Effectively conveying horror through the medium of video games is a pretty tricky task. Most games rely much too heavily on cat-scares, or copious amounts of blood and gore; tactics which are akin to building a cake entirely out of frosting. Games like Home by Benjamin Rivers, on the other hand, take a much more psychologically-driven approach where dramatic tension, disturbing mysteries, and the player's own imagination are leveraged to create atmosphere more so than typically cheap scares.
I recently played through an early demo of Home (a slightly updated version of the build submitted to IGF 2012), and while it just provided a taste of the full game, it illustrated that Home's approach to story-delivery is quite intriguing.
The player wakes up in a dark room in an unfamiliar house. Armed only with a flashlight, the player explores the sprawling abode in an effort to find out where he is, why he's there, and why he has a sneaking suspicion that something terrible awaits him back at home.
Presented in 2D, the game's presentational attributes work in concert to its advantage. The combination of great sound effects and the pixelated retro art-style compliment each other well, and encourage imaginative embellishment from the player. Somehow, discoveries like a cage matted with blood or a human corpse--though presented in charmingly-crude pixel art--carry a heavier psychological weight, thanks to the storyline's mystery. More often than musing about how disgusting my discoveries were, I found myself wondering how each disturbing scenario factored into the overall story.
Rivers describes Home as "a murder mystery with a twist—because you decide what ultimately happens." On this note, the game often gives the player binary choices. It wasn't entirely evident until a subsequent playthrough (though will likely be even more noticeable in the final version), but decisions like whether or not to pick up a blood-caked knife, steal an old photograph, or grab a gun from a workbench each seem to subtly impact the story and mood. I'm not entirely sure exactly how these choices will all work together in the game's grand scheme (given that the demo I played was really just a preview), but I couldn't help but feel like I was building my own version of the game's narrative as I progressed. That said, it's often not really possible to immediately deduce what the ultimate impact of a given choice will be, but that sort of adds to the intrigue.
I recommend that fans of psychologically-driven horror might keep Home on their radars. Like most great horror stories, the game starts at a slow burn, gradually amping up the tension as the protagonist plumbs the depths of its creepy setting. Based on what I've seen so far, I'm quite hopeful that the payoff(s) will be worthy of the rather ambitious "build your own narrative" aspect.
Rivers is aiming for a Summer 2012 release for Home on PC, but also told me that he'd eventually like to port the game to Mac, iOS, and Android. The official price is still to-be-determined.
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