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About the Story
When 19-year-old Leonora Carrington runs away to France with an artist twice her age, she doesn’t know that she’ll end up in a Spanish mental asylum and he in a concentration camp. Follow her on a hermetic journey of art, love, and alchemy based on real events.
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Number of Reviews: 2
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"The House of Fear" is an entry in a genre I haven't seen much of in IF: pure historical fiction (no speculative-fiction twists here), populated by people who actually existed. The PC is Leonora Carrington, novelist and Surrealist painter, and the characters who appear in her memories are mostly other artists from the WWII-era Surrealist circle. There is something a little uncomfortable, at least for me, about stepping into the shoes of a real person who was, in fact, alive until just a few months ago, but "The House of Fear" is respectful and seems to be well-researched, so my qualms quickly faded.
The game is, in a way, standard "wander around, receive plot through flashbacks" fare, but the historical twist and the quality of the writing make it feel fresh and engaging. The characterizations of Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst are well-defined in just a handful of brief vignettes, and the descriptions of the environment are lovely, if a bit sparsely implemented. That much of the imagery in the game is taken from Carrington's paintings is a nice touch as well. That being said, I don't believe it's necessary to have any knowledge of early 20th century Surrealists in general or of Carrington in particular to enjoy the game. (Before playing this game, I had only vaguely heard of her via her connection with Remedios Varo, whose work I've long been fond of.)
The puzzles can be a bit obtuse and arbitrary in a dream-logic way, but for the most part they make their own kind of sense. The penultimate puzzle tripped me up and, when combined with an unfortunate error in the walkthrough (now corrected), led to me throwing up my hands and unfairly concluding that the game was broken, hence my previous review. Upon coming back to it a little later, though, I found that the actual solution was blindingly obvious and I wasn't sure how I'd missed it, so I'm willing to put that one on myself (and the walkthrough), not the game.
All in all, this is an excellently-written game with an interesting and unusual angle on the dreamscape/flashback mode of IF, and well worth playing.
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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