Steam Safari – Home

Watch as Jason does the unthinkable and actually attempts to clear his Steam backlog, one game at a time. These are the records of his voyage into the untamed wilderness. Join him on his  Steam Safaris, where he’ll play a random game from his Steam library for 3 hours and tell you whether or not it’s worth your time. This week: Home by Benjamin Rivers. Available now for $3.

It’s never been a better time to be an indie game developer. Not only do you have a bevy of open source engines and tools at your disposal, but you can actually distribute your product for real money instead of just internet high-fives and priority on FTP queues. Long gone are the days where success was measured almost entirely on how many hits on Newsgrounds your latest flash game got, or whether or not it was more popular than that anime dating sim game. You know the one, don’t even try to deny that you played it.

It’s into this new world that games like Home are released. One in which paying $3 for an elaborate narrative experiment seems downright reasonable. Home, when it’s working, is a postmodern game intended for an audience well versed in the tropes of survival horror games, Silent Hill first and foremost.

I wouldn’t entirely call Home a game. There’s little to do in it other than move around, solving a few exceptionally basic puzzles (and you may even be able to progress with nary a glance in their direction) while hitting space bar to interact with things. There’s no fighting, no chases, there isn’t even a menu beyond an initial splash screen telling you the controls. Hit escape and the game closes with less fanfare than a cigarette butt thrown into a muddy puddle. The horror comes not from the bargain bin pixels or occasional jump scares, but instead from the constant sense of unease that accompanies every choice.

Instead of worrying you with sexy undead nurses and other regular shoppers at the local Rusty Needle Emporium, Home instead chooses to focus on the choices we make as players. The very basic premise is that you play a man who awakens in a strange house with nothing but a flashlight, a sore leg, and a strong desire to get home. From there you trudge through a wide range of dismal and depressing environments, trying to piece together your past.

Or are you?

The experimental part of the game comes into play when you see the very first interactive object. Do you choose to look at it or simply move on? These decisions help build the story around you as you move towards the inevitable (and obvious) conclusion. Early choices seem a bit arbitrary on a first play through, but as things begin to coalesce, you’ll find yourself struggling against both your past choices and the invisible hand of the plot. Can you save yourself or are you already doomed?

This is where the game is at its best, when you’ve figured out what’s going on and have to decide where to draw the line between player and character. Do you allow the character to play out their own story as they should or do you intervene and attempt to write a different, and unnatural, ending? This is also where the game starts to fall apart, as the complexity of the branching choices overwhelms the engine, causing the narrator to reference events that haven’t happened or block pathways for no reason. Additionally, the final chapter of the game can feel a little like a check list of choices, which undercuts the tension of earlier decisions.

At little more than an hour for a full play through, the temptation to go back and try it again, to push the limits of the narrative, is easy enough to indulge in. Unlike games like Lone Survivor, which also feature a more open-ended decision based narrative, there isn’t a lot of pesky “gameplay” to trudge through in your quest to find more macabre pathways. Once you complete the game, you can also visit a special website set up by the creator (http://homehorror.com/whathappened/) to tell your own story and compare it with others.

Home is a great example of what a thriving indie scene can produce when given the opportunity: a fascinating experiment that’s more akin to a piece of interactive art than a true piece of game-based entertainment. If a short glimpse into the potential of truly organic storytelling is worth the price of a large coffee to you, Home really is where the heart is.

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