It’s interesting playing through Benjamin Rivers’ murder-mystery-cum-nightmare Home so soon after finishing an episode of The Walking Dead. Not because they have a great deal in common – bar a haunting and enduring echo of unease – but because both games promise to adjust according to player behaviour and it’s Rivers’ pixel horror that makes best on that promise. By quite some margin.
You play as a nameless gent, waking up in a mystery mansion seconds before a storm hits. The mansion is home to a couple of crumpled corpses while our luckless hero – suffering from a bout of amnesia – is garbed in muddied clothes, has an inexplicable limp and absolutely no recollection of how he ended up snoozing in this stately home-turned-burial ground. And so the mystery wagon sets off down Whodunit Avenue.
You’re very much dropped in the thick of things with the following hour spent fathoming just what the devil went down during the build up to that opening scene. It’s a novel premise, if only because so few games busy themselves with anything that happens prior to the tutorial, and it skirts around the sighs of “amnesia, again?” because it doesn’t use it as a crutch. Our hero’s short-term memory loss is the lynchpin from which the horror and the mystery is allowed to spread, and it’s a fascinating hour spent trawling through the forests, houses and underground bits of this lonely and portentous town in an effort to fill in the many blanks.
The guts of the game involves wandering through delightful pixel environments, pressing spacebar near objects in the world to trigger on-screen text or the occasional decision-making scenario. It’s through these you’re fed shreds of the story. Home’s not a particularly good game in the traditional sense (there’s a puzzle midway through, but that’s about it), but without any ham-fisted puzzles or combat the story takes centre stage, segueing with the overriding, creepy ambience. And with little in the way of the narrative beats it hurtles towards its conclusion more-or-less uninterrupted (Rivers’ clear intention, because there’s no option to save your progress).
There’s a lot of reading to be done, though. In fact, I’d guess at least a third of the game is spent perusing the thoughts of the protagonist. That could easily have been the game’s downfall but so much of the horror is wrought through these unnerving accounts; the toneless chronicling of grisly events feeding perfectly into the macabre overtones. You wouldn’t get the same effect from a voiceover – especially when it breaks the fourth wall and quizzes you to good effect.
Not one of these vignettes feels like time wasted, either; the writing deliberately sending you scurrying down new paths (and like any good murder mystery often misleadingly). It weaves in its clichés, sure, but by my interpretation they’re usually red herrings.
And that’s the real honest beauty of it. Home is almost entirely subjective. More so than any other game of recent memory. If you’re not willing to cut through the surface façade and poke around in the dirt and the rubble you’re missing out on a lot of what makes it special and it’s a testament to the intrigue that there are so many creative accounts on the game’s What Happened page (good Lord, don’t read that until you’ve played it, though).
By the time the end stumbles into sight, of which there are several, there are so many questions and possibilities to ponder that you can’t help but a feel part of the nightmare. That’s to say, the horror isn’t derived from cheap-frights but through the perennial uncertainty; the uncomfortable feeling that you can’t put faith in what you’re being told or shown on-screen – that there’s something discombobulating slithering beneath it all ready to subvert your expectations.
I enjoyed Home just as much when I wasn’t playing it, which is something I consider to be the hallmark of a quality game; the feeling that I need to go back; that I missed something vital to my understanding of it. So much of that is due to the intoxicating world – the loneliness and the paranoia seeping through every pixel, the air of mystery and the sense that there’s something left to uncover.
I’m trying desperately not to spoil anything so I’ll wrap it up here. Home joins a heady roster of indie horror games that together have provided the genre with the renaissance it so desperately needed a couple of years back. I’m talking about the likes of Lone Survivor, I Am Alive, Amnesia and Slender Man. And boy is that good company to keep.