Parsercomp 2022: Things That Happened in Houghtonbridge

We’ve had multiple stories in this comp that have you start off in a seemingly ordinary house or building, probably based on a place familiar to the author, then discover the bizarre and fantastic as you explore. It’s a pattern as old as Colossal Cave and Zork, really. But you seldom see a work that holds off on the turn quite as long as this one, or provides such a convincing pretense at being a a relatively mundane story. The story of a teenager investigating her aunt’s disappearance, and gradually uncovering her secrets as you explore her house, is certainly enough to carry a game by itself, especially when you can talk about her with the rest of the family: the concerned mother, the distant father, the hostile and secretive sister whose secrets turn out to be linked to the aunt’s. So it’s a family drama blended with detective story and adventure-game puzzlery, but then hallucinogens enter the story, and then you start having obvious hallucinations yourself without having taken anything, and then things really start getting weird when it turns out that some of your hallucinations weren’t hallucinations at all. It all builds up to a finale involving magic and alternate dimensions. You can question how much of the ending is “real”, but for my money, all the fantastic elements feel a lot more grounded once Aunt Beverly returns and takes charge of the situation, mainly because she’s willing to explain everything.

Repeatedly, throughout the game, the player character expresses qualms over invading her aunt’s privacy. Should I really be unlocking this door? Do I have the right to read her diary? To break into her safe? The player is prompted, and I of course unhesitatingly select “Yes” every time. I appreciate the PC’s concerns, and consider them to be a sort of flavor text that helps establish her character, but her perspective is not mine.

The actions you can perform, and therefore what puzzles you can solve, are to some extent linked to the passage of time, which is linked to advancement in the story. This is sometimes a little frustrating, putting some avenues of investigation out of reach just when you start making headway in them, but the game is usually pretty good at guiding you back to the things you can actually do, sometimes by means of text messages from friends or family members.

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