The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge is an unconventional point-and-click adventure game by Jonas Kyratzes, the same developer who brought us Infinite Ocean and Museum of Broken Memories. Well, it's not actually a game, per se, so much as a trans-dimensional portal or a window, but if "game" is more comfortable for you, run with it.
See, it works like this. All that nonsense about eyes being the windows to the soul is all very cliché and played out, however if we turn that concept on its head, even just a little bit, we do get something sort of useful. That is, aren't the eyes the windows through which we observe the world around us? And if that's the case, there must be lots of other windows around; the dog-eared pages of your favorite book are windows that let you peek in on your favorite stories, your television is a window that lets you observe the antics of your favorite characters (usually they are doctors or police officers. No one knows why this is really, but there you go), and your computer monitor acts as a window that lets you see inside your computer, taking all those ones and zeroes, mashing them up, organizing them, and displaying them into a configuration that is meaningful to you.
If we were to keep following along this train of thought, your browser is also a window, one that allows you to view all kinds of interesting different little worlds including this bit of internet real estate right here. And in this spirit, the House at Desert Bridge is also a window, a very special window, personally commissioned by Harold.
Who's Harold? Oh, he's a perfectly normal enchanted talking picture frame, a pretty excellent dude as the mushrooms might say. Harold has a problem, and so do the mushrooms, and Stripes the dinosaur, and the paranoid rabbit, and the Horraffe, and the rest of the inhabitants of the House at Desert Bridge. Old Man Bill has gone missing (also a totally excellent dude according to the mushrooms), well, maybe not missing, he might just be locked up in his study, but the fish in the bath tub and the rubber duck in the sink haven't seen him in a long time, neither have the chicken in the tower nor the Buttlerware. He does this sometimes, but all of Old Man Bill's creations are starting to get a little nervous, especially now that the power has failed leaving the Horraffe to keep the house alive on back up power.
And so Harold has commissioned Jonas to build this window so that one clever and cunning point-and-click veteran could come and help out the inhabitants and hopefully sort out this whole missing Old Man Bill business. Are you that cunning person they've been waiting for?
Analysis: For anyone that is familiar with Kyratzes' work, Desert Bridge at once is familiar territory and a departure from the norm. It is familiar in that it has a tendency to break with convention as well as being a game driven by its plot and story, but it's an aberration in that whereas most of Jonas' previous offerings have been dark and foreboding, Desert Bridge is much of the time whimsical bordering on the absurd.
Above all else, this game is a story. A cute, endearing, wonderful story that gradually peels back its soft-edged veneer to reveal something that is indeed a little sinister, thrusting the player from humor into apprehension into sadness. A story of such layers and complexity of thoughts and emotion could easily end up a crumpled failure, but Kyratzes tells it with a master stroke, indeed, it is quite possible that Desert House alone establishes Jonas Kyratzes as one of the master story-tellers in indie game development.
The child-like visuals, though seemingly rudimentary, are perfect in establishing the imaginative and inspired look of this strange world. We know that Kyratzes is capable of producing far more realistic and three-dimensional images for his games, but nothing creates that sense of youthful and reckless imagination as the cartoon drawings which set the stage for Desert Bridge. Blending beautifully with the imagery is the music composed by Helen Trevillion (you can actually listen to or download the soundtrack) which instantly finishes out the feel of Desert Bridge, the tinkling bells, the dancing oboe, all mingling together to create a sense of wonder, like the first time your parents took you to a theme park or a museum. The sights and sounds of Desert Bridge are those of magic being made all around you.
But the true stars of this adventure are the characters, each unique in their personality and in their idiosyncrasies. They aren't animated, they don't show any expression other than the crayon drawings they come with (and even at that only a handful are that lucky), but with words alone there is such a depth of character behind each creature that you meet. In fact, this becomes something of a lynchpin to the successful execution of Desert Bridge because in the rendering of their quirky personalities it becomes hard not to grow attached to them, to see them as somehow real, and when that sinister shade does reveal itself, that attachment developed between player and characters allows the severity of the situation to hit home.
In truth, it's hard to fault Desert Bridge, even if it isn't a game that's for everyone. It's most definitely a verbose adventure, and often times plays more like an interactive fiction than a point-and-click game, but again, this is fine because it is the story and the characters that really matter. The puzzles are surprisingly straightforward; the most difficult thing in solving them is actually not over-thinking them too much. Even the inventory and menu can throw some players off; figuring out how to save and quit the game can end up being one of the first puzzles you tackle here, but even that is done on purpose, one of Kyratzes ways of challenging your preconceived notions of gaming and the world about you.
Just because Desert Bridge is difficult to fault doesn't mean its impossible; there are a few things I feel could be improved. For one, because the scenery has no animation and there are only one or two instances when it changes at all, it's not always clear when you've picked up an item or have performed a task satisfactorily leading to some confusion. I remember playing for quite some time, opening up my inventory, and all of a sudden it was half full with odds and ends I didn't even remember obtaining. Also it can be easy to get a little lost due to the nature of the scenery. This is most notably the case when you get in the room with four doors, or when you are traveling outside the house. Luckily, the House at Desert Bridge is not so big that when you get lost you stay lost for too long. Finally, while the music is absolutely beautiful, the loop sometimes is not very well done and when you get to the end of some of the bits of music, the abrupt stop and start can feel like you've just driven over a speed bump at forty miles an hour.
It also is worth mentioning that this is not a children's game despite the cartoony appearance and the lack of objectionable material (there are only a couple of bad words and one biological reference that is a little offensive). It's not that the game is inappropriate, but it is deep, plays on some very heavy themes, and involves a lot of reading and concepts that may not appeal to younger audiences.
That being said, House at Desert Bridge is a wonderful work to behold. It's a story book for grown ups, a fairy tale for philosophers and parents. It instills in you the memory of what it is like to view the world as a child, to see everything with wonder, and at the same time it bears the burden of age, conflict, and struggle. It is a labor of love that is a story that is about labors of love, and while it's not for everyone, if such things appeal to you, I suggest you check out the manual from Bob the Spider (comes with the download, for your convenience), and step through the window that leads to the House at Desert Bridge.
Download the freeware game
Mac OS X:
Try Boot Camp or Parallels or CrossOver Games.