A shape to fill a lack: A House in California

By: Chris Thursten

Published: January 14, 2011 Posted in: Review

Where does a game happen? A House in California, for me at least, happens in a quarter-screen WinRAR window, via a swift unpacking to Temps and a clunky resolution switch. There’s nothing remarkable about that at all, really, and out in indie-art-game territory it passes without much of a thought. The last game I started this way was Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer.

There’s an instability to the process that I suspect is vital, somewhere, to the runtime solipsism of experiments like A House in California. A little poke and the game is on you, resolution switching like a hypnic jerk. I download the .zip and set it on my desktop and open it.

A House in California - chapter one opening.

I imagine that running the game in-browser is a little different. I recommend this method. A House takes place, ostensibly, somewhere in the emotional and technological past: it suits the modern equivalent of a tape-load. As players we stage-manage the coming and going of games more carefully than we might think. The decision to download and execute is an active one, an instruction issued to human and mechanical processes simultaneously: developer and processor, assembling entertainment to be consumed and, eventually, disassembled. Nowhere is this more transparent than on the PC, and no medium demands assembly alongside consumption quite like games do.

I preface my thoughts on A House in California in this way because, after my fifteen minutes with it, my instinct was to question whether it should be considered a game at all. That argument would have run something like this: that it uses the impression of being a game to more broadly literary effect: that its writing is, first and foremost, its purpose; player-interaction simply an abstracted form of page-turning. Its four stages follow not the challenge-building ascent of games but the cumulative rhythms of oratory: passing actions and symbols between themselves as a poet creates meaning, not as a game designer creates rules.

As an adventure game, it’s thoroughly barebones. In mechanical terms (spoilers, hoy!) ‘success’ is a matter of finding the same three actions – forwards, backwards, and use – in a shifting verbset, and then applying them. That’s it. No inventory, no dialogue, no geographical continuity and the slightest of relationships between the player-character (if such a term even applies) and the physical interactions available to him. A House in California offsets its logic, its rule-making, and its relationships onto the row of words along the bottom of the screen: it’s Monkey Island, if Monkey Island was about the haphazard adventures of buttons on the SCUMM bar. The brewing tensions between ‘pick up’ and ‘give’; the backslapping camaraderie of ‘use’ and ‘open’; the will-they-won’t-they of ‘talk to’ and ‘turn on’.

A House in California - chapter one.

None of this particularly helps the case for A House being a game, not least a game deserving an IGF nod for unconventional design. So it’s a challengeless adventure game whose characters are words and whose words are characters: sounds dangerously like a book, to me. What was that word again? Hypertext? Yeah, that.

Then I thought about it this way: when I figured out how to win the game, what did I do? I whipped through the second section, then lingered in the third, experimented, teased out the text, then sped up again: critical-pathed the fourth and let the game end. I moved and it glinted; I looked away and it hushed. Believing that I’m being spoken to by a pre-composed piece of art, I ignored the rhythms imposed by my progress through it: rhythms that no writer can preempt or enforce. A House in California ebbs and eddies around that house in California, and so do I: I assemble a house, I build a game; I disassemble the house, I close the game.

It’s the creative process curated like a rhythm-action game curates music: arpeggios repackaged as yellow, blue, green lights, writing distilled into a few acts of remembrance, recording, watching; then forgotten, erased. Its autobiographical overtones are, I hazard, a smokescreen – its simplicity an act of manipulation. The challenge of the game is not to get to sleep: it’s to orchestrate the game in a meaningful way, to accept its vocabulary and sing/write/play along in whatever way is most effective for the individual playing it. To bring A House to life, and then shut it down again. I suppose An Executable on my Desktop doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

This is absolutely a game: more than that, it’s a quiet tribute to the generosity of a medium. A House in California is one of the absent teachers it celebrates. It’s about the limitless experiences that are possible when the authorial Godhead recedes into the background. All games, it says – even Mass Effect, even FIFA, even Supreme Commander – are about telling ourselves stories with the tools made available to us. That’s what makes them games, and that, it suggests, is what learning to play really means.

A House in California - message.

This is not to reject in any way the presence or importance of a designer, nor would I claim creative pre-eminence for the player. I can argue the latter about as far as I can argue that being half-decent at Rock Band makes me a musician. What I would argue is that there’s something deserving of respect in an artist’s willingness to step back and allow someone else to construct their art for them. Is it risky? Certainly. Will it work for everyone? Certainly not. But seen in this light, that award nod for abstract, shortform, unconventional games design starts to sound about right. A House is certainly short, and abstract – but it’s its honesty about its relationship with the player that makes it unconventional.

As reductio-ad-absurdum for a medium, I’m not convinced that A House in California answers too many questions. But, man: what a way to ask them. And what it asks is this: do you move the game, or does the game move you? Where, in the trail of half-opened windows between game designer, gameworld, and gamer, does a game happen?

Chris Thursten