A house with many doors opens like a drill to the skull. That’s not an arbitrary analogy – the game starts just after “memory thieves” invade your skull. Of course you won’t let them get away with it. Your first priority in this “exploration RPG” is to jump astride your steampunk centipede tank and get your memories back.
Things only get weirder from there, because the House‘s explicit inspirations from Sunless Sea and China Miéville come forward (the game was funded by a combination of Sunless Sea developer Failbetter Games and Kickstarter). A house with many doors is set in a “parasite dimension” known only as the House. Its features are described in a plethora of text about shark men, reality-making dream gas, gods with clocks and doctors who steal hearts for profit while ostensibly leaving their patients alive. Impressionist portraits and landscapes lit with St. Elmo’s Fire hint at further stories that even the 10 tons of Dickensian scribbles can’t fully put into words.
The fiction in A house with many doors is so full of verve and diversity that it’s hard to keep more than one bull’s eye in my head at a time. And just like a shotgun blast, the game has a lot of empty spaces between those sparsely dispersed impressions.
A house with many squares
To understand A house with many doors, you have to understand the house itself. It’s a bit like your house, when your house is grid-like chopped into seemingly endless “rooms” where you can navigate in search of some piece of civilization. The most important of these civilizations is the City of Keys, where you can trade goods, information, and even experiences to customize your character or earn a few coins.
However, between these light particles there is infinitely more darkness. Most rooms in the house are completely empty, as long as you keep your all-important Heartlight burning to fend off random encounters with terrifying creatures. Meanwhile, you navigate your “kinetopede” in real time around six or seven repetitive bits of curiosities. You check your map three times to make sure you’re on your way to something more interesting and occasionally dodge incoming bandits. You continue through the vast expanse.
Sometimes smaller, more literal lights grab your attention. A red glow indicates when a pile of debris is actually an object of interest. Perhaps your crew has discovered a weeping woman who has moved into the house from less horrific lands? Perhaps you have unearthed an occult artifact? Maybe nothing will happen at all depending on a digital dice roll affected by your character’s stats like Grit and Guile?
However, you usually find more of the same. Small encounters outside the city repeat early and often. The same “randomized” story events will often happen twice in a row, in quick succession.
That repetition is a class-A minus, because A house with many doors is built on unique experiences – not only conceptually, but also mechanically. Nearly every successful roll of the dice during events gives your character tangible memories of their trials. Your character can work these into procedurally generated epic poems or box them up for resale to major newspapers in the City of Keys.
How you decide to trade your in-game experiences leads to different in-game rewards. So, A house with many doors Become a traveling poet/journalist/spy simulator of sorts as you meander through beautiful and horrifying vistas to make a profit. You can imagine yourself as Hunter S. Thompson caught in a capitalist twist on the Cthulhu Mythos.
On paper, the concept is fantastic. In practice, however, the promise of gonzo journalism in the outer realms dissolves when you don’t have enough adventures to fill your plate. The big events in A house with many doors usually come from your kinetopede crew members. When you’re up against it, it fills your screen with wonderful stories and highlights your map with points of interest. These narrative pit stops are every bit as grand as the game’s eclectic universe promises. Too bad they’re also separated by dozens of empty squares in a huge, mostly uniform gray grid.
Prepare to board
In addition to blips of architecture, the halls of the house are also filled with more proactive hazards. Zeppelins, rival insectoid tanks and mobile churches will try to take you down from time to time. You can give them what they want, run away by temporarily extinguishing your Heartlight, or fight them. Whichever option you choose, the game doesn’t explain itself well at all.
Fights are a definite riff on FTL: Faster than light. Crew members operate turrets, act as guards or keep the Heartlight alight in turn-based combat. But battles are much less clearly displayed in House than in FTL.
You could start a run through the game with a Swabbie under your merry staff. Unfortunately, the game gives you no idea what a Swabbie is in this context or what task they perform. Staff such as doctors and guards are obvious by their names alone, but there’s no clue as to what these mop-wielding warriors actually do.
The same goes for certain tactics. A one-time tooltip will inform you that you can board enemy ships and board in return. But it doesn’t give any clues about how that process works. How you should move your small stick figures to fight their small stick figures is never exactly made clear either. Other potentially useful data not mentioned in the game (as far as I can tell) includes what stats affect dice combat and decision making, and the effects of various long-term injuries on your character.
A house with many doors is intentionally inscrutable in places, such as when it gives you only a vague idea of how likely you are to bluff or cheat at cards with local mobsters. Yet many other missing explanations seem like inattention. Sometimes, House feels like you are playing Dungeons and Dragons with a DM who refuses to show you important parts of the rulebook.
This, as you can imagine, often leads to annoying results. You must save at every opportunity, otherwise you risk dead crew members and lost cargo.
Worse than all the inscrutability and emptiness, however, are the technical bugs that plague A house of many doors. More than half of my playing sessions ended abruptly with a terminal failure. Mostly these were everyday crashes on the desktop. Other times, however, I was unable to click out of the quest dialog, forcing me to quit the game, reboot from my last save, and trudge through the same empty rooms again.
However, the strangest bug I’ve seen so far is that the game sometimes makes choices in front of u when navigating between city menus. That’s a real problem when the choice involves locking up (or eating) a human passenger. Your crew members aren’t friendly if you answer that wrong. Those bugs led to more reloaded saves and more lost progress.
I don’t just want to like A house with many doors despite all these mistakes. I’m in despair for a game about adventures in nightmare journalism to be as good as it should be. As it stands, House‘s beautiful, scattered, ambitious fiction got me through all the boredom and frustration.
Still, that doesn’t change the fact that I was mostly bored and frustrated. A house with many doors has an incredible, creative intent. It’s just not very good to serve it to you.
- The more civilized rooms of the House contain mountains of stellar, evocative texts
- Beautiful works of art in combination with the fiction
- Converting “experiences” into rewards is new
- You spend too much time driving through empty space
- Battles and other features are poorly explained, if at all
- Critical bugs means frequent reloads
- Small scale events are repetitive and not as interesting as they could be
the ugly one
- When the game falters and causes you to strap a live human to the front of your tank
verdict: A house with many doors just begs for more random encounters, varied environments, and bug fixes. But right now it’s a shell of what it should be. Skip it.