2012 was the beginning of something unusual in IFComp that built up to a major crisis point/growth point 2 years later.
This is the year that Howling Dogs came out.
For a few years now, Anna Anthropy had been promoting the use of Twine as an accessible way for oppressed minorities to write games. Her several books became very popular, starting the beginning off the Twine Revolution, where those traditionally unable to express themselves through games were now able to do so.
Although Counterfeit Monkey came out this year, it wasn’t published until the last minute, so it had no effect on authors. Bee came out this year though, with it’s hyperlink interface, as did First Draft of the Revolution and Plotkin’s hyperlink Bigger Than You Think, though both of the latter were too late to influence the comp.
Ryan Veeder’s easygoing, light-puzzle style from the last year was evident here, with Guilded Youth and Eurydice evoking the same sort of feelings (although Jim Munroe, author of Guilded Youth, had been making such games for a long time). The Apollo 18 Tribute Album, a series of games based on They Might Be Giants songs, came out this year with many games that were also in this easygoing style. This album spawned a lot of great games from people like Jenni Polodna, Ryan Veeder, Joey Jones, Carl Muckenhoupt, Jacqueline Lott, Nick Montfort, Adri and Andrew Schultz. This included Schultz’s first wordplay/math games and Adri’s first ‘cute’ games.
Zombies seemed to be fashionable around this time, and there were several zombie-esque games. One game from the previous year, Zombie Exodus, caused a major stir, as I’ll describe in the Howling Dogs section.
Baby Tree was released this year. A short, psychedelic game involving abortion, it has generated a lot of discussion since then.
Adam Cadre released Endless, Nameless, his first game in 10 years, to very little fanfare. Although it’s on my top 10 list, it had little influence on the comp.
Finally, Porpentine had released another of small but influential games, with Nostrils of Flesh and Clay, Myriad, and The Sky in the Room being the most well-known (Funeral for a Friend, an early parser game, went mostly unnoticed).
Andromeda Apocalypse was Innocenti’s sequel to Andromeda Awakening. The hard, Italian-style manipulation puzzles of the earlier game had been softened, the focus on story increased, and Sam Kabo Ashwell brought on as translation expert. The result was one of the best hard sci-fi games out there (for fans of things like Sphere or Star Trek). For some reason, this game has the least number of ratings of any other IFComp winner on ifdb. Perhaps its due to the fact that sequels are always played less than originals, as people tend to to skip games in a series, and some number of people drop out. Earth and Sky 3 has been around for 8 years more than Andromeda Apocalypse, yet has almost as few ratings.
Eurydice was the only top 3 game I know of to be completely anonymous. This game starts out in a house with tons of NPCs during a funeral, and some light, optional old-schoolish puzzles. It then turns into a mythological reenactment of Orpheus and Eurydice. It is a very melancholy game, similar to Map from 2015 in that respect. It had multiple endings and a sort of moral choice thing going on.
Guilded Youth was very unusual, being one of the few games to use Vorple, the Inform 7 extension allowing interaction with HTML. This game has extensive styling and animation with portraits and, I believe, sound.
This game has you playing a young character who is friends with a DnD group on a bulletin board system. They explore an old house together, and have ‘growing up’ type adventures. This game features a trans girl as a character.
Howling Dogs, released this year, has more ratings on IFDB than any other game released than 2011 (and only Dual Transform from 2010 has more ratings: 82 rather than 81).
Howling Dogs is immensely influential, as well as controversial. It was written in a week right after Porpentine started hormone replacement therapy. It was listed as one of the Top 5 Indie Games of 2012. Famously, Richard Hofmeier vandalized his own booth at GDC the next year to make it an advertisement for Howling Dogs. It was one of the games featured in Porpentine’s exhibit at the prestigious Whitney Biennial.
The game itself is a Twine game based on a character who lives in essentially a cell, with food, water, a shower, etc., as well as an all-important activity room. Entering the activity room takes you to surreal and bizarre worlds, with themes related to death and rebirth, persecution of women, ad misunderstandings.
Porpentine is a transwoman, and many of her games are metaphors or openly about this experience, about body horror or not being who you really are and so on.
Her games became the flashpoint for controversy in the community later on. The question is, why?
Contrary to what some think, Porpentine’s games where not, I think, controversial due to their content. After all, their had been many games with LGBTQ protagonists (whether in happy, sanitized relationships: Lost Spellmaker, 1997; Blue Lacuna, 2009; or messy, dangerous relationships: Desert Heat, 2000; Exhibition, 1999;) there had been successful CYOA games (The Play, 2011); there had been popular games about transgender characters, even using neutral pronouns (A New Life, 2005); games with intense body horror (One Eye Open, 2010), even with the users being complicit (Vespers, 2005); there had been games about women and women’s persecution (Triune, 2001; Tough Beans, 2005); there had been psychedelic games about entrapment and fake realities (Kaged, 2000; Deadline Enchanter, 2007). There had been games by gay authors, women authors, and by authors who later came out as trans. There had always been trolls and haters, but it was expected that you would put up with abuse from somebody (Pudlo, if noone else) and go on your way.
So why was Porpentine controversial?
