Where the Heart Ain't
Sigh. I hate to be harsh on indie developers because I understand that many of them are just weekend programmers trying to get their foot into an over-saturated market. I usually enjoy their willingness to experiment in ways that AAA titles wouldn’t dare. Still, if you’re going to charge for your product, your customers have a right to expect a certain amount of bang for their buck.
Benjamin Rivers’ Home is, unfortunately, one of those interesting concepts which fails to be realised in the absence of a sufficient budget. You assume the role of a nameless protagonist who wakes up in the middle of the night to find himself in a house he doesn’t recognise, and with only vague memories of how he got there. Taking up a nearby flashlight, you soon make a grisly discovery and resolve to search for answers. If it sounds like the barest elements necessary for an adventure mystery, then that’s because Home is a self-proclaimed exercise in gaming minimalism. Everything has been tailored to demonstrate how the smallest effort can yield surprisingly large results. The graphics, storyline, controls, gameplay, all have been kept deliberately threadbare. Home’s problem is that it has an entertainment factor to match.
In fact the PC medium is about the only reason you have to call it a ‘game’ at all. Gameplay comprises of extremely limited exploration separated by on-screen text relating descriptions of objects you choose to interact with, or the protagonist’s musings on his environment and situation. You can move left or right, look up, and interact with objects highlighted by a white border when you move into its proximity. That’s it. Instead you’re encouraged to immerse yourself in the horror atmosphere and try to relate to the psychological distress of your character’s situation.
Light, camera, no action. What do you mean, graphics aren’t important for horror?
There’s a bit of innovation shown to flesh out this brittle skeleton. Undoubtedly the game’s most striking aspect, and indeed its main selling point, is its graphics. Or rather, lack thereof. They remind you of an 8-bit NES game, blown up but played on an unusually small screen. It’s almost a caricature of pixellation. But they’ve been lauded for good reason – they represent an undeniable triumph of style over substance. The horror atmosphere and heavy reliance on light/dark contrast doesn’t need breathtaking graphics, and that’s entirely the point. Your flashlight affords only a small radius of visibility around your character which adds to the choking physical and psychological claustrophobia. When combined with effective use of eerie music and suitably-placed sound effects, they’re wholly sufficient to produce a genuinely tense atmosphere of horror. There are even some nice subtle touches like your character’s limp becoming more pronounced the more he falls on it. The presentation seems ugly at first, but after ten minutes you’ll be just as immersed in this pixellated universe as if it had used the cutting-est of cutting-edge graphics.
On top of this, producer/developer Rivers has flirted with some interesting takes on psychological horror. Occasionally you’re afforded an opportunity to make yes/no decisions relating to the protagonist’s actions and even his thoughts. It provides some unusual questions that you rarely find yourself asking in video games, particularly concerning your own identity in relation to your character. Are you supposed to be him? Or are you his conscience or some other aspect of his psyche? And just how reliable is your perception of events you play through?
Sadly, the problem with Home is that these ideas are so poorly implemented. The heavy emphasis on reading means that it plays as a slightly more interactive take on a visual novel, except that very few decisions you make have a tangible impact on the game. Indeed it won’t affect the gameplay whatsoever, but occasionally changes the on-screen text that appears during your transition between in-game areas. While graphics and sound combine to create a definite horror atmosphere, the gameplay never capitalises on it. You realise fairly quickly that Home isn’t going to deliver on its promises, and as a result all that tension goes to waste.
Furthermore, the writing is worse than bad – it’s confusing. In typical mystery-adventure style it would have you endure the horror atmosphere, pages of text and insubstantial gameplay because you want to find out what the hell’s going on. But you never really do. Exploring your protagonist’s thoughts and feelings would help you put yourself in his frame of mind except that some of his musings are so bizarre or alien to your own that, if anything, it distances you further from the game. Rivers toys with breaking the fourth wall and hints at reality being what you make it, but in truth you just feel robbed when you’ve stuck with the game’s flaws for a couple of hours only to have no idea what actually happened. I have to wonder whether so many storyline branches have been written in that the writer himself has struggled to keep track of them all. The Home website is littered with accounts of players who haven’t the slightest idea how their story ended. I’m sorry, but that’s not artistic – it’s just abysmal writing.
Limited decision making is novel at first, but ultimately fails to hide a vacuum of writing and gameplay quality
It’s all well and fine to assume an unlimited budget and say the game would have benefitted enormously from a decent writer, and I realise we can’t realistically expect that from every indie developer. Still, in its published state, Home’s just a poor take on a mystery adventure. Lame attempts at puzzles primarily consist of making you remember the way you came or which areas you’ve already explored – which to be fair is easier said than done, but mostly because of the monotony of the environment. Decision-making provides the faintest illusion of cause-and-effect but combined with a completely linear structure it plays like a choose-your-own-adventure where every decision still has you turning to the same page. Even the multiple endings might add something to replay value if it weren’t for the lack of interesting gameplay, giving you no real reason to want to play a second time unless you simply have to read the different text without googling it. It’s a fairly damning indictment considering you’re told at the start that it only takes an hour and a half to finish. It’s disappointing, because the philosophy of sacrificing graphics for atmosphere swims against the current of the modern industry in a way that a lot of developers could really learn from. With a bit more TLC it could have been a cult hit, but as it stands it has little more than good intentions to save it from forever fading into the annals of gaming obscurity.
Conclusion: I really wanted to love Home. As an experiment it’s a triumph – a completely barebones take on adventure mystery which manages to establish a mood of tension and horror almost as effectively as the AAA heavyweights. It’s just that it’s very little more than that; an experiment. It works in terms of what it sets out to achieve, but offers very little beyond an interesting exercise in minimalism and something to point to when people insist on the necessity of fantastic graphics. Its saving grace is that $2.99 is about right for my money. Worth a look for the disbelievers.
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