Tag Archives: Kentucky Route Zero

Home is people, not a place in A House in California

gd a house in california thoughts

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.

2015 Game Review Haiku, #15 – A House in California

2015 games completed gd a house in california

Learn your family
Listen to these memories
Bring a house to life

From 2012 all through 2013, I wrote little haikus here at Grinding Down about every game I beat or completed, totaling 104 in the end. I took a break from this format last year in an attempt to get more artsy, only to realize that I missed doing it dearly. So, we’re back. Or rather, I am. Hope you enjoy my continued take on videogame-inspired Japanese poetry in three phases of 5, 7, and 5, respectively.

Balloon Diaspora is a game of odd, fascinating conversations

gd balloon diaspora overall impressions

I feel bad for anyone who isn’t still fascinated with balloons. It might mean you’ve lost your innocence, your childish wonder at the originally incomprehensible. Just fill this flexible bag with a gas, such as helium or air, and watch it expand, float, fly. Even now, I sometimes can’t understand it, and this probably plays into my fear of planes, big hulking machines of metal soaring through the sky and staying there for hours. A good chunk of media that I love heavily features balloons of all shapes, colors, and sizes, such as Nena’s “99 Luftballoons”, The Red Balloon, which I first watched in my high school French class, the robot’s best friend in Doki Doki Universe, and the balloons that debuff your characters in Suikoden, curable only by using a Needle. That’s only to name a few; I’m sure more balloons exist in my mind, floating just out of memory’s reach.

Balloon Diaspora, clearly by its name alone, is about balloons–hot air balloons, to be specific–but only in terms of plot. It’s really more about chatting with locals, strange stick figure folk whose culture is instantly foreign. I mean, they hunt for seagulls with fishing poles to begin with. But yeah, you, who I ended up naming K, arrived in a broken hot air balloon basket–which could be a reference to the strangeness that we know as Oz–and is looking to patch it up. K needs six pieces of cloth to patch the balloon up, and exiles from a place called the Balloon Archipelago are willing to help, for a little help in return. Fetch quests and dialogue trees abound; it’s like a JRPG minus the combat and boom anime babes.

Look, it all boils down to this: Balloon Diaspora is a series of interesting choices. Not right, not wrong, just choices–yours, whoever you believe yourself to be. My version of K came from across the Gusty Sea and was a very reserved, secretive, and compliant adventurer; I gave up little and went along with a lot. The game continuously asks questions that carry weight, but no tangible consequences. It evokes emotional agency and is an extremely effective way of empowering the player in a short period of time. Often in games where you are given a list of choices, it is easy to see them separates into different categories at a glance: friendly, unfriendly, neutral. Not here. I found myself hesitating at nearly every question tossed K’s way, thinking over the answers, considering all the options. One conversation resulted in only negative responses, and I had to determine which way was more in line with my thinking…and no, I wasn’t pleased with the pick.

Visually, Balloon Diaspora is a dark place. A void with little life, though what life lives there does stand out. The trees are unique, the non-playable characters, while similar in structure, do stand apart, and I love the way the camera zooms and turns as you point and click to maneuver through the levels. Color pops up now and then, used effectively. Equally sparse though is the soundtrack; sparse, but delightful. A somber, beautiful piano-driven piece plays as you travel from location to location in a friend’s balloon basket, and some text at the corner of the screen tells you that you can skip ahead any time you want. I never did. It’s too pretty not to hear. Other than that, I can’t recall too many other music pieces standing out as I searched around for a really good joke to trade for cloth.

The creators of Balloon Diaspora also have another game out, currently still in the works–the episodic Kentucky Route Zero. It looks atmospheric and astounding, heavy on the narrative, but I think I am growing weary of the episodic format. Life is Strange and Telltale’s Game of Thrones both seem really cool too, but I’d now rather wait until the entire season is done and can be played in a single sitting–or as close together as I like. That said, I’ll keep Kentucky Route Zero in mind for down the road and continue to look at balloons in childlike wonder.

If you want to give Balloon Diaspora a try, it’s free to download over here.