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About the Story
I wonder how long it will take this room to feel like mine, this house to feel like home. I wonder when I will actually get to meet Eddie, the landlord.
Entrant, Main Festival - Spring Thing 2022
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Number of Reviews: 3
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I usually don’t like to look at other reviews of a game before I’ve written mine, but I’m going to bend that rule this time so I can check how many others managed to refrain from mentioning House of Leaves… OK, as of this writing there’s only one public review (Mathbrush’s), and yes, despite him not having read it, HoL still manages to get a namecheck. I’m a big fan of that book, and it deservedly is the first reference point when you see a house behaving the way the one in Thin Walls does – sprouting up new rooms as it starts to get full, lengthening hallways to stymie exploration, and responding to the worst instincts and desires of its inhabitants. But while the house in House of Leaves stands in relation to the individual – it’s the unconscious, a spur to knowledge and its negation – Thin Walls uses this malicious bit of architecture to take aim at society.
What we’ve got here is a multi-chapter Twine game where vignettes from the perspectives of the different inhabitants of a rooming-house alternate with a recurring, exploration-focused sequence where you can see the house changing and pick which resident to follow next. After a disorienting opening, it quickly becomes clear what unites all these stories: the anomie of modern life, and how communal living can paradoxically become isolating. The writing isn’t subtle, but it communicates its ideas well. Here’s a bit of description from the frame sequence:
"You are in a small bathroom. There is a toilet and washbasin, beside which four little soaps sit in separate containers, and four little hand towels hang on a rack and a radiator."
And a bit of reflection from one of the later stories:
"But when you move in with people and there is no relationship, any little tension becomes all that you know of them, it becomes all that they are. Just a paper doll with ‘Noisy’ or ‘Makes a Mess in the Bathroom’ written on it."
The way the house-metaphor expresses itself varies from chapter to chapter: in the most effective, it works to split up a couple who are having problems, creating space to isolate them and eventually putting up a wall between the two single beds they’d pushed together (again, the allegory is not exactly deeply obfuscated). In another, it ensures an Instagram-obsessed woman has a perfect, clean, white, sterile backdrop for all her photos. Another favorite sees a woman daydream about getting a boyfriend and moving in with him – but obsesses over the new space and the amazing furniture she’ll fill it with, until she loses track of the imaginary boyfriend and he abandons her.
By the end, I did find diminishing returns were starting to set in – the late chapter about the two housemates squabbling over who was eating the other’s cereal and making loud noises late at night reduces the house to an annoying prankster. I ran into a small bug where after I finished Chapter 4, a bit of Chapter 3 popped back up until it ended again (EDIT: I am unobservant, this is intended per the author’s reply below). And the writing does occasionally get too on the nose – at one point the Instagram lady says:
"My photos were my defence against the world, my pretence that all was well in this house."
But overall Thin Walls did a good job of keeping me engaged, and at the close of each vignette I was always eager to return to the free exploration sequence and see what had changed, who had moved in, and check whether the cupboard under the stairs had become unlocked, or the mysterious landlord who lives at the top of the house had come home yet. And the ending sequence is a return to form, with the house’s transformations becoming more and more kinetic and the social world of the house becoming unmoored and kaleidoscopic (though as involved as I was trying to solve the mystery of the house, I was also puzzled by why all the music at the climactic party was from the mid-aughts – I don’t think it’s meant to be a flashback!) It’s definitely worth the playthrough, and not just to get another menacing metaphysical house in the mental toolbox to sit alongside the house on Ash Tree Lane.
My favorite kind of horror fiction is the kind where supernatural horror elements are used to explore struggles that people face in the real world. Thin Walls takes this approach to a topic I haven’t seen explored in this way before: having housemates.
