Lonehouse

by Ayu Sekarlangit Mokoginta

Slice of life
2023

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
An over-generic take on loss, November 29, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).

My wife has a sweatshirt that used to belong to my sister. We live in California, and she lived in Maryland, so one September when we were visiting and it got cold, she noticed that my wife was shivering in her SoCal-appropriate outfit, and lent her a hoody. I forgot to give it back before we left, and a month later we found out Lizís cancer had come back, so returning a sweatshirt wasnít ever a priority in the time we had left. And now that sweatshirt isnít just a sweatshirt.

There can be an unbearable poignancy to the artifacts our loved ones leave behind when they die; the books they read and wrote in, the glasses that let them see, the tchotchkes theyíd look at and smile. Trivial, everyday objects that were barely worth a second of thought are transmuted to relics, bearing the last impress of someoneís now-finished time in the world.

Lonehouse engages with that poignancy, in ways that were occasionally quite arresting for me to encounter Ė the protagonist is visiting the apartment of her recently-deceased sister, named Liv, to help clean it out and take away some keepsakes. As you explore using Textureís drag-verbs-to-nouns interface, you get snatches of the history between them Ė itís not fully explained, but it seems like the sisters hadnít been in touch, and perhaps thereíd been a falling out Ė and identify the things that seem to have the most Liv-ness to them: a jacket, a favored plushie, a photo.

Despite the strong personal resonance of the premise, though, I didnít wind up feeling like Lonehouse was truly compelling. Partially this is because the writing is often awkward. The style is generally unadorned and matter-of-fact, which I think is appropriate to communicating grief, but some of the authorís word choices undermine the simple power of this approach. Partially though itís because the writing never gets especially specific. The general experience of death is one weíve all had or will have, of course, but itís unique details that turn this from a vague sense of loss to heart-rending tragedy, and Lonehouse doesnít usually try to work in this register. Upon seeing that Liv saved an old Christmas gift that the protagonist made her, for example, weíre told that ď[a] complicated feeling stirs in youĒ Ė but what feeling is that? Again, we arenít given much detail of the prior relationship between the two, so itís hard to place this in context.

The Texture engine also makes experiencing the story less engaging than I would have liked. I ran into what appears to be a bug with the system, since I came across it in another game too, where the buttons holding each sceneís verbs displayed their text in a tiny font Ė thatís not the authorís fault, but it did mean that I was often taken out of the story as I tried to decode my options. The interface also made it challenging to figure out which actions would allow me to explore or get more detail, and which would progress to the next sequence; several times in this short game, I wound up accidentally speeding through rooms Iím not sure I was finished with.

This is a short game that takes on some compelling issues; Iím not sure whether itís the authorís debut, but if so I think itís a more than respectable start. My key feedback for next time (and hopefully thereíll be a next time!) is to lean into the concrete, grounded style displayed here, but not to sacrifice the particular in the vain hope of making a piece of writing universal: otherwise, a sweatshirt will remain just a sweatshirt.

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