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Fun-sized, restrained, atmospheric, Tue 4th Sep 2012
By Duncan_B - See all my reviews
This is the first of what would become a series of Speed-IF horror from Seciden Mencarde, and it is the only one which ever received a revision. It is also, in my opinion, the best of the series, not just the best because of its revision, but because of the author's restraint and management of atmosphere lacking in further episodes.
The Forest House doesn't drop the reader right into horror-atmosphere-tryout land knee-deep in gloom and corpses. It's more about restraining the player from getting what they want right away-- you want to go west? Well, the door is closed. Okay, open it, now go west. It is as though the parser is a big brother warning the player, “Are you sure? I don't think you're gonna like it...” but the obvious action is right there, and everything is so close, so the player keeps going until they finally arrive on the scene of the horror.
More than just holding the player back, The Forest House beckons them in with a sense of childish wonder, hinting at dread. True, some of the writing is a little stiff (“A basic four-legged table with a chair. The only thing that makes it a desk is your use of it in that manner.”), but this is generally a result of implementing scenery the author seemed to think negligible to the overall tale. In that moment and elsewhere, some of the game's (un)implementation choices are questionable-- likely a result of the original Speed-IF constraint, it would've been nice to see them fixed in the revision, as well.
The more important elements of the game's writing, however, tap into a dark pool through the lens of what could be a child's heroic imaginings. The house only you can see, that can only be seen at night. There might be monsters in the closet. Little touches like these reinforce the horror while luring the player through a scene of stealthy preparation with adventurous expectancy rather than slapping them in the face with horror tropes and abject darkness right away. This allows for a more subversive, but still gradual-feeling switch from a world of the expected and the rational (even including mundane flashlight battery replacement) into the unexpected and the irrational.
The sort of setup this game presents is Doing It Right. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner describes how authors draw a reader into the “fictional dream” of a work using sensory clues and elements of from life to make the reader feel the story is real, or at least plausible. This is part of buying our suspension of disbelief and, to some extent, our investment in the actors and events of a tale. In this way, the aforementioned battery replacement-- a speed bump on our way to adventure and the unknown-- exemplifies the game's use the parser, restraint, and a tedious granularity of actions to mirror the reality of a child sneaking out at night. It's an effective build-up and, because of touches like this, we can see how The Forest House operates more effectively as an IF than it might as static fiction.
Once one enters the titular forest house, the imagery changes to decay-- but even with a little bit of humor mixed in as the player character copes in the face of the grotesque and the unreal. This sort of horror, built on suspense and atmosphere, takes hold better than gore, gross-outs, or threats of physical violence alone might. I admit after several playthroughs, I still haven't been able to get the last lousy point of the game, but I'm beginning to wonder if the inability to do so-- offering us a vain and frustrating search in its place should we try-- might not be part of the game's message. As we can never fully reach back into the wondrous, nightmarish expectancies of childhood except vicariously or in senility, as those imaginings may never reach their threatened realization, so, too, might The Forest House deny us these things and be all the more creepy for it.
(Though, seriously, if you have spoilers for the last lousy point, please let me know.)