This probably sounds like a joke, especially if you’ve never lived in shared housing, but Thin Walls is very serious about this, and so am I. Like the characters in this game, I live in a very expensive city and I spent most of my 20s unable to afford rent on an apartment of my own, instead living with a series of housemates, most of whom I knew very little if at all before moving in. Having strangers in your space all the time can be draining, and for me, at least, housemates rarely became much more than strangers. It’s hard to be friends with someone when long before the point where you could really get to know them as people, you already know that they like to practice guitar in the living room at 1 AM, or that they refuse to touch anything that might be even a little bit dirty (thus leaving you to do all the cleaning), or that they keep using your dishes even though you put a sign on the cabinet saying “EJ'S DISHES, PLEASE ASK BEFORE USING.” Or, in the game’s own words:
“If you live with friends or with a partner, and something goes wrong, there is a relationship, a history, a memory to cushion you: the knowledge that, overall, this person is actually okay.
“But when you move in with people and there is no relationship, any little tension becomes all that you know of them, it becomes all that they are. Just a paper doll with ‘Noisy’ or ‘Makes a Mess in the Bathroom’ written on it.”
The house in Thin Walls is continuously growing of its own accord; it increases in size every time two tenants have a spat, but somehow never provides them enough room to get out of each other’s hair. The number of bedrooms may be endless – allowing ever more tenants to move in and exacerbate the existing problems – but there are still the pitfalls of shared kitchens and bathrooms, and of course there’s the issue of noise (see title). We see these problems through the eyes of a kaleidoscopic array of tenants, each with their own worries and frustrations, their own reasons for being here and for not being able to leave. (Some don’t in fact want to leave – but most do.)
However, while it may at first look like the game’s thesis is that hell is other people (a bookshelf that appears at one point contains a copy of No Exit, alongside House of Leaves and other relevant titles), as you progress it becomes clear that the real horror is the conditions that get people stuck in this situation to begin with: ever-rising rents, lack of opportunity, and, of course, unscrupulous landlords.
Eddie, the landlord of the uncanny house in Thin Walls, never appears onscreen, but his shadow looms large over its residents all the same (Waiting for Godot is also on the bookshelf). Tenants report sightings of him as if he were some sort of cryptid. His leather jacket appears by the door and then disappears again, but no one sees him enter or leave. (The game doesn’t get much into this, but I imagine his elusive nature would make it difficult to get in touch with him if you ever needed something repaired.) Nevertheless, somehow rooms keep on getting rented out, and someone’s collecting the rent money.
Many unscrupulous landlords I’ve had were doing things that were probably or definitely illegal, but they were essentially untouchable because anyone with the resources to get them in trouble for it wouldn’t be renting from them in the first place. Eddie, it seems, doesn’t even have a license to rent out rooms, but he is literally untouchable – how can the borough council do anything about the transgressions of a phantom?
Though the title page uses default Twine CSS, the game itself does not; the design is simple, but very readable, and makes good use of changing background colors to indicate different points of view.
My only complaint is that, while it’s obvious when a new chapter has opened up, it’s not always obvious what you need to do to trigger one, and generally just involved going into every available room until I found the one where something had changed. But that’s a minor quibble – overall, Thin Walls is a well-written piece of surreal (but also, very real) horror that resonated deeply with me.
I always enjoy a good story about a strange house that changes over time; I haven't read House of Leaves, but I've seen many games and stories cite it as an inspiration. Others I've seen include Map by Ade McTavish, Aaron Reed's novel Subcutaneous and the Backrooms urban legend.
This novel focuses on the 'house grows larger' largely as a metaphor for relationships, shown in individual vignettes (I'm sorry for making constant comparisons, but the vignette system reminds me of Spoon River Anthology, a story told entirely through gravestones).
People come into the house and find themselves changed, some losing friends, some losing each other, some arguing, some finding friendship, but the house always grows.
Overall, I found it polished and satisfying. The only thing I had trouble with was occasionally not really knowing what to do next (especially around the orange juice), and not knowing when the game would end. The narrative arc kind of meanders around, like the house itself. Otherwise, I found this to be a solid and thoughtful story.
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