One of my group chat’s pastimes is sharing every time a listing for a “surprise house” is discovered on Twitter. Surprise houses are homes that look perfectly reasonable from the outside and host either some truly strange interior decoration choices or some poor architectural planning. In the case of 7355 River Trace Dr, our favorite room was described as “a court of hell and you’re on trial.” A great surprise house will have a moment like with 1204 S 18th Street, where all you can say is, “Glad the roof is normal at least.”
I think our fascination started with the infamously bad DIY architecture of the SomethingAwful forums, best remembered by GroverHaus, Doom Bathroom, and the Zipline of Death, but there’s a delightful jack in the box quality to a house that suddenly has way too many mannequins or looks like someone had a little too much fun with the prepackaged textures making a house for a 90s adventure game. Often, it only takes one or two rooms to make a house worthy of “surprise house” designation – after all, didn’t it really only take Room 237 and the bar room to transform The Overlook Hotel in The Shining?
Last year, the world discovered 8800 Blue Lick Rd and its virtual tour – and the game command, “find the bathtub.” If you haven’t toured 8800 Blue Lick Rd, please pause reading this and try to find the bathtub – it will likely not take you more than a half hour to experience, and I’m going to reference specific details of the space in the blog. I’m hardly the first person to write about 8800 Blue Lick Rd as a game – I like this summary of its history best. I started writing this piece as I was writing my Games of 2020 posts, and my friend Steve said “Alex, you left off 8800 Blue Lick Road.” I am still cursing myself for leaving it off the list.
The tour, of course, is what escalates 8800 Blue Lick Rd beyond its humble place as a listing – the mechanical process of figuring out where you can walk to next, and the maze of figuring out which rooms lead toward something new, is more mechanically involved than your average “walking simulator.” People have created their own scavenger hunts, meaning this is the first home tour I’m aware of that offers 100% completion.
As with all surprise houses, 8800 Blue Lick Rd tells its own story. The infamous bathtub belies the story of its history as a Christian school and church – the endless amount of refuse intimate the status as an independent reseller operation. The more personal details are told by the scarecrow display and the Hillside Swim Team towel. People lived here – a family lived here. They lived here recently enough that there’s laundry left undone, even setting aside the cat. Even looking at the living spaces, they are overstuffed to the point of disbelief. The trash clearly never goes out.
This house tells a story of collection. It tells a story of the excuse that “we can always sell it if we don’t want to keep it” leading to a hoarding breakdown. It tells a story of the excess of this reselling business crowding into the living spaces otherwise preserved – the “Star Wars fans” room that has old clothes and half-spent bottles of cologne is becoming an receptacle for inventory. The “living room” is also home to hundreds (if not thousands) of discs in binders and on spindles. The kitchen is a landing for the same sort of cardboard receptacle storage as the DVD rooms downstairs.
That personal story is a ghost story, and it is fiction. Nothing I suppose about the homeowner is necessarily backed up by Baio’s history and interview – when interviewed, he seems like a well-adjusted guy with a great seller score. It is not a story told by the living. It is a story told by their absence.
When video games attempt to tell the sort of story a surprise house tells, they tend to force the fiction out from ambiguity. In Gone Home, you will not just find a few of your grandfather’s possessions, you’ll find clues to open a safe and read his will, along with letters confessing his misdeeds. In a game like BioShock or The Last of Us, if those histories tie into a central character, they will be externally manifested as a direct confrontation or even boss fight. In a game like L.A. Noire or Skyrim, that investigation will become a weapon in your rhetorical arsenal to confront or manipulate the keeper of a secret. The joke of the “skeleton on the toilet” is really the home of most environmental storytelling – because games require the creation of unique assets, it’s very difficult to justify telling stories and then not drawing attention to them.
Action games employ this sort of explicit purpose for each object in order to fulfill their objectives as power fantasies, which makes sense. Even disempowerment fantasies like The Last of Us are about being able to fight back as things are taken from you, and the process of poring over homes and “taking what’s useful” is itself part of that fantasy. But I don’t think this is the only reward of power you can achieve with this sort of design. Fascination with the minutiae of life curated rewards an inherent voyeuristic fantasy – being able to wander through a dead home and touch what you want is still a power fantasy in Whatever Happened to Edith Finch, and that would be true even if you didn’t progress into fantasy sequences representing the untimely deaths of the unlucky Finch family.
That same mentality extends to the design of escape rooms, shows like Sleep No More, and their descendants. The true fusion seems to be beginning with the Las Vegas attraction Omega Mart, which escalates that live investigation through objects into a fully emergent narrative, with rebelling sisters and books of accounting to pore over. There is an anthropological code to crack, and a designed “story” to be learned. When I first heard about Omega Mart, I heard there were people with notebooks taking down every detail they could from record books in the shop’s manager’s office. It’s like if you combined Disneyland and Myst, and I wonder how many times you can charge someone admission before they’ve “solved it” to satisfaction.
Last year, an online haunted house game went into early access named Phasmophobia. Its predatory ghosts are procedurally generated in a way that does not necessarily connect to the property you explore. Playing as a paranormal investigation team (your Ghost Hunters vibes) you’re tasked with uncovering in what form the ghost has manifested and collecting documentation of paranormal activity before it strikes down your team with the efficiency of a slasher movie villain. The houses are very plain, largely owing to the game being developed by a single programmer. He’s hoping to have the game ready for a full release in 2021.
What’s wonderful about Phasmophobia is how little it takes to start getting the players psyched out. If lights go out, or water starts running, people immediately gravitate toward the assumption that the ghost objected to their actions. The game allows the player to use their mic to speak directly to the apparitions, meaning they might actually “not have liked something you said.” The different types of ghosts owe to different kinds of deaths, but at no point is the solution to an investigation “uncover who killed the ghost and how.” Obviously, there are programmers or hackers digging into the game’s code able to tell exactly how responsive the ghosts are to player action – but, so long as you keep that mystery for yourself, the game tells its own story.
I would like to see some handshaking between the ambiguity of Phasmophobia’s design and the haunted house exploration of a game like Gone Home, or Tacoma, or What Happened to Edith Finch. I’d like the feeling of a “surprise house” in a game, one that doesn’t feel the need to include a drama waiting to be discovered with the tone of a Hallmark drama or Netflix original miniseries. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, which does show its spirits incredibly directly, is a lot scarier before the final two episodes make thunderingly obvious every fright’s emotional and logistic purpose.
Aside from a brief property overview on a home like 203 E Morrison St, which can explain the architectural story at hand, there is no living record of the tenants. I think I appreciate that these homes are so mysterious – where Gone Home does offer the joys of a VHS collection to tell a story, 8800 Blue Lick Rd. offers no diary entries to explain why the owner has so many copies of The Devil’s Rejects. Anything we can guess about the personalities of the owners of 228 Townsend Ave is based in the obvious division in interests shown by the decor, though…they presumably have to have some overlap, right? I’d like more instances where I cannot have the full answer – I’d like more games that replicate the feeling of being somewhere you shouldn’t and being alone with your own projections onto the environment.
These haunted houses have no ghosts except the ones you bring in with you, and they need no more narrative than the excess which shaped them.