(Originally published Jan 13, 2016 on digitalst0rytelling.wordpress.com)
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.
howling dogs, with its plot device of virtual reality, draws on the science fiction trope of layered digital and “real” worlds which broke mainstream ground in The Matrix. But porpentine’s seminal Twine game doesn’t rely on the rather trite Inception effect, presenting a “game within a game” for added narrative depth. Instead it uses its own medium as part of a self-similar structure, requiring that the player grapple with their own digital experience just as the game world avatar navigates theirs.
Each time we as players exit a “visual sim” sequence, we are forced to recenter ourselves in the disgusting world of the dark metal room — and this extraction is mirrored when the player closes the game, returning to the world away from the computer screen. For those of us who are, as Porpentine puts it, “refugees in our own country, in increasingly deteriorating circumstances, … less and less capable of caring about [ourselves],” the metal room is not far from the reality that awaits us after the second emergence as well. In the game world, the room even starts to respond less and less to our inputs as we spend more time in it—yet the simulations tend to get more descriptive, more intense, more palpable. Porp says, “the sim keeps you fascinated, calibrating itself … 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.”
I think we can read more than sisyphean futility here. howling dogs tells us something about how we engage with digital spaces, especially when we are depressed, marginalized, or isolated; I find that it carries a radical critique of impulses and modes of game participitation—which themselves often derive from patriarchal and capitalist modes of action. The drives to complete, consume, uncover, master, or dominate a game are all subverted by Porpentine’s piece, which asks us instead to discern. She invites us to lift our minds out of the mire of consumption and figure out how to engage with our surroundings in an honest, realistic way—by entering the Matrix, not by leaving it. For her, the tactile presence of a computer is a real form of intimacy, perhaps even an intimacy without a singular object or partner. By “touching,” as she recommends (“my mechanics are to be touched”), we become “in touch” with the reality of our immediacy. This is most apparent in the ‘party’ page, when the screen is filled with hyperlinks but only one leads to a meaningful, unique path.
I’ve heard Porpentine use the word “alienation” to describe her relationship with big-budget games that rely on spreadsheet logic and soulless mathematics to consume the players’ attention. howling dogs takes another approach: it uses the digital environment and the visual, tactile experience it provides to allow us to take control of our own attention, our own emotions, and our own realities. It really is a beautiful way to shake off cobwebs when the food wrappers start to accumulate on the floor of your IRL bedroom.
Another game that I think is relevant to the discussion of touch and intimacy is Take Care by merritt kopas. This piece consists of a webpage which presents you with a pixelated image of a person (green skin, pink hair) surrounded by candles. The tagline: “a spell reaches across the world and finds you; provide comfort & calm as best you can.” There are no “controls” aside from your mouse, which is replaced with a slowly pulsating blue pixel. You are encouraged to provide “whispers, calming touches, and gentle petting.” Yet, no motion that you make with your mouse-avatar brings about any noticeable change on the screen. To my knowledge, this ‘game’ is simply an animation with which u can imagine interactions—and yet, the physicality of the mouse’s motion and the player’s tendency or desire to replicate real-life comforting gestures creates an unexpectedly intimate space between the player and the unnamed character—an intimacy which is acted out physically by the “caressing” of the trackpad or mouse and any futile attempt to coax a response from other parts of the computer (I caught myself speaking into the microphone and gently stroking the keyboard). This moment of tactile intimacy provides a more straightforward example of the ways digital environments do have a crucial physical aspect with which we can interact in unexpected and perhaps unsanctioned ways.
I love thinking of computers this way—as objects with and through which we can act out forbidden intimacies. And, as we engage with this emerging canon of trans literature, I want to think about the ways digital worlds can resist or subvert transmisogynist systems that bring about silencing, erasure, and death.