(Version reviewed: Original)
Coming off the back of the longwinded The House at the End of Rosewood Street, it was a bit of a relief to play a parser-driven game (a Glulx one) as small and direct as The Cardew House. Its introduction tells of cruel Old Man Cardew, he who so aggravated all his neighbours and kin that somebody eventually shotgunned him in the head. Cardew's daughter disappeared, too, but nobody really knows the whole story. Enter you, foolhardy explorer of... The Cardew House.
The author declares this as his first or equal first Inform game, and while it's simple and rough and doesn't declare any testers, it does have focus and is technically sound (* excepting its habit of just killing the interpreter where it stands whenever the game ends, which strikes me as unsound.) These are more things than can be said of a lot of first games which have appeared in the rather merciless venue of IFComp.
If, in life, you don't want to play any more adventures involving the solving of mechanical puzzles in a style typical of the two-word parser era, you can safely skip playing The Cardew House. If you aren't averse to such puzzles, or perhaps even enjoy seeing people doing them today, or you like Ectocomp games – because this is pretty much a haunted house game of slightly better than Ectocomp haste quality – I'd give it a shot. You're unlikely to be wowed but you might have fun, as I did. Cardew is short and has built-in hints for if you get stuck. Just save the game before taking any particularly exciting actions; there's no undo from a game over.
More spoilery stuff beyond.
Something you'll notice once you enter the house, and which you'll be aware of before you enter the house because the author mentions it in his introductory spiel, is that the lights in the rooms randomly turn on and off. I actually found that the reports about the lights flickering on or off in adjacent rooms, and the business of me flicking them back on, was quite atmospheric. That said, I'm very glad the author set it that you will turn them on by default (an option you can turn off) because as he correctly anticipated, it would have made the game pretty fiddly if you had to attend to them all manually. In tandem with other random sounds and moans, the game is a little bit bump-in-the-night creepy.
The best prop is the dead daughter's diary, which vibrates if you carry it into a room where the daughter made a relevant entry while she was alive. Some other props have fairly classic guess-the-verb issues attached to them. I was sure that the kitchen cupboard wasn't just there for show, but I had tried opening, examining, moving and searching it, and come up blank. What I'd missed was pulling. On the plus side, the hint system gives hints for the room you're in, so it tends not to spoil too much, and you can toggle it off again before you move to the next room.
The other classic first-timer oversight is in the implementation. There's a decent amount of stuff in the rooms which would seem to be relevant or interesting at first sight (certainly no less relevant than adjacent items which do turn out to be manipulable) but that stuff usually hasn't been programmed.
The denouement doesn't really explain all of the implications of the game's introduction. So Betty was buried under the house, but who shot Cardew? Did Cardew shoot Cardew? What about all the black magic stuff and the pentagrams? Fortunately this game is short enough that I wasn't tremendously bothered that I didn't find out the answer to all of these things, which is lucky because my stated goal was to find out the answer to all of these things. I enjoyed my 15 minutes or so in this house enough.