Mystery House: A fun murder mystery game for all your social distancing needs!

Hello all my lovely people, I hope you’re having a fabulous quarantine. If you are in need of some entertainment during this weird and strange time in our lives, you’ve come to the right place! In this post I’ll be showing you the wildly simple and strangely complex game called Mystery_House.dsk which is filled with murder, doors, and two-word commands. The game 100% reminded me of my cult classic favorite, Clue, which everyone should watch immediately.

There are numerous versions of the game when you click the link Trevor provided in the syllabus, but I went ahead and played the original game. In order to play Mystery_House.dsk you have to download a Glulx interpreter which was something totally foreign to me. According to the website, it’s not included in our major operating systems like Windows and OS X. This interpreter, from what I understand, is a program that reads a story file and allows you to play the interactive fiction game, which is what Mystery_House.dsk is. All I really understand is that I needed to download this software in order to download and play Mystery_House.dsk, so maybe Trevor could explain more in the comments!

If this game isn’t the epitome of the 1980s computer abilities I don’t know what is. That being said, it’s actually a really cool game that has lots of hidden secrets. The game starts at this big mystery house and when you enter, you are met by seven people who soon disappear and as you move about the house, you find them dead throughout and your ultimate goal is to find out which of the seven people in the house killed everyone else. Does it sound like Clue yet?????

Instead of being able to move freely around the house like games nowadays, the only way you can move and look at things is by using two-word commands. Usually you start by choosing a verb, such as go, look, open, close, up, down, take, read, etc. and add a noun with it to perform the action on. So many of the commands I found myself using were “open door,” “go door,” “look body,” “take [object],” “go stairs,” etc. In order to move about the house you have to use cardinal directions by either typing “north” or “n.”

As simple as the game seems, it’s honestly kind of hard to maneuver since you can only give two-word commands. I tried to play a few times before I just couldn’t figure out how to stop the game from going dark (you have to find a candle and matches to keep the game lit). I found some walkthroughs to be able to play and see the game with more ease because I couldn’t even get up the stairs to the house the first few times I played oops.

Once I had the walkthrough the game went by quickly and it was fun to see how the game is supposed to be played. Almost every room there seems to be a dead body that gives more clues to who the killer is, along with four notes that are littered throughout the game. These notes can be picked up as clues to where the treasure is saying things like “7-6=1. Then I am done!” suggesting the murderer will kill everyone in the house until they are the only one left. The last note is picked up by the killer themselves, spoiler alert, it’s Daisy, and it says “It’s in the basement!” referring to the treasure. I did learn if you try to take the note from Daisy before you kill her, she’ll kill you first.

Matthew Kirschenbaum in Mechanisms goes over the game in his third chapter and along with playing the game, he uses a hex editor to go through the actual coding and ins and outs of the disk that the game is on. After a quick google search, I found that a hex editor allows you to edit the raw data of a file instead of having the computer software attempt to interpret the file for you. With the hex editor, he is able to read between tracks where he can tell that Mystery_House.dsk is not the only game on the disk and that other games previously existed on the same disk. He explains that even though Mystery_House.dsk is the primary game on the disk, by using the hex editor you can find bits and pieces of other games that once existed on the disk and had been overwritten. He specifically found a game called Dung Beetles and a Pac-Man like game in between two tracks on the disk. I am still a little confused as to how the hex editor works so maybe Trevor could elaborate on that too!

In conclusion, go play the game or watch Clue during your quarantine!!!

11 Replies to “Mystery House: A fun murder mystery game for all your social distancing needs!”

  1. This made me so nostalgic for the childhood games that came in cereal boxes– anybody else?? Thanks for sharing, I genuinely think that this will come in handy in the next few weeks of isolation!

  2. Beautiful explanation of the game, Sarah! As soon as I started to read your post I started to think about the coding behind the game and why “it is the way it is.” One of the many links I clicked on and little rabbit holes I went down talked about the meaning and intentionality behind the coding and what a player can and can not do. (Like lacking the ability to move freely around the house – maybe this was to keep the game more simple, but we may never know) I’m also curious about the information lingering on the disk…. WHAT SECRETS ARE INSIDE?! Basically, I’ve learned that most of our choices in the digital world are significant, intentional, and inevitably meaningful. (Regardless if we assign them that meaning.)

    1. Thanks for such a clear and concise explanation of the game, Sarah! I had similar thoughts to Ani, wondering myself why might be the reasons for such simple commands to be the only way to move throughout the house. This reminded me of when we examine source material as historians– they’re both puzzles of a sort that can be slightly open to interpretation unless we can speak to their direct creators. Similar questions continue when I think about the other games Kirschenbaum found on the disk, and how it is very hard to leave no trace of previous iterations in the digital world nowadays. I wonder what that will do for historians in a century or so trying to understand our world?

