[Mr Creosote] The House at the End of Rosewood Street is a game which has raised quite a few eyebrows with its players. It includes an interesting plot, it is stylistically well written, but it does not work as a game at all. I guess we agree this far?
[Herr M.] Well, unless you have a very lose definition of what constitutes a 'game' and what is rather cumbersome work, I can fully agree with this. As with every work, something can come to fruition from it. However, the question to ask is, whether it is really worth it.
[Mr Creosote] So let's quickly explain what it is that makes this game so unbelievably annoying and cumbersome: The plot drags over the seven days of the week and it is the player's task to bring everyone (the number of inhabitants changing between seven and nine) the day's newspaper to their doorsteps. And this has to happen in the smallest steps imaginable: Collect all the papers, go to every house's door, knock and hand over the paper personally.
[Herr M.] You shouldn't forget to mention that this really consists of (almost) exactly the same steps every day. Only small repair jobs and shopping runs make for a bit of 'change' from the routine. These are all so similar, though, that you could view them as a sort of subroutine. Without them, you could probably solve it all with a macro which automatically performs the same actions every day. So it's all very mechanical.
[Mr Creosote] That's right, about 95% of the playing time, you really spend just performing those few standard actions. It is hardly imaginable that the author believed that this could be interesting to play. Nevertheless, let me throw a provocative statement out there: I believe that all design decisions in this games are right!
[Herr M.] This really depends on what you call right. What makes it right? What did the author think when he came up with this design? And could he have achieved a similar effect also in other ways?
Is this still normal?
[Mr Creosote] The latter is exactly the sticking point. It is just that this surreal plot depends very much on the player noticing the subtle changes to the world which are introduced as incidental bylines. For example, on one day, a new house is suddenly there, but the game does not tell the player 'Look – what is that? This house hasn't been here yesterday! You're beginning to doubt your sanity.' This is how a lesser game would have done it probably. No, it is just there and the player has to draw his own conclusions. To make the player recognise the extraordinary, you have to exhibit the ordinary so much that he intuitively knows it first. This is exactly what this game does.
[Herr M.] Well, establishing a fixed routine, the recurring scenes which are then put into contrast with the appearance of the extraordinary, might be defensible. And yes, it is true that the appearance of these variations is much more direct, much more lively and therefore more interesting because of that. Only, how far do you have to take this? Was it really necessary in such excessive degrees? Maybe fewer days or fewer people could have been enough?
[Mr Creosote] The white house with its inhabitant Elisabeth appears on the fourth day. Anything earlier, I would argue, would have been too early. As a player, I couldn't have noticed anything on the first day. On the second or third day, I would have interpreted this as an earlier oversight on my part, i.e. that I must have missed this house on the days before. So it happens at the earliest possible time.
The same is true for forcing the player to repeatedly visiting all those houses: This just has to happen, because otherwise, there would be no incentive to re-explore the street and to talk to everybody again and again. This, however, is the main trigger for all the events which actually move the plot forward, for example through these small errands for the player. And introducing those early is also of vital importance so that the player learns how these extra jobs usually work. Again, this is to enable the player to recognise the one occasion where things go differently.
[Herr M.] Eight papers and three days makes a nice sum of 24 papers which you have to deliver before something other than a defective toaster or the order of a new teapot comes across. And even then, it doesn't really change much in the routine. First, it is just an additional house which you have to visit, i.e. more work.
Also, what would have prevented the player from simply visiting the neighbours on his own accord? Why forcing him through the paper delivery routine, this perfectly boring task? Wouldn't this completely static street in which only the paper says what is happening in the outside world have been enough to create a similar effect? Without being forced to enter the same commands again and again?
[Mr Creosote] I'm not denying that this unchanging routine is a problem. It's just that I don't see any room for compressing it:
- First day: Announcement that there will be a new inhabitant in the mysterious mansion at the end of the street. Also, the element of running additional errands apart from the paper route is introduced.
- Second day: The very mysterious new inhabitant moves in, you meet him.
- Third day: The normal state after establishing the one new guy is solidified in the player's mind.
- Fourth day: A new house appears out of nowhere.
Merging some of these events into one day could have lead to fatal conclusions about causality on the players' side.
Couldn't it have been done another (better) way?
[Mr Creosote] What would you have preferred to be the reason for the player to revisit all those houses?
[Herr M.] What about the player's curiosity? Why not trust that even without forcing the repetition of the same commands over and over again, the player will establish his own route to explore the surroundings?
[Mr Creosote] If you believe that would have worked, I strongly recommend you check out some of the reviews of IF Comp games of the previous ten years or so. Believing that any player is willing to do that has been the death blow for any game. Exploration for the sake of itself, even just once, is widely rejected, and requiring it more than once is not an acceptable assumption.
