House of Cenci

Style: Text-based adventure meets multi-generation crime thriller
Where: Zoom
Length: 180 (in three sessions) plus however long your gameplay takes

Rating: 5/5 stars

When I think about House of Cenci, I am a bit worried that previously I have been too generous in my star ratings. Maybe I enjoy myself too much doing immersive to be a proper critic to it. Because if I had the chance I would give House of Cenci 6/5 stars.

For the BBC Basic/C64 generation, nothing was so thrilling in our childhood as phrases like “you are in a clearing, there is an exit to the East and the West”. The early days of home computing (so early that for me it was a long time before this happened at home, but our primary school had a BBC Basic we were allowed to play on occasionally) were all about the text-based adventure game. Lords of Time was a particular favourite and my family still say “Victory goes to the free” to each other (quoting Lords of Midnight) when we win something.

House of Cenci combines online immersive theatre with this kind of gaming. And it does so seamlessly and charmingly. In the pandemic, for many of us who have felt alone and often bored, with no theatre or friends to see, this show has given literally hours of entertainment.

Set across three times (1599, 1971 and 2021) you watch parallel stories of the Cenci family – their cruel patriarch Francesco and the family he tortures – and see how the whole thing unfolds. As you play the game, each episode ends with a password to an hour of live interaction – one in each time – with the Cenci family and their hangers on.

The game draws you in completely. From the spooky music to the often fiendish puzzles. I found myself looking up at the clock and it had been four hours – so immersed was I. That the game is also supplemented with the live interactions means that the characters come so much more to life. When you are wandering into Lucrezia’s bedroom or find Giacomo suite, you can picture them. You can think about what to ask them next time you meet.

The immersive community have adapted well to a difficult year. I have found a lot of the game playing and interaction has helped a great deal with the stress, boredom and loneliness of being stuck on my own most of the time.

But Parabolic being Parabolic they took it to the next level once again. Instead of three hours of a nice, fun evening (though to be fair they’ve given a few of those over the year) they have clearly put a lot of thought into what is needed to make something feel as close as possible to the experience of poking around a set, opening little drawers and solving little puzzles on your own outside of the main action. Having House of Cenci in my life gave me back so much of what I have been missing from immersive theatre.

When life goes back to normal, I don’t think immersive theatre will – not completely. I mean, don’t get me wrong, touch is a really important part of what is missing. Live shows will be back. As a Parabolic regular said to me part of the fun is the gin and tonic afterwards where cast and audience mingle. But I think interesting and important lessons have been learned about how to do this well online. And in doing so, the best experiences have attracted much wider audiences. So – much like House of Cenci itself – immersive will probably return as a hybrid.

And if it maintains the standard of House of Cenci I really, really hope it does. This show genuinely took my breath away on occasions. On others it had me holding my breath hoping I had finally crack the puzzle. Even after spending as much of the latter half of 2021 away from these four bloody walls – I won’t want to lose that.

Emma is staging her first play, No Cure for Love, this Summer and needs your help if you can.

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