(this is my first non-comp review)
Black House by Jeff Somers
Black House has all the hallmarks of a talented but inexperienced Inform author: solid prose, good atmosphere, and interesting setting, all counterbalanced by a rough implementation and poor
hinting on puzzles. If you’ve played Cacophony by Owen Parish, it has a bit of the same feel: the protagonist is forced explore an interesting, strange, and rather sinister area, solve puzzles whose solutions are far from obvious and frequently badly-hinted at best, and you have to figure out how to escape your situation. And lacking any in-game help system despite desperately needing one. Unlike Cacophony, though, Black House has just one decisive (non-fatal) ending, not that this is a strike against it.
Anyway, the game begins with your character, apparently an impoverished freelance detective, taking a case from a girl asking him to find someone named Edgar. She provides a photo and an address, and after a quick bus trip you’re in front of the eponymous Black House, which according to the PC already has rumors about people disappearing when they go inside. Naturally, you go inside.
First, the bad: many of the rooms in the house have scenery mentioned in the description that can’t
actually be examined. Obviously this doesn’t actually affect the gameplay, but it can make things a
little bit annoying and make the level of detail in the descriptions feel like a bit of a waste.
Several of the puzzles are very badly hinted at, as I said before. One major stumbling block early will
probably be a puzzle that requires doing the same action several times in a row (although at least the
failure text changes after the first time, making the solution obvious). Another has a critical item be
stored in a container – this may not sound bad, but no other item of its kind is hidden from immediate
view, and the room contains a lot of junk items and no hint that a plot item is present at all, since
many of the other rooms also do not have a plot item. Other puzzles simply require trial-and-error to
Speaking of taking the same action multiple times in a row, several sections of the game require this.
In most of them it’s at least arguably justified, but in the last it absolutely isn’t, and the others
seem mostly excessive.
Worst are a couple critical oversights: a plot-critical item cannot be referred to by the name the room
description gives it, forcing you to guess what its proper name is (luckily, this should not be very
difficult, but still). Worse by far is a bug related to a room where a (fortunately optional) cutscene
takes place. Upon leaving the room a certain event triggers, forcing you to go to a different room to
solve it. The problem? When you go back into the cutscene room, the event can trigger again.
Finally, there are some miscellaneous rough patches: a skippable NPC appears in a random room near the end if you didn’t meet them earlier, a couple typos, lack of responses from the primary NPC, and oneor two hidden secrets that no normal person would likely find (if you’re wondering how I found them, I had to use a string decompiler to beat the game).
Now, the good:
The game has an interesting gimmick, where most of the map connections are determined by symbols on the doorways you go through rather than by direction. This means you can go to same room from multiple rooms, but also means that you generally cannot go back easily, making getting around the house a little confusing at first, contributing to the atmosphere and the general feeling of being trapped.
The game is well-written, really giving you a sense of the general atmosphere of decay and constriction in the house. Simply going from one room to another can produce flavor text about the uncomfortable path, from banging your legs on theater seats to getting yanked through a window into unseen darkness. Rooms near the end can really give you a sense of creepiness and unease, one in particular standing out after the nature of the house becomes clear. There’s also a fair number of subtle references and clever easter eggs.
The game contains two NPCs, a man and a woman. The man is reasonably well-written with some very subtle hints that he isn’t who he says he is and even manages a legitimately funny sequence amidst the downbeat feeling of the game, but he is also entirely missable. The woman, Agnes, is the real star of the game. The author clearly intended this, since a couple of the game’s weaker points are likely caused by the author assuming the player will do things in a specific way because of her. She gets a large number of lines and some decent character development… unfortunately, talking about her without spoilers is very difficult, so here goes. She is actually the demon (or something) designated to torment the player. There are very clear hints in this vein early on, and it’s hammered home if you follow her “advice” discover if you listen to her advice. After she quits bothering to hide her true nature, she gets different lines (mostly… a couple are reused from her pre-reveal phase) which give her the aforementioned character development, revealing her as regretful and not completely hostile to the player. Additionally, her lines improve overall post-reveal.
While most of puzzles have bad hinting, a few of them are pretty clever, particularly in context. The solvable version of the Waiting Room, for instance, requires you to do exactly what the nearby sign says.
On the whole, I would say the good outweighs the bad in this game. Although I do have one last criticism, regarding the ending: the game seems to lose its philosophical focus near the end. Prior to that point, it could be considered a bit of a meditation on people getting trapped, either by bad circumstances or by just not doing anything to get out, but it seems to just kind of forget about it for the Hell theme at the very end. This may spoil the game for some, similar to Cacophony’s bizarre endings, but I still believe the game is worth playing.
This game is Cruel, strictly speaking, as it lets you save in unwinnable states. I don’t think this will be a big issue for most players, but using multiple saves is recommended just in case.
And for your convenience, I have included a rudimentary walkthrough.
Go east to enter the house.
Take the wooden carving. You discover it’s a pawn. Don’t take the lizard/newt door yet; this applies to all versions.
If you took the lion door
Take both pawns here. Do not take the Wolf door.
If you took the duck door
Take either the Viper “door” or the Stag door.
Both rooms had a stag door, so if you took it…
Take the Viper door.
Take the knight, then go south to the bathroom.
