IF Comp 2013: The House at the End of Rosewood Street (Michael Thomét)

The House at the End of Rosewood Street is a surreal, parser-based game centered on the life of an odd-jobs man. It’s one of the more sizable games I’ve run into in the comp so far.

The premise of this game is that you live at the end of a street, in a kind of groundskeeper’s house. Each day you pick up the newspapers for the other inhabitants of the street, then make a round delivering them all. Sometimes your neighbors ask you to do additional tasks for them, like repairing small appliances or making a run to the store in town to pick up a new possession.

The protagonist seems especially interested in exterior decoration and lavishes a lot of description on the color of his neighbors’ trim, the types of bushes growing in their yards, and the heights of their fences. None of this information has any practical application in the game, other than to give a little sense of the neighbors’ personalities, but it does suggest a protagonist who is detail-oriented to the exclusion of much more significant concerns.

This environment is at first glance extremely mundane, but weirdness comes through here and there. You have strange dreams. The neighbors are eccentric to the point of surrealism. People come and go from the street without a lot of explanation. Stories in the newspaper hint at ongoing mystery, but it is not quite clear why or what is going on.

From an implementation point of view, Rosewood thwarts a lot of standard IF expectations. Exits are not fully described. There’s a map (if you type MAP) that even displays your location, which is cool if you know to look for it, but you have to have read the help text first. Most objects mentioned in room descriptions don’t get a separate description and don’t need to be independently manipulated. The game is probably most enjoyable if you know going in that most of what you need to do is going to involve (a) taking the newspapers and handing them out; (b) giving and showing objects to your neighbors; and (c) asking your neighbors about things. If you’re requested to seek an object, seek it by asking other people. Don’t go trying to look under the unimplemented bushes, because it’s not there anyway. In other words, it’s not very underimplemented in its own terms, but it can feel very much so to someone who goes in without reading the help and who has new-school ideas about how everything in IF should be examinable.

There are a few points where I think even by its own constraints the game could have done better. To pick on one item that might seem minor but persistently irritated me: it doesn’t work around the 9-letter parser limit in Glulx, so typing GET NEWSPAPERS will only get you one newspaper at a time, because the parser can’t tell the difference between NEWSPAPER and NEWSPAPERS. There are ways to fix this, but the game doesn’t use them. This wouldn’t be a huge deal except that every morning of the week you have to go collect eight to ten papers, so that’s (on average) seven repetitions of 9 x GET NEWSPAPER. Use GET ALL instead and save yourself some grief.

Then, too, I think one of the major things you’re supposed to do in the game is rather under-clued. Certainly I don’t think I would have found it without checking the walkthrough, and other players’ reviews, such as I’ve seen so far, suggest to me that most players aren’t reaching the “good” ending of the game. After the spoiler space, my thoughts about what is going on (though I would not bet large amounts of money on it).

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Early in the week, a new character arrives on your street, a mysteriously charismatic and seductive fellow named Caius. Here are a couple of our interactions:

>ask caius about nozzle
Caius smiles his beautiful smile and says, “I can think of wonderful things to do with one of those.”

Why Caius, you dirty old man.

You open your mouth to speak and find Caius’s soft finger tracing down the length of your nose and then grazing against your lips. You close your mouth after his finger leaves, having said nothing at all.

At other times I was dazzled by his eyes, or by his soft peach lips. I found this extremely disconcerting.

Meanwhile, I keep having dreams concerning a cat, a little girl, broken glass, suicidal beetles, and other figments that are hard to put into any order; and the newspapers carry stories about a missing woman named Lisa, her murder by a groundskeeper named John, some sort of fusion experiment that may be successful, a comatose person, and some suicides and suicide attempts.

Late in the week, an additional house appears, containing a woman named Elisabeth. (Related to the missing Lisa?) All the other neighbors seem to think that Elisabeth has been there all along, but she and Caius don’t get along, as we discover if we ask them about one another. Elisabeth has a broken mirror she asks us to fix. We can repair it in the physical sense, but she rejects the fixed mirror when we bring it back to her, saying it’s still missing something. We then have to take it around to all the other neighbors but Caius and show it to them in turn — and look into it ourselves — and when we do this, Elisabeth says the mirror now contains our soul. We look into the mirror and wake up in the real world.

Showing the mirror to Caius, meanwhile, causes him to break the mirror “accidentally”, cutting himself. If we don’t escape using the mirror, then we wind up going to dinner with Caius, being seduced by him, and then waking again the next morning at the beginning of the week, on Monday all over again, with (as far as I can tell) the whole game to play from the start. There’s some text here about “going back to where there’s some chance of recognizing yourself”.

So Elisabeth (I hypothesize) represents the ability to recognize our true nature and escape from what is very probably a dream world. Caius, her enemy, is a seductive power which wishes to keep us here. His personality is magnetic and he tries to destroy anything that might turn our attention back to the outside world.

This leaves a bunch of unanswered questions, though. We ourselves are… what? One of the dreams suggests something about an auto accident, so maybe we’re a comatose accident victim? Maybe we’re the deceased Lisa, or her murderer? Maybe Elisabeth is somehow Lisa? Maybe Elisabeth and Caius are both a sort of fairy folk or magic spirit?

So this is a rather bewildering story that may well be yet another Adventures in Comaland narrative, with highly repetitive gameplay; minimal and weird characterization; a setting lightly implemented where it’s implemented at all; allusive dreams that don’t make a huge amount of sense; and a main puzzle I would not have solved without the walkthrough.

And the weird thing is that I liked it way more than that description would seem to deserve. This may be a completely idiosyncratic and personal reaction, but I found the rhythm of delivering papers almost soothing after a while, and the building mystery attractive, and the idea of the mirror that is repaired only by having been touched by enough reflections was also evocative and neat.

I was enjoying myself enough that when I accidentally hit the back button in Parchment and lost 5 game-time days’ worth of progress (that’s 5 times I had to go take all the newspapers, and 40+ repetitions of KNOCK ON DOOR, and 40+ of GIVE NEWSPAPER TO [PERSON]), I was willing to play through it all again just to find out where it was going in the last two days. I’m not sure I would say that mystery actually paid out; I wish I understood better what was supposed to have happened, ultimately. But I did like it despite all. Something about the tone reminded me distantly of what I remember of The Primrose Path, combined with some of the sinister sense I got from The Blind House.

I make no promises about how anyone else will feel, though.

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