Home – Horror Done Wrong

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.

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Cherry Tree High Comedy Club – Bite-Sized Social Links

It is unfortunate that I am unable to find the first website where I discovered Cherry Tree High Comedy Club. It was an article by Pete Davison on the now defunct GamesAreEvil website, host to my favorite podcast, the EvilCast (which ended earlier this year). I found Davison’s works when looking for JRPG related websites and news coverage, and his Swords and Zippers column was up my alley. He also focused on visual novels, opening me to a new genre that I never had experienced but now love.

One of these visual novels was Cherry Tree High Comedy Club, a visual novel by 773 Studios available on Steam. At first glance, it appears to be your typical Japanese visual novel–slice of life, high school setting, focused on a spunky main character trying to build her after-school club. Shenanigans ensue.

But CTHCC did something that surprised me (and Davison): it used a system similar to the Social Links of the Persona series. That is, you have several stats in various conversation topics, e.g., pets, cooking, politics, etc. You can take actions to build up these stats, like studying or reading a magazine. You use these stats to engage in conversation with various people, and see scenes with their respective subplot as you get to know them better. Eventually, if you talk to them enough with the right stats, you can recruit them to join the eponymous club. You even have a deadline, and have set periods in each day when you can talk to certain people, just as in the Persona series.

But what makes this game different from the Persona series is its scale. Rather than an enormous 70+ hour JRPG that spans a calendar year and 20+ Social Links, CTHCC is a much smaller experience, with a one-month deadline and about 5 characters that can be completed in a few hours. By focusing on a smaller scale and relying on the player to fill in some of the context, CTHCC manages to provide satisfying character development in a short time and clearly on a small budget.

While the respective paths here may not be as in-depth as the Social Links of Persona, there is a surprising amount of story to be told. The Social Links of Persona rarely delve into too much plot, focusing more on character development and reinforcing the games’ primary themes. CTHCC‘s routes deliver about the same amount of plot and a fair amount of character development, each unique the interesting for each character.

For example, one character has to deal with a big corporation trying to buy out her family’s convenience store, and while the route is somewhat predictable, it’s still very well written and satisfying when it’s completed. Rather than dragging out these characters ad nauseum, CTHCC uses its limitations to focus on a tightly-delivered burst of plot. It takes the best parts of Social Links and condenses them into a bite-sized morsel–you get the same satisfaction without spending as much time.

Now, you can’t get all of the characters in one playthrough, and your stats carry over to new games, so a complete playthrough would probably take on the order of 7-10 hours, depending on your reading speed and mistakes you make. I could see it getting repetitive on multiple playthroughs, but the characters are quirky enough to be interesting but not annoying, at least for the limited time you spend with them.

It’s also hilarious. While focused on a high school comedy club, the actual club activities (that is, stand-up routines) are not particularly funny. The humor comes mostly from the somewhat ridiculous situations and the sincere enthusiasm that the characters have. I hesitate to call it parody, more like a pastiche–it knows it’s a low-budget Japanese visual novel, and while the tone is lighthearted, it takes itself just seriously enough to make the player laugh at its absurdity.

And the best part–it’s budget priced. It’s currently $8 on Steam at full price, and it usually goes on discount during Steam sales. You can get it with its sequel, a kinetic novel called I! My! Girls! for $10, or get the sequel alone for $4. Fair warning–you won’t understand the sequel without playing the original, so just get them both. It’s nice to see a $10 experience that feels like a satisfying experience. If you have a free weekend and want more of the character discovery of the Social Links of Persona, this is a game worth your time.

On Criticism, Angry Creators, and The Jimquisition

I love Jim Sterling. He is a fantastic critic, a hilarious comedian, and has excellent business insight as both a consumer advocate for video games and a critic of games as a whole. I’ve been following his show for several years, and even though our tastes don’t exactly align, I think he’s got a lot of great points to make.

