A House of Many Doors

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A House of Many Doors is a newly launched Mac and Linux game on Steam that bears a very strong resemblance in many respects to Sunless Sea, and was developed with funding help from Failbetter. (It wasn’t actually part of the same Fundbetter program as Voyageur, as it happens, but rather predated that.) You pilot your kinetopede, a train with too many legs, through a huge dark space. Your stats — remember these? — are Hull, Sanity, Fuel. Your crew members, and locations you visit, all have stories attached. If you’ve played Sunless Sea you already halfway know how to play A House of Many Doors.

But. There are differences of both tone and structure. Maybe you’re scuttling around in the dark with a sinister soundtrack, but you’re doing it on a grid: each screen a room, each room joined to other rooms in a predictable fashion, and locations you need to reach marked out in white on the map.

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Those endpoints marked on the map are special towns, like Clayton’s Mill; places where, as with Sunless ports, there are more in-depth stories. But the grid, the map, and the sense of having directives marked in means that the opening of House of Many Doors feels more directed and controlled. You do pretty much know where you are going, even if you are scuttling wildly through a landscape of menacing stone heads and pseudo-pre-Columbian ziggurats.

In addition, there’s one specific and fairly joined up introductory quest. You’ve had a memory stolen from you. You go to get it back. You think you’ve retrieved it, but what you retrieve is actually someone else‘s memory. Now you’ve got two problems: missing information, and some other clutter inside your head. Said other clutter is not necessarily a particularly good thing. Altogether, this feels more like it’s telling story than like it’s telling dozens of different ones, at least in the early stages; and to my tastes, that’s no bad thing, as I tend to like my story games to deliver the narrative goods promptly.

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The handling of sanity is also more garish and obvious. Go a bit mad — as I did by accident just by moving away from the game window for a few minutes without pausing (don’t do that) — and you’ll start to hear menacing laughter in the sound track. Shadows will shift and the buildings you meet may refuse to remain in their regular shape. Things will be slightly wrong. The flavor there is a bit Don’t Starve, though mercifully without Don’t Starve‘s incredibly nerve-wracking music box effect. Go really far and your sanity states will start to cycle through names like “fine” and “smiling.” You don’t want that to happen.

Indeed in general the tone of A House of Many Doors, at least as far as I saw, is not so much Lovecraftian in the Fallen London vein. There aren’t tentacular things just beneath the waves; rather, everything you see is askew from any kind of normal. You have crewmembers named things like “Brings-Ill-Fortune.” For that matter, just take another look at your kinetopede. Is that a thing from a sane world?

On my playthroughs I didn’t get super deep into the game. But the Steam discussion boards are full of people speculating about the lore of the place, which is usually a good sign; and saying things like

I don’t know how you use spoiler tags in steam discussion, but how have people settled the spoiler spoiler in Entomarch? I went with the “good” option but didn’t really feel very good about it in the end.

No idea what this refers to, but players feeling agonized about a choice and needing to reach out to others for reassurance and feedback is An Indicator.

Combat is a complex affair. Your crew-members all have their own sanity and stats, and their own positions in different parts of your train, from which they can man your (initially terrible) guns. In my first confrontation with pirates, I did my best to defend myself, but something called a Combat Golem materialized aboard my train and wandered around destroying my crew, while I desperately tried to figure out how to get a replacement for my artillerist into the same room with my cannon. The combat ended — badly, I should say — and then I ran into a buggy condition from which I could not seem to progress. I think I was dead. I should have been dead. But I was “smiling” so hard that maybe I failed to notice my own death. You should probably plan to spend some time with combat before expecting to understand entirely how it all works.

 

The prose tends to be wordier than that in Sunless, and there are a lot more extended dialogue scenes with individual characters. I haven’t had nearly time to finish the whole story arc — nor even, tragically, to get to a point where I start writing my own procedural poetry, which for me is one of the draws of the exercise.

Sad to say, I did run into some bugs, particularly when coming out of combat and back into the main game; this is why I didn’t get a bit further through the story in the time I had. I know the author is chewing through post-launch issues as fast as possible, though. (Here’s a post-launch report.)

3 thoughts on “A House of Many Doors

  1. Thanks so much for the detail on this! I was very curious how much House was and wasn’t like Sunless Sea, or if it was even set in the same universe. It sounds like House of Many Doors might be described as a “special campaign setting module” to Sunless Sea’s “AD&D Rules”, which is an awesome thing if Failbetter continues spotting and fostering talent to riff on their own games and programming work.

  2. I’m enjoying House a lot, but I find the combat kind of tedious. I wish there was a way to play it where I could just skip all that and scuttle around enjoying the story instead. =/

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