A local game designer has created something unusual: a game you play, until it plays you.
Billed as a “unique horror adventure,” the deceptively simple and intensely unsettling narrative-based single-player PC game Home, released for Windows earlier this month by Toronto artist and developer Benjamin Rivers, sets itself apart from its big-budget peers in its very first moments by being, well, scary.
Beautifully rendered in pixilated graphics that evoke chilling retro classics like Sweet Home, Alone in the Dark, and Silent Hill, and punctuated with jump-inducing sound effects, the game begins with your character—known only as Rachel’s Husband—awakening in a strange dark room in an unfamiliar house with just a flashlight casting a halo of light around him, and no clear memory of how he got there, where his wife is, or how to get home. But get home he must, and his journey only becomes more urgent as he discovers signs that a serial killer is at large, and that his wife is a possible target.
And here is where Home reveals its true innovation: in a nod to the “forking path” hypertext narratives of Borges and Márquez, the choices you are confronted with and the decisions you make as you explore different environments (the strange house, the empty sewers, the desolate woods, and the eerily unpopulated town) shape and reshape its story in sometimes startling ways. Some of these choices are seemingly mundane—letting a mouse out of a trap, or picking up a receipt for some train tickets—while others have the potential to turn the game inside out and to fracture the relationship between player, character, and narrative. (One choice in particular is so audacious that when I was first faced with it, I stared at the screen for more than a minute, considering its staggering implications.)
A number of recent games have based key plot points, or in some cases built entire narratives, around the tension between player agency and narrative determination (Manhunt, Bioshock, and the cult hit Shadow of the Colossus spring to mind). Home goes several steps further by challenging and deconstructing the player/character dynamic as the story unfolds, and by using the resulting disorientation to ratchet up the anxiety levels and cast increasing doubt on the protagonist’s (player’s?) perceptions. In other hands, this might have turned into a dry intellectual exercise, or an exalted version of “choose your own adventure,” but Rivers has ensured that Home keeps the player on edge from start to finish. It leaves one mulling its final moments well after the credits have rolled.
As of this writing, the current version of Home is 1.2, which addresses a number of bugs that affected the initial release. There are still some minor issues—a few typos on some of the text screens, a few missing sound effects, some small continuity errors—but overall the gameplay is smooth and the presentation is polished.
While the game itself is short, clocking about 90 minutes in a regular playthrough, the many different choices and their unforeseen ramifications mean that most will want to replay the game multiple times. In my fifth go-round, I was still finding previously undiscovered areas, and unlocking surprising new revelations triggered by the combination of choices I made. Those who complete the game are encouraged to tweet their impressions with the hashtag #homehorror and share their interpretations on a secret webpage that adds a whole new layer to the experience.
Home is just $2 for a DRM-free digital download—a bargain at several times the price. Check out the game’s website for more information.