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You were supposed to be studying for your finals..., July 25, 2022
...but apparently your aunt Beverly has gone missing. (She was always a bit weird that way...)
And your sister Emily has been in a foul mood the last few days too. (Even more than usual.)
With these small crumbs of information, Things that Happened in Houghtonbridge starts off as a mystery investigation. During the first few parts, more and more bits of information are revealed, drawing the player deeper and deeper into the suspense. There are hints of family relations grown crooked and darker events in the family's history.
These small but gradually accumulating clues led me to believe the game was about finding and revealing a foul skeleton in the family closet. My expectations were pointing me toward an unsettling but altogether realistic mystery-drama.
However, the way the story was heightening the tension, together with the overall mood of the writing, began to make me suspect that I was in for a twist to another much more cliché genre in Interactive Fiction: the malevolent-entity-trying-to-break-through horror subgenre. Indeed, when I found and read some missing papers, this is what I wrote in my notes: "Yep, there's a monstrous entity involved."
After some adjustments to my perspective as player, settling into the new context, I found that the game more than redeemed itself for what I had perceived as somewhat of a letdown.
The family-drama angle is never completely abandoned, it becomes accompanied by another intertwined supernatural plotline.
Working up to the climax of the game, there is a sequence set in a farmer's field that lifts up the entire game and decisively shows this is not a DIY-L.Craft out of the same old mould. More in line with the scarier bits of Alice in Wonderland, this sequence is desorienting, mesmerizing, and filled with strange out-of-place landmarks and personages.
It is also here that the previously rather calm tempo of the story picks up and leads into a breathless finale.
The writing in Things that Happened in Houghtonbridge is very strong, from the shorter, dry and to-the-point descriptions of the early game to the long fastpaced paragraphs that make up the endgame.
It is therefore all the more grating to see the mechanical object-, exit-, and character-listing clash with the descriptive text.
Sometimes it thoroughly breaks the mood, when the description of the antagonist's location is preceded by "You can also see ..." and "From here, you can go to the west."
In at least one location, the automatic listing spoils a surprise by mentioning an exit that the protagonist (or the player, for that matter) should not know about.
I found the characters to be a bit of a mixed batch.
The protagonist's parents are so underimplemented as to come across almost pathologically cold and distanced given the circumstances. When their daughter enters the living room after being out searching for the mother's sister, they don't even acknowledge her arrival, instead keeping their noses buried in their books until you talk to them.
The PC Olivia, her sister Emily, and her best friend Brianna on the other hand are much more accomplished characters, with their own thoughts, habits and passions.
Lastly, even though we only know her through her diary and through other character's remarks about her for most of the game, aunt Beverly shines most of all. Precisely because of the gaps in my image of her she was the most evocative and engaging.
While I generally liked the setup of the puzzles (standard adventure fare, entertaining but not original), I found that the game often robbed me of the satisfaction of actually solving them on my own.
Because of the menu-based conversation system, any clues that might come up in exploration or other conversations are rendered moot. The option to ask the right character about the relevant topic just shows up in the talk-to menu anyway.
Similarly, when you encounter a puzzle which requires a code or a number, it's enough that the protagonist has seen the clue. The game then remembers it and uses it automatically when needed. This means that the player is not required to do any brainwork or remembering.
The writing of Things that Happened in Houghtonbridge can be engrossing, so much so that one might ignore the graphics above the text. I must urge every player to look up there frequently. The subtly changing pictures add a lot to the atmospheric experience of the game.
Great story, thrilling build-up of tension and an exquisite dreamlike sequence in the field.
Uneven characters, unbalanced puzzles.
I enjoyed playing Things that Happened in Houghtonbridge a lot.
(This review is for the ParserComp version.)