Wot I Think: A House Of Many Doors
Working the rooms
A House of Many Doors [official site] is developer Harry Tuffs' expansive story-weaving game where you roam a mysterious parasite dimension creating memories and pursuing stories. It's a curious, beautiful thing which I both loved and grew frustrated by as I scuttled from room to room. Here's Wot I Think:
I want to preface this review by saying first and foremost that A House of Many Doors is a formidable writing achievement – I mean that both in terms of volume and in terms of crafting a world in which the reader/player can luxuriate. There are memory thieves, ruined pubs from other dimensions, travel is via mechanical centipedes, I met a priest in stained glass spectacles and a mushroom-based people with glacial metabolisms… It's both a feat and a treat, and I want to make that absolutely clear before I start talking about what doesn't work nearly so well.
Let me give you an overview of the game before we get into all that, though. A House of Many Doors takes place in the world of the House, a parasite dimension which steals things from other worlds. In keeping with the house idea, the space is presented as a series of rectangular rooms, each with an exit to the north, south, east and west. You navigate the rooms using one of these insectoid trains which has mechanical legs instead of wheels (called kinetopedes). What you're trying to do is seek out locations in which you can have encounters and pursue stories as well as collecting weird and wonderful objects. When you encounter a hostile kinetopede or other mysterious enemy you switch into a real-time-with-pause combat which was inspired more by FTL than anything else.
Right now I'm in the process of tinkering with one crew member's memories and helping another unravel a conspiracy (I don't want to get into details because spoilers all over the place). I'm also trying to build up the collection of weird and horrible artefacts for a museum in my home town and attempting to help someone repair their dirigible every now and again. No luck on that front yet. All of this is peppered with smaller encounters - a chat with an actor about the nature of a play and a skill-dependent trip through part of a maze are two from recent memory. I'm also working on my poetry and my magnum opus in fits and starts (the game generates snippets of verse when you convert memories to poems).
If you've played Sunless Sea by Failbetter Games a lot of the main beats here will sound familiar. You substitute the House for the Zee, and the cities would be ports. The actual presentation and mood are also heavily reminiscent of Sunless Sea. I'm not sure if it uses Failbetter's story engine or any of their other tools since they started incubating the project - there's a blog entry from a while back that says the coding is all the developer Harry Tuffs' work and I've not seen anything to the contrary in recent posts so I'm assuming not - but the user interface feels heavily indebted, at least.
Tuffs has never shied away from Sunless Sea being a big influence, but actually playing A House of Many Doors can be an uncomfortable experience as a result. I spent a lot of my time in the game just so aware of the shadow cast by Failbetter's work and thus it forms this permanent comparison point. Sunless Sea itself is far from perfect, but every little or not so little imperfection in A House of Many Doors – this one-man project – was pitched against the polish of a bigger studio with a bigger partially-Kickstartered budget.
There's also the fact that Failbetter part-funded and incubated A House of Many Doors, which essentially means that they offered assistance, both in terms of money but also in terms of providing office space and expertise to Tuffs. It's hard to unpick without interviewing both sides (something I wanted to leave until after getting the feel for just playing without that knowledge) but the feeling I currently have is that in incubating a game that was so close to their own sensibilities the two things – Failbetter's Universe and the House – didn't really stand a chance of diverging. The result is this game which feels like a semi-official Sunless Sea mod from an alternate timeline. That's not a bad thing, per se, but it means it's so hard to place A House of Many Doors as a standalone game or as the thing in this niche you'd direct people to first.
This feeling persisted throughout my time in the game. I've played for twelve hours so far and I'm nowhere near done with the storytelling side of things, but I encountered a lot of little niggles which have added up to exhaust my will to play for the time being.
The one which crept in first was that the spaces you're exploring are modular to the point of monotony. The same bits of architecture or statuary recur as debris the House has acquired and which you must navigate. It's economical but seeing them spread out across the modular, dull emptiness of the rooms, the overall effect is of someone trying to make a party seem really lively by standing the same set of four people around in different configurations and poses.
Add in the fact that you start thinking in grid movements – "three along and five up and then I get to the marker on my map" – and it rapidly loses any charm you might have started with. You do gain the ability to fast travel using a special mirror but those cost money and the list of potential destinations you get is not exhaustive - it only offers large cities you've already visited - so the cost of getting across the map would mount up plus you'd still need to skitter on to the smaller destinations.
That said, there are small changes or new weather to encounter in different regions as you explore outwards which, after so much of one type of scenery, felt like a treat. But it was never enough to really reinvigorate the act of exploration beyond that initial thrill of arriving. It was more of an "ooh!" which then lapsed back into "two up and then four across and don't attract that kinetopede".
A couple of my other irritations with the map system are that you need to keep checking the map to see whether you're about to glide past a point of interest. They show up on your map as blue squares if they're part of an active quest, but if you pass near one on the map it turns that square white. You only see those white squares if you open the map. It's not like navigating a traditional space, where you can see areas you might want to explore in the world as well as on paper. Another thing is that red halos of light indicate parts of these rooms where you can interact with objects. Some will net you more resources or people, so you can stock up on items and tales as commodities. It's useful, but you soon encounter the same things over and over. A cottage with a strange occupant, a ruined library, a dead tree. Over and over and over.
