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Regenerate Art, February 1, 2012
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.