Wednesday, 5 October 2016

IFComp 2016 review: Night House by bitterkarella

Night House is a mystery-horror parser adventure of some spookiness. It mobilises a combination of vintage object-based puzzling (use A on B, B on C, C on D and later G, E on F) and the methods of backstory revelation that have become popular in both horror films and gaming over the last couple of decades. The protagonist is an eight year-old child who wakes to a mysteriously empty version of their home and unseen menaces.

The game runs – somewhat stickily – in the Quest engine. I loved the automap, but I didn’t love the way lots of useless items were highlighted with hyperlinks, often drawing attention away from important items buried in the inventorial sea. And it's a big sea in Night House. If you love amassing a huge inventory of doodads and using them to hurdle hurdles in all kinds of laterally conceived practical ways, Night House will whet that appetite. If you don’t have enough horror tastebuds on your tongue, you probably won't find Night House sufficiently distinguished from things you’ve experienced before. Overall it's a dense puzzler with a pretty good, mildly choppy story that I basically followed but didn't completely follow; I will express some of my ignorances in the spoilered part of this review.

The game also has a lot of implementation fiddles and some bugs. Many of the former seem to be a product of the Quest parser's design, though paradoxically, a subset of those are then resolved by Quest's hybrid interface.

The game took me about 90 minutes to complete. I made increasing use of the walkthrough as I progressed. Mac users can't play Quest games offline so I had to play at This resulted in an average pause time of 1 second between turns, significantly increasing the stickiness of the experience. If you can play offline, I'd do so. There's lots of backtracking and experimentation required in this game which you could knock down instantly offline.

Two pro tips:

1. In Quest, when in doubt about verbs, use the phrase USE (A) WITH (B)

2. In Quest, if still in doubt, right-click any lit objects to see if the action you've been agonisingly trying to phrase correctly happens to be a contextual choice that then shows up.

Spoilered extended musings beyond.

I had the idea that I was playing a male child in this game before being disabused of it by examining myself at one point. I don't think this was just the result of typical being-a-male ideology. There are writing issues and somewhat complex story issues involved.

I felt that the narrator's voice had features of a male child's viewpoint. For instance if I was a girl, I wouldn't expect to find my slightly older sister's beauty regimen equipment in the bathroom 'inexplicable'. In context but unsexed, I also questioned the choice of the word inexplicable for an eight-year-old.

Second, when I started reading material left by my psychologist dad about the child Jeremy, I began to think Jeremy was me. Whether it was me now or me in some weird alternate universe, as I had an inkling that supernatural stuff was going on, I still related to Jeremy, a boy.

A third and lesser sense of maleness came from some of the lazier writing around day-to-day props in the game. It reminded me of old school adventure game snark, which I tend to think of as a male thing – perhaps irrationally, because look at the responses in all those Roberta Williams games. Anyway, such messages ended up being out of place in Night House's narration. Vigilantly examining workaday things like clothes driers too often produced dull or sarcastic messages like, 'It's a drier. For drying clothes,' rather than more interesting and realistic responses used elsewhere like, 'Your sister would kill you if you touched this!' (her Trapper Keeper).

The snark was annoying in the earliest, sparsest stage of the game, in which you have to rifle through all the unpopulated rooms of the house in turn (reminded me of The Sisters). The rooms are full of props, the majority of which you're dissuaded from touching because of their boring descriptions, even when objects are highlighted in clickable blue. But of course some of them yield vital objects, and some of those aren't highlighted. Ultimately, Night House is such a packrat'n'puzzle game that you just have to examine everything.

So I didn't get off on the best foot with this adventure, but once I found the flashlight (TORCH) and descended from the top floor, things began to pick up. Progress was well gated by various means. I found things to do right now and portals and devices to open later.

The house contents show the game is set in the 1980s-1990s. If this does happen to double as nostalgia for folks of that vintage (e.g. me. I mean this house has an Apple II in it) the game is still wise enough to stay properly in the child narrator's character and make nothing anachronistic out of the situation.

The practical-going-on-impractical puzzle solutions are probably no weirder than some old Infocom, but eventually I had trouble identifying puzzles because there were all these seemingly unrelated story threads floating about. A father worried about his son (not me, a girl, apparently). A moral panic involving dinosaur cartoons and toys, complete with a spoonerist joke description of the dinosaur who's similar to Raphael of the Ninja Turtles ("Raphael is cool but crude."). Old newspaper articles about yokel weirdos and Halloween. Collectively, these things didn't offer me much direction about what I should be trying to do in Night House other than solving anything that looked like a puzzle. I still don't think the threads integrated fabulously at game's end, but at least I knew what my own character's situation was. And in retrospect, the game's story content was denser than first appeared.

1 comment:

  1. I had the same confusion about the PC's gender myself, even wondering if maybe the author decided to change the gender while writing and simply forgot to change the PC's description. But as it went on it became more and more clear that it was intentional: at one point, the PC finds an old family photo and is confused to see a boy in her place. I thought this reveal was nicely gradual and subtle. At the end, this is explained pretty clearly (I thought), but in case you missed it, she was a "nightworld" creature who visited Jeremy and created this nightmare version of his house out of his memories, but then became lost enough in his memories to think she was him.

    I'm pretty curious about whether the author intended this as a metaphor for gender dysphoria, or if I'm just reading into it because that happens to be a common topic in IF these days. Even without that reading, I thought the game worked well as a neat Stranger-Things-ish supernatural-horror story.