It's such a sharp contrast to the artwork which greets you in each city. I mean LOOK! Catherine Unger's images are so lovely.
Those screens are these vibrant, loose sketches which really help build each location's identity. Perhaps the contrast was a conscious decision because these places are real beacons of excitement in the world, but it doesn't make traveling from place to place any more enjoyable.
The combat is something I largely avoided (or which other people avoided engaging me in as a result of a prisoner incident you'll find detailed below) because it felt rather risky, particularly early on. It relies on a mixture of positioning and attacking. When you're engaging in combat your view switches to an FTL-style interface showing the layouts of each of your ships. When you're making your move you can aim your weapons at particular rooms or people, move your own crew around to staff particular rooms/weapons, close or widen the gap between the two ships. These options cost action points so you can't just constantly be doing things, you have to prioritise. But there's also a real-time element so you can't just sit there forever unless you pause, otherwise the enemy will just blow you up.
If you get close enough you can board/be boarded. Or at least, I think you can board them, but I never seemed to be able to make it happen. I got boarded several times. That was upsetting and I died on more than one occasion, having to return to a previous save. There were also some strange effects as a result of different combat options – one enemy did something that made handfuls of my crew members behave erratically, wandering away from their posts and thus leaving guns unmanned. I currently have a cannon which sometimes causes the enemy ship to be covered in spiderwebs and stops them moving for a short while.
It's more interesting than Sunless Sea's combat, for sure, but I never clicked with it. I will add that I've never really liked FTL much either, though so I'll be interested to see what other people make of it. Perhaps Adam when he's back in the office.
The irritants which I started to encounter later in the game are more concerning. I think A House of Many Doors is still being updated and bugfixed, so I am not sure how much of this will be in the final game, but it's here in my game two days before launch so it's concerning enough that I want to include it.
First is that either one of my questlines is bugged or the game is utterly failing to communicate how to continue. I embarked on a particular journalism career by submitting tales of strange cities to a newspaper until they employed me. Now I'm being tasked with submitting a report from a specific location, but I've been there close to a dozen times and there doesn't seem to be a way to actually create a report or learn any information I could use to generate one when I get to my home city. It's a total mystery. Adding to the sense that something has bugged out there is that although I can't submit a report about the City of Masks, I can just submit a normal article over and over again, apparently infinitely, earning over 100 gold each time and thus meaning I can just cycle through those story options for a while if I fancy a cash boost.
I've continued with this save file because I'd invested a big chunk of time into it and the other quests seemed okay but there have been other, more minor glitches. One of the things you can do in the game is deliver passengers from one place to another. I enjoy doing that because it's simple and early on it meant I was discovering a lot of new places. But sometimes the game doesn't register that I've delivered someone even if I obtained the cash reward for doing so. As a result I now have a person who seems to be permanently on my ship and who I can't do anything with unless I take them prisoner (which I don't want to do as it lowers my crew's opinion of me). I found out the opinion-lowering thing when I took a passenger prisoner, killed them and tied them to the front of the kinetopede, by the way.
There have also been times when options in cities seemed like they should be one-time things because they would give you a type of information or memory as a resource but I could just access them again and again, stockpiling by accident as I tried to exhaust my options. I sometimes felt like the level of challenge to the experience rather depended on my level of honorability in exploiting little bugs rather than the difficulty curve set by the creator.
The really concerning thing for me though is that last night I had no fewer than three fatal errors as I played. I'm saving the game at every city because this isn't the first time the game has crashed, but the thought of needing to redo some pretty long journeying was what pushed me over the edge and out of the game, even though I'm part-way through a quest where I interfere with the memories of one of my closer companions and trying to unravel a political conspiracy with another. I've come too far to want to start over, but it also feels like the glitches or bugs might be mounting as I play.
That's where I'm at with the game personally – invested and interested but also frustrated and bored at times. More broadly, the thing I'm struggling with is why I would recommend this to someone when Sunless Sea exists, has a similar sensibility and is more polished. It feels more like something you'd suggest after a player of Sunless Sea has exhausted their interest in that particular game but is still excited about the style of story. Like how I've been devouring Liane Moriarty books but have now run out and am looking for a similar-ish writer to scratch that particular type of story-telling itch, I suppose. But the timing there is interesting because A House of Many Doors comes out two days after the Kickstarter for Sunless Skies launched and put eyeballs back on Failbetter's work so… does that make House of Many Doors a more or a less enticing prospect?
A House of Many Doors has so much lovely writing and is so ambitious. It's also so entirely in the shadow of its spiritual sibling. As a result it can't hope to escape constant comparisons even if it proves preferable to the narrative tastes of some players. It's the Dannii to Failbetter's Kylie.
A House of Many Doors is out today at 4pm GMT on Windows and Mac via Steam for some money. There's a pre-alpha demo available here.