In 2011, a Choicescript game called Zombie Exodus was released. In 2012, during the voting for the previous year’s XYZZY awards, the Choicescript Community mentioned that one of their games was eligible for the XYZZY’s. That community is so large and internet friendly that the small fraction who followed the links was enough to swamp the voting, leading to Zombie Exodus being the frontrunner in every category, even ones that didn’t make sense. Steps were taken by the Choicescript community to ensure that wouldn’t happen again.
With Porpentine’s success, something similar happened. Many, many people were touched or inspired by her games, and followed her around, discovering IFComp and the IF Community, and wanting to be part of it. The kicker, though: many of these new authors, players, and voters had absolutely no interest in parser games, some even finding them boring, or poorly designed.
You can imagine the feelings this caused. Most people in the IF community had run into text adventures at some point, wish they hadn’t died out, and discovered to their delight that they were ‘still alive’. If you’re into parser games, your family and friends are probably not into it. It’s your ‘weird hobby’ that no one else likes, like Opera in America or medieval french literature. The IF community had become a group of people bonded by their common like of parser games. Hyperlink games were just tolerated by some and openly encouraged by others, much like new girl Tai is encouraged by Cher in Clueless.
With choicescript and howling dogs, though, things were changing. It was like the part in Clueless where Tai becomes more popular than Cher, and Cher wonders ‘what have I done’. Now, in what felt like the last place that anyone liked parser games, more and more people were turning against them. Also, this new crowd had had to fight hard for rights and recognition, and were not willing to sit back while the old IF trolls abused them.
Some, like zarf and Short, wholeheartedly welcomed the change, releasing their own choice-based games. Some, though, bitterly rejected everything CYOA related and formed a sort of ‘parser-only’ camp.
In my view, though, there will always be a slow trickle of people experiencing old parser games, looking them up, and wanting to make them. Even if people tried to kill all competitions and awards, people would just make homebrew systems and share them with friends. It’s some sort of odd compulsion
As a final note on Howling Dogs: what made it good?
I believe that Howling Dogs is great because it used film-like techniques to its advantage, just like Photopia. Notice that both games feature two worlds, with transitions between worlds marked by screen clearing and a color image. The base world retains the same characters, while the alternate worlds have some variety in characters.
Like Photopia, howling dogs turns text into art. Lengths of paragraphs and sentences and options are carefully selected. As you click on options and text is slowly unveiled, you can see the structural harmony porpentine was looking for.
Even the opening of howling dogs is cinematic; you can just imagine the opening quote slowly being displayed on a black screen with a deep cello line playing in the background before the title screen shows up. The timing, everything has that cinematic feel.
Porpentine would develop on this cinematic feel later, with the use of cycling hyperlinks and other special techniques.
I believe this game placed lower not due to its content, but due to its slow-burn nature, which many reviews showed that people didn’t get, quitting the game early on because they didn’t know the action would heat up. The score distribution has 3 peaks, with some people (likely the early quitters) centered on a 2-score, but the majority between 7 and 8. The other peak, at 10, was from people who saw its genius.
As to other games, Andrew Schultz and Hulk Handsome both released the kind of wordplay games that would become their signatures. Shuffling Around is Schultz’s most popular game, and one of my personal favorites.
Christopher Huang, who had placed 2nd twice before, released the literary Sunday Afternoon, which has you as a child trying to snoop around their strict family’s house.
Fish Bowl was a visceral horror parser story that is short, and highly effective. It’s more like creepypasta than most parser horror.
Mark Marino released their first of many hyperlink games with a ‘living book’ approach.
The Lift was released this year, which has the distinguishment of having the absolute lowest IFDB top 100 score on all of IFDB (I mean, if you run the formula given in the IFDB top 100 page, this is the lowest), possibly making it the most disliked game of all time on IFDB. It is a twine game with combat that is essentially completely unhinted, and some needlessly gross interludes. It provided fuel for the twine haters.
Howling Dogs became the ‘founding game’ of the twine revolution, much like Zork was the founding game of text adventures (though not the first; I liked Adventure better).
Just like Zork, Photopia, and other games that are wildly successful and imitated, later followers would imitate all the wrong things, like content rather than form. Zork and Adventure imitators incorporated mazes and light source puzzles into everything.
Howling Dogs imitators tried to find success by copying the psychedelic structure, or the body horror. One of the most interesting ‘founder effects’ is the sheer number of games with trans or queer characters and storylines. This can be explained by 3 sources:
Authors who are LGBTQ or allies who had always been interested in LGTBQ stories and finally had a chance to express themselves. Lady Isak Grozny comes to mind as a recent example.
Authors who wrote characters that just happened to be LGTBQ because that’s what fit the story. Birdland was like this; the author mentions the organic growth of the LGBTQ storyline in his postmortems.
Authors who only put in LGBTQ storylines because ‘it’s expected’, much like mazes. I’ve played several games in the last few years that have something like the old ‘special episodes’ of sitcoms, where a trans character will appear whose only purpose is to explain the trans experience, and then walks off, having no storyline integration. It sometimes feels like the authors don’t want to include these characters, but felt obligated to. I think that games are much more effective in sharing your values when those values are ‘baked in’ in a smooth way; Gun Mute did this well, as did Birdland.
This all has changed in the last year or two, with Cape and Stone Harbor doing well without being explicitly in the Porpentine tradition.
It’s very clear in hindsight now that parser was not in trouble of dying (perhaps due to efforts like ParserComp), but at the time, it was hard to see, especially two years later in 2014, as we’ll get to soon.