form... stranger stuff can be more easily imagined," adds Hofmeier. "I don't have a computer background. I was just a spectator of games, and I saw the tools to develop then were free and easy to use."
At the Cart Life booth-turned-Howling Dogs booth, Porpentine said she's "very emotionally overwhelmed" by Hofmeier's act. "I thought it was an act of beauty in a place where there is so little beauty," reflects the interactive fiction artist and writer, who also gave a well-attended talk on the DIY game development revolution earlier this week that celebrated individual expression in games.
"I think that's what all of us are doing who actually care about games... not just raising ourselves up," Porpentine adds. She contributes a regular column to UK gaming site Rock, Paper Shotgun where she talks about the small games she's discovered that deal with unique and personal themes. Conventional games are communicated through conventional marketing channels, but "games that affect people on an emotional level are going to need a bit more," she says.
Howling Dogs instills in the player a sense of isolation and confinement, but "what it ends up evoking more, while it has [that] despair ... is being in a shitty apartment where you're completely broke, less than broke, and unable to take care of yourself," she explains. "You have a screen... you're talking to people, but it's still not physical. You have all these regrets."
That's personal for her: "My entire life, there has never been a single day where I've had much of a safety net... I've never had a lot of money," she says. Amid an IGF community she feels still assumes its audience is a certain type of man making a certain kind of game, "I'm glad I can talk about the experience of being a poor queer woman in a visible space," she says. "Too many people have not been able to talk about those things."
"I am really happy," she says of Hofmeier's support. "I think even if I hadn't made Howling Dogs, I would see this as something incredibly beautiful, just because it's... a very raw, real act."
[Leigh Alexander wrote this article originally for sister site Gamasutra]