Dwelling is a solo game of marking. It is highly interactive and collaborative—but with the book, not other players.
Reading any creative work is an interaction that requires engagement, interpretation, and recollection. By being a game instead of merely a book, Dwelling brings those activities to the forefront, and it uses an isolation-horror scenario to make them all deeply personal. It provides the narrative frame and invites the reader to fill it with their own details.
This review is spoiler-free. It focuses on the book as a game material, not on the game’s plot. There are a lot of moments that I desperately want to write about (and I may in a future post), but here, I won’t expose Dwelling’s narrative. It’s meant to be extremely intimate for each player, and any specific discussion of the content jeopardizes that experience.
I will warn you: it gets dark and may dredge up uncomfortable or even traumatic memories. Pines is extremely upfront about this and built multiple creative, physical safety tools into the game and the book, so players can feel secure approaching the experience on their own terms.
How to Dwell
Dwelling is a game about conjuring ghosts and letting them inhabit a lonely home. These ghosts are your own fears, whether imagined or remembered, and you’ll write and draw them onto the book’s pages. Pines is explicit about this: “Dwelling wants you to change it in irreversible ways,” and Dwelling seeks to do the same to its players. Both are meant to make lasting impressions on each other.
Some players may not want to mark their copy of the book, and Dwelling acknowledges that. It invites you to use various media like pen or colored pencil, and to either write and draw on the pages or do so on scrap pieces of paper that you’ll leave inside the book when finished. Even this will irreversibly alter it by deforming the binding and paper, creating empty space between the pages (rather than filling empty space on the pages).
Either way, you can play Dwelling again—many times if you want—but your choice means the difference between revisiting old memories and starting with a clean slate. Even if you decide not to mark the book itself and use loose paper instead, there are consequences. Your memories are not firmly attached to the space of the house and the book, and so they may slip out and disappear—not a wholly unfitting (or even undesirable) passage out of memory.
Dwelling gives the reader choices, but it makes sure they understand the game-related repercussions those choices carry. You must either live with your ghosts or risk losing them, whether for better or worse.
You also have the option of printing the PDFs and marking those. Don’t. Get the physical book. Use it however you like, but get the physical book. Its thick paper and density carries greater literal and metaphorical weight, and using it will be a very different experience than using loose printer paper.
The difference is emblematized by the book’s cover, which features amorphous ghosts emanating from the house. These are illustrated by clear, glossy overlays that are otherwise completely featureless. They’re placed against a matte ground, which requires the reader to hold and turn the book to catch the light and fully experience this subtle effect—one that can’t be replicated in a PDF or a printout.
This detail is completely lost without a copy of the book. The spirit simply isn’t there.
Blending Visual & Verbal, Body & Book
In Dwelling, the house’s rooms provide 3 prompts: summon (draw), remember (write), and mark (the body). Each is indicated typographically (bold italics) and visually through distinct symbols: a wisp, an ellipsis, and X, respectively.
The wisp is the only purely visual symbol, and it is also the only colored one, emphasizing drawing’s expressive non-verbal nature. The ellipsis and the X are both ambiguous; they can be seen as language components (punctuation and letter) or as graphic elements (a set of dots, crossed lines).
This interplay is inherent in the book and the game. The player’s words and drawings will occupy the same space on the page; they can intermingle or remain discrete as the player chooses. Pines sets a precedent both ways; the printed text is generally presented in normalized blocks, though there are moments of expressive layout and typographical manipulation. Some are relatively tame (putting words on an S-curve instead of a straight line), while others severely distort visual language and leverage that dimension to convey sound.
The visual-verbal interplay emphasizes and intermingles with the parallel interplay between mental and physical. The third interaction, mark, involves marking your own body either by touch or with a visible medium like washable ink. This prompt physically establishes the mutual interaction between the game and player; you will mark the book, and the game will mark you in return.
Marking also serves to keep the reader present in their body rather than purely mentally inhabiting the game, which is an important, reflexive safety feature in an engrossing horror experience.
As noted above, Dwelling incorporates numerous safety tools to help ensure its reader’s wellbeing during play.
The key offers prompts to help you measure your own reaction to the experience. Are you feeling excited, unenthused, or distressed about playing? If you need a break, use the key to mark your page and resume when you’re ready.
But there may be moments that you want to avoid entirely. If you’re reluctant about what you’ll find in the next room, you can turn to the book’s first appendix, which abstracts each room’s contents so players can make more informed decisions.
If you choose to avoid a room, you don’t simply skip that spread. Instead, you place the pair of rigid keyhole overlays on the facing pages; these let you peek at some of the text and graphics, but they block the supermajority of the page’s content. The player then turns to another appendix, which provides alternative prompts (see, wonder, mark yourself lucky), so skipping a room never forecloses on an opportunity for gameplay.
There Is an I in Story
Dwelling addresses readers with the pronoun I throughout. It does not speak to you in the second person; it speaks as you in the first person, creating a deeper emotional connection with the player.
In the epilogue, Pines steps in as another I in the book. Yes, the player has spent the last 70+ pages navigating the house alone, but the author has covertly been there for every step of that journey, guiding the experience from behind the scenes.
The book that the player holds is now a product of their and Pines’ collective imagination. The epilogue reinforces the creative work’s mutual nature by using I to entangle the player and the creator just as the game entangles the book and its player through the act of marking page and body. Player and medium, reader and writer all interact and intermingle, becoming ghosts who together haunt Dwelling.
There Is an I in the House
In his essay “Approaching the Unconscious” (which you can read in Man and His Symbols), Carl Jung describes a recurring dream in which he wanders through unfamiliar rooms in his home. Jung concludes that the house and its contents symbolize himself, his personality and interests.
Dream symbolism is reflected in the symbols we find in creative works, and it is always deeply personal and individualized. But I venture to say that the house in Dwelling likewise represents the I(s) who inhabit it. The marked book itself testifies to that.
Dwelling’s house is simultaneously yours and not yours; in the game, you’ve inherited it from your uncle, and in reality, you’ve inherited it from Pines. In the game’s dream space of creative engagement, you fill it with ghosts that reflect your own personal history and imagination. You dwell in the house, and it provides space for you to dwell upon your memories and ideas.
Writing and drawing both assume that matter can supplement or substitute for personal, intangible memory. By creatively embodying thoughts—by writing fictional(ized) memories and drawing specters that haunt the dark—we put them into symbolic form, halfway between conscious and unconscious, realized but not real.
Here, we can grapple with ghosts. And that is, I think, Dwelling’s meaning and purpose: grappling with them, time and again, because you can neither conquer them nor forget them. You can only learn how to dwell alongside them.
My heartfelt thanks go to Seb for gifting a copy of Dwelling to me. There’s still time to back the game on Kickstarter, and if this review has piqued your interest, you should waste no time doing so. Your ghosts await.