If you’ll excuse me for just a moment, I’m going to swap my journalism hat for a neon sandwich board and a megaphone.
Buy Home. Right now. It’s only $2 and it’s worth every penny. Go without coffee for a day or downgrade from a Frappuccino to something filtered, just do whatever you have to do to loosen your budget a bit. Trust me. You can spare the $2.
Now then, back to the review.
Home is the latest offering from independent game developer Benjamin Rivers and – to put it as succinctly as possible – it’s amazing, although not for the reasons you’d expect. It is, after all, an indie title, and doesn’t have any of the HD polish of a more expensive AAA release. There isn’t much in the way of gameplay and the visual style is heavily stylized rather than realistic.
Fortunately, none of that matters because Home is a narrative horror adventure that succeeds because it experiments with story structure in a way that forces you to reconsider the possibilities for interactive storytelling. In fact, it’s one of the most unique narrative experiences I’ve ever come across in any entertainment medium.
It’s impossible to go into to much detail without giving things away – at an hour and a half in length, the game is meant to be played in a single sitting – but I’ll do my best. In Home, you wake up in an abandoned house with a dead body in the next room and no recollection of how you got there. Your goal is to escape the nightmare and make your way home to your (hopefully) still breathing wife, Rachel.
While the premise is hardly groundbreaking, Home distances itself from other games with presentation. Most video games, be they AAA or indie, tell a predetermined story from the perspective of one individual or group of individuals. A branching game like Dragon Age or Heavy Rain might have multiple endings, but even then your input is limited to fixed events so it’s not your story as much as it is one version of the story as dictated by the developer.
Home manages to break that mold with some astonishingly elegant sleight-of-hand. As you progress, it gradually becomes clear that there are several possible explanations for the game’s particular set of circumstances and your mind will inevitably try to fill in the blanks as you find clues that could explain the mystery. However, nothing is explicitly spelled out so there’s no way to know whether yours is the correct version of the story.
The payoff is that your own personal interpretation actually affects the final outcome, as if the very fabric of the game world is reshaping itself in accordance with your perspective. I have no intention of spoiling the twists – as with any thriller, the discovery is half the fun – but the sheer audacity of the ending almost made me fall out of my chair with gleeful appreciation. Home feels completely original, and that alone is enough to warrant the highest praise.
Home is also deliciously creepy, albeit in a retro kind of way. It’s not the scariest game I’ve ever played – you can’t die and there are limits to what you can do with 2D graphics and a protagonist that resembles a pixelated Conan O’Brien. Nonetheless, the game does a fine job of setting the mood with an atmospheric style that repeatedly establishes that evil things are afoot.
Like a ghost story told around a campfire, Home is as scary as your imagination will allow. If you’re determined to poke holes in the pixels, you won’t encounter much resistance. Then again, you won’t have much fun, either. If you’re willing to go along for the ride, Home will persuade you to freak yourself out, and the resulting tension is far more satisfying than horror that relies solely on jump scares and gore.
It all adds up to my new favorite game of 2012. Home will stick with me far longer than the more derivative titles that dot the release schedule. At $2 – seriously, did I mention that the game is $2 – there’s no defensible reason to give it a pass. If you’re at all interested in video gaming as a narrative format, you have to play Home. I’m already looking forward to the discussions I’ll have around the water cooler, and I know it won’t be long before I sit down to play it again.
Home is available for digital download on Windows PC. You can buy it here.