Take the rook. Notice that the water level is rising, and will kill you if you mess around too long. Read the poem on the mirror, then take a look at the doors.
The doors are in Roman numeral: 10, 5, 3, 100 respectively. Opening the right one gets you out.
The poem contains a very, very subtle hint about which one to take.
There’s a number of words that are very similar.
3, to be exact. OPEN DOOR III (no, I did not figure this out on my playthrough, I used trial-and-error)
Myna Bird Room
Go through the Stag door back to the Spare Room, then go through the Ape door, then go through the Lion door.
Take both pawns, then go through the Quail door and follow the path below.
If you took the Quail door in the lion room
Take both pawns, then go east through the bear door.
Take both pawns, then go east through the octopus door.
OPEN BOX before doing anything, then take the pawn inside. Go through the Stag door.
Go through the Viper door.
Take the knight if you don’t have it already, then go south to the bathroom.
Take the rook if you don’t have it, then scroll back up to the first Bathroom entry to solve the puzzle.
Myna Bird Room
Go through the hippo door over the repeated objections of Agnes.
Hall of Mirrors
Go in any direction. If you ended up in a familiar room, make your way back here. If Agnes objected to the direction you chose, try it again and scroll down to Objected Direction
If you are in an unfamiliar room:
Go northeast to reenter the Spare Room
Go south to reenter the Hall of Mirrors
This is a whole sidequest, and it contributes to the game’s worldbuilding/character development a bit, so you can do it if you want. However it’s also the glitched optional section mentioned in the review, so take care.
You’re intended to be lured in here earlier by your companion’s “advice” and depending on when you used this walkthrough you may well have been and discovered there was no escape. If so, remember what the old woman said: if you arrive WITH her, you can’t escape. But this time your companion abandons you at the entrance, meaning you can get out.
Either way. Examine the dispenser and do EXACTLY what it says.
Meaning, take a slip and WAIT for your turn.
At the designated time, Edgar comes charging from the deep end of the room and wants to escape with you. The room description won’t tell you this, but there is a button by the elevator. Switch it on, and the elevator will arrive several turns later. You will automatically enter it with Edgar.
You are now in New Room (the room on the other side of the newt/lizard door if you’re wondering). And it’s a maze, which is great. Edgar indirectly gives you the solution almost immediately, but if you need help then, from the northwesternmost corner (which is the starting point), go south until you hit a different room.
You are now in Yellow. Go downstairs to reach the Spare Room. Go through the Ape Door.
Anteroom - “Hell is other people”: Agnes is here. Edgar insists that there must be a way out of the house through this room and refuses to leave. Leave the room to explore the house further anyway. Go back to the Hall of Mirrors and continue below.
A chess piece is hanging right in front of you. Type TAKE QUEEN to get it (due to an oversight, “figure” is not a synonym). Go east.
Try to get the king until you succeed. Leave through either the Camel or Fly doors, then make your way back to the Octopus room.
Octopus Room Round 2
Go through the Kangaroo door.
if you did not escape from the Waiting Room, scroll down to Kitchen to continue
if you did escape from Waiting Room…
Check inventory. Examine the envelope. Fume at what an ungrateful bastard Edgar is. Examine it again to get a comment from Agnes, then head to the New Room (newt/lizard door) to hunt him down. Once there, wander around until you find him and you’ll automatically corner him. He gives you a riddle to get your stuff back. As far as I can tell, you get infinite guesses.
Edgar puts emphasis on several words in the riddle.
The last of these seems a little unusual.
Because it’s the answer: the word “incorrectly” is spelled “incorrectly”. Type INCORRECTLY to answer and watch Edgar receive his comeuppance and you receive your chess pieces back. Make your way back to Yellow. Go up, south, northeast twice, then back to the Octopus Room and go through the Kangaroo door.
Pick up the chef’s hat and wear it. Go east to enter the pantry.
Take the can opener and be confronted by two cans. You have to eat the paste from one of them, but the other kills you. How to tell them apart…
The clue here is very meta, and you have to directly examine the cans to get it.
They are described as looking like tuna cans.
And one of them is red.
A red fish. Or a red herring, one might say. Open the blue can and eat the blue paste.
Once you’ve solved the paste cans, go east for a while. If you didn’t do the Waiting Room sidequest, some of Agnes’ lines don’t make sense here, but if you did, you get a reveal. Eventually you reach the next room.
Listen to Agnes’ speech, then go through the Camel door.
Listen to another speech, then make your choice.
The black key could be considered an ending even if it doesn’t actually end the game, but the white key leads to the actual victory.
Mess around for a bit and eventually a voice suggests that you listen.
The “listen” command doesn’t actually do anything though.
But it does give you a subtle hint: the noises are coming from each direction
LISTEN TO each gate, and you will be able to open it. Unfortunately, three of them lead to death. How to tell them apart?
Only one of the gates has a familiar noise. Pick that one.
Examine the stick, then take it. Dig the sand until you uncover the hatch, open it, then go down. Dilly-dally all you want first; the time limit is very generous.
Agnes gives you a hint as soon as you enter the room about how to escape it. The room is a chessboard, and you have to move like a bishop – that is, diagonally. Reach the escape square, then go north and watch the ending (if it doesn’t end immediately, wait once).
Thanks for taking the time to read my review, feel free to offer any feedback!