Last House on the Block

by Jason Olson

Slice of Life

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Some promise, but very frustratingly implemented, December 9, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

Despite a little bit of ethical wonkiness (and the title cueing me to expect a horror game), the setup here really drew me in Ė the neighborhood weird old man has just died, and the player character, who seems to be a kid of 10 or so, decides to pair up with their best friend and search the house for treasure. Again, leaving aside that this is a bit ghoulish, thereís a pleasant Goonies or Stranger Things sort of vibe to the premise, and you get to choose which of three possible characters is your best friend Ė they accompany you on your adventure, reacting in different ways to everything you find and each even providing a shortcut to solving a different puzzle.

Where things go off the rails is in the implementation. Beyond a lot of typos, the game unfortunately sometimes seems like itís running through a checklist of common complaints about parser IF. Default X ME description? Huge numbers of under-described red-herring objects? Puzzles that are mostly either guess-the-verb or hunt-the-pixel? Items not listed in room descriptions? A light source that can permanently run out of charge? An inventory limit? Theyíre all here, and make the experience of playing the game highly frustrating.

A typical sequence involves entering a new room which might have a sentence or two of description, seeing 8 or 10 items (all of which are listed in Inform-default style, e.g. ďHere in the living room you can see LiYuan, a comfy couch, an easy chair, a mantel, on top of which are a silver picture frame, a gold picture frame, a brass picture frame, a blue picture frame and a photobook and a nearly-empty bookshelf, on top of which are a white picture frame and a plain picture frameĒ) examining each in turn to see that only a few have real descriptions implemented, but all can be picked up, then hoping that youíve guessed the right verb for finding anything hidden (at one point, you can open a dresser, which reveals some clothing; SEARCH CLOTHING gives you a default failure message, but if you SEARCH DRESSER Ė you also get a custom failure message the first time, though if you repeat the action twice more youíll find a key you need to progress).

The puzzles are nothing you havenít seen before, but theyíre reasonably well-conceived and fit the story and setup. Solving them, though, often feels like it requires reading the authorís mind. About midway through, you find a trap door leading to the attic, but the pullchainís been detached and thereís no ladder to help you get up there to reattach it. I hit on the idea of pushing furniture into the room and standing on it to get the height I needed, and when that didnít work, stacking a chair on top of a bed, none of which worked Ė when I checked the walkthrough, I had the right idea, but to solve the puzzle I had to move in a different piece of furniture (a chest from all the way in the basement), and instead of climbing or standing on it (those commands lead to failure messages), just try to attach the pullchain to the trap door, which makes your character automatically clamber up and accomplish the task.

Adding insult to injury, this all takes place in a darkened room that can only be lit by your quickly-depleting iPhone, and if you run out of charge, you appear to be in a dead man walking scenario. And OK, just one more example: later on, I was stymied for how to progress because I needed to MOVE COUCH in the rec room to find a (totally unhinted-at, so far as I can tell) panel leading to a secret tunnel. The only difficulty is, Iíd already moved the couch out of the room via PUSH COUCH EAST, which didnít mention that Iíd revealed the panel (and in fact when I went into the neighboring room and typed MOVE (the now nonexistent) COUCH, I was told that Iíd found the panel there!)

Itís a repetitive bit of conventional wisdom that IF needs testing, and parser IF needs it more than any other variant, but itís conventional wisdom because itís true. No testers are listed for Last House on the Block, and it really seems like the author, without an outside perspective, spent most of their time on adding cool stuff like the varying-BFF system and lots and lots of scenery, but didnít make sure the puzzles made sense to anyone coming to them fresh. Itís a shame, because the concept here would make for a charming game, and you can occasionally see flashes of that game poking out from underneath the one we got. Hopefully the author sticks with it, but gets some good testers for their next piece of IF.