In Dinner with An Owl, you play as a dapper young businessman by the name of Mr. Webb. Or sometimes you play as Mr. Doyle, or Mr. Wright. The name depends on the day, but it’s immaterial. Things almost always play out the same way.
You’re welcomed to the charming, cozy Victorian estate of one Mr. Franz Brown, a “business partner” with whom you are meeting to negotiate over some contracts. The nature of this business and of the contracts, however, is never explicitly discussed. Upon entering the home, Mr. Webb is greeted by the housekeeper, a curt and debonair older gentleman named Declan. Immediately, you’re compelled toward Mr. Brown’s office at the other end of the hall—one of three rooms including the hall that the player can occupy, the other one being the kitchen—and commence negotiations with him. There’s not much else to do yet other than observe an umbrella stand by the front door, chat briefly with Declan, and take in the lovely period home decor, so it won’t be long before you walk through the stately wooden door to Mr. Brown’s office.
In the middle of the warm and spacious room sits a wooden desk atop an elaborate rug. The room is softly lit by a chandelier directly overhead, but curiously there’s also a single red candle on the bottom-left corner of the desk. Things get more curious when, in a sudden flash, the transparent apparition sitting in the desk chair reifies into Mr. Brown, who just so happens to have the head of an owl.
This is not an immediate deterrent. After all, Mr. Brown comes off as exceedingly intelligent, polite and urbane. Business can wait, however, as he insists upon treating you to dinner. From here, Mr. Brown leads Mr. Webb out into the hall, introducing him to his other dinner guests: a woman in an evening gown named April Merritt, and her daughter Josie. You dine together, chatting about ongoing business negotiations. Your character is identified by Mr. Brown as a tough negotiator, but again the nature of these negotiations are never specified.
It’s only after dinner that April Merritt warns that all is not well in the Brown estate. She, her daughter and the housekeeper are all being kept captive in the Brown house, under his spell. It’s not yet clear why, but they are prevented from leaving. They also, for whatever reason, are dissuaded from drinking the tap water, believing it to have been poisoned, and instead resort to drinking nothing but red wine. After this point, the game pivots into the central conflict: freeing Mr. Brown’s captives and escaping the estate.
I’ll let the puzzle from this point on go unspoiled, but suffice it to say things take an even more surrealist turn from this point on. Stabbing the owl-man seems to do the trick, but failing to solve the puzzle and correctly dispatching with the mythical Mr. Brown as quickly as possible results in the player character then becoming Mr. Brown—or whatever his name happens to be from that point on. The mystery of his condition or his reasons for holding people captive in his house are never explained, serving instead as a kind of looming, preternatural presence that can only be overcome. A fail state means repeating the same scenario over and over again, switching bodies and identities until eventually the pattern becomes obvious. An internal counter keeps track of how long it takes the player to resolve the story, displaying the number onscreen after the game as been completed.
This point-and-click mystery game by indie developer BoringSuburbanDad excels more than anything in how it strikes texture and tone. The entire game is bathed in a reddish-yellow hue that is warm and comforting but also implies a sinister, underlying violent presence. The game has a grainy, pixelated texture, somewhere between a Monkey Island title and a wool tapestry tinted with the sepia stain of old age.
The level design is limited to three rooms, but the mise-en-scène in each room is richly and elaborately constructed, and suggests much more than the game actually offers. It’s not just in its period-play staging, but in its doors and corridors to nowhere that the game takes on a theatrical flavour. Enigmatic moments, like a particularly memorable one in which Mr. Brown appears suddenly in the hallway next to his office and begins to sing a blues song, “Back Cat #13” by Sebastien Romero, in its entirety, add to the surreal imagery of the game. This musical interlude interrupts the flow of the game, as such calling attention to the almost Lynchian existential horror at play with disruptive and macabre symbolism.
The theatricality becomes even more pronounced as the game progresses. In the final scene, each surviving character faces the player as April Merritt finally exclaims a cry of freedom, and the screen fades to black. This strange, curiously stilted final act captures the player’s attention in a manner similar to the song scene, surprisingly self-aware and deliberately breaking the suspension of disbelief in order to draw some attention to the strangeness of the fiction. It’s not quite a breaking of the fourth wall—the scene implies a final bow to the audience that never actually happens—but may be considered a wink to the player acknowledging the dinner-theater quality of a period escape room game.
Keeping in mind that this game was made for #AdvJam2017 and must be understood under those constraints, the most obvious criticism of Dinner With An Owl is that it’s fairly repetitive. (There are other small but noticeable flaws, like occasional spelling errors, but considering this game was made in two weeks by a native German speaker, they’re easily forgivable.)
It’s not surprising that, for example, there are really only two rooms in which you can do any pointing and clicking (the kitchen is mainly for dialogue trees that don’t have much effect on the narrative but add some extra complexion to the characters). The exact puzzle pattern may take a few tries to solve and execute, but it’s not complicated or particularly involved. Slight changes in dialogue or in the environment (like lights sometimes, but not always, flickering ominously at key moments in the game), help change up the monotony of repeating the same scenarios several times over, and provide extra tone and texture to the game, but are unfortunately not enough to overcome the fact of that monotony.
If it weren’t for the strange, self-aware symbolic winks the game makes at numerous junctures, the limited scope of the critical path might not be so noticeable. I appreciate what they contribute to the richness of the world, but I also suspect part of the issue is that they imply that the game wants to be more than it is while pretty much staying in one place. As it is, Dinner With An Owl feels like it’s incomplete, with an untapped potential for deeper and more developed storytelling. I compare this to something like Dillon Rogers’s Electric Tortoise or Nuign Specter by Jake Clover, that are similarly small in scope but feel much more like actualized, coherent works that are expertly crafted for their intended size.
Still, Dinner With An Owl is a charming and macabre little game with a simple yet intriguing mystery to unravel. It’s aesthetically beautiful and visually intriguing, and its engagement with surrealism and existential horror is both romantic and wryly self-aware. Anyone with a penchant for the gothic or for escape rooms may find something compelling in Dinner With An Owl, and be left wanting more.