… Is Where the Pain is.

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You awake from a heady sleep. Dizzy, you don’t know how long you’ve been unconscious, or where you are. All you can see is darkness and the slightly pungent aroma of mold billows around you. Lightning flashes through a window above, followed by the growl of a thunderous storm. Blindly, you run your hands over the slightly damp carpet for anything familiar. By your feet, you find a small cylindrical object and realize, almost instinctively, it’s your flashlight. Flipping its switch ignites a sphere of light that envelops you and beats back the darkness.

Slowly, you pull yourself from of the matted grime of the saxony carpet and cringe when your leg screams loudly from an apparent injury that you cannot recall. Your clothes are wet and covered in mud. Your hands tremble and you shiver from the biting cold. Your head swims with half memories and lost moments.

You are in a small room, with only one exit. You don’t remember how you got here, or even where here is. Stumbling forward toward the door, you pause for a moment to regain your composure. Your stomach turning at what might be waiting beyond. You grip the doorknob, take a breath, twist your wrist, and push the door away from you. The light from your flashlight charges forth, exploring and exposing the space and contents of the next room. At the edge of your light a body is lumped over itself on the floor, still and bloody.

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I can honestly say I wasn’t interested in Home. It seemed trite. An 8 or 16 bit horror game wasn’t something I was interested in and I didn’t believe a game with a pixelated style could effectively create any impressions of fear or dread. I remember playing Slaughterhouse, Waxworks, Darkseed, Fright Night and the seminal classic, Friday the 13th and not being spooked. While I understood those games were supposed to be scary, I didn’t find myself being frightened. If those games weren’t scary to me as a child, how could a retro indie title get to me as an adult?

Then, I gave it a chance.

Graphically, Home is a bit jarring at first. Its pixelated style floods your vision when viewed on a large screen and I got the same sensation that you get when someone shoves a picture too close to your face and you have to pull your head back and consciously focus your eyes to see what’s in front of you. I felt, and still feel, that Home would have benefited from allowing the player to shrink the image on the screen. Preferably, this would have been a slider-type function so each user could have set the play area to be as large, or as small, as they felt was necessary. It is this reason that I recommend players who wish to experience this surprisingly compelling adventure play it on the Vita or on their mobile device.

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Oh, and the first play through, play it all the way through in one sitting. Play alone. Play in the dark. Play with headphones. Before you begin Home, the program recommends you set aside an hour and a half to complete the experience. It’s worth the effort to play it this way the first time.

When the adventure begins, it doesn’t take long to get past the pixelated presentation and get lost in the narrative that is succinctly laid out before you. In fact, I was surprised to find that I actually appreciated the simplistic and stylistic presentation of Home. I now believe the simple graphics and controls allows the player to focus more intently on the story and the adventure. If Home were presented in a slick, modern, 3d environment it would have been vastly different experience, focused more on jump scares and ambient environmental fear than the unsettling crawl that comes to the player in a raw, cerebral, and emotional way. No, I’m rather glad Home’s crooked story is presented through simple visuals and mechanics.

As mentioned before, Home is a short experience. It’s easily completed in around an hour and with multiple play throughs to truly soak in all of the story, you’re looking at what amounts to a few hours of entertainment. This doesn’t mean, however, that the experience of Home is diminished in any way. In fact, on subsequent play throughs I found myself surprised at how much content seemed to be packed into such a short experience. The story of Home is well thought out and the deliberate pacing of the narrative is spot on. I couldn’t imaging it being drug out for five, ten, or twenty hours without adding elements to pad the story and artificially extend the gameplay and the mechanics themselves wouldn’t support a lengthy game. Home is a prime example of “enough of a good thing”.

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Calling itself “a unique horror adventure”, Home doesn’t boast gameplay that can be found many places in today’s gaming landscape. Anyone who played adventure games of the early 90s will recognize some game design elements that give Home its play-style, but don’t expect to be wearing cat-fur mustaches or anything like that. Without going into too much detail, I’ll simply say Home gives the players the tools they need to experience the narrative and little more. Similarly to the art style, the game mechanics serve a purpose, which is to deliver the narrative in a compelling and deliberate way.

All of this is accompanied by what I would call a minimalist ambient soundtrack. Mostly filled with environmental sounds and a few key musical swells, Home’s sound design isn’t trying to be more than it needs to be. While playing Home, you will find quiet moments that build tension at just the right moment, a few well placed sounds will make your skin crawl and yes, there is a jump scare or two that will make you laugh at yourself.

This is as far as I will go in my discussion of Home. I feel that any gamer that enjoys a good narrative, unique indies, or adventure games should pick up this title. The game costs a few bucks and for 1/5 of the price of a movie you can entertain yourself for about the same length of time. While there isn’t anything about Home that I would call overtly frightening, I would say that the experience was unsettling and memorable. Home achieves a really effective balance between its style, gameplay, audio, and narrative that allows each aspect of the game to benefit from the meticulous presentation of the other three. That’s a lot more than can be said of most of the horror games on the market today.

With this one title, Benjamin Rivers has been placed on my personal list of game designers to follow and I will definitely be picking up his next title, Alone With You, a PSN exclusive. Ben, you’ve got another fan.

Find out more by visiting Benjamin Rivers site, which can be found here: http://www.benjaminrivers.com/

Follow Benjamin Rivers @BenjaminRivers
Follow me, Gideon, @Gideonburkland
Follow the Backlog blog @BacklogTweets

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