Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher ’s first paragraph, carried by dizzied, wavering prose that later on gives easily into poetry, foregrounds it as a work of architectural critique firstly — Gothic of course being the vital architectural term — but one that understands the unit of the building as something in conjunction with the trees, the lake that it reflects into and eventually literally collapses into, with disease, with history, all overpowering or perhaps emanating from the Ushers themselves. To even speak of elements in the story as being in any respect separate from one another even on the rudimentary level of, say, a person being a different person to another person or the end not being embedded in the start seems nonsensical, the whole story is so much one tight unit illuminated from different angles that are only understood as a whole through juxtaposition and negation. Everything is just a different facet of the House, and things like plot or free will or larger social-realist contextualization scarcely exist, so dominated is everything by its essential internal natures and relations. At the same time, it is precisely the state of fractured disunity that spells final doom, a house divided amongst itself etc. The post-structuralists are very excited about this, as are high school English teachers searching for texts to reduce to algebra. (For a first-hand overview of the critical discussion I am frankly hopeless to summarize the breadth nor depth of here, please consult Twentieth Century Interpretations Of The Fall Of The House Of Usher , courtesy of the Internet Archive, without which I would have been left with a thousand Cliffs Notes ripoffs, the first page or mere abstracts that JSTOR or its -alikes allowed me to see, or randomly-redacted Google Books. Consider donating.)
Not least tempting is the way it contains its own reflexive focus on art, from abstract paintings to poems to music and its depiction of literature, which posits the act of reading aloud as a kind of magic incantation summoning, unbidden and unwanted, real sound that serves to underline the way art interpretation’s inextricably intertwined with the mutual intrusion of the reader’s environment and mind, even when we reach to escape into the banal. (This despite the aforementioned absence of concern with social-realist context like historical atrocity or contemporary injustice.) We identify with our narrator, the visitor, who is defined by deference to belittling clinicism towards his ostensible friend even as that as same mode fails to identify Madeline’s illness, by deference to the rationality of coincidence even as it fails to explain or predict anything that happens in this intensely heightened poetic world better than Roderick Usher’s repeatedly vindicated, spiritual, animist paranoia — not that a more accurate viewpoint serves R. Usher well. The visitor swallows his intuition of dread instead. A common thread, albeit a flattening and trite one: Horror is not fear of the unknown and the surprise, but fear of the well-known and suppressed, bursting forth, Madeline from the crypt below the house not dead but quite alive.
The Fall Of The House Of Usher is a surprisingly popular choice for adaptation, from operas by the likes of Debussy and Philip Glass, to both the first and last film of independent gay filmmaker Curtis Harrington at ages 14 and 73, to two separate 1928 silent films that respectively epitomize Impressionism and Expressionism. These adaptations can take great liberties with the original, from the Expressionist one that outright dissolves the plot, to what may be our actual subject’s namesake House Of Usher  rearranging our passive narrator into an active protagonist motivated by heteronormative love and explaining things precisely by way of medical science. Despite this legacy, it’s an idiosyncratic and esoteric choice for video game adaptation — although, fittingly for the textual twinning, House Of Usher  too has its pair in House Of Usher . As far as plots go, the embedded story Mad Trist of a knight slaying a dragon for love feels more standard to early gaming than nonspecific eerie dissolution. And if you’re going to trade upon the recognition of an out-of-copyright horror work, why not make a Frankenstein game instead? This is not a product of savvy marketing like Pac-Man  was from concept on down, but a product of passion or at least whim. The Fall Of The House Of Usher is not, however, ill-suited for video game adaptation, as one might assume.
The game opens with the above screen which, like the opening paragraph of the short story, functions as its thesis statement: an electrified House of Usher. There is no Fall Of in the title, the house stands strong and the game is the house. This plays well off of what I’ve thus far advocated as the untapped horror potential of these early video games, their ability to be objects or artifacts of horror more than tales of horror. The attraction is turning on your Apple II or Atari 800 and exploring the novelty of a virtual space, bumping up against an obstruction to discover if it’s a piano or a poison, the intrigue of deciphering what anything is meant to be through the low fidelity of its stark art style, all blacks and whites and stripes beyond the above opening screen, leveraging both medium strengths and weaknesses to its advantage and recalling the Expressionist silent adaptation. (By the way, one of my absolute most favorite movies and very short, do check it out.)