Recently he was “interviewed” by Digital Homicide, most famous for developing Slaughtering Grounds, a game so uninspired that I refuse to italicize it like I do all video games. In short, Digital Homicide took a bunch of Unity assets and Google Images, slapped them together, and made a “game” out them which they sold for $10 on Steam. Jim Sterling played the game and posted his commentary on YouTube, calling it out for the piece of shit that it is. Most developers would leave a bad review as that–one person’s opinion–and be done with it. Rather than go into the details of what happened, watch Jim Sterling’s take on it on his channel.

Simply put, Digital Homicide doesn’t know how to take criticism. They have released several games since Slaughtering Grounds, including Medieval Mercs, the most recent dogpile as discussed by Jim Sterling. Digital Homicide games have a few things in common that make them terrible: reposted assets, a lack of cohesive art design, a lack of information on how the game functions, and unintuitive gameplay in general. Digital Homicide’s primary response? “We’re new, just tell us what’s wrong, and we’ll fix it, but you’re a douchebag if you say anything is wrong with our games.”

The “interview” with Jim Sterling, initiated by Digital Homicide, was really just a 90 minute bitch session where Digital Homicide vented their anger and used “logic” to “prove Jim wrong” about their games and criticism in general. It’s worth a listen, though I’d be impressed if you make it all the way through. Jim did the best he could, but even he got frustrated by the end.

There’s a lot to dissect from the “discussion” (especially on the fair use/criticism side, which will definitely be the topic of another post), but what I want to tackle here today is how we as creators and leaders must deal with criticism. Throughout the “interview,” Digital Homicide made the semi-coherent point that criticism stifles creators by encouraging consumers not to consume works. Furthermore, criticism should be nicely offered by consumers after they have purchased the game and limited to technical bugs, not artistic opinions, and made with “respect.”

But here’s the hard truth: we as creators serve our consumers, and we as leaders serve our constituents. It is our duty to put our best product forward to them. And it is our duty to use criticism as a tool for improving ourselves and our products, even when the criticism seems distasteful. Complaining about our critics doesn’t make us better creators, it just makes us immature.

Digital Homicide’s one request from Jim Sterling was to be “respectful” in his criticisms, to focus on the “facts” and not to spread “lies.” But here’s the problem: Jim Sterling doesn’t owe a goddamn thing to Digital Homicide, son. It is not the job of consumers and critics to fix our problems as creators, it is our job as creators to put forth good products. Respect is a courtesy that is earned, not a right demanded from people we don’t know. We have to build the social capital first before we can ask for “respect” by showing respect even to those who criticize us.

As an IP attorney, most of my job is writing. I write patent applications, trademark applications, responses to Office Actions, memoranda on legal research, motions, briefs, blog posts, and dozens more. Everything I write is scrutinized and criticized by my bosses, and for good reason. My bosses criticize my work not for their own satisfaction, but so that we can make the best damn product we can for our clients. Because if we don’t, it’s not just a nasty review on YouTube at stake, we lose a client. Criticism makes me a better lawyer, and it’s my job to take that criticism to heart and learn from it.

If criticism stifles creation, then at least one of two things is true: (1) the creation sucks or (2) the creator has a thin skin. The first is fixable–experience and learning from mistakes will make a better creator. The second is also fixable–learning to steel yourself in the face of criticism takes time and personal fortitude, but it also requires a concerted effort on the part of the creator. When your job is to give products to a consumer, you cannot have a thin skin; someone is going to dislike what you have done, and you have to be able to accept that, even embrace it. And if you can’t, if criticism makes you shut down, then maybe being a creator or a leader just isn’t for you.

But if you can get over the blow to your ego, if you can force yourself not to shut down in the face of criticism, if you take criticism, even if distasteful, as a way to improve your product, then you will become a better creator and a better leader. By acting like a petulant child, Digital Homicide has continuously ruined any good will they’ve had with consumers, and will never gain the “respect” they think they deserve. Don’t make that mistake.