Home Review

The interactive story Home is both wonderful and aggravating in its vagueness.

The word "home" may bring to mind the warmth of family and the comforts of the familiar, but the side-scrolling adventure game by the same name offers no such respite. Home is a very short, very inexpensive experiment that is simultaneously intriguing and maddening in the way it builds tension only to leave you with more questions than answers. You might return to it multiple times hoping to fill in the gaps, but ultimately realize that the game wasn't really telling you a complete story--you were telling one to it.

That concept might sound nonsensical, and explaining exactly how the player is as much of a storyteller as the game risks spoiling part of what makes playing Home a worthwhile experience. Suffice it to say that it plays with narrative expectations, even though it initially seems straightforward enough. The protagonist wakes in a strange home with no recollection of what brought him there--but a few encounters with dead bodies, bloodstains, and abandoned weapons make it clear that the circumstances are grim. You move this highly pixelated character through highly pixelated 2D environments, interacting with doors, ladders, and objects as you (and him) try to piece together a growing mystery.

Well, it's not as simple as all that. Home has a "choose your own adventure" element in which you make simple decisions on the part of the protagonist. Pick up a knife, or leave it be. Watch a videotape, or let well enough alone. It's not always clear what impact these decisions might have at the time, and in fact, it may not be any clearer what the impact was once you finish. That ambiguity is both Home's best and worst asset. By not shining a light on every facet of the story, the game leaves you to ponder some of its more poignant questions, some of which arise by the language and verb tenses used in the (text only) dialogue.

A trusty flashlight is your main source of illumination.
A trusty flashlight is your main source of illumination.

But that same ambiguity that stirs your intellect can also frustrate you. After a single play-through (an hour or less) leaves you pondering the meaning of it all, you might jump back in, only to find that your second attempt raises even more questions--and that there might not be any "real" answer at all. In its final moments, Home suggests that your choices might not have been "right," yet should you heed the subtle prompting to play again, you discover that subsequent plays diminish the overall experience. The game effectively builds tension on the initial run-through, even proposing that you turn out all the lights and don headphones while you play. Unusual creaks and distant thunder claps make for an eerie atmosphere, but aren't so effective when you return; you're likely to just rush through after your first attempt, trying to manipulate the story rather than soak in the ambience.

Even the first play-through can reveal a tension-breaking quirk: the dialogue might not adjust to your decisions properly, leading to absurd moments in which the game doesn't acknowledge key events. Yet for all its idiosyncrasies, Home is a daring attempt to make what happens in your own head just as important as what happens on your screen. When you think you have answers, it plants seeds of doubt; you can play multiple times and still share the lead character's befuddlement, which is an impressive feat.

Defeat your fears and climb the ladder: you won't know what might be lurking up there until you do.
Defeat your fears and climb the ladder: you won't know what might be lurking up there until you do.

Yet that same repeated confusion can lead to unfulfillment as you turn over events in your mind, hoping to make sense of them. If you think all good mysteries should offer their own solutions, Home may feel like hollow entertainment. But by allowing you room to interpret, Home keeps you intellectually engaged even when you aren't playing it, and that's a triumph worth celebrating.

The Good

  • Intriguingly vague choose-your-own-path narrative
  • Chilling atmosphere pulls you in

The Bad

  • Story's vagueness can leave you frustrated, even after multiple plays

About the Author

Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.