The House on Highfield Lane

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Nice-and-creepy showcase for Quest 6, December 5, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

The House on Highfield Lane is a neat demonstration of Quest 6 and JavaScript. I beta-tested it, but I unfortunately wasn't able to add much to the final product, as it was pretty polished when I got it. It's a big, smart game, and big smart games sometimes need idiot-proofing, especially when the idiot is a judge who wants to get through the other seventy IFComp games. The HINTS referenced from the game weren't enough (I see what I missed now,) so I needed to wait for the post-comp walkthrough to see the end. But I think my tries at finishing paid off I got a bit further each time. I think it was worth the wait to suss out the details I missed. I may be grading the author on a curve because I know the author is technically and creatively capable, and my view may be slanted because this isn't my favorite genre. But I do feel HoHL may have missed a few chances for greatness that I can't fully articulate.

You play as Mandy, a girl who finds a letter by a house she's walked past and always wondered about and, you guessed it, uses that as an excuse to enter. There's no easy way out, so she figures she may have to deliver the letter and talk to the owner.

Well, that's not strictly true. You can leave briefly in two ways: once to get an important though common item, and a second time, you need to set up a science experiment just right. Nothing abstruse, if you know your haunted-house tropes. For one of them, you walk a bit of a tightrope, and it's nice and low-key scary.

THe rest of the house is as odd as you'd expect. Some was charming, but the map wraps oddly--if you go west from one room, you eventually wind up below it, and it felt like surrealism for surrealism's sake. It's also possible to flood one of the few hub rooms (exits three ways) with mannequins during one try, which gives the old-school vibes HoHL wants to project, but maybe not the best ones. I did, however, appreciate the clear signal of a room you needed to get to (an empty lift shaft) and the drawing room that grew or shrunk you based on which way you entered and, by extension, items you dropped there. It made for some interesting puzzles, but maybe the game relied a bit too heavily on it. I got a bit tired of circling back and forth near the end, and I in fact avoided the room because I figured it had served its purpose after the first couple of puzzles.

Then I didn't quite "get" the puzzle about awakening a Frankenstein style monster, until I did, and it made sense, and I had fun getting it to do what I needed. That monster helps you with more puzzles later, and it's the cute sort of stupid. I like how it neutralized some other NPCs. The final puzzle? Well, it was a bit of a pun, and it lampshaded the absent-mindedness of the Doctor, whom you eventually do meet, once he tells you his interpretation. It's a bit of a Dad joke, which is appropriate, since the author indicated in his post-mortem he wrote it with his daughter in mind.

As for the technical stuff: Quest really has grown up a lot! Even stuff like saving and restoring has bells and whistles and circumvents the difficulties that arise from Inform save states, namely that they're useless if the binary is updated. The InvisiClues that come with HoHL are nice, if you don't want everything spoiled. And I love that you can miss the last letter or several letters of an 8-letter word, and Quest figures it out. There's enough so that the verb-recognition error, which I found terribly snarky ("I can't even begin to make sense of this") isn't very prominent--this seems like a missed chance. The game tries to capture the tone of wonderment of a 16-year-old locked in a strange house, with a lot of "Mandy wonders this." So "Mandy had a thought, but she didn't know how to (word 1, or word after the comma in dialogue)--maybe her mind was just foggy" seems like it would work. But as-is, when I had a typo on a tough puzzle, it made me groan. Worse things happen at sea, of course, and I've been guilty of not battening down some of Inform's more tone-deaf errors (default responses to "no" and "yes," for example) but this seemed like a slightly obnoxious design choice, especially when much of the rest of the game was written to be hands-off.

Despite these concerns, I got a lot of positive mileage out of HoHL, and the puzzles made sense once I had that a-ha moment. I think I was at a disadvantage as I wasn't really familiar with haunted-house tropes. The puzzles have enjoyable variety in retrospect, and the atmosphere is good--nothing too terribly scary here, as long as you don't release the frustrating mannequins. There's no dread of being trapped, more just "neat, I'm stuck." I'm glad the author left a full walkthrough so I could figure what I did wrong, though. I'd have missed the neat bit after I got up the lift. The puzzle to get upstairs was a bit fiddly even with the hints, though I like that they're there as gradated spoilers, for those who want to dwell a bit longer.

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