by Joe Matar2
House of Hell Game Review
Hell is choosing your own adventure.
For some reason, I continue to have high hopes for the interactive fiction genre, but I’m always disappointed. I always find it to be an outdated genre with bland prose, unfair deaths, and crappy storytelling. Contrastingly, House of Hell is a work of interactive fiction with bland prose, unfair deaths, and mediocre storytelling.
It makes sense that HoH feels outdated because it’s a videogameified version of a gamebook originally published in 1984 from the Fighting Fantasy series, written by Steve Jackson (a Brit not to be confused with well-known American card and board game designer, Steve Jackson). Fighting Fantasy was like Choose Your Own Adventure for über-geeks and was essentially a single-player tabletop RPG. This meant you rolled dice to battle or to determine your luckiness. You had stats: stamina, fear, skill, and luck. You could carry weapons and you had an inventory of items for progressing in your quest or restoring stamina.
I was a baby when the book came out but apparently it came with an adventure sheet for you to write down all this rhubarb. Luckily, in the videogame version, your adventure sheet updates itself. You can call it up with the tap of a button to check stats or use a healing item. It’s also nice that when faced with a decision, you can simply tap your choice, rather than laboriously flipping to the appropriate page.
The best things about HoH are additions that would be impossible with an actual book. You turn consecutive pages by touching or swiping and you touch a button to throw some virtual 3D dice. If you roll badly, you’re given one more chance to toss the dice up in the air, either by tapping or shaking your phone, which is a fun little touch. There’s also a music track that intensifies whenever you’re engaged in a hectic dice battle. But the operative word here is track, as in one song (though two versions of it) for the entire game: a semi-creepy little number that borrows a page from the piano sheet music to the Halloween film series. The good news is you can always turn it off.
Speaking of options, HoH is highly customizable. You can choose new, colorized versions of the art or the original black-and-white drawings; toggle audio; and change the font and size of the text. All these features may sound mundane but there’s not a lot going on with a genre this simplistic, so it’s nice to see some effort put into the presentation.
So HoH looks and sounds decent but, unfortunately, you also have to read and play it. Writing-wise, errors are rare and the prose is functional but one issue with this genre is that it’s all about preparing you for your next choice. That means descriptions are typically bland and to-the-point, often communicating little more than “you’re in a hallway with two doors.” The plot concerns your car breaking down and you getting trapped in a house full of horror clichés: vampires, zombies, and a human sacrifice room that the zoning commission should probably be alerted of. The descriptions do gradually provide a good sense of the grandiose, mazelike house but there’s nothing’s genuinely scary there. In terms of the stuff one usually expects from narrative like, for example, character development, well, that’s not really on sale in interactive fiction.
Though you have the illusion of choice, your options are actually frustratingly limited. Pass by a room and you typically can’t ever go back that way. You also die. A lot. You can lose all your stamina or fear points (by witnessing too many freakish sights) and some decisions end your adventure no matter what. You get unlimited bookmarks, which are effectively save points, but each save slot only tells you what page it is and it’s not as though you’re going to remember what was happening on page 286 or 341 unless you’ve just read it.
The most frustrating part of the game is that there are points where, even though you have, say, six choices ahead of you to make, the game has already (unbeknownst to you) sentenced you to death. You try loading bookmarks to avoid your fate only to die regardless. You could bookmark every single page to increase your survival chances, but how is this a fun way to play? There’s a Free Read Mode that lets you jump back one page without bookmarking, lets you heal at any time, and allows you to progress even if you haven’t got the quest items normally required to do so. But you can still die of fear or get killed by making a “bad choice.” Plus, this mode cuts out chunks of storyline and, again, what’s fun about that?
House of Hell does a great job at gussying up its source material and making it slightly more accessible, but there’s no ignoring the fact that it comes from a bygone era in which designers and players were considered enemies. The game takes joy in punishing you for doing what it has deemed wrong, winning requires an absurd amount of memorization (or note-taking), and it’s clearly crafted to be beatable only after multiple playthroughs. This cycle of curiosity-punishment-memorization must pass as entertainment for someone. But whoever that someone is I suspect he is a lot older than me and doesn’t know how to work a smartphone.
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Summary: Has high presentation values for what it is, but what it is is outdated gameplay packed into a merely serviceable narrative.