Friday, June 1, 2012

Limp steps towards evolution - A review of Home

To be honest, I've bought Benjamin Rivers' Home without reading up on it much, mostly because of the "Old-School Collector's Edition". Not to have more fancy stuff lying around, but because I figured if an indie developer went through all the effort to produce maps and other feelies, they certainly would have put as much work and love into the game itself, right? Right?! Let's see...

(This review is the product of playing the game without having seen any of the goodies. The official home page recommends to wait for them to arrive, but as the Collector's Edition has already been sold out during the preorder phase, this is a moot point for anyone who might still be considering to buy the game, anyway.)

At the center of the Home stands a nameless guy who wakes up in an unknown house with a wounded leg. Just in the next room lies the mutilated corpse of a man. Trying to find his way out of the property, he soon stumbles over details about the house and its inhibitants, but also more gruesome facts and some unsettling connections to his own life.

The game calls itself "an unique horror adventure," and it sure draws on a lot of common horror tropes. The animations of opening doors from first-person view are known to anyone who has ever touched a classic Resident Evil game, and the whole game world is covered in darkness all the time, with the closest vicinity illuminated only thanks to the light of a lamp that is found all too conveniently just at the spot where the protagonist wakes. up There also is a handful of skillfully applied fake shock moments, like a cat jumping away as the player walks toward it, but the most essential element of horror - a sense of actual or imagined threat - is lacking entirely. The mechanics of the game make it clear very early on that dying is not an option, not the least because the game doesn't have any save function whatsoever.

Now that might sound terrible at first, but it's important to bear with Home at that point - a session of the game can easily be completed within an hour. (Don't worry about that short time frame, either. The digital download version costs no more than two bucks) The game sure could have done a better job at communicating this concept (after all it goes out of its way to tell players to turn off the lights and use headphones at the start), but the appeal of Home is the replay, to do things differently and see how they play out.

Most of the choices just consist of either taking certain items versus leaving them, or examining clues vs. missing them, but there are also a number of obstacles that can be passed in different ways, with the consequences sometimes determining how later situations have to be approached. In the beginning, for example, it's possible to jump down a broken ladder at the cost of the player character's hurt leg, but findign a different means to descend saves him the pain, preserving his agility.

There are no "wrong" decisions that make one get stuck, though. The changes are merely nuances in the narrative, and, ultimately, in what the player gets to know about what actually happened. Piecing together the clues found on the way (which the game mostly does for you in text summaries of each "chapter") is what Home is all about. It's clear a lot of work has been put into compiling alternative narratives to make decisions matter, but often the player has no clues whatsoever what kind or quality the consequences might be. With no proper fail- and success states and no logical framework to the choice-consequence structure, it becomes a matter of just limping through the game with whatever choices and then maybe get some other results by doing just the opposite the next time.

Also, at the end awaits a decision that just shouldn't be there, a twist that works less the more interactive your product is. It could have suceeded if gave things seen throughout the game a different meaning, but instead it caused many scenes to have no meaning at all. I really wish I could elaborate on this some more, but it's impossible without massive spoilers.

Unfortunately, Home is also plagued by a number of scripting bugs that spoil the narrative experience. In the most harmless cases, they're just annoying repetitions of text, but they can also cause plotholes to the current playthrough and confusion to the player. At the end of the first section, for example, the protagonist may voice his regret for not having picked up the gun he found, even when the player hasn't even examined the bar of pixels that constitute the weapon on-screen.

An often-made argument when discussing the merits of games is the claim that hi-tech graphics are not needed to make a compelling interactive experience. But in the case of Home, questions after the expressive power of blocky pixel graphics have to be raised. With the chosen look, gory views appear censored by default, causing a dissonance in any reactions the player can have and the disgusted descriptions of the protagonist. When hurting his leg worse, the protagonist seems to limp a little more (or is he? Might be just a psychological efect...), but otherwise animations are sparse, and he has no choice but to keep the same dopey look throughout the story, no matter what happens to him. This is not to say that it hasn't been that way in countless great classic games, but here they add to the conclusion that Home can never hope to get all that creepy.

The flashback-like narration of the protagonist appears in cut-away text panels, like in a silent movie. What sounds cool at first gets aggravating real fast, though, as they're painfully slow. The text scrolling can be skipped, but there's always a weird delay in the text appearing and the game cutting back to the main screen.

Regardless of its shortcomings, Home is a fine exercise in interactive storytelling and one can only hope that it gives other developers some hints in making the narrative the actual purpose of the game. It is not, however, a very good game. The official homepage quotes the Totally Rad Show praising the game as "King’s Quest meets Heavy Rain," but all it really would have inherited from King's Quest are the blocky visuals. The farthest extend of a "puzzle" are certain objects that are only found by holding the lamp aloft, or levers that have to be pulled more than once. While it might be true that the traditional approach to adventure game puzzles might not be the optimal way in telling an interactive story (as they almost invariably demand harebrained stories or a weird disconnect between game world and puzzles), but when there's really nothing "gamey" to replace them, the final product is not much different from a simple chose-your-own-adventure story. Author Benjamin Rivers is quoted on Adventure Gamers for his "desire for evolution in the adventure genre." He also talked about horror in games created by engaging the player on "that unique mental level," but he tries to do so mostly while ignoring video games' strongest tool to engange the player. Home does a honorable job in trying to make actual gameplay obsolete, in creating an interactive narrative that is engaging enough on its own, but in doing so it offers no true solutions to the old problem of marrying gameplay and story in a way that both can benefit from the union.


  1. Whoa, now there's a sense of deja vu. Given your interest in survival games, and the 2D low-res graphics, and light source, when I see this blog entry, I at first thought you had reviewed Lone Survivor.

    Then I double checked and obviously you hadn't. But they seem superficially similar.

    Nice write up though - thanks for drawing my attention to a second indie to catch my interest.

  2. Yeah, somehow I've confused the two before, too, although at closer look they aren't all that similar even visually.

  3. Beat me to it Sketcz, having just come off of Lone Survivor but a week or two ago this struck me with a serious case of deja vu. Though derboo is right, the pixel graphics style is different and personally I prefer Lone Survivor's pixel art by far as they seem to express more grotesque while still leaving some to the imagination. If you haven't played Lone Survivor before, I'd give it a shot because (while it does have its own share of minor quibbles) I believe it better balances interactive storytelling, multiple plot paths, and gameplay.

    While going for just a measly $2, I'll undoubtedly give Home a shot (or three) sometime soon, but I hope the glitches get patched soon. With a game so short, small patches like these could ruin your plathrough.

  4. There is a version 1.2 now, that's supposed to fix at least the worst and most noticable scripting error, among some other bugfixes. Didn't have the chance to do another playthrough with the patched version yet, though.

  5. Hey Derboo:

    Thanks for the write-up. Sorry you ran into some bugs; they were fixed with the v1.2 update. I know there's at least one more sneaking around that almost nobody has found, which will be fixed an upcoming release.

    I know it's tough to talk about the game without giving everything away, but I appreciate your thoughts.