House Of Usher is faithful to the architectural core of the text more than it is faithful to any notion of narrative, not even including things like Roderick from the book. The geography initially seems houselike enough, with a guest room and kitchen, but the further in to the house you venture, the more the logic breaks down into dreamlike approximation, a connection explicitly drawn in the manual’s flavor text. This is a mansion with its own inexplicable chapel upstairs, with a set of two separate doors that lead only to one another. There’s a randomly-generated secret passage ala Clue . In my copy, there is a room glitched enough to kill the game upon entry, which seems never more appropriate and really accentuated the apprehension of entering every new room. Like the short story, the whole game rests macabre upon a crypt, and under that is a torture chamber and laboratory, a shift over the century and a half from scientific rationality as impotent and deficient to science as a source of horror itself. This computer game locates in the crypt from which the sickness of the House emanates not implacable dis-ease, not anthropomorphized architecture, not the feminine Madeline Usher wasting away (her equivalent seems to be ill in bed above in the “Red Room,” and while I’m in a parenthetical it’s worth noting that a woman, Patty Bell, was credited as co-lead creator here,) but instead savvily identifies the technological progress computer games are built on as likewise the psychic foundation of the game’s House, the source of the inter-generational suppressed horror. I don’t know my Lovecraft (thanked in the game manual) but from what I’ve read, this owes to his eschatology but inverts his depiction of rationality as a perpetually-failing bulwark.
The game may as well not have a goal beyond exploration. Very stubborn game. Its nominal winstates are vague, potently underwhelming afterthoughts: kill two enemies for courage points, luck into the randomization handing you enough treasure, and the wisp of a mystery, which the reward for solving first was $100 in real life. This sales gimmick (which publisher Crystalware would reuse many times) is also a substitute for any in-fiction motivation for you to go into the House other than because it’s there. The mystery is extraordinarily paratextual. Not only is it only outlined in the manual, but even there, it consists of three “clues” that are extracts from the works of Edgar Allen Poe, one of which is not from The Fall Of The House Of Usher, and one of which is its French epitaph. In other words, the “mystery” is fascinatingly, not so much a gameplay challenge or puzzle as it is a challenge of literary interpretation of multilingual juxtaposition. You can also run out of time when dawn breaks at 6 AM, as though you are a vampire, or collapse dead on the spot from sheer exhaustion if your health runs too low. (I like to imagine the house also falls apart atop you like in the story.)
The CRPG Addict’s article (without which this one would not exist) identifies the game as not a RPG at all, but as an adventure game that happens to be graphical, top-down, and have stats. That makes sense, you’re not playing a role and it clearly inherits and expands upon the philosophy of geographical survey and collecting from the Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77] school while removing the puzzles, but then again, Rogue  from last week does all that too, and moreover was directly identified by the developers as existing in the same genre as Colossal Cave Adventure (a “fantasy game”.) Genre is a very fluid thing, always but especially in young artforms. House Of Usher uses Crystalware’s one-size-fits-all engine, and seems designed with no particular notion of gameplay genre. Odd, then, that what genre it is becomes so very definite and clear in retrospect.
I’ve seen multiple places cite House Of Usher as a proto-survival horror, but… there’s no “proto-” about it, even if the observation I parroted a couple weeks ago that we don’t see another full-fledged and recognized instance until the other end of the decade with Sweet Home  holds up. This is textbook survival horror, full stop, if genres are checklists. You explore a spooky, hard-to-navigate mansion at night under constraints of your character stats, including limited ammo, a constantly-depleting health bar mitigated by items from an unusually restrictive inventory system. Like Alone In The Dark , the Lovecraft connection in the conceptualization of a haunted house is explicit (which makes this game very Providence, Rhode Island.) Admittedly, there’s no puzzles unless you’re going to count the overarching mystery. It’s light on chasing, until you enter a room with an enemy in it — an enemy that, erratically and in real time, moves approximately three times for every once you can move as you hammer on the key in the hopes that the computer will elect to finally accept your input.
