A House in California
Cardboard Computer's (Jake Elliott) interactive narrative, A House in California, originally appeared in a Weekend Download. Following a young boy who can't sleep as he speaks with four women who recount stories of their own, the game is a surreal nostalgic tour down memory lane... sort of. Each story transports you to a slightly different location and presents you with a deceptively simple puzzle to solve; find a way to light a streetlamp, for example, or entice a flock of birds to sing.
Like an old-school adventure game, you have a tray of different actions at the bottom of the game window, such as "Look", "Remember", "Play", and so forth. Click an action, then click something on screen to carry that action out. It's a more abstract approach to the traditional style of point-and-click play; instead of "use fireflies", you might try to "remember fireflies" and be treated to a bit of text that provides some atmospheric flavour, or even transported to another place entirely. It's figuring out what you need to do to trigger those transitions that's the key, and easier said than done. You'll have to be willing to explore and play around with even seemingly nonsensical action/item combinations, especially if you want to unlock more actions.
Analysis: Seeing the community's reaction to anything that might be termed "interactive art" is always interesting because it tends to generate some of the most in-depth discussion around. The thing about calling something "art" is that the word has different meanings for different people; I'll never understand Andres Serrano's appeal, but my ambivalence doesn't (and shouldn't) detract from the enjoyment and emotional/intellectual reactions of the people who do appreciate his photography. Likewise, there are going to be people for whom A House in California doesn't make any sense, and those with which it'll resonate. It's all up to the individual.
From a gameplay standpoint, A House in California is potentially frustrating to those of us who like (and indeed expect) our games to follow logical courses. The game's habit of teleporting you around from seemingly inconsequential actions can make progression a little difficult to follow, especially since you need to experiment with action and item combinations that don't really make much sense.
But for players who enjoy that sort of experimentation, then A House in California's dreamlike environments are an absolute treat to explore. It's nowhere near as drenched in layers and hidden meaning as other titles in the genre can be. Each scenario takes place in a similar location, but the actions you take throughout the game slowly begin to transform it. To say more would be spoiling things, since a large part of the pleasure to be found in the game comes from just discovering things. For me personally, it did create a surprisingly powerful sense of nostalgia; I can't say I've ever caught fireflies for lighting or made friends with a flock of birds, but there's something about the sleepy, meandering narrative and use of sound that conjures up memories and sensations for me of time spent with my own Grandmother as a child and the stories she used to tell me.
A House in California is a sleepy little game that won't take you long to play, but you can spend a while wandering around inside the different narratives and exhausting all your options on each item you can find to interact with. The last chapter and the ending feel a little abrupt, but from beginning to end it's a lovely, sleepy story worth experiencing.