Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell
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Related reviews: teenage, young adult, nostalgia, treasure hunt, NPCs, Vorple, graphics, epilogue, romance
Guilded Youth is a short, aggressively compact coming-of-age story, with well-considered, strongly-executed, attractive presentation that contributes a great deal to the content without overwhelming it. You play Tony, an 80s teenager whose world is viewed through the lens of a fantasy-RPG BBS; recruiting various allies from his online world, he leads a series of quixotic real-world raids to plunder treasures from a derelict house. The interest lies not so much in trespass and theft, however, as it does in learning things about the NPCs (though this mostly feels like glances at the surface). Munroe is a capable writer. There's well-chosen music. On the surface, this feels like a polished product; indeed, it's really the product of four different specialists rather than one overworked generalist.
Once you get to grips with it, though, it's not quite there. Gameplay is restricted to a narrow set of verbs and interactions. This makes play easier, but has the side-effect of making Tony's engagement with his world and peers seem very impoverished: going on a great adventure doesn't change the fact that he's an awkward kid. Some games parlay limited verb sets into rich and engaging gameplay: Guilded Youth very much doesn't. Interaction rolls along smoothly enough, but it always feels constrained.
The narrative, too, is clipped, narrow, to-the-point; we see nothing at all about Tony's mundane life, or very much of what matters about alternative world of the BBS. The story offers subplots, suggestions of character arcs, then prunes them away after barely a plot beat. The story has been much-compared to 80s children's adventure movies, particularly The Goonies, but to me it felt more like YA novels of the same approximate era: willing to touch on big, thorny, uncomfortable issues, brave enough to avoid neatly resolving them. There's perhaps something to be said here about the experience of being a teenager, of being in a place where everything is done for a future that's taking its time in arriving; of feeling that everything important, everything fulfilling, has been indefinitely put off; but this explanation has the feeling of an excuse. Rather than a conscious design decision, it's probably the result of the game being written hurriedly as a tech demo for Vorple. Jim Munroe:
"I just kind of dropped it when I was done. Me and Matt considered it a lark, a nostalgic trifle, so much so that we didnít anticipate people would care what happened to the quickly sketched characters."
(Post-comp, an epilogue was added, allowing the player to focus a little more on one of the characters. These sections add a small but important sliver of character development, player choice and much-needed narrative closure; they make the thing feel more like a complete piece, even if they don't entirely fix all its weaknesses.)
Nonetheless, it's a pretty damn good tech demo; the importance of launching a new IF tool with a first-class demo game can't really be understated.
Related reviews: history, surrealism, art, graphics, leonora carrington, psychology, flashback, out-of-comp
The thing that struck me most about House of Fear was the contrast between content and structure. For Leonora Carrington and the world of 1940, surrealism was challenging, avant-garde, politically potent. For IF, surrealism is a stock approach, comfortable and familiar. The strange-but-consistent world built from psychological allegory, the focused set of interaction styles, the house-of-locked-doors map will all be immediately familiar. The disorientation of the protagonist isn't shared by the player.
There is, in fact, an unusually strong division between player and PC in this game. In the archive photographs that illustrate the story, Leonora is always looking out, directly at the camera. The flashbacks that recount her past remind us that we're not involved in her real life. The game's plot, which follows a predictable arc of defeating one's demons and self-actualising, feels like something viewed from the outside. There's the sense that Leonora is already pretty damn self-actualised and that the game's events are just a re-enactment of that. There are two elements that don't quite mesh: a coming-of-age, self-creation story, and the depiction of Leonora as someone who already has a strong sense of her own identity and strengths.
As a piece of design, House feels patchy. There are two major gameplay mechanics, which are easy enough to figure out but aren't smoothly managed. The acquiring-forms mechanic is the more interesting of the two, but it tends to default towards one-key, one-door; the alchemy puzzle, on the other hand, is actually two puzzles but doesn't make this clear. The setting feels fractured, lacking aesthetic unity (this may be because I'm unfamiliar with Carrington's work, which is not reproduced in the game). There's less polish than you'd expect out of a design style this orthodox. And I have a particular personal hatred for the floating-in-a-formless-void opening.
House of Fear succeeds insofar as it makes the real Leonora seem like an artist I should find out more about; it doesn't quite succeed at giving me much sense of her personality beyond Strong Feminist Artist. Extensively researched, it sensibly errs on the side of directly using too little of that research, rather than laboriously spelling everything out. The writing is competent to good, and doesn't become obtrusive even when dealing with quite difficult material; if it has a flaw, it's that it verges at times on the overly earnest.
Implementation is mixed; quite robust in places, sparse and patchy in others. The NPCs, in particular, are a little too inert. But I found it impossible not to like House; at heart, it has interesting subject-matter, decent writing and good gameplay flow everywhere but one point.
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