The House Of The Stalker by Jason Clayton [Comp96]

IFDB page: House Of The Stalker
Final placement: 23rd place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

A promising beginning turns into an excruciating series of coding and design errors and irritating writing. It’s hard to know where to begin with the criticisms. The tone of many of the responses was a kind of smarmy, smart-alecky wit which undercut any dramatic buildup or fear created by the tense premise. The underlying idea is good, but its execution was rife with logic errors. I can think of at least a dozen plausible solutions that were not implemented. For example, if I squirt the killer with Drano then try to go to the porch for help, I’m told “You can’t go that way.” (Oh no, he’s so dangerous he can make my door disappear!). Another example: I can wander through my entire house without meeting the killer, so why don’t I just call the police? Well, not one single room in the house has a phone. Add to this some fundamental coding errors, unconvincing writing, and “read the author’s mind” puzzles, and the result is a distinctly unenjoyable game.

Prose: The opening sequence of the game got me quite interested, but most of the other prose served to undo tension rather than create it. For example, the author tries to create emotional depth to the character by describing a recent divorce. After about a paragraph of this, the game says “Now that you’ve had a good cry, maybe you’d like to try preserving your life some, hmm?” The condescension and flippancy in this narrative tone completely destroy any gradually building sense of empathy or emotional urgency. Also, object descriptions give no thought to the interactivity of the game. For example, every time you look at the TV, an announcer breaks into a show and says the exact same thing. The hair dryer is described as having its cord hanging off the sink… no matter where you take it. This is lazy writing, and it obliterates suspension of disbelief.

Difficulty: I used the hints to get through the entire game once I realized that there was only one way to solve it and that was by doing exactly what the author had in mind, since no reasonable alternatives are provided. This kind of difficulty tests one’s patience, not one’s intelligence.

Technical (coding): Coding errors were everywhere. For example: The player must remove a scarf from a doll, but this can only be done in the room where the doll is originally located. Trying “YANK SCARF” anywhere else gets a response of “You can’t see any such thing.” Another example: “PUSH CHAIR” gets the response “You push the chair over to the bookcase.” “PUSH CHAIR TO BOOKCASE” gets the response “You can’t see any such thing.” The only other character in the program, the killer, wasn’t even implemented as animate. (“SHOW PICTURE TO KILLER.” gets “You can only do that to something animate.”) Like the writing, the coding was lazy and ineffective.

Technical (writing): There were very few technical errors in the writing. It’s frustrating — a good idea with technically sufficient writing ought to have been a much better game.

Plot: The premise had the promise of being extremely gripping and intense. The idea that danger lurks around every corner of a familiar setting has the potential to be great interactive fiction. However, by the end of the game, the idea of plot degenerated into a series of arbitrary but extremely specific actions performed on the killer’s body.

Puzzles: The puzzles were very difficult because of their arbitrary nature. One has to do a very specific and exact sequence of actions to the killer’s body before the game won’t respond to “KILL STALKER” with “Violence isn’t the answer to this one.”