[Herr M.] Well, it seems like the forced exploration is also not met with much acceptance. Maybe it is even the most basic notion of having the player search his surroundings without clear motivation which is wrong?
[Mr Creosote] Yes, it is, and that, in my view, is the game's big dilemma: Without this repeated exploration, no matter whether it is enforced or not, the plot does not work at all. This repeated run down, however, makes the game almost unbearably boring. That is why I'm completely stumped as to what could possibly be improved.
[Herr M.] A compelling motivation would have been a good start: You don't have a clue why you are bearing all of this, other than the neighbours (who are too lazy to take the two steps to the next street corner) being apparantly eternally grateful. And you just can't do anything else. Routine is fine, but if all I can do is hope that some day, things will change, this is not enough.
[Mr Creosote] I think that the author believed that the mystery around the first new inhabitant would be enough to keep you going initially. Just that this guy, after the initial spark of interest, acts just as indifferent as everyone else: They all always say the same thing, no matter what the player does. The grumpy guy on the 'upper right' side (to say it in the terms of the game) of the street is the perfect example: Even after doing him an additional favour, when you would believe he might be thankful, he immediately drops back to his usual 'keep off my lawn'. Meaning that the repeated visits are not rewarded even by character development.
[Herr M.] As a matter of fact, it is especially this new inhabitant – whom, at first, I found somewhat interesting and who is supposedly meant to be the main attraction – who falls flat in this this regard. He has even less to say than all the others and his characterisation is limited to him being interested in the protagonist. With the other neighbours, this is forgivable, it even fits perfectly into the concept: As little as possible should change so that the real changes, i.e. the chances of escape, become more noticeable. But this mysterious stranger, who according to the blurb is the plot's selling point, is even more bland than the paper round.
[Mr Creosote] So we seem to agree that a stronger focus on one or more characters could have helped. Still, I believe that this would have changed little in the overall picture: The boring routine tasks would still have destroyed the fun.
[Herr M.] I'm not so sure about the latter. I played through the game twice and the first time around, I found it unbelievably boring. I just ran through the commands and waited for Sunday to arrive to see what happens.
The second time, I was determined to break out. The game did touch something in me, maybe a certain ambition. This couldn't be everything? And with this intention, this determination, it was all much more interesting to search for all the changes, all those little details which I had skipped due to lack of interest before. One of the inhabitants, for example, almost has got a bit of a character. Every day, he is wearing a new button and he is telling a new story about one of mankind's same old issues. One of the women always mumbles something. If you ask her about it, you get additional information. I just think that this will not be noticed if you are not interested, because nothing is leading to it, apart from the frustration that nothing else is happening. Even though this search then was even fun.
Does it have to be enjoyable?
[Mr Creosote] This brings us back to the subject of hard work: How hard should a game be allowed to make it for the player? How many layers of routine can you bury the interesting aspects under? This ratio seems to be out of proportion here. Only the reasons for this are inherent in the concept. All the small things we discussed could be improved don't convince me that they would really banish the boredom. It's a design which is beyond salvation! Which might sound extremely negative, but I don't even mean it that way. For me, the real question is whether this could even be acceptable. After all, in all other media, there are also examples of respected works which intentionally don't try to provide a pleasant experience for their target audience.
[Herr M.] This is an interesting thought, but I will respond with a (intentionally provocative) question: Does The House at the End of Rosewood Street deserve something like recognition? Wouldn't it be simpler to say: noteworthy idea, comprehensible, consistent implementation and possibly playable with enough staying power, but basically completely boring?
[Mr Creosote] Maybe the problem is that, of all things, the defining negative emotion here is boredom. When I think about the films of Jörg Buttgereit, for example, I have quite positive connotations with them – although I definitely never want to see them again! They are extremely disgusting and absurd, anything but pleasant to watch. Still, I have positive views on them in retrospect.
The main difference could therefore be the different negative emotion, or it could be inherent in the interactive nature of this narrative form. Maybe, playing with negative emotions is not suited for anything actively experienced, as opposed to passively consumed, after all. I can't really say for now.
[Herr M.] Though it is particularly this conflict between boredom and interactivity, this demonstration of the limits of Interactive Fiction, which marks this game. As it is a conscious design decision, isn't this what the game deserves some credit for?
[Mr Creosote] This is what history will have to decide upon when judging Rosewood Street. It is a brave design, but one which does not appeal for its gameplay. Whether the world is ready for that, we will see. At the very least, it deserves respect for being one of the very few narratives in a competition full of wannabes which actually comes close to meeting basic literary standards.
[Herr M.] Yes, at least the concept contains a certain literary claim which, depending on the player's patience, pays off more or less. If you get into it, it is even much more than Paperboy in text format. With this in mind, it is maybe a little more bearable.
[Mr Creosote] Which, this can't be repeated often enough, does not make it a good game. An interesting one, but not necessarily a good one.
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