Dr Horror's House of Terror - a post-mortem

A few years ago, I was judging and reviewing the IF comp games and I came across a game called Flowers of Mysteria. I loved it. It was a basic home-rolled parser, with little to no plot - collect five things for reasons. But the whole game was so perfectly done for a retro game that I was blasted back 35 years and playing a ‘text adventure’ game on my Sinclair spectrum in my bedroom, completely immersed in what I was doing.

It got me thinking about what I really enjoy in an interactive fiction game. I like a game that has me collect things. I like a game (aka Jigsaw, Curses, Trinity, Grooverland) that has a set of very different areas I can explore that are loosely linked by the narrative but are disparate enough that it holds the player’s interest. I like nibbling away at multiple puzzles at the same time.

In general, modern parser based IF tends towards a more linear narrative - solve a puzzle, move the plot forward, solve the next puzzle, move the plot forward…and so on……and this is excellent and there are some amazing examples out there. And I love them. But I set out to write the type of game I really wanted to play.

Because at its heart, that’s what DHHoT is. Collect five ‘treasures’ for reasons (in this case - the undead) across a set of loosely connected ‘worlds’ in an open framework where I can work on multiple puzzles at once. At its heart, DHHoT is a bit of a throwback.

But I also didn’t want to lose the narrative progression IF has made over the last 25 years. So I needed to place this into a compelling narrative framework.

It took me a year to think of one.

You see, I have a guilty pleasure. Really old horror films from the 1960s and 1970s. Particularly films by Hammer, Aticus and Bavaria Studios. The worse the film, the better I like them. DHHoT has its genesis in all the old monster movies of course, but in particular, four films : Dr Terror’s House of Horror (you see what I did there?), The House that Dripped Blood, The Vault of Horror.

And, in particular, The Torture Chamber of Dr Sadism (It’s not on youtube, I think it’s still on Amazon Prime). Ah. This film. It stars a young Christopher Lee (yeah, really - Saruman/Count Dooku) in what has to be said is not his finest hour. It’s legendarily bad. It’s the best ‘so bad it’s good’ film I have ever seen. But. But. There’s something about it. The sets are cheap, the acting woeful, the script an abomination, the plot holes gaping. But there are moments of sheer mad inventiveness. A forest of disembodied limbs. A swinging pendulum axe (really) in front of paintings from a Boschian nightmare. I cannot, in all conscience, recommend you watch this film. You should definitely watch it.

It was this film I took for my template. My goal was to represent it. Represent the feeling of it.

I hope I succeeded.

Things I was happy about - that I thought ‘worked’:

The structure. A couple of reviews noted this. While I did want to make the game open world, I also wanted to lead the player into the game, so the opening sequence segues into a single studio where the player learns, effectively, what they need to do, before being thrown into the deep end. I think that had I opened up all the studios straight away, this would have been a disaster. This process of player education seemed to work quite well.

I created the conversation system from scratch. I know there are some great extensions out there, but none of them did quite what I wanted to do. I’m quite pleased with it and will use it again in future games. Effectively it allows an NPC to have multiple choice based conversation trees depending on game state, it allows each conversation element to have multiple responses from the NPC, and it has dynamic topics that can link to other topics or not. If I ever find the courage to show my code in public, I may release this as an extension.

I started writing the game with the ask/tell framework, but I, personally, don’t like this. I always feel that I’m just trying to guess the topic the author wants me to ask about in order to progress. So I went choice based. I realise some people prefer the more open ask/tell, but as I said at the start of this, I was writing DHHoT for me.

The fact that I think I created what I wanted to create. In making the game, I realised that parody of old horror films is a well worn trope that’s pretty tired. I tried very very hard to subvert the whole concept of a parody. I think Mike Spivey expressed what I was trying to achieve best in his review : “What’s real, and what’s not? Who are the heroes, and who are the monsters? These are questions you’ll continually ask while playing Dr Horror, even with respect to yourself, the PC—and you’ll do so all the way through the ending credits.” - I wriggled with delight when I read that review, because that sums up (far better than I could have) exactly what I had hoped a player would take away from the game.

