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About the Story
Only you can see the house in your backyard. What secrets might it hold?
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Number of Reviews: 3
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There aren't a ton of text adventure game series around, let alone series in which each episode deals with the same setting and characters over time. "The Forest House" and its two sequels can make these claims, and what's cool is that they were written over two years (2007-2008) as entries in Ectocomp and The Odd Competition. Furthermore, each game was written in the space of three hours, with all this entails; smallness in the first place, and bare bones programming and bugginess in the second.
If you find low production values or the idea of more simple games intolerable, you should probably drive away now. On the other hand, if you're the kind of person who might be fascinated by the prospect of watching one fantasy/horror story being built up in three quick steps, the first being the author's first game, the third already demonstrating leaps of ambition (probably unmatched by execution… it was still written in three hours) then you may also be a bit charmed by the Forest House saga.
In the first game, The Forest House, you play a young boy who wants to sneak out into the forest at night to explore a house which no-one else can see, not waking your sister or parents in the process. The game presents just a handful of puzzles and evokes a decent atmosphere of childhood excitement.
This very short debut is ultimately the most technically polished of the three games, since it was given a revision makeover by its author after the original Ectocomp. Neither of the sequels have received similar treatment at this time of writing, and it is very important to point out that version 1 of the original The Forest House should be avoided -- bugs make it not-completeable, plus there are numerous other errors and missing descriptions. Version 2 (available from the ADRIFT website) is the one to play.
On its own, this game presents as an unspectacular but neat debut. It becomes more interesting when viewed as the first part of a story. Sequel "Return to the Forest House" offers more action and features the same protagonist, now five years older.
For a game coded in three hours and revised once, the Forest House holds up darn well. There are still problems, grammar and otherwise, but the game can be won, although winning herein is an uncertain victory at best.
The game is told through the eyes of a 12-year old child, with humorous insights and believable language. The setting is faintly atmospheric, although the author could have really gone for broke and I wouldn't have minded. The concept of a house that only you can see, which has intrigued you for a long time, and which begs you to sneak out in the middle of the night -- that simply screams for immersive language. However, authorial restraint doesn't cripple the game; it just makes it emotionally uniform, except for the very end.
The puzzles herein are refreshingly easy, although some of them are not terribly well clued. They all make sense and you can go back to get objects that you need should you forget them. In all of this, the ADRIFT parser doesn't get in your way, which was refreshing.
The Forest House doesn't take much time, so if you're in the mood for something faintly interesting with a touch of atmosphere, it's a decent play.
This is the first of what would become a series of Speed-IF horror from Seciden Mencarde, and it is the only one which ever received a revision. It is also, in my opinion, the best of the series, not just the best because of its revision, but because of the author's restraint and management of atmosphere lacking in further episodes.
The Forest House doesn't drop the reader right into horror-atmosphere-tryout land knee-deep in gloom and corpses. It's more about restraining the player from getting what they want right away-- you want to go west? Well, the door is closed. Okay, open it, now go west. It is as though the parser is a big brother warning the player, “Are you sure? I don't think you're gonna like it...” but the obvious action is right there, and everything is so close, so the player keeps going until they finally arrive on the scene of the horror.
More than just holding the player back, The Forest House beckons them in with a sense of childish wonder, hinting at dread. True, some of the writing is a little stiff (“A basic four-legged table with a chair. The only thing that makes it a desk is your use of it in that manner.”), but this is generally a result of implementing scenery the author seemed to think negligible to the overall tale. In that moment and elsewhere, some of the game's (un)implementation choices are questionable-- likely a result of the original Speed-IF constraint, it would've been nice to see them fixed in the revision, as well.
The more important elements of the game's writing, however, tap into a dark pool through the lens of what could be a child's heroic imaginings and trepidation. The house only you can see, that can only be seen at night. There might be monsters in the closet. Little touches like these reinforce the horror while luring the player through a scene of stealthy preparation with adventurous expectancy rather than slapping them in the face with horror tropes and abject darkness right away. This allows for a more subversive, but still gradual-feeling switch from a world of the expected and the rational (even including mundane flashlight battery replacement) into the unexpected and the irrational.
The sort of setup this game presents is Doing It Right. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner describes how authors draw a reader into the “fictional dream” of a work using sensory clues and elements of from life to make the reader feel the story is real, or at least plausible. This is part of buying our suspension of disbelief and, to some extent, our investment in the actors and events of a tale. In this way, the aforementioned battery replacement-- a speed bump on our way to adventure and the unknown-- exemplifies the game's use the parser, restraint, and granularity of action to mirror the reality of a child sneaking out at night. It's an effective build-up and, because of touches like this, we can see how The Forest House operates more effectively as an IF than it might as static fiction.
Once one enters the titular forest house, the imagery changes to decay-- but even with a little bit of humor mixed in as the player character copes in the face of the grotesque and the unreal. This sort of horror, built on suspense and atmosphere, takes hold better than gore, gross-outs, or threats of physical violence alone might, especially when setup correctly. I admit after several playthroughs, I still haven't been able to get the last lousy point of the game, but I'm beginning to wonder if the inability to do so-- offering us a vain and frustrating search in its place should we try-- might not be part of the game's message. As we can never fully reach back into the wondrous, nightmarish expectancies of childhood except vicariously or in senility, as those imaginings may never reach their threatened realization, so, too, might The Forest House deny us these things and be all the more creepy for it.
(Though, seriously, if you have spoilers for the last lousy point, please comment below.)
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