Home plays like a limited adventure game. You’ll collect many items and you can use some of those items with other things in the environment. There’s no inventory, and that’s a good thing since it would be unnecessary. Any text appears in a full screen textbox, making Home feel about as a close as a graphical adventure could possibly get to becoming an actual text adventure. In fact, that comparison extends to its interactivity as well.
One of the biggest advantages a text adventure has over any other genre of game is that it’s easy to fool the player into changing the story without them realizing it. You type in commands and things happen. You continue playing, but unbeknownst to you those actions that progressed the story represent just one of many branching paths. The text adventure The Warbler’s Nest does this perfectly: At a certain point, the story changes depending on whether the user types a violent action or a sympathetic action. These branching points are hidden from us, we’re not selecting them from a list, so the progression of the story feels more natural.
Home accomplishes this within a visual medium. The story changes depending on what items we interact and how we choose to interpret the meaning of those items. On the surface the game tells a simple mystery: You wake up in an unfamiliar house with no recent memory; there’s a dead body nearby, you’re scared and you just want to go home. If you play it just once you’ll likely be intrigued enough by the story to want to go back and try to unravel more of the mystery, but Home is all about the horror of unanswered questions. The more you explore, the more you see, the more the story changes, so any new details you learn are irrelevant because they’re details in a different mystery, a new mystery that introduces its own unanswered questions. Characters change roles, relationships change, personalities change. The more you dig for answers the more questions you find.
It’s a wonderful trick that toys with our expectations of gaming in general. Games usually reward the thorough gamer either with Easter Eggs or the “full” story. By denying us this satisfaction Home evokes a profound sense of discomfort. Not horror exactly, but a kind of frustrating irritation that’s its own kind of horror.
And I mean “frustrating irritation” in the best way possible. Home ends with thekind of dangling questions that take root in the back your head because you know you’re so close to the answers. Yet you’ll never find them because every time you try the story changes. One could complain that nothing is really resolved, but every ending does have just enough closure to not feel cheap, though not quite enough to feel satisfying.
Benjamin Rivers, the man behind Home, understands that a monster is always less scary when you see it up close, and that the worst kind of violence is the kind we can’t make sense of. Home essentially puts you the shoes of a detective in a horror mystery, the kind of character who eventually goes insane trying to find the truth, who’s consumed by the mystery. That’s the kind of feeling you get after playing Home multiple times: The desire to solve the mystery you know is hopeless.
And yet not totally hopeless. At the end of the credits the game gives you a link to a community website, and lets you share your story with others. It’s amazing how many different interpretations people have for the same series of events. The site is basically a collection a flash fiction involving madness and murder, usually told from the player’s own point of view. This is where the open story becomes truly rewarding: It allows each player to fill in the details and then literally write their own story. The tagline for Home is “a unique horror adventure” and that couldn’t be truer: Everyone might find the same corpse, but what it means is up to you.