The Text in The House Abandon

The House Abandon emulates the experience of playing a horror text adventure called “The House Abandon” on a Futuro 128k. It has one mechanic: typing.

No Code made the game for the Ludum Dare 36 game jam, which had a three-day limit. By basing their design on a single, simple mechanic it seems No Code were able to dedicate their time to the game’s writing, pacing and tone – but the typing is still the base; the foundation. If the design of the parser didn’t agree with the rest of the game, The House Abandon would crumble.

Take the responses: “You insert the key into the lock”, “I’m sorry I don’t understand”, “It’s dark, but it’s as idyllic as you remember from all that time ago”, etc. The Futuro types out each character individually, twenty-eight characters per second. It’s a bit like the terminals in the Fallout franchise, except there’s no option to skip to the end; the player must wait out whatever the game has to say – and the game never abbreviates its prose. At every turn the player surrenders a second or two.

This has a few effects. First, obviously, it slows the game down. Second, it allows the designer better control over the game’s pace: because the player has to wait out the text display, the designer can speed up or slow down the experience just by being concise or verbose. Third, it reinforces one of the game’s central themes.

Consider the error message: It could just be “I don’t understand.” Or “ERROR.” It could just beep and the point would come across, but instead it’s this verbose, first-person sentence (which has impacts on other themes and on the story too, but that would be a whole different article). This intentional length, together with the fact that it isn’t instant, subtly reinforces the idea that the player is helpless. They want to just get on to the next command; to try a different solution to whichever bizarre word puzzle they’re on; but over and over again they can’t – they have to wait. The player can’t even type while the game is replying, they just have to cede control to the text parser and let it apologize to them how it wants, even if this is the fiftieth apology it’s given.

At present, those are the only impacts of the parser – but the game has been patched. When I originally played it, The House Abandon was fresh out of its game jam, and the parser had a fourth impact as well.

Basing their game around a text parser let No Code avoid the headaches of physics, lighting, movement and collision, but the English language is a twisted, fiendish beast, and a text parser requires its designer to account for a cyclopean quantity of potential commands that players will use, most of the time while believing themselves perfectly reasonable. The version of The House Abandon that came straight from the game jam had an . . . unforgiving text parser. To accomplish basic actions required cutting a path through a wall of error messages, to say nothing of the more esoteric puzzles. After seeing their twentieth error message while trying to walk across the back yard and turn on the generator, any player would be well within their rights to give up – but as I persevered, I found that the picky parser became its own mechanic.

It reminded me of classic adventure games, and the mental gymnastics required to figure out which improbably combination of inventory items would progress the plot. It was an exercise in figuring out how the designer thought – and in its original version, The House Abandon was as well. Given the inconvenience and irritation of the apologetic error message, the slim boundaries of the parser encouraged me to consider each command; to remember what lexicon of words had yielded success in the past (though this was no guarantee for the future); to try and figure out what mind-bending effect the writer was after when they constructed each puzzle. I found that hitting a streak of successful commands actually yielded the satisfaction of mastering a system – even though the system was just an unfortunately narrow library of commands.

Or it might have been Stockholm Syndrome. One of the two.

The House Abandon is by No Code studio, and is available at itch.io.

Advertisements