Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Home - Review

Home is the first game from indie-developer Benjamin Rivers, and it is the most ‘indie’ of all the games I have reviewed thus far. However, it uses this to its advantage, and Rivers has managed to create a tense, mysterious experience that can be completed in around 1-2 hours, but stays with you for much longer.

Short game. Long-lasting damage.

Home keeps things simple. The arrows keys are used to move, ‘E’ is used to interact with objects and the ‘Y’/’N’ keys are used to make choices throughout the game. These choices are seemingly the only way to progress at times, such as ‘Do you want to pick up this rope?’, which could have also been asked as, ‘Would you like to climb down a rope, or die?’. 

However, these choices soon lead to changes in the character’s thoughts. For example, during the final moments of the game, the character summarises the entire mystery that you have just worked to uncover, and gives his opinion on what he found, an opinion that is shaped by your own. Not only this, but your decisions also open up different areas, which adds an incentive for you to return to this short burst of horror in the future.

Simplicity is also significant in the visuals of the game, which brings you its tension in pixels. The game doesn’t suffer for this, as the horror comes more from what you don’t see than what you do. Any blood that you come across actually looks a little more akin to Nutella, which is scary too if you consider that it’s considered a healthy breakfast options for kids. Ahem… where was I?

Gimme, gimme, gimme.

From the get-go, the questions of Home had me hooked. You wake up in a stranger’s house, not knowing where you are, or why your head hurts. You’re limping and there’s blood on your shoes. What the hell happened? The only way to find out is to explore the house, which is eerily quiet. You see, Home is also a quiet game. This is not a criticism, but in fact one of its strengths.

Every sound, whether it be a door opening, your own footsteps or an unexplained whisper is amplified, and you’ll walk each room in fear the next loud noise. In particular, when wooden doors were replaced with metal doors in a factory, the screech of going through them quite literally turned my stomach, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of a similar feeling I had when playing through Dino Crisis.

In addition, such transitions, (e.g. going through doors or climbing stairs and ladders) made me think of early Resident Evil games, which evoked warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgia. Of course, that nostalgia was tinged with the fear that comes from a well-spent childhood on the streets of Raccoon City. Whether intentional or not, these sights and sounds were digging up past terrors that I thought I’d managed to long since bury. In short, I’ll send you the bill for my therapy, Rivers.

Just as I thought: Nutella overdose.

As there is no speech in this game – there’s no-one else around, for one - the protagonist’s thoughts are displayed in text, and this is where the real story takes place. The narrative unfolds within this written word, where the main character questions the sights around him and gently directs your thoughts, without ever providing a clear answer to what is happening.

Much of this game is left to interpretation, including the conclusion, and as a result I was left thinking about – and discussing – the plot of Home for some time afterwards (despite finishing it at 2am in the morning). Depending on my mood, this outcome switches between refreshing and irritating. It’s nice to be left mulling a game over for a while after you’ve played it, and shows that you’ve at least connected with the experience on a deeper level, but I also quite enjoy knowing the cold, hard truth. That must be the Professor Layton in me.

While I may never know for sure what happened in Home, even days afterwards I still appreciate the constant tension that Rivers is able to create with nothing more than written text and pixels. I realise that these two things are essentially what every game is made up of, but here they are at their most bare, and it works. A good example of this is that after finding a video showing two people killing a sewer worker, I regularly stumbled across objects in two’s. Two chairs. Two sleeping bags. Two water rings. Each pair discovered only made me wonder how far I was from the possible culprits of this bloody, confusing night. Or, even worse, how close they might be to me.

My only criticism here is that I would have liked one last scare to release all of this tension, and be led into the open-ended conclusion with my heart beating at an unhealthy speed. In actuality, while searching around the aforementioned ‘home’ I felt that the game dropped its horror element in favour of wrapping up the mystery of the narrative.

I only asked you to tidy the basement. Drama queen.

Home shows that a game need not have a big budget or fancy graphics to provide an apprehensive and interesting horror game. Using only pixels, written thoughts, jump-scares and the exploration of an unexplained and deepening mystery, it builds and sustains a tension that many triple-A titles don’t ever reach.

There is a good balance of frights, choices and puzzles up until the conclusion, which felt lacking from a horror standpoint, but served mainly as a thought-provoking finale. Nevertheless, though it was already late when I began playing Home, and had only meant to play into the first half an hour, I ended up finishing the game in one sitting. This shows that the narrative that Rivers has created is gripping, and I’d happily spend more time in a pixelated sweat trying to uncover the mystery of this small town’s murders.

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