Imagine one night you woke up on a filthy mattress in a strange dark room, in a dilapidated house, with a pounding headache and no memory of how you got there. If you’re a university student this is probably a regular occurrence for you but let’s pretend for one moment that you’re not. Would you get the hell out of there ASAP before some masked nutter embedded a machete in your skull, or poke around to try and find out how you wound up there in the first place? This is the basic premise of Home, a PC indie horror game by Canadian developer Benjamin Rivers, whose nameless protagonist wakes up in these very same circumstances with nothing but a flashlight and a boatload of questions.
That’s all I can really tell you about the story of course, although not because I’d be spoiling it for you. Truth be told I don’t think I could spoil the story to Home for you even if I tried because it’s such a subjective experience. Home’s chief selling point is that the narrative changes based on the main character’s perspective and the decisions you make for him, like whether or not you choose to investigate something or pick up a specific item. For example, if you didn’t bother looking at a workbench with a gun lying on it then as far as the protagonist is concerned there never was a gun to find. Everything you do on the protagonist’s journey home bends the narrative in subtle ways that can nevertheless have a significant effect on how the story unfolds. The basic geography of the game remains static so you always take roughly the same path home, but how your character perceives that journey can vary significantly between playthroughs.
It’s an ambitious idea and works well for the most part although it’s not without its quirks. Over the course of several playthroughs there were some moments the game thought I’d picked up a particular item when I didn’t or seen something I hadn’t, sometimes repeatedly, that led to some curious narrative discrepancies and a hefty dent in my immersion. You also get presented with a number of choices that are just illusions of such, like the choice whether or not to descend a ladder into a dark spooky tunnel. You can opt not to but you can’t progress any further until you do. They’re really just a polite way of asking if you’re done exploring that particular area since you can’t return after you move on to a new one.
You needn’t worry about missing a vital item though because none of them are essential, not even that gun I mentioned earlier. I’m not saying the gun can’t be important or lead to some interesting story information. I’m just saying you don’t need it or anything else in order to reach the end and see the credits. I completed one playthrough as a kind of pseudo speed-run where I didn’t interact with anything except for some easy-yet-obligatory puzzles, which exist solely to encourage you to explore each of the game’s distinct and atmospheric locations, and I still got through to the end. Sure, it was a very vague ending that asked a lot of questions the protagonist had no answers for but it was still undeniably An Ending.
For horror gaming fans the big question of course has to be “will Home creep me out?” and my answer is a resolute yes, albeit with one very important caveat attached. Like the best horror novels and films the game cheekily makes your imagination bear the brunt of the workload by keeping your vision limited to a small pool of light around the protagonist that only illuminates his immediate surroundings. The overall art style is distinctive and packed with little details, and a grey pixelated pseudo film-grain effect gives Home the feel of an old TV horror show episode. Combined with a skilful use of of sound and atmospheric minimalist soundtrack it creates a spooky low-key atmosphere of creeping dread and apprehension. Home’s malleable narrative also means certain discoveries can be innocuous, surreal or disturbing depending on how you’ve guided the story to that point. A particular grisly find in the game’s mildly irritating forest maze section, and the protagonist’s reactions to it, actually elicited a slight shudder from me.
The caveat I mentioned earlier is that Home sadly loses every last shred of its ominous atmosphere once you’ve completed it. I don’t mean that problem many horror games have where they lose some of their bite after you’ve become familiar with them because they still have plenty of capacity for a good old scare or two. Home, however, completely ceases to be scary after your first playthrough because it deliberately stops being a horror game and becomes a mystery instead. A mystery I couldn’t help but return to again and again over several hours in a vain quest for some sort of objective truth, even though the only answers I could ever have were my own subjective ones. All I can really be sure of is my choice to complete the game somehow fundamentally altered the game’s very nature. How meta is that?
Despite some minor bugs and the quirks in its narrative mechanics Home is absolutely worth every bloody red cent of its $2 price tag, ranking up there with The Binding of Isaac in the time-to-money-spent stakes. Home is designed to be completed in one sitting and can be finished in about half an hour, so in theory you could spend a good number of hours experimenting with different choice and item combinations to see what effect they have on the overall story (at least until some smart arse creates an Excel spreadsheet for them all). Home doesn’t fully realise its ambitious core concept but it’s still a worthwhile and interesting experience in every sense of the word, and at such a low price you’d be a fool not to at least give it a try.
Home is available as a digital download for PC from Homehorror.com.