Horror can be a cruel mistress, feeding on the naive sensibilities of video game rules. The telltale signs of ominous whispers, a flash of familiar clothing, and the faint dissonance of claws scraping metal violate all but the emotional reprieve of the next save room. Fear is not a feeling soon forgotten, but is that not why we call some place “home”? For many, this haven offers love, support, and protection from the disasters of the outside world, but 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. Upon discovering a nearby rotting corpse, Home discloses one lingering goal: find Rachel. What happened to the man’s wife? I am not sure, nor can I tell you. With nothing but a flashlight to illuminate the way, you must decide the protagonist’s fate and that of his spouse on your own, interacting with the environments once the character’s pixelated body overlaps with the 2D background as you unravel this murder mystery.
The player acts less like the man’s narrator and more as the author, dictating what path he takes through sewers, the forest, a factory, and a convenience store, and what items he stows on his person. But the developer treats players with clues that affect the grander outcome. The first instance involves a pistol. The man says he hates guns, so do you take the weapon? I did, though you can leave the firearm undisturbed. The cold steel provides 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, Benjamin Rivers, the game’s creator, occasionally instills Home with a simple path-blocking puzzle. Rotating valves and locating misplaced keys opens up the next bit of scenery to explore, which I heartily recommend. The exploration fills the player 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 circumstances.
Rivers pegs Home as a “unique horror adventure,” taking obvious liberties with the modern definition. This game may be haunting; horrifying just stretches the subject. Rather, Home eschews the current horror experiences that condition us to expect gore and other unsightly disturbances while 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 mix of anxiety and fear that no triple-A 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. I align with people that cannot sleep until they know the consequences of every object, choice, and path taken. A second playthrough shaped the story in a dramatically different way, but at an hour’s length per journey, I refuse to spoil any plot details for fear of influencing impressions, and even then you still won’t 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 the larger narrative. Like Lone Survivor, Home’s finale incites you to consider the information you gathered thus far.
But sometimes 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, yet the following dialogue box threw me astray. I determined who I thought to be the true culprit, and during the protagonist’s final reflections, Home granted me the choice I intended. However, somewhere along the story’s dozens of branching flow charts, the game deviated and contradicted my judgment. When choices this complex remain integral to the storytelling, I can forgive minor lapses in attentiveness, but not when the conclusion hangs upon another dozen actions.
Forget everything you know about the woods, dumb teenagers, and urban legends.
Home’s finds its greatest strength with nonexistent saves. Sitting in front of a computer screen for sixty minutes can be considered child’s play for most gamers anyways. This feature (or lack thereof) constantly forces players forwards without pause, committing to the real life threat that you simply cannot turn off the monitor 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 did you pocket that kitchen knife? Reloading instantly to gauge the man’s attitude would cheapen the impact of situations to come, though I agree that a breakdown or list of the items you uncovered would be a nice tool for remembering to risk the alternate routes on subsequent playthroughs.
Sadly, survival horror continues to grow scarce in a gaming industry chasing the success of Call of Duty. 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. Yet the indie scene gives the genre a firm shake. Amnesia, Slender Man, Lone Survivor, and several Half-Life mods lead the strong, vocal 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
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)