I’m working my way through Cardboard Computer’s backlog, building towards the day where I bite the bullet and begin playing Kentucky Route Zero despite not all its episodes being available…yet. I recently traipsed through their conversation-heavy Balloon Diaspora, and now I’m here to talk about the quiet, unassuming charm of A House in California, which is a text-based adventure game with minimal graphics, but a lot of oomph.
In short, A House in California is the surreal journey of four characters working together to bring a house to life. I did a little research and learned that it was inspired aesthetically by the 1980’s Mystery House from Roberta and Ken Williams, which focuses more on greed and murder than remembering family and the pieces that were always there, what they stand for.
Similar to traditional point-and-click adventure games, you interact with the world and items in it via a tray of different actions at the bottom of the screen, such as “look,” “listen,” “repair,” and so on. It’s a little more abstract than your standard “look at” and “pick up” mechanics like in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, and it takes a bit to comprehend that to transition from screen to screen requires using the right word on the specific thing, such as “remembering” the stars to transport your protagonist to the moon, and not simply clicking on the edge of your field of vision. My favorite action was “learn,” which, like a Snapple bottle cap, tells you an interesting fact about whatever you’ve selected.
The challenge in A House in California is figuring out what action to use to progress or trigger the next sequence. The actions change with each of the four characters–Lois, Beulah, Connie, and Ann–so you have to be willing to explore and experiment. Thankfully, you can eventually exhaust your options, so you’ll figure it out in due time, though it took me a few tries to get the little boy to appear in the computer screen. There’s no inventory to manage or dialogue to select, and that’s fine–this is a story driven adventure, and the story does not need to change in big, sweeping manners, though I won’t say I understood how all four of the characters were related or affected each other.
A House in California‘s dreamlike environments are fascinating to explore, like swimming in slow motion through a Salvador Dali painting. Granted, visually, it is lacking in detail, but imagination can carry each scene to a new level, especially the ones with the singing birds and loose butterflies. The sense of discovery is strong in every location, and the game’s soundtrack backs the soft, soulful narrative, creating a safe, soothing sense of the olden days. Of wandering around outside a house and examining the flowers, the fountain, the jar of fireflies. I personally don’t recall doing it as a young boy, but A House in California makes me believe I did, which is comforting.