Ah, and the movement! The movement keys are mapped as follows: Press 1 for up, 2 for right, 3 for down, and 4 for left. There’s no number pads on the keyboards of either computer this game was on, so this is on the number line. You might notice that this means the button to send you left is on the right and vice versa. It’s almost impossible to get an intuitive grasp on this drunk-mode interface, which makes it a shame that this was apparently Crystalware’s go-to engine — but here, with this theming, it’s a stroke of genius. Most of the time, you’re under only a very generous time pressure so you can be careful and screw-ups aren’t that important, until you wander unawares into a room with one of those enemies randomly placed in it. Like in Berzerk , you have to move in the direction you want to fire before firing, so the interface and computer speed conspire to make it an tense frisson of panicked fumbling: you have to step one tile towards an enemy to attack and hope it wanders into your line of fire, or run away, and you have to commit right away. It’s very impactful, and the constrained player agency here is a far cry from the ease of killing one of the Space Invaders  or the banal randomized effectiveness of Rogue. I can really see why “bad” controls are also on the Survival Horror checklist.
The variety of enemies which assail you with only bites are strange and campy, from sorcerers to Worm Man to none other than Baby Usher. Yes, this game beat Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare  to the punch in allowing you to shoot an infant in the face! It’s coded like any other monster, even though you’d think its biting would be more like gumming, so I assume you get rewarded with the same courage points too. I don’t know if it guilt-trips you for killing it because I didn’t, which makes me a good person, but I strongly predict not. It also implies another generation of Ushers that you are actively stamping out, of… unknown but likely untoward providence, and it casts the player character (who here is only a direct avatar between user and computer world) in a morally-dubious light. It must be a kind of dark, tasteless joke, with no punchline, only shock and revulsion. Nevertheless, like Death Race  trading on the abhorrence of intentional vehicular homicide, a dead baby joke only works because everyone involved is presumed to know murdering a baby is absurdly far past the line of any moral decency and thus implicitly reinforces it; contrast the dead baby scold, which is far more morally alarming for its strenuous indication that the audience can not be trusted to be on the correct side of that line, or the line that separates virtual fiction from real-life guidance.
The elephant in the room is how this is my black sheep: House Of Usher is the first game I’m covering that’s been basically totally forgotten, though I’d rank it as a qualified aesthetic success of an experiment. When we talk about nothing but Ataris and Namcos, it leaves a massive hole in the story and creates a blind spot where many people don’t seem to know that what we’d now call “indie” developers, like House Of Usher’s Crystalware, have always existed and have staked out valuable aesthetic ground. To qualify for a place in the ad-hoc Hall Of Fame, though, you gotta get distribution enough to be widely remembered, which small-timers have an uphill battle against. In addition, House Of Usher is very rough-hewn, and its marketing gimmick of the $100 prize was apparently good enough to juice it to profit, but its Crystalware-characteristic oddball, and in this case even high-brow choice of subject matter, limited its hit potential. Which is fine, right? Not everything has to be a hit to be validated and worthwhile of consideration. I think it earns its spot as a highlight of 1980 on the merits, but there are and will be more games that are obscure successes that I elide… The concept of a canon is inherently a deeply flawed one, and yes, I know I did found an entire blog on it. It reinforces the dominance of the already-dominant, like the predominance of corporations, like the present over the past, like how Patty Bell is the first female game developer we’ve seen on this blog since The Sumer Game . But you can’t simply “fix” a canon by throwing in a few new choices and champions: even a totally-alternative canon is a warping proposition to turn history into statues, and Lovecraft, Poe, and John Bell (who has a Twitter account inactive since 2017 where he follows only Trump, Ivanka, and Kellyanne Conway) are not human beings who I want to elevate the stature of.