Sunday, October 03, 2010

[IF Comp] The Blind House

It's that time of the year again: the interactive fiction competition has arrived. Two announcements. First, all my reviews contain as many spoilers as I want to use. Second, no first paragraph contains any spoilers -- it can therefore serve as "spoiler space" for the blog aggregates and so on.

The Blind House by Maude Overton is named after a song by Porcupine Tree, the author tells us. Since I had just gotten some Porcupine Tree albums to check out from a friend, I put The Incident (which contains the song in question) on repeat while I played this game. Not exactly the soundtrack I would have chosen for it, I think -- it's all relatively sane -- but good music nevertheless. It sounds a bit like Dream Theater meets Opeth, if somewhat softer. (If this comparison makes the Porcupine Tree fans angry, feel free to complain.)

The game itself, then, is mad, and not mad in a funny "mad hatter" way, but mad in an unpleasant, disturbing way. It's not quite Jack Nicholson with an axe, but that is the general direction you need to be thinking of. Knives. Diaries written in blood. Disturbing paintings. Murder. But, and this is the masterstroke of the game, these darkest layers of madness meld seamlessly into other forms of madness and psychological trouble: repressed memories, hallucinations, depression, paranoia, up to and including common stuff like excessively low self-esteem and an abusive relationship characterised by excessive claiming. Never in the game does it become clear to the player what is real and what is false in this web. Does the player character invent the fact that she has murdered a woman in order to project the guilt she feels for her abusive relationship to the Melissa? Does she invent this relationship in order to escape from the guilt of the murder? Did she really kill a woman because she couldn't stand sharing Melissa? I still don't know.

This does lead to an interesting experience, because each new hint the game drops will change your idea of what is going on; and you will in fact have multiple ideas at the same time. At one point fairly late in the game, I was both quite sure that I was about to enact the famous scene from Psycho on Melissa, and that I was about to quietly snoop into her bedroom in order to find the information I needed to save her -- two completely opposite ideas. This does keep the player on edge.

On the other hand, the game's finale was a bit of a let-down. If I interpret it as literally true, and not just one more figment of the imagination, then most of the scenes earlier in the game must have either not happened at all, or happened in a completely different way, order and time-frame. In a sense, that is fine; but it does make me feel cheated as a player. I have been accumulating evidence and formulating theories; I have solved puzzles in order to find out what was going on. If it turns out that that evidence was so unreliable and fragmentary that I could not possibly have hit on the truth (or at least could not have seen it as particularly likely), then, well, why have I been doing it? It's like reading one of those detective stories where you are fed red herrings for 200 pages, and then the detective solves the case by using a clue that wasn't given to the reader.

On the other hand, if the final scene is just some further unreliable narration, then the ending of the piece is arbitrary and unsatisfactory.

Since I have seen from other reviews that people got different endings, let me state that I read the diary while Melissa was in the shower; then met her in the corridor as she was running towards her bedroom; where I found her in tears, talked to her, and then re-established en strengthened my abusive dominant-submissive relationship with her. I have absolutely no idea how you could get another ending.

I would not call The Blind House a total success, then: it should either have rearranged its fragments of madness so that they would have clicked together better at the end; or it should have set itself up less like a detective game. Things do not have to click -- but I should be able to recognise this as an integral part of the work of art. Just think of how creepy this game could have been if it had started degenerating even further into madness once Melissa came back! Or how emotionally powerful it could have been if enacting the abusive relationship rather than solving puzzles had been the central aspect of playing.

That said, this is still a very fine game that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

7 comments:

  1. One more thing, but this really is small. It's not a good idea to have one of the first sentences of your game be "Her jaw hardens, almost imperceptibly." What, is it newly made of gypsum? :)

    On the other hand, I liked the succinct theo-philosophical argument contained in:

    > think about god
    I’m not sure what that refers to.

    ;)

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  2. I just really feel the need to point out that the main NPC in this game is named "Marissa" not "Melissa." In fact, how could you even complete the game without that getting pounded into your head? :)

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  3. Good question -- but I did have trouble remembering the name during the game as well. :)

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  4. You can change the ending by changing your dialogue choices in the last conversation. I don't know whether or not there's any other way to influence it.

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  5. Well, I found this one sucked. It started sort of interesting, then quickly became pretentious gibberish. I didn't understand what it was all about and honestly I didn't care.

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  6. It's interesting to note that typing "search table" in Helena's room reveals notches that represent the game's score. There are four facets to the table and four corresponding types of score.

    The player's dialog choices and actions affect these scores: this is easily shown by restarting and picking a different dialog choice each time.

    I suspect the ending you see depends on which of the scores is highest. Three of my scores were equal by the time I ended the game, and so I discovered three different endings by changing the final dialog choice.

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  7. Sorry, I take that back. There really are only three types of score, corresponding to the three different endings.

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