Interview: Benjamin Rivers on Home

The first thing Benjamin Rivers tells me is that my digital recorder looks like a Star Trek medical scanner.

The seventh thing tells me is that he’s full of pizza sub.

Culinary non-sequiturs aside, the Toronto-based independent comic book artist and game developer is both sarcastic and insightful, and he’s currently putting his video game knowledge to good use with Home, a new 2D (and $2) horror adventure for the PC that combines atmospheric visuals with intricate decision trees to convince players to scare themselves. I’ve played the demo, and the technique is unnervingly effective.

Ben isn’t giving away any spoilers prior to the game’s June 1st debut, but I nonetheless sat down to get his thoughts on the benefits of being independent. Our conversation touches on everything from Steam to latrines, so keep reading if you want to know why you need to be paying attention to Home.

Dork Shelf: How long have you been working on Home?

Benjamin Rivers: On and off, it’s been a year and a half. Seven months of that has been actual work and the rest has been other projects.

DS: How excited are you to have a release date in sight?

BR: It’s amazing. Even a month ago I wouldn’t have imagined that it was actually going to come out. I’m so happy that it has a finite date.

DS: Home is coming out for the PC and you’re also trying to get on Steam. Why is it so important to reach that particular platform?

BR: People are used to having stuff in the same place. Steam is in front of you. It’s harder to resist when you see a game on the platform you’re already using.

DS: As an indie, is it tougher to get publicity without that widespread distribution?

BR: You have to do a lot more legwork, although I think anyone who gets on Steam has to do this anyway. People are only focused on so many things at once and they can’t be asked to look everywhere for games they might enjoy.

DS: Let’s talk about the game. It’s a 2D survival horror game, correct?

BR: Well, I wouldn’t use the word ‘survival horror.’ It was once called ‘survival horror’ and then people got into a YouTube comment debate about how you can possibly have survival horror in a game in which you don’t die. I refer to it as narrative horror because it’s story-heavy and it’s less about survival mechanics.

DS: If nothing in Home will kill you, how do you scare the player without presenting any tangible danger?

BR: It’s about getting people so worked up in the atmosphere that even though you know nothing bad can happen to you, the game is always reinforcing that bad things are going on. You might not think, “I might do something wrong and lose,” but you might think, “I’m going to steer the game into a place where I’m going to die and that’s not the ending I want.”

The protagonist of Home wakes up in a house that isn't his. (Benjamin Rivers)

DS: Since it is so hard to avoid spoilers, how would you describe Home without giving too much away?

BR: I’ve been trying to describe the initial premise, which is a man waking up in a house that’s not his. He’s not sure how he got there, what he’s doing, and he’s going through these environments trying to figure things out. I’ve also been trying to clarify the mechanics. That’s where most people have questions. It’s not a shooting game. There’s no survival aspect. It’s a narrative-based decision game, and that’s about all I’ll say. You go from beginning to end and craft your own story.

DS: That’s where branching decision trees come into play?

BR: Not every single item will blow everything up by a factor of two. It’s not choose-your-own-adventure, it’s make-your-own-adventure. It’s not a game where there are 15 endings, you get ending A to Z and that’s the ending you get. It’s more that, between the beginning and the end, stuff happens that will reflect how you perceive a bunch of other things.

DS: You’re messing with their minds.

BR: Exactly. You’ll get it when you play it.

DS: The game’s first screen (in the demo) tells you to play in the dark with headphones on. How do people respond to that invitation?

BR: It’s weird, because at first I was worried that no one would want to, but then I realized that … there’s no other way to present this. People have to buy in. They have to want to get creeped out, and thankfully I’ve been seeing that there is a good contingent of people who want to invest that way into a game.

DS: Narrative sometimes seems to get short shrift in bigger games. Does your independent status make it easier for you to make a game that’s entirely story driven?

BR: There are a lot of AAA games that try this stuff, but they can’t go all the way. Look at a game like Uncharted. They want you to see all the story they’ve written because they’ve invested a crap-load of money and time and talent on it. They’re not going to give you a game where you can miss thirty percent of the content because people want to feel like they got the full $60 value for whatever it is they got.

I’m only asking people to pay a small amount of money, so even if they get to the end and they’re frustrated, usually they’re more intrigued than angry.

DS: Is the whole notion of “getting your money’s worth” a problem for the industry? Is it easier to stay true to your game artistically when you’re removed from big-budget financial considerations?

BR: The fact that the risk is so small comparatively is what allows you to do these kinds of things. Look at Journey. It costs 15 dollars, lasted maybe an hour and a half, and I didn’t hear anybody complain about that. I heard people say they didn’t like the game, but I never heard anyone who finished it say, “I can’t believe that was only an hour and a half,” because they got what they felt was the complete experience.