A thing I was worried about.

In my game, you kill people. In general, in horrible ways. The game is not called ‘Dr Nasty’s House of Mild Peril’. It’s a game that, at least a little, is about power, complicity and the amorality of power. At least one reviewer really didn’t engage with this premise at all - finding the subsumption of this message into a parodic ‘comedy’ game shallow and cynical. And that’s a reaction I was concerned that many would have. It was my intent that this should be handled relatively lightly, but be core to the motivations of the characters. But it was also my intent that the game should be more than just a comic parody. I think it resonated with some players. My intent doesn’t matter to the reader.

Things I wasn’t so pleased about :

There were some issues in the comp version of the game. So, my other ‘serious’ games: Map, Worldsmith and Fifteen Minutes were complicated. They had bits in them that I thought, at the time of developing, I would never, ever manage to code. In particular, Fifteen Minutes. But. If you’ve played DHHoT, there’s a puzzle with some animals and a security guard. OMG. You have no idea. I would strongly recommend, if you are considering implementing an independent route-finding routine for an NPC in relation to both some dangers the player can drop to make a room temporarily un-visiteable and in relation to the player, and in relation to open scenery where the player can see the NPC’s movement across multiple rooms, that you think twice. It’s like rope++. It was horrible. What I ended up with is a hacky jumble of complicated nonsense code. And there are still bugs. I apologize to players who encountered them. Hopefully, they’re fixed in the post-comp release I’m about to drop.

There were a couple of other issues also. The ‘rope’ puzzle in the studio 4 got into some strange states. A ghost scene triggering when it shouldn’t have. A few typos. I had some amazing beta testers, but DHHoT is a big game. A big thank you to all the reviewers who were kind enough to email and message me with bug reports. In the post-comp version I have created an extra line in the post-game credits just for you!

Other than a quick one in the first ten minutes of the comp being open, I didn’t do an update to the game through the comp, even though I’d fixed some of the bugs and typos. This wasn’t for any ideological reason. It’s just that, if you update your parser game, players playing online lose their saved games. And DHHoT is a big game. The entirely justified rage losing your saves would cause during the comp, I felt, outweighs the mild annoyance of a bug.

If anyone hasn’t played DHHoT and wishes to, I would recommend you give it a few days for IFDB to unwind and then play the new version. It’s just… better. I’ll do a notification on intfiction when it goes live.

Finally, I just want to say a huge thank you to everyone involved in the IF comp this year. The reason to enter, for me, isn’t to place, it’s to be part of this community. The authors, the reviewers, the organisers all deserve much love. Thank you!

Mike.

P.s. An apology to the entirely blameless actor Blake Lively. When my first review came out from Wade, and he mentioned that referring to the real actor took him out of the game a little, I was like - eh? What? Then I did an internet search. Oh no! There’s actually a real famous person called Blake Lively. I was genuinely unaware that such a person existed. I had created the Blake Lively name as a kind of joke on the laconic nature of the character. And it was on the artwork! I decided to leave it. Facepalm. If the real Blake Lively wishes to contact me about it, I am open to a discussion. :slight_smile:

P.p.s. Oh, and from the transcripts I’ve got, so far, the most perilous situations a person has overcome was 19. In one playthru, you can get 22. That LLP (last lousy point) is HARD.

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It was great to read this. Looking forward to playing the post comp version as well. Hopefully I’ll win the battle then.

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I recommend a 2001 Steve Coogan TV series: Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible

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Yeah, I think with a project this expansive there are going to be bugs, because if you sat down to try to kill them yourself, you’d never be able to build a world like this.

It never struck me how relatively few recent parser games had a hub structure until you mentioned it. I really like having a hub, because I figure there’s somewhere I’m inevitably going to get stuck. And in this case the hub opened into many appreciably different areas, both physically and in terms of puzzle aesthetics.

I particularly liked how the end confrontation was replayable (even though I only played once during the comp,) since you can choose each side for a different experience as army commander.

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