6 min read

Round Table - House of Leaves, the text adventure

There's probably a good chance that Danielewski was inspired, at least in part, by Infocom's Zork (or is it a coincidence caused by the authors of both texts attending universities in New England and sharing interests in mythology?).
East of House
You are standing in an open field east of a brick house, with an open screen door.
There is a small mailbox here.

> examine mailbox

Opening the mailbox reveals a leaflet and dozens of envelopes - more than you would have thought could fit inside the small space.

> read leaflet

Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, with it's central rural house and supernatural, labyrinthine caverns, is so similar to the stereotypical settings found in classic text adventure games that I feel a little cheap picking it for this month's round table. There's probably a good chance that Danielewski was inspired, at least in part, by Infocom's Zork (or is it a coincidence caused by the authors of both texts attending universities in New England and sharing interests in mythology?). In any case, how would a text adventure approach the confusion, horror, insanity, and obsessively detailed footnotes that the novel is known for? For the following game description, I'm going to assume familiarity with the novel's plot and characters.

The core of the game would be based on the telling and experiencing of The Navidson Record from Will Navidson's point of view, which the player assumes. This aspect of the game would incorporate standard text adventure exploration, interaction, and conversation. The plot is already written and would remain relatively unchanged from the novel, beginning on the day you move in to the house with your family, and ending at, well, the conclusion of Will's story.

Following the format of the novel, each narrative 'voice' would be represented by a distinct typeface, and this text would be arranged in increasingly unusual forms and patterns that mirror the madness and fear of the central characters. This insanity feedback would also eventually affect the player's input ability. The claustrophobia of the labyrinth is reinforced by limiting the player's available input characters in certain places. The deeper into the labyrinth you go, the less characters you are able to type into the command prompt. You might suddenly find yourself unable to even 'wait' or 'look', and can only press single letters (w, e, s, n) in order to navigate back to a safer location. After physical and psychological preparation, however, you're able to venture further into the maze without losing the ability to act. Other points in the game would have different input problems to overcome -- writing backwards, only recognizing capital letters, dropping letters and words, and so on. An entire subset of puzzles would involve the player directly interacting with the text input of the program, just as the novel often forces the reader to struggle with the layout of the text on the page.

The game would employ four main narrative voices: The Player (Input), Will Navidson (Protagonist), Johnny Truant (Parser), and Zampanò (Descriptions). Text spoken by Will's wife, children, brother, and friends would fall under Zampanò's descriptive voice. The parser, with text such as 'Are you sure you want to quit?' or 'I don't understand "laugh"', is traditionally extranarrative, but in this case it would become an integral part of the experience, written to sound like Johnny Truant and not a confused computer algorithm. To briefly summarize these character roles in the novel, Zampanò wrote pages and pages of analysis on The Navidson Record, which was a documentary film telling the story of the Navidson family and their new house. Johnny Truant then found Zampanò's notes and began to write an autobiographical account of his attempt to understand them, while supplementing Zampanò's observations and research with his own footnotes (whew, there was a reason I wanted to assume reader familiarity with the novel). 

The point to understand here is Johnny Truant's role as parser/footnoter would be far more involved than what we're used to seeing in text adventures. Inputting a verb that the program doesn't understand how to perform, for example, would result in a digression (varying in length from one word to several paragraphs) in the voice of Johnny about anything and everything that might be applicable (using keyword searches, plot progression analysis, and other tricks to come up with relevant text). In addition to the tangents Johnny goes off on in the novel, some text adventure specific passages would also be included, disguising those necessary extranarrative actions. This approach allows for some interesting gameplay to emerge. The player will be jumping in and out of the world of The Navidson Record, as Johnny Truant provides opportunity for further reading and diversion away from Will Navidson's immediate goals. 

One of the interesting things about the novel is that the unique typefaces allow the reader to read through Zampanò's description of The Navidson Record without reading a word of Johnny Truant's, which is a satisfying and complete story in itself. Similarly, it would be possible for a player to focus entirely on the Will Navidson portion of this text adventure and never follow any of the other paths provided by Johnny Truant/the game parser. Communication with Johnny would, however, be possible (and encouraged!) using indirect methods. The player will eventually find it worthwhile to type phrases they know will not serve any purpose in the world of Navidson, in the hopes that Johnny might respond and lead them to some interesting 'footnote' information or clue. And as Johnny's text causes Zampanò's world descriptions to scroll past, eventually being pushed off the screen out of sight, the player might forget what they were doing or where they were in Navidson's world. Scrolling up reveals that the paragraphs have been deleted. When you type 'look' it is Johnny who responds, not Zampanò with a description of Will's kitchen as you had expected. The puzzle is now in how to get back in control Will Navidson and put this omnipresent parser back in its place, in service to achieving the goals of The Navidson Record narrative. And once you've grounded yourself, escaped Johnny Truant's wikipedia-esque web of supplemental information and autobiographical indulgences, you find yourself, now in control of Will, faced with navigating an infinitely expanding labyrinth of another sort, beneath the house the Navidsons just moved into.

Little solace comes
to those who grieve
when thoughts keep drifting
as walls keep shifting
and this great blue world of ours
seems a house of leaves
Moments before the wind.

                                     -House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski

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