There’s no place like Home
It’s been argued that polished graphics are integral to an effective horror game. If you’ve ever played the original Clock Tower for the SNES, or Silent Hill for PS1, you know how untrue that is. Should you require even more proof (so needy!), look no further than indie PC title Home, a game that manages to bring on the scares with graphics not unlike what we saw in the 16-bit era.
Home tells the story of a pixelated man waking up in a pixelated house not his own, and the pixelated horrors he uncovers on his way back to, appropriately enough, his pixelated home. The game’s retro sensibilities are more than just cosmetic, boasting a streamlined control scheme that fits perfectly with its 2D appearance. The arrow keys move you left and right, pressing up aims your flashlight above you, and the space bar selects any highlighted items you walk by. There’s no combat, and puzzles are few and far between. It’s a simple game on a mechanical level, but the same cannot be said of the tangled tale it weaves.
Ambiguity flows through every moment, the game never fully revealing what it is that led to the gruesome events you gradually uncover. As if that wasn’t a potent enough formula for confusion, the main character will frequently question your motives, urging you to consider if you really need to pick up that gun, or tote around that random photo. The answers, as it turns out, aren’t quite set in stone.
Changes in the game arise based on how the player reacts to certain elements, which is my spoiler-free way of saying that Home is somewhat of a malleable experience. These changes take place on a very small scale, doing little more than altering the lens through which the story is viewed, and by extension the way the main character interprets it. It does this in a very subtle way, avoiding the trappings of blatantly obvious black-and-white decisions. Speaking as a fan of the genre, it’s something I’d love to see more games do.
Despite the interesting way the story is delivered, it does have a few problems, particularly in the form of predictability. The game very directly feeds you bits of info that soften the one-two punch of its final act, making pending twists all but impossible to see coming. A spoiled twist can all but ruin a story-based game, but the interpretive nature of Home helps it evade that fate.
Less a complaint and more a word of caution, this is not a game that will have you hiding under the covers in fear. Short of a few low-blows in the form of sudden noises (seriously, wear headphones), it operates on more of a psychological level, coveting unnerving and baffling situations over blatantly terrifying ones. The game’s sound design contributes to this quite a bit, offering a quiet-but-effective ambiance to the dreary pixelated scenery.
My first play-through of the game was around one hour and fifteen minutes, and I’ve since gone back and toyed around with making a different set of decisions. Doing so didn’t lead to an entirely different experience, but there’s a definite level of replayability there. That isn’t something you can say about most story-driven games priced at $2. Or even $60, if we wanted to get brutally honest here. To put it more directly, Home is a game that all horror fans should spend some time with, especially if they’re in the mood to scratch their heads.