House postmortem

Mazal tov to Michael J. Coyne for his doubly award-winning work Illuminismo Iniziato.

This post is for anyone who has asked themselves, “What the hell was Karona thinking when she wrote House?”

Before you read any further please note that what follows more or less thoroughly spoils House. So if you have any inclination to read the story (and you might want to keep in mind that I am planning a post-comp release, which will come with a walkthrough), consider bookmarking this post and reading it after you finish playing the game.

[spoiler]A writer’s prompt on this forum was the catalyst that led me to come up with the idea of a story that had the basic form of House. Like House it was about a relationship on the verge of a transition, it was a story in which the player must solve one puzzle after amassing a number of clues that directed them to the solution, and in the final act the protagonist sees the NPC as a subject (as opposed to an object) for the first time. But the proto-House story was harder in one crucial respect: It required the player to attempt an action that defied the laws of physics. I concluded that this put one too many demands on the player, and my code lay dormant for years.

When Aaron called for Spring Thing submissions, I revisited my earlier idea, and it occurred to me that the form would work well for delivering a narrative I had long thought about writing (albeit in a non-interactive fashion) – a work that had the same twist as House. The narrative was very loosely based on a real-life experience I had, and by extension the same can be said for House.

The most criticized aspect of my story has been the conversation system. It came about because the main puzzle of the game is essentially a parser puzzle. So while I did not want to make the player Guess the Word, I also could not use one of the simpler conversation systems developed in the past couple of decades or so. I coded four different conversation systems before deciding that the second should exist alongside the fourth: Leah makes suggestions in response to certain actions, and the “topics” are words that can be combined into phrases. Part of the remaining difficulty lies in the fact that while there are several actions that increase the counter that determines whether Leah will suggest a topic combination, Leah will respond to only a subset of these. On the coder’s side, it is pretty straightforward, but I came to understand how arbitrary this looked on the player’s side only just before the Spring Thing deadline. All I will say in defense of House’s conversation system is that it would have been far more abstruse, had it not been for the alpha and beta testers who helped me every step of the way.

House has a three-act structure found in many video games: The player begins in Act 2 and encounters Act 1 in the form of fragments. In his review of the story loopernow makes an interesting criticism of how Ayumu interacts with Leah in Act 2, saying that he speaks “to her like a Vulcan or a therapist”. I had hoped that I would not need to tell the player how to feel because they would be feeling more or less how Ayumu felt from start to finish, and based on the feedback I received this was many player’s experience. Even so, I do not think we should be quick to dismiss loopernow’s criticism. In my attempt to give Ayumu a realistic voice I drew inspiration from my voice – the voice of someone who often counseled people in situations similar to Leah’s during my time as a crisis line operator. Could I have looked to a more appropriate model while giving Ayumu a voice? I will let the player decide.

One of the ways I tried to clue the player in to what was going on was through allusion. The last allusion to be added is the first the player encounters: Ayumu’s uniform, the house’s interior, and the front lawn were inspired by the video for Jill Sobule’s 1995 hit “I Kissed a Girl”, with one significant deviation. The memory of dancing to “Wave of Mutilation” is an allusion to the 1990 film Pump up the Volume, and the scene involving dancing to “What’s Up?” is an allusion to a Season 1 episode of the television series Sense8. The rainbow of six colors is an allusion to the rainbow flag, a symbol of the LGBT community. (Speaking of colors, the name “Ai” was chosen because it is the Japanese word for “indigo”, and it sounds like the English word “I”. “Orli” is Hebrew for “a light to me”.)

There is one other work referenced in House, but I will say nothing more about it here except that the story contains three allusions to it.

To those who have told me you have enjoyed House I cannot thank you enough. You have inspired me to start making a new IF work. (And, yes, it will have an easier conversation system!)[/spoiler]

1 Like

Good thing you put a “Beware of thorough spoilering”-warning at the top of this post. House is in my latest batch of downloads to play and I was looking 'round the Forum for some more info. I’ll do as you suggest and read this post after.


1 Like