The fall of the Buxhaven family: A spoiler-free review

The fall of the Buxhaven family (FOBF) is an intriguing, well-crafted psychological horror adventure, and the latest entry in my on-going series of (pixel graphics) game reviews. I won’t be spoiling anything for you in this post, so feel free to read on; at the bottom of this post, there’s a video commentary I posted on my YouTube channel, but if you hate spoilers, make sure you play the game before you watch that. (By the way, if you want to subscribe to my YouTube channel, you can do so here.)

FOBF was made in Construct by Buxtejor—I guess that’s a nickname, but I’m not sure—and you can find it on Itch.io. You can play it in your browser, or you can download it and play it on your computer, though at the time of writing the download is only available for Windows.

Plot overview

The game’s story is fairly straightforward. James Buxhaven, a world-famous, workaholic psychiatrist lives with his wife Mary, their little daughter Sally, and a dog named Coco in a huge manor that James inherited from his grandfather. Mary hates the place, but James doesn’t seem to take notice of that, busy as he is with his patients. One night, things go horribly wrong at Buxhaven Manor: when the game starts, we don’t quite know what happened, but two police are talking about how this is the worst case they’ve seen in years—and by the way, the game’s title is quite telling.

Dude. Chill.

After the short introductory dialogue between the two police, the real game begins and the player takes control. We see James come back home after yet another long and exhausting workday. After greeting Coco and Mary, James goes to Sally’s room to kiss her goodnight, but she refuses to go to bed without her favourite toy, Mr Teddy. James goes looking for it, and that’s when he finds out he and his family are not alone in the manor…

Gameplay

The gameplay is just as simple as the story, but none of that means that the game is not engaging or engrossing. FOBF is reminiscent of point-and-click adventures in that its puzzles involve looking for objects needed to progress and finding ways to unlock doors or overcome obstacles; it has an inventory, and you can examine (some) things around you, but it is not itself point-and-click: James is controlled via customisable keyboard controls and there’s no mouse involved as far as I could tell.

Also, unlike typical point-and-click games, James can die if his heart rate gets too high—which it will whenever something too unsettling happens. Hitting 300 bpm will kill James, but resting and keeping away from scary stuff will restore it back to its baseline 60 bpm without lasting consequences. However, to add a little bit of a challenge, James’ vision blurs (an effect rendered with pixelated noise) as his heart rate climbs up, and goes back to normal as his bpm go back down.

James’ blurred vision as a result of high HR.

There aren’t an awful lot of puzzles to solve; in fact, there’s probably more wandering around the humongous manor trying to figure out what to do next. In my case, that was especially true when I went looking for Mr Teddy, because I had no idea where the place where Sally said she’d left it was (and it wasn’t at all where I was expecting it to be). However, while all the wandering around can get a little annoying, it’s a good way to explore the environment and become immersed in it; it also adds to the feeling of loneliness and dread. In fact, most locations in the house aren’t really that important to the game, and only few rooms have objects that you can collect or items that reveal details of the story.

Besides point-and-click style puzzles, there are few other instances where you need to avoid ominous presences or get rid of them. According to Buxtejor, on average FOBF takes forty minutes to play through, but since I suck it took me over two hours. You can’t save your progress manually, but the game saves automatically at certain points and it will let you know when it does. Personally, I feel that the developer could have been a little more generous with the checkpoints, in order to avoid the annoying phenomenon of walks of shame that plagued Hollow Knight.

There are really only two situations where the lack of checkpoints might force you to redo the same bits over and over (because you keep dying over and over), and you’ll hear me complain about it at length in my video commentary of FOBF, but  I think this game is well worth putting up with that. (Also, you might simply be better at it than I was.)

