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The horror of renting a room in a shared house, May 12, 2022
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.