A Pen In The Dark: The Case For Text Adventure Horror Games

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Imagine you’re playing a horror game. In it, you stand before the house you grew up in. Whereas once the sight of this house was a great source of comfort, now that you have been away from it for so long, you are able to view it as just a house. One that inspires a twinge of familiarity, perhaps, but ultimately, it is just a house.

Still, there is something else in the air tonight besides vague memories .  There is a kind of looming horror that tightens your lungs and sends your heart racing. Despite your fear that the horror may very well be coming from inside the house, those old memories still send you sprinting towards the front door. You twist the door knob and violently throw yourself inside.

What do you find inside? What waits for you in this place? Is the home dark, or is there a single light coming from upstairs? Actually, how about a simple question to start:

What color is the wallpaper?

Indie developer jonNoCode recently released The House Abandon; a game they developed in just a few days as part of a game jam competition. Previously, many of the developers involved with the game had worked on AAA horror games like Alien: Isolation, but for this project, they decided to go way back to horror gaming’s roots and create a text-based adventure title that presents you with a scenario not too different from the one described above.

If you’re not familiar with the text-based horror games the developers are paying tribute to with this release (such as the brilliant 1987 title The Lurking Horror) don’t feel too bad. That particular sub-genre didn’t have much time in the spotlight before graphic adventures and survival horror games like Alone in the Dark made them technologically irrelevant.

When playing The House Abandon, there are times when it’s honestly not hard to see why text-based horror games went extinct. The interface is unintuitive, the commands need to be very specific, and there isn’t much in the way of “traditional” gameplay.

For as much as time has shined a light on the weaknesses of this concept, it has also exposed certain qualities that these games possess which cannot be accomplished through any other design approach. The House Abandon isn’t necessarily trying to outright scare you at every twist and turn, but rather tell a story where much of the fear is generated by what you perceive could be happening as opposed to what is specifically occurring at that very moment. Your imagination does much of the legwork that modern day graphics usually handle.

But that’s an old argument, isn’t it? Fans of horror novels have been saying for years that even the best movies can never replicate the terror that your own imagination can conjure. That’s kind of the point, however. Just as there is plenty of room in horror for novels and movies because of the unique experiences they provide, perhaps there is enough room in gaming for more text-based horror adventures that use words to carve a dark path illuminated only by the occasional narrative torch and populated entirely by internal fears.

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