Graphics, music, and sound

FOBF is a pixel graphics game. Character sprites consist of maybe two dozens of large pixels and are animated with two or three frames at most, which is great. I love pixel graphic games, they lend themselves very well to the psychological horror genre, and are in general very imaginative. FOBF’s palette has something like ten colours (I’m too lazy to actually count them), and yet it manages to create a perfectly unsettling atmosphere, also thanks to the intentionally dark environment and the constant, subtle pixelated noise reminiscent of old films. The low light can get in the way (especially in certain sequences where your field of vision shrinks down to that of a late-stage glaucoma patient), but it’s adjustable, so you can make the game brighter if you want.

Finding my way around here was a a nightmare, and the worst was yet to come…

The music may not be something that will stick with you forever, but it’s very appropriate to each situation and contributes in no small part to the game’s overall feel. It doesn’t get too narrative and it blends nicely in the background, allowing you to fully focus on what’s going on, so overall I think it was well chosen. (It wasn’t composed by the game author themselves, but by Itch.io user RedAvery, and you can find it here.)

Sounds effects are what you would expect from a retro game like this one; there aren’t many of them, but again are very appropriate. They give the game’s jump scares the necessary power to fling you right off your chair.

Overall impressions

FOBF has a good story, if a little predictable. There are hints that suggest rather strongly what’s going on, so if you pay close attention, you may well solve the mystery well before you get to the moment of the revelations. To be fair, though, the game does try to throw you off on more than one occasion.

I found some of the puzzles to be especially clever, but as said there aren’t many, and maybe there could have been more. (Then again, the game is supposed to last 40 minutes.) The large size of Buxhaven Manor offered potential for a more complex story and more puzzles which I feel was untapped, but this leaves room for future episodes. (Something that Buxtejor themselves said to be a possibility.)

This one took me pen, paper, and half an hour. My girlfriend solved it in thirty seconds. Either I suck, or she’s very smart. I like to think the latter.

With the exception of two (maybe three) rather infuriating bits, I found this game thoroughly enjoyable. It’s immersive, it makes you want to keep playing, and everything adds up at the end. Frankly, if checkpoints had been used less sparingly, I don’t think I’d have any real complaint; allowing you to save at any point would be stupid, but just an extra checkpoint or two would have solved all my issues.

The game dev said FOBH was well received, and I’m not remotely surprised by that. As far as I know, this game was essentially a one-person operation that took less than a year despite the fact it was done during spare lockdown time (thanks, 2020); it’s very good in general and extremely good in the circumstances. I certainly look forward to future chapters of the Buxhaven family story, and any other game Buxtejor may make in the future. (Please just don’t take a year, I hate waiting…)

Here be spoilers

Alright, now if you haven’t played FOBF yet, I recommend you do; if you played it already, you’re all set to watch my video commentary about it here below.

The House of the Living: A spoiler-free review

Like I said in a previous post, I am very much a fan of pixel graphics games, especially if they are of the psychological horror genre. Every now and again, when I’m not overwhelmed by the too many things which this blog is named after, I like to visit Itch.io to look for indie games of this kind. If I have to be honest, I don’t often come across games I really like (on Itch.io or in general), but if you look hard enough, there are some truly rare gems just waiting to be discovered and that deserve more attention. The following is a spoiler-free review of one such gem, The House of the Living; if you’re interested, at the bottom of this post there is a spoiler-with video commentary on the same game, the latest addition to my brand-new YouTube channel

The House of the Living (HoL) is a short Bitsy game made by Fred Bednarski for the Gothic Novel Jam and the Sublime Bitsy Jam hosted on Itch.io a few years back. (Note to self: if you like a game in a game jam, it should dawn on you to check out the other entries of the jam right away, not when you’re reviewing the game years later. No, I didn’t accidentally leave this bit in—I’m intentionally publicly shaming myself. That’ll teach me to pay attention.)

Where was I? Ah, yes. Depending on your definition of game, HoL might be more of an interactive novel, like most Bitsy games. (Bitsy is a simple, web-based pixel-graphics engine that allows you to create interactive stories even if you can’t write a line of code to save your life.) Regardless, it’s a neat, creepy adventure that won’t take more than five or ten minutes of your time; like many games on Itch.io, it’s free and you can play it in your browser.

