The Prairie House

by Chris Hay (a.k.a. Eldritch Renaissance Cake)

Horror
2022

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Short, highly atmospheric folk horror, August 6, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: adventuron, horror, spring thing 2022

(A version of this review first appered in my blog during Spring Thing 2022.)

In Adventuron parser game The Prairie House (I'll call it PH for short) the PC is a student involved in soil-collecting field work on the Canadian prairies. Running out of light at the end of an enthusiastically spent day, they drive to an empty but storied communal field house to stay the night. The game's mystery-based trajectory of spookiness is a steadily upwards one.

PH took me about half an hour to complete on my first play, and I was thoroughly enveloped by its atmosphere and story details all the way. The experience builds to solid folkloric ghost tale chills, and even gets in a quality and non-cheap jump scare en route. The game's prose of geography and props is minimal in general, but expands at the right moments. It cues fear right from the first screen:

"As you look around the open grassland, and nervously at the nearby aspen groves, you feel utterly exhausted and alone, and you realize how vulnerable you are."

Part of playing any IF game is divining its general outlook on how to make progress through it. Is it going to be a game where you're meant to grab everything that isn't nailed down? A game where you'll advance if you just pay attention to the PC's thoughts? Or something else? PH starts off looking pretty open. There are good number of objects on the first few screens, but the game shows quickly enough, by policing what you can and can't take with you, that it's not going to be a kleptomania piece. It's important that it gets this out of the way early, because the later scariness might have been easily derailed had the player been allowed to muck around too much during it. That's to say, had they expected that they should try lots of prop and inventory busywork during the spookiness, simply because they could. The spooky sequences need to cast a kind of unbroken spell to hold their effect.

There is one parser shortcoming in the game, and I don't know if it's due to Adventuron itself or author programming, but objects with two-word names only respond to one of the words. And sometimes it's not the first word. (e.g. a rare orchid is only recognised if you type "orchid", not "rare"). I'd hope most players would clock this during those item-heavy first few locations, but I'd also hope this could be addressed in an updated version of the game.

The feeling the game creates is a specific one with many notes. On the one hand, there's the environmental sparseness of the prairies, the power of nature out there and the fear that comes from being alone in it. But PH also evokes the comfort of finding civilised shelter at a time when you're scared, and also the great indirect civility of the community-minded folk who look after and use the field house. The third note is the history of the house itself, manifest in the mementos and books found inside. Their contents, and the immigration backstory, set up a mystery and some ghost lore. The note wrapping all of the others together in PH is the supernatural reality that encroaches during the night.

PH has an original atmospheric soundtrack by Kelsen Hadder and wields some evocative eight-bit / minimal-palette-style graphics at times. It's also glazed with incidental chiptuney sound effects that simultaneously make the whole thing feel like a lost horror game for the Nintendo Entertainment System had that console ever hosted parser games or a keyboard with which to play them. PH further offers seven font and colour-controlling themes a player can choose from, both before and during play. My main theoretical interest in these was to see what the scene graphics would look like in different colours, but these graphics usually occur during cut scenes, a time when you can't change themes.

While the game is simple and accessible in its delivery (I scored ten out of ten on my first game, but I'm not saying you suck if you don't) it builds a rich and particular world in a short space of time, and succeeds in developing eerie tension, further enhanced at a visceral level by the soundtrack. This kind of spell can be hard to sustain in IF, and I was completely under the spell during this game. The aesthetic is entirely coherent and the overall effect is charming as well as eerie. Yes, horror can charm.