Now Playing: Home
Sometimes a game has a story to tell you. Other times the story of a game is a narrative of player actions, a comedic tragedy of errors. And sometimes, games are the stories we tell each other, and tell ourselves.
Home is such a game, an (auto)biography of murder and lost identity set in a stranger’s house. Over the game’s hour-long running time, you won’t so much as piece together a murder mystery as create one, through both action and your preconceptions of what the story should be. Home is a game that belies its simple mechanics as a point-and-click adventure, making the levers in the narrative machine the player’s own confusion and interpretation of oblique symbols. Home does something new in game narrative, and it does it in spectacular fashion.
It’s hard to pin something like Home to the horror-adventure genre, as there’s so much else going on under the hood, but I’ll go ahead and do that here. The game opens with a nameless, amnesiac protagonist waking in an unfamiliar room, and its mechanics can be boiled down much to moving from left to right and occasionally clicking on a highlighted piece of the scenery. These will usually give you a few lines of narrative, and occasionally a choice (Pick up the gun? Untie the rope?). As the player moves through the game, they follow the protagonist on his way home, musing over dead bodies, pools of dried blood and vaguely familiar scenery. That’s pretty much it.
Except there’s something in the game that’s happening between the lines, beneath the breath, over the shoulder. Maybe it happens in the moments where nothing is happening – the seconds it takes for the protagonist to move from one end of the screen to the other, possibly, or the blackness of the loading screen.
What’s happening is the player is drawing his own conclusions. Every time they’re given a purposefully confusing clue, or a bit of information that seems to contradict what they thought they knew, or when they’re told the protagonist hates guns but finds the weight of a pistol oddly comforting. In the spaces between the narrative the game is giving you, the player is making his own. And by the end of the game, the players conceptions of what’s going on have written its own conclusion.
Hold on, I’ll let you pick of the pieces of your mind, as I’m sure it’s just been blown out of your head.
There are many binary choices to be made in the game which in theory branch to other choices and consequences and bits of narrative. I admit to having very little idea of which choices lead to which conclusions, and that speaks to the strength of its creator, Benjamin Rivers, as a writer and storyteller. The point is that the game is written in such a way so that the player makes these choices based on how he perceives situation at hand – is the protagonist violent? Is he in danger? How did he wind up in that stranger’s house anyway? What do you think? It’s your story.
It’s tempting to criticize Home’s conclusion(s) for being too vague, a little too smarter-than-thou; at first glance it feels like the game’s trying to tell you something, then holding the whole thing out of reach. But it’s the only way a thing like this could work; it’s the difference between writing a story and a choose-your-own-adventure book. Players will debate the game’s individual pieces, trying to make a clearer picture of the whole (What’s in the safe? Whose knife was it? What’s the deal with the rat?), but ultimately the only clear picture you have is the one you’ve already made up in your head.
In this sense Home is the gaming equivalent of a ragtime jazz piece, a shell of a narrative that player actions and reactions fill in the gaps to. It’s a cryptic love song to audience interpretation and participation, and the inclusion of a forum dedicated to players telling each other their own stories also makes it a much more meaningful multiplayer game than any I’ve played this year.
Ultimately Home is a game of perceptions – yours and the protagonists. This is a game that isn’t necessarily about scaring you (though it does unsettle), or even about making you think, so much as it’s about empowering you to make your perceptions a reality. It’s Minecraft in literary form, a story that couldn’t function in any other medium, and the strongest argument for writing in games since last year’s To The Moon. Go, play and create. You too can write Lynchian murder mystery with a few clicks of the mouse.