Playlist 2012: Home

Home PC | Benjamin Rivers | July

Home, by Benjamin Rivers

Home is a unique horror adventure set in a beautifully-realized pixel world. It’s a murder mystery with a twist—because you decide what ultimately happens.”
-Benjamin Rivers, Creator of Home

When I was in art school, an animation professor of mine spurred a discussion with our class about the difference between being intentionally ambiguous and just being confusing. Ambiguity in a narrative strongly suggests a number of finite conclusions to a situation, but we’re stripped of a key piece (or pieces) of information that would otherwise make said conclusion whole. For example, if I go to the kitchen and return with red stuff on my shirt, it could be tomato juice – it could also be blood. It’s ambiguous, and so is most of what you’ll discover in Benjamin Rivers’ Home.

From a gameplay perspective, Home doesn’t have any new interactive “hooks” as far as hand-eye coordination goes. It’s a side-scrolling point-and click adventure game, but it’s the context that activates these otherwise simple actions, making every step in either direction a harrowing activity. You wake up in a house, and a variety of clues will lead you to believe (or disbelieve) whatever it is you want to. Was this house yours? Someone else’s? Who really left these letters? How did this body get here? Why is my driver’s license in a trash can near the woods?

I never found any two clues that completely contradicted each other and broke the potential for one story over another, which only made the feeling that I’d never find out the truth harder to cope with. By the end of the forty-five minutes or so that it takes to complete Home (which has to be done in one sitting since there is no save functionality), an otherwise simple point-and-click search transforms into a paranoid scavenger hunt for anything that would confirm my suspicions. It’s a detective’s worst nightmare – or maybe even a victim’s.

It’s also one of the only games where beginning your adventure as a waking amnesiac is not only effective, it’s appropriate. The answer to that question alone, of how you got into that house in the first place, could skew every other fact in the game. Leaving that up to players is a bold decision, but it works because it helps us decide how we got there just as the main character might, considering his psychological state. I don’t usually buy that we impart ourselves onto silent protagonists, simply because they’re a blank canvas. What am I suppose to do with that canvas? What are my constraints? What I do buy is when my decisions have an impact on the arc of a character, or a world, whose thoughts I can read: something with an established identity. The things we think to ourselves are not often what we’ll say out-loud, and since we don’t have to explain them we naturally leave details out, or sometimes our memory isn’t what it use to be. Home tapped into some very basic human fears without taking my hands off the wheel, allowing me to further connect with its main character. To me, this is a much more interesting approach than filling up an empty shell with my own mundane thoughts.

The artist in me notices Home as being filled with clever solutions that aspiring independent game designers should pay attention to, as well. Its visual style comes to mind first, since it serves not only a practical purpose (it can run on a lot of low-end hardware and has lower production costs), but it amplifies the nature of the mystery by abstracting details of a murder scene, or a shadow that moves in the background. It’s impossible for me to ignore that this game was made by one person, and it’s pleasing to see it reach new and popular markets at a steal price of $2.99, where many more people will hopefully get the chance to ponder what really happened here, too.

home-sqHome could adapt into a twisted psychological thriller movie, but it justifies itself as a video game by letting the player unfold its story and decide for themselves what happened, piece by body-piece. Don’t let Home‘s 8-bit inspired visuals fool you. Let them scare the hell out of you.

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