Monday, 7 October 2013

The House at the End of Rosewood Street by Michael Thomét


---------------------------------------------------------------

(Version reviewed: Original)

The House at the End of Rosewood Street is a mysterious, strange and significantly imperfect Glulx adventure in which you play a caretaker to the residents of a suburban street. The residents all chip in to keep you housed (note that your house is not the one at the end of the street) and in return you run errands for them and deliver the newspaper each day. When I say deliver, I do mean deliver. You have to navigate right up to the door of each house, knock on the door and then GIVE NEWSPAPER TO (recipient). The game describes itself as "An exploration of the uncanny, the abject, and the fantastic" but I suspect many players will bail out early on the deliberately repetitious, sparse or tedious tasks the caretaker protagonist must perform, rather than continue to squint their eyes at the suburban grass in hopes of perceiving the promised strangeness. I don't think this game is optimally designed, and the distribution and delivery of some of its weirder content is quite out of balance, but I think it does eventually succeed in generating a feeling of mysterious inevitability, thanks in part to its grinding qualities.

Spoilers increasing ahead, and ultimately I talk about the end of the game.

Something I noticed immediately in Rosewood is that while there are plenty of long descriptions of houses, none of the houses' features are implemented. The game's fob-off message to anything it doesn't understand is "What would Theo think?" (Theo is a neighbour) or "What would the neighbours think?" etc. This looks ill-considered, at least if you haven't read the HELP first, which includes a polite sort of disclaimer amounting to a direction on how to play the game. In other words, it tells you that little details aren't implemented but also that they aren't important for this story. I think Rosewood could immediately raise its average score in this competition by making part or all of the HELP info a mandatory read which appears when the game begins. I'm certain that players who don't see it will have a more strongly negative attitude towards the implementation, and that's before they've even started on the hard slog of delivering newspapers.

Your street has a pleasingly logical arrangement, meaning that once you're a little familiar with the layout, it's easy to wing your way towards a particular neighbour you need to see or to be reminded of where they live. The left/right/up/down navigation directions were a little offputting at first, and as soon as I found North/South/East/West worked, I switched over. I still appreciate why this game tried going with LRUD. Those words sound at least partly more local or normal (we do talk about going up the street or going down the street) but in the end, the NSEW system has that great reliability about it with only one basic conceit attached.

The caretaker has at least eight newspapers to deliver each day. This means that over the week of the game, the player will have to take at least 56 strolls and knock on at least 56 doors to deliver at least 56 newspapers. That's quite a stunning amount of what most players would consider drudgery. The game obviously has a point with all this, which is to emphasise the sameness of your routine and to also make you keenly aware of any variations in it, but the author could easily have inserted many more "carrots" throughout these sequences to keep player interest up. The way it is, the neighbours say and do the same things in response to your rounds almost every day, and their requests that you run errands for them or repair their broken watches and such are relatively scarce.

Each night you retreat to your house to sleep and to dream. These dreams are wack, featuring a parade of talking cats and endlessly transforming symbolic objects. They're so loaded with archetypal dream imagery and non-sequiturial dialogue that they end up conveying nothing because they could convey anything. I like the structure of having a dream each night, but I think that the prose content of the dreams is the element of this game that is most off.

A source of narrative content that you can grab onto is an ongoing story in each day's newspaper about the disappearance of one Lisa Kaiser, the governor's daughter. When I was playing the game and noticed that an Elisabeth (with an S) had materialised in a house in Rosewood Street one day, I wondered if this might be the missing Lisa. Elisabeth was dissatisfied with my repairs to her broken mirror and disappeared the next day. Alarmingly, the newspaper reported that a groundskeeper had been arrested for her murder. Was this me? I delivered the newspapers as usual that day and nobody reacted any differently. The week concluded with me dining with and then joining in bed the mysteriously charismatic stranger who moved into The House at the End of Rosewood Street at the beginning of the week, and who'd made appearances in my dreams. Since I had virtuously delivered a zillion newspapers over the previous seven days to reach this point, I was quite tense about what I might finally discover. What happened was that I woke up again, and the content of the new day's paper indicated that I was back at the start of the week, as did the now empty bin where my discarded newspapers had been piling up.

Had my life become some kind of circling mental limbo created by myself to protect me from the reality of my murderous actions, if they were mine? That's one of the better explanations I've come up with; the game is highly resistant to concrete interpretation. Its unyielding nature is strangely satisfying to me in retrospect, in the sense that I would have hated to have arrived at an extremely pat explanation for all of this weirdness. But even for the game to achieve this effect – which I can easily imagine a lot of players will neither experience in the first place due to boredom, nor agree upon anyway – it barely justified the huge amount of unvarying repetition involved in playing it, nor the extremely nebulous content of the dreams. Still, it has a conceptual weirdness that I'll remember, though I'm unlikely to want to actually play it again.

1 comment:

  1. There is an alternate ending: do you want me to post it?

    It is interesting. I'm still not sure what I think about it--I posted it on my review of this game at the ifdb, too, in a spoiler tag.

    ReplyDelete