103 Review: Never Leaving The House

103 is a Kickstarted walking simulator and puzzle game developed by Australian group Dystopia Interactive. First person seems to be Dystopia Interactive’s marmite and toast (hacky Australian joke is hacky), as both 103 and their only other game, Make A Killing, share this predilection for protagonists without faces. Mystery should be 103’s real title, because solving said mystery is half of playing 103. Lily is an overly imaginative individual whose night out with friends ends abruptly and the player must piece together what went on, and potentially what went wrong (I went into 103 narratively blind of this premise and now you know more than I).

Playing 103 involves walking through a cozy house, filled with stylish 1910’s Alphonse Mucha posters and adverts with drinking skeletons, in order to find…something? From the beginning, after quickly turning down the camera’s sensitivity because it was giving me motion sickness, 103 does not inform the player of anything. A blonde mannequin is present, often found finding value in staring at mirrors or enjoying the rain visible through the house’s sole window (which is honestly rather calming), and only she and the game’s patchwork bear mascot are the navigational devices. Those arrows drawn on the carpet? Totally worthless.

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Have they been here long?

103 is a rather short game broken into two distinctive modes of engagement which could be said about most walking simulators. Dear Ester and Gone Home are both enjoyable walking simulators and they run a similar play track as 103. Like its’ predecessors, 103’s first mode pushes limited exploration mixed with a feeling of getting familiar with certain landmarks. That hall of red candles and liquor, that hall with all the mirrors, and that hall with the only door are going to become a line the player walks back and forth as if it was literally a circle. This time is prime for reading all the marking and graffiti on the walls, akin to just sitting and reading every quote and quip from the safe houses in Left for Dead. The lines get ever harsher, coming off as if the player isn’t the first person to visit this place and they too are stuck and can’t leave, and boy those black mannequins that will block the halls and whisper noises sure are pretty human like.

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But after the joy of exploring wears off, which depending on the person could range from fifteen minutes to fifteen seconds, it’s time for the second mode to start, focused on answering the age old question “why the hell am I here and what do I need to do to leave?”. Puzzle solving is the little actual player input in many explorative games, but 103’s attempts are not great. Without revealing too much, 103 has two narratively appropriate puzzles that suffer because they are hard to figure out sans a guide and mostly feel like busy work. Even progressing the game involves looping the house in a predetermined way before the game thinks certain boxes have been checked. Mixed with a ‘use item; function that simply amounts to hovering over an object and  knowing that waiting on the object to change will progress really is not fun for someone who wanted to avoid looking up a guide. Honestly, the answer to the mystery, the reward for all this puzzle solving, is nothing that new. Well executed at times, considering the inability to simply leave the house, but still not narratively novel.

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The only way to escape?

Because initial exploration, that mode one playstyle, is by its nature a visual activity, 103 does provide cool things to look at. The house lights will often shift to these dark reds and blues, creating this almost neon city street view in the middle of the hallways.  Besides the previously mentioned Alphonse Mucha posters and adverts for skeleton liquor, the house is filled with stylized photos of someone’s family, magic show billboards, and an uneasy feeling of dread. The house even has this one corner with a ceiling covered in leaves that looks like a tree is trying to take over from outside. As a self-described lover of first person artistry, this was probably 103’s highlight.

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Mood.

Pros: First fifteen minutes of exploration scratches that particular itch. Lots of neat little wall things to look at. Effectively creepy and unnerving at times. Is not very long.

Cons: Big mystery really is not all that novel, but that might just be cynicism talking. Puzzles, specifically the first one, are a chore to do. Camera sensitivity default is set to max and I was about to end the game before it even started because of motion sickness.

Steam currently offers 103 and a Nintendo Switch port was supposed to exist, but still doesn’t as of this publishing. Boiled down, 103 is an art game. I enjoy art games, as they can really push interesting visuals and narratives than other, more mechanic heavy games. That unfortunately means grading 103 on a curve, leaving recommending it as a “strong maybe”. Indie art games, especially short ones, are more akin to singular different experiences than epic adventures. 103 honestly recalls more fleshed out and potentially better PC haunted house games like the German psychological horror Anna or the Argentina creature feature Scratches. But 103 easily has one over those two for cute art and a marketable teddy bear mascot, so that must be kept in mind when comparing 103 not only against its walking sim peers, but also its haunted house adventure ones.

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