Sunday, October 30, 2016

Night House (review)

"Night House" is an interactive game (perhaps Quest?) written by Bitter Karella for the 2016 interactive fiction competition. The protagonist is an eight year old child who wakes in the middle of the night to discover that her family is missing, but the house has been occupied by all varieties of haunts and monsters. The best feature of this game is the spooky atmosphere, achieved through the writing and to a lesser extent the sound effects.

No serious spoilers in this review, but just to be safe, this break-space:

I don't normally think about what "score" I'll award a game while I'm playing it, nor even while I'm writing about it after. Often an entire week will go by before I fill out the competition ballot. I like to see how memorable the game is over time. But with this game, I did find myself going through scores in my head, my impression continually changing as I played.

"Night House" is a big ambitious game with great atmosphere. It starts out spooky: child home alone at night during a rainstorm. Then it just gets creepier and creepier. The story is populated with every horror trope you can imagine. Ghosts, childhood anxieties, stories of past kidnappings, halloween, dead animals, hack child psychologists, chainsaws... you name it.  (But no evil clowns? Maybe that's just too sensitive this year.)

The sound effects add some additional atmosphere, the sound of a rainstorm can be heard, at varying volume, from everywhere but the basement.  Entering the basement and not hearing the rain is a little disconcerting, because by that chapter the drone of rain had become sort of a comfort. But I did keep waiting for some other variety... maybe a scratch or a creeky door or a tap, tap, tap. Instead, it was only ever the sound of the rainstorm.

There is a touch of humor in the game also, which I think is important in horror writing. All horror with no humor becomes tedious. Life is the balance of horror and laughter. Much of the humor here is directed at 80s nostalgia, which will appeal to older players who were introduced to IF when it was a commercial thing.

What kept pulling the score down for me were frequent error messages and weaknesses in the parser. The world model is what I call "wide but shallow". The player is free to explore a much larger game map than is common in most contemporary IF. There is a lot of "stuff" in each location, indicated by highlighted words. But the player can pretty much expect that if a noun in the text was not highlighted, it is not a recognized object. Even some of the highlighted words are missing natural synonyms, which made the parser interaction frustrating. (I had some problems with an object labeled "bottleopener". Is "bottleopener" even a legit compound word?)

Most frustrating of all is a time-out counter in the on-line version.  I was timed-out on multiple play throughs. The final straw, I was actively playing the end game, probably no more than three minutes away from the closing credits, and the game logged me out. Forgot all of my earlier saved versions. Made me start again from the beginning. No thanks. I can imagine well enough how it ends and I've already played past the two hour judging period.

Good atmosphere, good length, ambitious, but spoiled by a time-out clock on the server and other lesser bugs.

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