Big developers and producers talk about how difficult it is to break even on certain games even when you think you’re going to be assured success because of expectations about what $50 or $60 should mean. I think you need stuff like Heavy Rain or Journey. You need to broaden that spectrum, because I can pay 14 dollars for a shitty comedy but I can also pay 14 dollars for the most brain-explodingly enlightening film. I enjoy both. It doesn’t have to be one way or the other.

DS: You’re putting together a special edition with lots of old school features like a manual, a map, and a bunch of other goodies. Why did you decide to put this box set together?

BR: I was thinking back to older PC games and older games in general, where the manual gave you what you needed to get into the game. That psyched you up for this experience you’re about to have and that’s exactly how I want people to think about this game. There’s a real world component sitting next to you as you play and that’s what excites you. It’s a little art piece, where the whole package is the game, the manual, the maps, and some other stuff. You care about this world that you’re about to jump into.

The contents for Home's special edition. (Benjamin Rivers)

DS: The games industry is becoming increasingly digital and it may not be long before downloads are standard. Is there still be a market for splashy collector’s editions?

BR: Just like books or comics, something that you can get cheap and easy will be 90 percent of your sales, but a limited run for the people who want it will still exist. It’ll go to two extremes. They print three million Arkham Asylum‘s but there’re also 500,000 to a million special editions. It’s not really that ‘collector.’ As you progress, it will be 20,000 or 2,000. Indie games are doing a lot of that now, but they cater to a crowd that likes having that special, more precious thing.

DS: Do you have any lingering jitters about the game’s reception?

BR: I’m hoping reviews will help mitigate disasters, but I think I might be OK. I think I’ve made a decent game. I hope. It’s so hard to tell. Everyone could totally shit on me by the time it comes out. Maybe there’ll be three other horror games that come out between now and June first and I’ll be completely passé.

DS: Are you expecting people to play this game more than once?

BR: I’d like them to. It’s designed so that you can. If you go through a second time immediately after beating it, you’re not going to notice that every single thing is different. I think some people are going to try to ‘game’ it like a traditional game, but a lot of people are going to finish it and be happy and want to discuss what happened to them or what they thought was going on. The game will live on in the discussions that people have as opposed to a game that you can play for ‘cheevos.

DS: In horror, sometimes you get a happy ending and sometimes you get a horrible depressing ending, so there’s a lot of leeway to experiment with Home. A bigger game like Mass Effect 3, meanwhile, faces a colossal backlash when the ending doesn’t conform to expectations. Do you think the industry could stand to be more embracing of alternate storylines?

BR: The arcs that most AAA games go through are one arc in a Hollywood film. In a film, you can go any which way. It can be depressing. In games we’re a lot more limited, probably because it’s younger and people haven’t experimented enough or figured what we can get away with. Doing an indie game, it’s almost your prerogative to try to get some of that variety.

The tagline for Home when I launched the original trailer said, “This will not end well,” and that might hold true. The way this game closes, is – as far as I know – completely unique. I am trying to take what is most interesting – or what I find most interesting – about games and bring that into the story. It’s not just the thing that runs in the background while you do cool shit, but rather, the cool shit itself.

DS: You’ve made a point of telling people that there’s no DRM. Any particular reason you wanted to emphasize that?

BR: I needed another bullet point on my list. I don’t know what the future of the game is, so I don’t want to make anyone feel they’ve been locked into a code. A lot of it is just respect for customers.

DS: You’re releasing Home for two dollars, a price point that a lot of people associate with mobile devices even though Home is a PC exclusive. Do you have any plans to bridge out to other platforms?

BR: Absolutely. The game was designed as an iPad game knowing full well that I would not have the resources to make an iPad game, so I have to do it as a PC game first. I have my sights set on an App Store release, but none of that is up to me. If I can do it, I will, but I’m making no hard promises.

As far as the price point goes, the game is short and I want to give people no excuse not to feel like they’re getting something for their money. I’m sure five bucks would have been palatable, but there’s something about that instant purchase of two dollars. It’s an easy price point. I just want people to play this thing.

DS: Do you think you’ll pick up a bigger audience if you make it to the iPad?

BR: I’m not sure. I’d like to think so, but it all depends on timing. It can be a fantastic market or a terrible one, depending on a ton of factors outside your control. Ideally, I would like people to play this game on an iPad, with great headphones, in the middle of the woods outside a dirty old outhouse. They’ll come out totally terrified.

DS: Most horror writers want you in a graveyard. You want them in an outhouse?

BR: Those of us who grew up in the country know outhouses are way scarier than graveyards. Stuff crawls out of outhouses. Stuff usually doesn’t crawl out of a graveyard. Trust me, it’s way worse.

DS: What do you think you’re going to move on to after Home?

BR: If it does well and I get some distribution then getting on other platforms would be my first priority. After that, I think I’d want to make something happy, but I’m not sure if I have that in me. My track record isn’t so good on happy stuff.

DS: Just put a bunch of Moogles in it.

BR: If I could legally get away with putting a Moogle in my game I would. It’s the only thing keeping me alive.