There’s nothing like a warm welcome.

Aside from my personal bias in favour of pixel graphics, I find that Bednarski made excellent use of the medium to create a truly creepy atmosphere. The manor itself is impressively well-drawn and imaginative; you could tell right away something is not right simply by looking at it, even without the ominous music (composed by the very aptly named Haunted Corpse).

The choice of the colour palette (which in Bitsy is limited to three different colours) is perfect and it definitely plays a big part in setting the general tone of the game.

Why, I have.

The dialogs, which drive the entire game, are convincing and well-written (except for a few typos), if a little cryptic; I’m not entirely sure of this, but I think there are a few covert references in the game, such as the fact that the House used to be owned by the Radcliffe family. (Nope, the reference, if it was intended, isn’t to Daniel Radcliffe, but to Ann Radcliffe, a pioneer of gothic fiction.)  There are at least two endings to the game that I’m aware of, though I doubt there are more as there isn’t a whole lot you can do in the game.

Howdy! A fine day to bang your head against the wall, eh?

According to Bednarski, the game touches the themes of religion, murder, death, and suicide (cheery stuff, but given the theme of the jam…) which is definitely true, but the meaning of the game is up for debate. I gave my own interpretation in the video below; feel free to watch it and tell me all about how I got it all wrong.

In any case, if you have five minutes to spare, make yourself a hot cuppa and enjoy this bitesize horror game. You won’t be terrified, as that was obviously not the author’s intention, but I do think you will enjoy it.

The blocky charm of pixel graphics games

(Image credit: user DoubleOMURFY, Steam community)

From time to time, I like popping over to Itch.io and browsing for new Indie games—anything goes, really, but I tend to prefer pixel graphics games. It’s a habit I’ve formed over the past few years, dating all the way back to Halloween 2015, I think. My girlfriend and I were looking for games that would fit the mood of the season, and we stumbled upon the Deep Sleep series—a little psychological horror gem that at the time wasn’t yet on Steam. 

Granted, I had played many other pixel graphics games before—Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Broken Sword, and the lot—but my encounter with the Deep Sleep series marks the moment when I became interested in retro-graphics. It’s not just me: modern games dressed in pixel clothes are becoming increasingly common, and it’s probably not just because of a bunch of nostalgics hellbent on bringing back the good ol’ games that have something that new ones lack.

DOTT was one crazy ride. (Credit: Steam)

Okay, surely the nostalgia effect does play a role, but that can’t be all. I think there’s something special about pixel graphics. The way it strips down all the bells and whistles from a game, leaving only what you really need to focus on, has a special appeal to me. It’s like playing in distraction-free mode, fully immersed in the world of the game. (Well, the game itself needs to be interesting, of course; some games just suck, and no amount of pixel art can change that fact.)

Being pixelated doesn’t make this landscape any less beautiful. (Credit: Steam)

Of course, there’s pixel art and pixel art. Though not as much as they could be in a modern game, the landscapes in Monkey Island 2 were lively and beautifully detailed, certainly a lot more than they can be in a Bitsy game. Yet both kinds of pixel art have that certain je ne sais quoi I was talking about. I can’t quite put in words what it is, but I think it has to do with the way pixel art captures the essence of things. 

By its very nature, the medium forces you to leave out the finer details and focus on the basic qualities of what you’re trying to represent. People’s faces boil down to two pixels for the eyes, and a handful more for things like mouths, hair, and maybe beards; in extreme cases, your main character could easily be just a single-sprite stick figure. The same goes for objects and places, and while this limitation used to be just a limitation indeed, nowadays it’s one of many brushes in your paint brush set.