  3. Hi Sarah, thanks so much for this post! Mystery House is super clever and creative for its time, though going back and trying to make sense of it in 2020 almost makes it seem like “new.” The technical complexities of disk images are certainly new to me–the Digital Archivist I worked with at W&M trying to teach me about hexadecimal notations to little avail. I do find the prospect of using “forensic materiality” to answer questions about the nature and history of a disk to be super fascinating. The biggest question I had about Kirschenbaum’s discovery of “bits” of old data stored on the disk is why those bits of old data from previous games don’t interfere with the current game–in this case, Mystery House? It it in the very nature of the disk to prevent residual bits from interfering? Is it luck? Does it depend on the game? All of these questions are ones that Kirschenbaum can (or did) answer, I’m sure, but the notion that former data could interfere with new data would change what we can “know” about the history or the disk or intentions of the creators, no?

  4. Huge congrats on figuring out how to get the game up and running! It is indeed an important game in it’s own right, and as you point out it plays a Key role in Kirshenbaum’s book. I’m happy to help everyone sort through what is going on there with the hex editor too.

    My sense is that the moment in Kirshenbaum’s book where he finds text from Dung Beetles and a Pac-Man in the ROM for Mystery House is the central payoff of the whole book. It makes no sense. Why is there text from those other games in there? As Sarah notes, it’s because those games were on the disk before it this game was put on that disk.

    At this point, you should rightly be asking. Wait, what disk? He downloaded a file off the internet. This involved no disk. Which is totally true, but also, because of the way that formal and forensic materiality work, it is also totally not true.

    He downloaded a disk, he downloaded a file, but that file is a full copy of every bit of data that was on someone’s original floppy disk. That person who had that floppy disk had overwritten those other games, but, as we learned from Kirshenbaum, content isn’t really erased from disks when we overwrite them. Instead, that content is marked as being empty by the system. So when new data was written onto the disk it overwrote lots of the data but not all of it. This get’s at the screen essentialism point. Each view of some set of data is just one possible view and when you poke around in deeper layers in the data you can find all sorts of interesting traces of layers of history of content and formats.

    So what he ends up finding is traces of games that were overwritten by someone which now persist in copies of that disk that are circulating online.

    I don’t know about you all but I think that’s pretty wild. It’s also a really important object lesson for unpacking a lot of the major concepts that Kirshenbaum is teaching us all about.

  5. This is so cool, Sarah! This is perhaps going in a different direction, but considering how this kind of game could be used to teach history made me consider the limitations of using a first-person narration. A lot of public historians shy away from asking their audience to “imagine yourself” in a particular setting, and at least superficially that’s what role-playing games seem to do. Does this change by having users actively partake in simulations of events? Are they actually becoming participants in the recreated historical events? Not quite the point of Mechanisms, but I kept coming back thinking about first-person narration!

    1. Kimberly,

      You make a really good point here– video games almost toe the line between best practices in history… I think you may be right in pointing out the possible risks of using first-person narratives in historical areas. This seems especially poignant in video games that utilize violence in historic scenarios (thinking of Call of Duty, for example) that can completely change how we see history. I wonder if historically difficult topics like war even have a place in the entertainment industry– a HUGE and very separate topic!

  6. I have been stuck in my house, with a doctor mother who comes home at the end of the more stressed than any one I have ever seen. I showed her this game, we played it together, and for the first time in a few days, I saw her smile. It was really nice to have this old timey game bring happiness to my mother when she most needed it. P.S. I hate technology, but this was easy even for me to understand.

  7. Thanks, Sarah! It was very helpful for me to read your explanation of Mystery House and what else he found on the disk he downloaded. It’s interesting to me that such a seemingly narrow focus of study (Mystery House disk image) can be analyzed to reveal so much about digital objects (as Trevor points out, what this says about screen essentialism). It makes me wonder what other authors have been in conversation with Kirschenbaum on the topic of digital objects and their textuality (does that make sense?) and how they’ve built on his work and contested it.

  8. Sarah! Great post! It is incredible to think about how such a simple game can teach us so much about the way people engage with digital objects. I can’t help but echo my interest in looking at erased information on floppy disks (and other similar devices) as sources in themselves. What was deleted on those to make room for something (presumably) more significant

  9. Sarah,
    Thank you for your post. From the outset, I just need to second your Clue recommendation; since quarantine began, I believe I’ve watched the *VHS* version of that movie at least three times. Such a great film!

    After reading Kirschenbaum’s piece about this game, and having glitched a video for practicum this week as well, I am reminded of digital tools–these sorts of platforms are crafted to be subversive and iterative. The premise of Mystery House is inherently subversive when compared to mainstream games; rather than being linear, it allows the user to create their own meanings & outcomes. In addition, Kirschenbaum discovering overwritten–but never erased–versions of different games within the Mystery House files displays the iterative practice at play here.

    Screen essentialism is also at the heart of this conversation; with some digging, we can unlock a whole history of files, bytes, etc. and their iterations.

    Thanks again for a stimulating conversation!

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