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Before I begin, a personal note: I’m a big fan of Choice of Games, both because of the sheer range of themes and authorial voices in their library of gamebooks and because of their inclusive ethos – more on that in a bit. Oh, and I’ve known Jason Stevan Hill, Choice of Games’ COO, and Nissa Campbell, author of Heart of the House, for years.
Heart of the House is a branching adventure with themes of mystery, horror, and romance, in a Victorian setting that eschews the goggles and cogs of steampunk in favor of the hauntings and seances of Spiritualism. Hold that planchard steady, my spirit guide tells me we’re not alone. Did you hear that? A single knock as upon a great door? Did you feel that? A touch of cold at the back of your neck? Did you see that? A tenebrous shadow, almost a face, then subsiding into a roil of tiny tentacles? They’re here.
They’re here, but who are you? Choice of Games has some of the best character generation in the industry: if you enjoyed answering the gypsy’s questions in the Ultima series (notwithstanding the stereotype), you’ll surely get into the way author Nissa Campbell guides you through your character’s backstory at the beginning of Heart of the House, starting with your first haunting, after your father was, ah, executed. [We apologize for the spoiler, and agree that the fact that this detail is revealed in the first few pages of the story is no excuse. -ed.]
There are decisions about how you took to the discovery of your gift, and whether you embraced the family business of occult investigation, as well as some more intimate questions about whose romantic attentions you favour (if any!) and your gender – there are five options there, including one for nonbinary gender. If you’re not familiar with what that means, play the first chapter Heart of the House – Campbell puts it well.
None of these options limit your choices, though they do have subtler impacts on game. Instead, they frame the significance of your choices: a man who has always thought of himself as straight may yet fall in love with another man, a woman may choose to dress like a dandy, and an enby (nonbinary person) might wear workmans’ clothes one day and a ball gown the next without “crossdressing.”
Whatever you chose, your uncle, the man who raised you, went missing while in the midst of an investigation, and it has taken you and your trusted assistant a year to trace his steps to Darnecroy House in sleepy, strange Wyeford. There you will meet the charismatic, impulsive Baron (or, depending on some of your previous choices, the Baroness) of Wyeford, their uncanny seneschal, Orianna, and Loren, a nonbinary servant with a preternaturally poor memory. There’s also the butler, but never mind him…
There is a nonbinary character in this story! If you didn’t know, I’m nonbinary, so for me the chance to play as an enby and interact with another enby was irresistible. Campbell handled the interaction with surprising subtlety and naturalness, and adroitly avoided a potential disaster in terms of representation… but to explain would require spoilers. I had the chance to interview Campbell about Heart of the House, and she credited Loren’s tangibility to the feedback of one of Choice of Games’ readers, a person who happened, unsurprisingly, to be nonbinary themself.
Representation matters – I’ve said elsewhere that you can write about anything, can and should include characters whose identity is outside your own experience, but that if you want to do it well, you have to be ready to listen to people who’ve lived what you’re writing about.
The rest of the story is as well-crafted as Loren is, and if you have an interest in Spiritualism, as I do, you’ll be just as satisfied as I am with what Campbell does with that tradition, replete as it is with genuine faith and unrepentant charlatanism. Spiritualism is a Universalist creed, meaning that one of its tenets is the salvation of all souls… it’s just that some of them are imprisoned, not by an angry god, but by their own attachments to the world, and need to be helped along, if possible. Campbell makes good use of this human agency in the salvation of others, and Heart of the House is full of meaningful ethical dilemmas revolving around souls that are in need of various forms of salvation. You can’t give everyone what they need, let alone want.
Campbell cites the supernatural Victorian m/m romances of K.J. Charles and Jordan Hawk as inspiration: I was more put in mind of Sarah Waters’ novels, with the Spiritualist themes of Water’s Affinity meeting the playful optimism of Tipping the Velvet. In any case, Heart of the House is, in the broadest sense, a queer narrative: you can play a straight, cisgender character and experience the game to its fullest, the only thing you can’t do is play as if LGBTQ+ folk don’t exist.
There are some elements of neo-Lovecraftian horror in the story, and while historical purists will note a complete absence of tentacles and tendrils (ethereal or otherwise) in historical Spiritualism, I found it to be a powerful way of conveying the more inhuman elements of the story, and that the fear of the alien inherent in that genre plays well with a Spiritualist cosmology where supernatural hazards are more significant that supernatural evil.
In the end, even if you are not particularly interested in Victoriana or Spiritualism, let alone queer representation, you’ll find the scares in Heart of the House to be more than sufficiently original and eerie; the mystery to be satisfyingly layered, with twists that hold up to scrutiny; the romance to be credible and as steamy (or pure and sweet) as you choose; and the decisions you make to have ethical consequences that continue to resonate at the end of the story. If any of that appeals to you, you can get Heart of the House on iOS, Android, or Steam. If you’re still not sure, you can try the first few chapters free online.