Horror can be a cruel mistress, feeding on the naive sensibilities of video game rules. Save rooms offer sanctuary, for example, but ominous telltale whispers, a flash of familiar clothing, and the faint dissonance of claws scraping metal violate their emotional reprieve. Fear is not a feeling soon forgotten, but is that not why we call some place “home”? For many, this haven provides love, support, and protection from the disasters of the outside world. So what if the outside world got in? Home confronts the player with that unfavorable reality.
You control a nameless man that awakes in a stranger’s house with no knowledge of who he is, where he is, or why he’s there, and upon discovering a nearby rotting corpse, Home discloses one lingering goal: find Rachel. What happened to the man’s wife? I cannot say. With only a flashlight to illuminate the way, the player decides the protagonist’s fate and that of his spouse, interacting with the pixel environments as the murder mystery unravels.
The player acts less like the man’s narrator and more as the author, dictating what path he takes through sewers, a forest, a factory, and a convenience store – even choosing what items he stows on his person. But Benjamin Rivers, Home's lone developer, treats inquisitors with clues that affect the story's outcome. The first instance involves a pistol. The man says he hates guns. Do you take the weapon? I did, though you can leave the firearm undisturbed. The cold steel affords weighted reassurance after all, and pilfering that janitor’s keyring or tampered VHS tape may lead to insight about the case. These decisions have a reverse psychological effect, as if I circumvented the developer’s intended narrative flow by holstering the firearm against the man’s will.
Never has the familiar been more frightening.
As you scroll across the screen from left or right, Ben occasionally instills Home with simple path-blocking puzzles. Rotating valves and locating misplaced keys opens up the next bit of scenery to explore, which I heartily recommend. The exploration filled me with dread. Granted you cannot die in Home, but the uneasy feeling of being watched pervades the very air you breathe. I half expected the Slender Man to appear from behind the forest’s trees. This powerful ambiance and 8-bit imagery escalates the tension whether or not you so desire, inducing mental stress while you ponder the man’s situation.
Rivers pegs Home as a “unique horror adventure,” taking obvious liberties with the modern definition. The game may be haunting – horrifying stretches it. Rather, Home eschews the current horror experiences that condition fans to expect gore and other unsightly disturbances, as Rivers carefully prepares the few scares Home does have with nothing but low hums of machinery, cries of nature’s dwellers, and no music. Even the 8-bit scribbles on a camp’s outhouse add to the terrifying possibilities. For a game that limits itself to NES graphics, the atmosphere replicates a potent anxiety and fear that no AAA release can match.
Home was not meant for HD displays. Try windowed mode.
Despite any potential cowardice gamers harbor, Home should be played more than once, if you, like me, cannot sleep until you know about every object, choice, and path taken. A second playthrough shaped the story in a dramatically different way, but at an hour’s length, Home is noticeably shallow on plot details, even if you never have all the answers. However, it is this exact vagueness that makes Home so enticing. Lone Survivor, another indie gem, forsook players in a strange world with no explanations for the apparent supernatural phenomena plaguing the protagonist’s apartment and psyche. From there, the developer left evidence for players to piece together a larger narrative. Like Lone Survivor, Home’s finale incites you to consider the information you gathered thus far.
That is, until your decisions conflict with fresh discoveries just a few rooms later. One such complication appeared when I believed to have solved the mystery of Rachel’s whereabouts, but somewhere along the story’s dozens of branching flow charts, the game deviated from my choices and contradicted my judgment. I determined who I thought to be the true murder culprit, yet the ensuing dialogue threw me astray. At least Home granted me the reveal I intended during its final moments. When choices this complex remain integral to the storytelling, I can forgive minor lapses in attentiveness, just not when the conclusion rests upon tens of other actions.
Forget everything you know about the woods, dumb teenagers, and urban legends.
Plot faults aside, Home finds its greatest strength in nonexistent saves. Sitting in front of a computer screen for sixty minutes can be considered child’s play for most gamers, though this feature (or lack thereof) constantly forces players forwards without pause, committing to the real life threat that you cannot turn the monitor off and walk away. You make decisions in the moment and react instantly to what you could have done differently. Why did you leave the old photograph? Why pocket that kitchen knife? While reloading instantly to gauge the man’s reaction would cheapen the impact to come, I agree that a breakdown of the items players uncovered would be a nice tool for remembering to risk alternate routes on subsequent playthroughs.
Survival horror continues to grow scarce in a gaming industry chasing the success of Call of Duty, as developers cater to the easily frightened players of Dead Space and Resident Evil without a thought for the fans that helped their franchises gain interest. Amusingly, the indie scene gives the genre a firm shake, with Amnesia, Slender, Lone Survivor, and several Half-Life mods leading the outspoken following. I add Home to that list as one of the lesser extremes, but the atmosphere dogging this 8-bit adventure’s steps will paralyze you nevertheless. If you have $2.99 to spend, this is one home where your heart should be.
Publisher: Benjamin Rivers
Developer: Benjamin Rivers
Release Date: June 1, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)