Recently, as part of PS+, I downloaded Home for the PS Vita. Home describes itself as a “horror adventure game,” which intrigued me as a fan of both horror and adventure games. Furthermore, the pixel art style make me think it’s part of the new trend of low-budget psychological horror games like Slender. If nothing else, I figured it would have a few good jump scares or some interesting psychological twist that might give me a spook.
The premise of Home is that you wake up in a mysterious house with nothing but a flashlight illuminating the immediate area. As you go around, you interact with objects, often having the “choice” of picking up an object or interacting with the story, somehow. It’s very much a mystery game, in that the primary goal is to figure out what the hell happened and why everyone around you has gone to shit. Its dark atmosphere and vivid gore imply that this is a horror game.
But here’s the problem: it’s not horror. Not that it’s not scary, there are plenty of horror works that are just not scary. It’s that nothing in the game actually elicits fear in the player, at least not directly. Horror relies primarily on tension and fear of the unknown. But Home has no real tension. There are no jump scares, and solving the mystery doesn’t reveal anything tense. The content of the game, though somewhat gruesome, doesn’t give tension or a sense of threat in any way.
One of the most powerful ways to produce fear and tension is through sound and visual design. Games like Saya no Uta and 999 use striking chords in their scores and vivid imagery to hammer in fear. I pick Saya no Uta and 999 for specific reasons–they’re not tense in the traditional sense. Both are visual novels, and the tension comes from creating an immersive art design that forces the player into its world and the tension that the characters have. It’s brilliant because it uses atmosphere to build enough tension to let our minds fill in the gaps.
But Home does nothing with its art design. The score simply consists of sound effects, like creaking floors and opening doors, none of which create actual tension. Furthermore, the pixelated art design muddled any gruesome elements, making them not scary or tense. Home never really immerses you in its world, which is sad, because a decent score could have made this game much scarier.
The story of Home is not scary either. In short, you wake up in a mysterious house and have to figure out why everyone’s dead in your town. But rather than trying to solve the mysteries so clearly presented, the game focuses more on moving you from one place to another with find-the-key puzzles. Several times, you are asked to make a choice, e.g., “You see a key. Pick it up?” Most of these “choices” are but-thou-must choices, as you can’t progress until you decide to pick up the key. Occasionally you’ll see dead bodies, and opine on what are presumably your dead friends, but there’s no sense of any threat of the killer, nor any revelatory indication that you are the killer. The dead bodies act more as pseudoshocking objects to find rather than plot moments or tension builders. Nothing in this game even tries to scare you, and as such, is a terrible attempt at horror.
That said, what I found more interesting, and what appears to be the developers bigger focus, were the choices that were actually relevant, the ones that were true choices. Occasionally, you will find a body or a place, and the game asks you to make a decision affecting the plot. Without spoiling too much, one asks whether a body you find is a certain person. But the way that it’s phrased, depending on your choice, either the body you find is the person, or the person never existed at all. That is, what seems like an innocuous choice alters the course of the plot. It acts, in many ways, like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, where the plot is more dependent on these seemingly innocuous choices, and the narrative plays out differently, even if the gameplay remains the same.
However, even as a piece of interactive fiction, it still fails. Branching plot lines based on player choices is nothing new–Saya no Uta and 999 do this quite well. But where many other games treat the choice branching as a way to enhance and explore an interesting world, Home appears content to just say “ooh, you made choices, and the story changed! Isn’t that awesome!” Except you’ve created a mysterious world that is not engaging and never really gets resolved. “But, but, that’s the trick–you resolve the mystery! With your choices!”
Here’s the problem with choices and player-driven narrative: you have to give some indication that (1) the player has a serious role in the narrative and (2) the narrative stands regardless of the ultimate outcome. Throughout Home, many of the “choices” you make are not choices–you have to pick up the key to move on. So when a plot-related choice arises, there’s no indication that it’s a true choice, so you pick what looks like will progress the story. That is, when you teach the player that the “choices” really aren’t choices at all, surprising the player with choices breaks the immersion and ruins the experience.
Furthermore, the plot has to be able to stand on its own regardless of the choices made. A lot of really good games let you fill in the gaps in the story with your own choices, like Persona 4. But Persona 4 has an impressive plot regardless of your choices, and the choices serve to improve the plot, rather than the choices being the plot itself. Katawa Shoujo also relies heavily on your choices, but again, the plot weaves with those choices and exists as more than just the choices. Even Mass Effect, which used choices throughout the series (even if they threw them out at the end) had a compelling enough plot on top of the choices made to keep the player engaged. Having choices simply isn’t enough–you have to do something with the choices and make the narrative better for it.
So, Home fails as both a horror game and as a choice-driven experiment in interactive fiction. The sole saving grace is that it’s short–a playthrough lasts about 45-90 minutes, depending on how fast you read and how much text you skip. Unfortunately, unlike many of the short experiences I’ve had recently, this is not a condensed burst of flavor, but rather tries to stretch out a flavorless idea and leaves you unsatisfied. Skip it.