The Ill Communication

MS Home - Gahan Wilson's The Ultimate Haunted House
November 15, 2016 | 20:18 | Written by: snake911

"What about the kids?"

Sure, Microsoft is using Home to help children expand their knowledge with software found in the Reference and Exploration catalog with products like Encarta, Microsoft Dinosaurs, and Microsoft Dangerous Creatures, but let's be honest: while interesting as those applications may be, it's about as fun as walking through a museum.  Where's the games!

As we saw in an earlier MS Home article, games are in the Entertainment catalog, but most are either remakes of arcade classics or flight simulators without much focus on kids being the primary players.  With this in mind, Microsoft went about and created the Kids catalog that is robust in software for the pint-sized computer user with titles that include games with educational topics in mind or just plain old fun.  Falling in line with the latter, this game is probably the oddest duck found in the kids section.

Gahan Wilson's The Ultimate Haunted House is an exploration game that has the player wonder around the inside of a haunted house.  You're trapped inside and need to find 13 keys hidden throughout the house before the thirteenth hour is herd chiming from the antique clock in the foyer.  If you don't find the keys in time, you're trapped in the house forever! *sounds of thunder*

I find this game to be odd because of its art, which is done by Gahan Wilson, an artist known for his macabre illustrations that center around monsters and murderers.  For this game, he toned down the spook level and designed monsters that were softer and kid friendly; otherwise I think kids may have been traumatized after playing the game.  But Gahan didn't just provide the art, he came up with the idea for the game itself, so when I say this is an odd game, he'd probably take it as a complement.

In relation to the character art, the backgrounds are drawn in the same fashion: non-straight, hand drawn lines filled in with bright, vibrant colors.  It's like playing a cartoon!  Which I'm sure looked absolutely amazing back in 1994 when the game came out, and actually still does today because of the hand drawn style of it all.  If anything, it has a real unique look that detaches itself from looking like most other games from the time that shared the same engine and thus had similar looking styles.  Some examples include games from LucasArts which used the SCUMM engine or games from Sierra using the SCI engine.

Ultimate Haunted House is a point-and-click game minus all of the verbs at the bottom of the screen.  Kids were kept in mind when designing this game as all of the menu options have been simplified to the max where Windows OS styled windows are kept to an minimum (mostly used for saving and loading games).  If anything, you can relate it more to Myst in the way that there are no option windows to take the player out of the experience.  The clock in the foyer acts like an options menu baked into the game itself with options like saving, loading, quitting the game, and accessing the help system.

As noted earlier, the goal of the game is to escape the mansion by collecting 13 keys hidden throughout the house.  There's an overall timer, so you need to complete the game within a limited time or it's game over.  13 in-game hours is all you have, where in real life is about 20-25 minutes per in-game hour.  The house has 13 rooms to cover, so this isn't the kind of game for they player to dally about.  You need to start searching for keys immediately.

The most interesting thing about UHH is the randomness of it all.  When you start a new game you need to select a difficulty level where the higher the difficulty, the more tasks you need to go through in order to find a key.  For example, instead of giving a monster two items, you only need to give one.  Rather than searching for and collecting a number of things and then combining them together to create a unique item, which in turn you give to a monster to receive a key, the already constructed item can be found without the need to scavenge for each thing and knowing what items you need to collect to construct it.

To help with that, there's a library with many books in it including cook books, formulas, spells, encyclopedias, and diaries.  Even though they are written to be funny, reading all of the books is rather dull and sucks the fun out of the game; and I doubt many (if any) kids cared about that part.  It kind of reminds me of the library in Myst where reading all of the partially burnt books on the shelf are time consuming and boring.  But fortunately for Myst there is no time limit, so you can read all of the materials at a leisurely pace.  UHH on the other hand has a time limit, and you get anxious when you are reading through the books because you hear the clock bell ringing from the foyer letting you know another hour has slipped by.

The monsters and where they show up are random.  When they want something from you, it might be different from what they wanted from a previous playthrough, although they have personalities and will want or reject items to match who they are.  For example the vampiress will reject a hand mirror while Frankenstein (Frankenstein's monster, whatever) will accept a brain.  The game encourages the player to try items out on many things to see if it triggers an event.  You might be hesitant to do that, but there is a place in the mansion to retrieve items, so don't fret over permanently losing an item while experimenting.  Go nuts!

Other than the library, there's not much reading in UHH.  Most is dialog spoken from the monsters and objects in the house.  Each monster has quite a bit of dialog to match whatever you hand over to it.  Once you complete the game you might have heard just a small fraction of all the dialog created for the game.  Even the Help and Tips options are all told through spoken dialog.  In addition, Gahan Wilson provides the voice for one of the monsters, a ghost with a good and an evil personality (also named Gahan).

If you're able to find all 13 keys within the time limit and escape the mansion, you literally get rewarded with items.  Although not very exciting, they consist of media files that include audio drops in WAV format and comic art from Gary in the BMP format where you need to open and view it with something like MS Paint.  Pretty weird that they give you this stuff outside of the game.  For kids, it seems like it would have been more practical to have an option menu called Rewards within the game that allows the player to playback the sound files or display the images so you can view them whenever you want without having to use 3rd party or OS level programs.  I don't know, maybe that was their sinister plan to have kids explore the operating system with the purpose of having them get familiar with Microsoft programs and the Windows platform.

When you look at the game as a whole, you can see it being like an interactive version of a children's story book.  One of the more eerie ones with creepy looking illustrations where you pause and think to yourself "is this ok for a child to read?"  Although it came out at a time before the ESRB, they did give a recommendation for players to be 8 years or older, which gives them some wiggle room with some of the content like seeing what appears to be blood spattered on some of the devices in the wreck room.  And with content like that, this makes it the most interesting game in the Kids catalog of Microsoft Home.  The kids love it!

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