If you can get past the typos, scarce descriptions, and programming glitches, there’s a fun mystery to be solved within The House on Sycamore Lane. The game is unpolished and rough around the edges, but delivers a rewarding payoff for those willing to wade through its issues.
I was six years old when my father brought home our family’s first home computer, a TRS-80 Model III. One of the first games I ever played on that computer was Haunted House, a text adventure written by Robert Arnstein and published by Radio Shack in 1979. Forty years later, Paul Michael Winters wrote his own haunted house text adventure, The House on Sycamore Lane, and submitted it to the 2019 Interactive Fiction Competition.
Like 1979’s Haunted House, the goal of The House on Sycamore Lane is to enter (and subsequently escape) the titular house. After entering the house, players will need to free the spirit that haunts Sycamore Lane before ultimately freeing themselves. Following an opening sequence that takes place outside a middle school, players are quickly funneled (and promptly trapped) inside the Sycamore house through one of two entrances. From that point on, the majority of the game is spent exploring the spooky old house while solving simple puzzles, most of which involve acquiring objects within rooms and using them to complete tasks in other rooms.
The game’s first puzzle, in which players must unlock their own bike lock, is less about knowing the combination to the lock and more about knowing the combination of words needed to unlock the lock. Unfortunately, this was not the only puzzle where I knew what I wanted to do, but couldn’t figure out how to convey it to the game. Later, inside the house, I got stuck standing underneath a latch in the ceiling with a hook in one hand and some twine in the other. I prefer parser games to graphical “choose your own adventure” point-and-click games and appreciate the level of work that goes into programming them, but there’s a fine line between delivering freedom and frustration.
The sparse descriptions give The House on Sycamore Lane an old-school text adventure vibe. Examining your dirt bike reveals “it is your trusty dirt bike.” A pair of pliers found are “rusty, but functional.” There are no humorous descriptions or long passages of narrative to distract you from the tasks at hand. Most objects are described using only a few words, while room descriptions max out with a few sentences. In this text only medium, descriptions are where moods are set and mental images are painted, and I felt the game would have been more effective with more vivid descriptions. Authors often use item descriptions to provide depth to a story, an opportunity lost here.
Most fans of interactive fiction enjoy reading, which makes them particularly skilled at spotting typos. Unfortunately, this game is filled with them, which gives it an unpolished feel. I tried to overlook the way the game uses “your/you’re” and “its/it’s” interchangeably, but was driven bonkers by a “peperoni stick,” which literally stumped me until I realized the game was requiring me to misspell the object to pick it up. For any text adventure, but specifically one submitted to a competition, a bit of proofreading would give it a more professional look.
With all that said, at the core of The House on Sycamore Lane lies an entertaining little ghost story. As players move throughout the mansion searching for keys to unlock doors and such, certain objects, when acquired, trigger brief flashbacks. Over time, the story behind who has been haunting the house on Sycamore Lane (and why) is revealed — and, more importantly, a way to free the tortured spirit also becomes clear. It’s unfortunate that this story isn’t teased earlier in the game, as it’s definitely interesting. If I were to rework the game, I would either drop the opening subplot involving the middle school bully, or — even better — find a way to tie it into the overall theme of the game, creating a bit more cohesion. A couple of paragraphs at the beginning setting the tone and hinting at what is to come might also help set the mood. The actual story, which is the most compelling part of the game, is simply buried a bit too deep.
I’m not particularly adept at text adventures and it only took me about half an hour to work my way through The House on Sycamore Lane. There are a finite number of rooms within the house, so everywhere I turned I found objects looking for a puzzle to solve, or puzzles awaiting a solution. I don’t think at any point I ran out of places to go or wondered what I should be doing next, and I like that in a game of this scale. The size of the house was appropriate, with lots of rooms to explore and secrets to discover.
The House on Sycamore Lane isn’t terrible. There’s a fun mystery to be discovered by players willing to stick with the game long enough to find it. Interactive fiction games require interesting concepts along with polished writing. Paul Michael Winters has the former part down, and I would love to play another game by him with a bit more attention spent on the latter.