A finer brush will allow you to paint finer details that you don’t want to leave up to the player’s imagination; it’ll let you better define what your characters and environments look like, and establish certain facts about them. A larger brush, such as that painting the broad strokes of pixel art, will let the player fill in the blanks that were not a mandatory part of the experience you were creating. Guybrush Threepwood had to have a certain look that was part of his persona; he wasn’t merely an interface between the player and the game environment, so the brush they used to paint him, so to speak, was finer than what you’d use to paint characters in this game, and a lot finer than the brush used in this one; it was a lot coarser than the brushes used to paint Arkham Asylum.

You want weird? ‘Cause this is weird. (Credit: Rusty Lake)

Obviously, a character in a game isn’t just looks. Good writing can make a moving square into the most charming character of all times, but a character that is no more than a walking stick figure is a good choice when you want the player to be the real main character. For a truly immersive experience, you may want to go with a first-person interface, like the aforementioned Deep Sleep series or the disturbingly weird games by Rusty Lake.

(Rusty Lake don’t do pixel games and their games do have main characters with an actual face, but you hardly ever see them, as the games are often first-person.) Main characters like that (or lack thereof) remove a barrier between the player and your plot, letting the game speak directly to the player and allowing him or her to live the events of the game directly, rather than vicariously through the main character. This is something which I think can make the game a lot more immersive.

And no game needs to be immersive more than a good psychological horror game. If it’s supposed to scare you, you need to be 100% in it.  That’s why I think pixel graphics is an excellent choice (though by no means the only one) for this type of game. Pixel art horror games have given me some among the best jumpscares and feelings of dread and isolation I’ve ever experienced. (For example, see again the Deep Sleep series, or The Last Door, or its first four chapters anyway.) 

Deep Sleep 2. (I think?) Way scarier than you might think. (Credit: Steam)

I think the reason for this is again the limited amount of detail present in a pixel art game. We’re most afraid of things we don’t fully understand, or that look off somehow. Pixel graphics presents players with a model of reality sufficiently “complex”, for lack of a better word, to get the gist of what’s going on, but simplified enough to be uncanny. Creating an eerie, unnaturally quiet and lonely environment is a lot easier in pixel graphics than in any modern 3D engine. 

When I say it’s easier, I don’t mean from a technical point of view. (Which might or might not be true; I’ve never made a game—yet.) I mean that pixel graphics, by its own nature, already sits right in the middle of a sort of uncanny valley for art, unlike modern 3D graphics. As an example, I’m willing to bet that none of these games would be half as eerie if they were remade in Unreal Engine. 

This is just my opinion, of course; it’s entirely up for debate and it’s not a rule without exceptions. I’m not a pixel game purist, either. Knock Knock is a 2D-ish, cartoony game that got me flipping on all light switches in my apartment each time after playing it; it’s a glaring example of something that was scary because I didn’t fully (or at all) understand what was going on. Amnesia needs no introduction but bears special mention; The Survey is another example of a 3D game that I found utterly terrifying. (By the way, if you have psychological horror games of any kind to suggest, please do; I’m always looking for a new one to play.)

Knock-knock! Who’s there? A beheaded sanatorium patient, I think? (Credit: Steam)

Finally, and here I’m circling right back all the way to the beginning, there’s the nostalgia effect, which of course is not inherent to pixel art itself. When I was a child, pixel graphics was nearly the state of the art. When I got my NES, at age seven, it was still all the rage; I began playing point-and-click classics only in 1998, when they were already a few years old at least and I was a teen. I guess that playing games during childhood was by default a more immersive and imaginative experience, which I must have linked mentally to the graphics of the time. For example, for me, The Legend of Zelda was an incredibly mysterious and surreal adventure (which I didn’t beat until I was a fourteen-year-old playing emulated games on my PC *ahem*); maybe some of that feeling rubbed off on my perception of pixel art.

This might not be all, and I don’t fully understand the reasons why pixel graphics is so special to me anyway. Maybe that’s a reason in and of itself: what’s more fascinating than something that appeals to you but you don’t quite know why?