BEST OF 2016: The House Abandon – An Interview With Jon McKellan

The horror genre has seen a surprising amount of innovation in the last few years and quite frankly, it’s never been this good. Over the past twelve months, horror games have truly come of age and emerged as a category that can hold its terrifying head amongst science-fiction and fantasy as staples of the video game industry. The future of horror holds an incredible amount of promise for the next few years and whether it’s a result of Youtubers being scared out of their minds or some organic coincidence on the part of developers and publishers, these adventures into terror are tasting all kinds of success and everyone wants more.

In 2014, Creative Assembly’s brilliant Alien Isolation was a large factor in this resurgence. Dedication to a singular vision and painstaking attention to detail were just some of the many reasons why Isolation worked as well as it did. That detail held the player’s fascination while other games were satisfied to concentrate on other areas and not put everything they could into the tiniest of corners. The 1970’s aesthetic, the clunky technology and the art design made the world of Isolation’s Sevastopol Station come alive.

Small things make a world of difference. Jon McKellan had already proved this in his four years working at Creative Assembly. As Lead UI Artist on Isolation, McKellan designed (among other things) the two-tone, lo-fi interface screens and the incredibly haunting title sequence. His track record in creating atmosphere via the most minuscule of details flows throughout every part of Amanda Ripley’s descent into hell. But from there, as McKellan tells me, big things grew.

“I had been working in triple-A development for a number of years, and whilst I enjoyed the projects I was on, I found myself more and more wanting to be in control of the game direction itself. On Alien Isolation, I was brought on as UI artist, but by launch I had contributed to the writing and story, the game design, marketing materials, and even cut scenes in-game.”

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Hence, McKellan soon started his own independent games studio. With a small team based out of Glasgow, Scotland, No Code was launched in August 2015 and dedicated itself to smaller, more focused titles. With two iOS games (Lub vs Dub, Super Arc Light) already under their belt, the second half of 2016 saw No Code take part in the 72-hour Ludum Dare gamejam. Within 64 hours using the theme of ‘Ancient Technologies’, McKellan and No Code created the most exciting and skin-crawling horror game of 2016.

The House Abandon pulls on both the heartstrings of nostalgia and the nerves in the back of your mind. It twists and pulls the horror genre apart in ways that seem like absolute genius. It is primarily a text adventure game but it soon wrenches you out of this 30-year-old comfort zone into a realm of untapped fear. Towards the end, it breaches a door in game design that was always there but perhaps nobody was crazy enough to ever use. Either way, it is a stunning game from start to finish.

McKellan talks about the base design itself. “I played a lot of Commodore, MSX and Spectrum when I was a kid with my Dad, and we played through a few text adventures, and pretty much all the Lucasarts and Sierra Adventures. Text adventures in particular really resonated with me, and still do, because I loved how it allowed me to make the imagery and imagine the environments whilst being fed an interesting story. We had settled on doing a text adventure because we had never done one, but as an artist I felt a little short-changed by my own idea! I thought it would be great if we could have an immersive atmosphere around the game, that reacted to the game you were playing, and that’s when it clicked. Once we had the basic input and text display system in place, I started writing as fast and as weird as I could.”

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The point in The House Abandon where it ‘clicks’ is the peak of compelling storytelling. No spoilers here but everything drops away at that moment and you suddenly need to see what happens next.

That’s where No Code’s philosophy of game design comes in. The House Abandon is like the best kind of short story. It echoes the finest moments of the tales lurking in books such as Stephen King’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes or the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe. Stories that arrive, creep under your skin and leave before you could possibly put up any kind of defence. Currently available for free on PC & Mac, the in-game text adventure can only be played via a real-life keyboard. Nostalgia-laden commands such as ‘Go To Bedroom’ and ‘Use Generator’ force the player to imagine what kind of landscape shapes this world. All the while, the game is starting to bleed into a second reality. But in quick, dangerous moments that McKellan is clearly (and rightfully) proud of.

“I think No Code is all about shorter more confined stories that do something small really well. That’s the aim anyway. I think there are loads of great stories out there, that go untold because they can’t be stretched into 8 hours plus. I think small experiences are great, and can be even better if we throw some triple-A effort into presentation and art. I love what we did on Alien in that sense, so trying to pull some of that on to our own personal projects is a big thing for us.”

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The worst thing a horror game can do is be boring. Taking the same old roads to try to squeeze some atmosphere or scares out of the player are alarm bells that can go off very quickly inside your head and ruin any sense of excitement in storytelling. So when The House Abandon’s concepts come completely out of left field and make you question everything about what you have been playing, it is a relief and becomes something you want to sink your hungry teeth into immediately. McKellan’s experience with helping Amanda Ripley run and hide from the worst creature in the universe led to him to want to take even more chances by throwing a player into the deep end of fear. Without their knowledge.

“I was worried people would think it was a cheap way to make a game rather than a deliberate design. It takes people quite a while to get to the first event, which was deliberate. I wanted people to be comfortable with the systems and become familiar with the environment in their heads, so that when we flip the switch, they instantly realise what is going on. Building a sense of ‘cautious relaxation’ is important. People know it’s a horror going in, but we take so long to get to the meat of the experience that people start to relax. That’s where we want them to be – relaxed enough to be thrown off-balance when we turn things up, but cautious enough that they know something will happen eventually.”

McKellan and No Code have created a unique experience that every horror creator, not just in games but in all media, should be viewing. The House Abandon’s twisted expectations, comfortable nostalgia and nerve-shredding ending are ideas to devour and build on. It is a quiet yet phenomenal game to lose yourself in. Made all the more incredible by being made in only three days.  No Code themselves have plans to push further boundaries. All their development updates state how busy they are preparing for 2017. If The House Abandon is any indication of their output, this is a team that should be allowed to take all the time they need.

“Over the next 2 years we’ve got several projects lined up. We had a bit of time before our next big thing kicks off early next year, so we decided to see what we could do with The House Abandon in the meantime after it got so much attention. It’s now grown into something I’m really proud of and I can’t wait to show people what we’ve done! We’ll be announcing things very soon, so all I can say for now is that we’ve taken The House Abandon, and really really ran with it. It’s bloody terrifying, frankly, and I think we’ve created something genuinely original to play. It’s insane.”

Terrifying, original and insane. Sign me up.

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