You would think, what with games being an interactive medium, that making the player’s choices matter would be simple. It’s far from it for a number of reasons, primarily because every choice you allow a player has to be coded and tested for. But it’s a goal of so many titles, to make your choices matter and to grant the player the satisfaction of shaping their own story. Home tried to do this in a rather novel way back in 2012, and I still can’t think of another game that took this route and made it work. I mean, Home didn’t make it work either, and didn’t offer a very compelling experience to get there.
You awaken, battered and bloodied, in a house that is not your own. Stumbling around in the dark, you discover that even darker events have taken place here. Fearing for your own safety and that of your wife back home, you set off to rejoin her as soon as possible. However, your route takes you through ominous tunnels and grim ruins that shed further light on the terrible things happening in your town. As you piece together the clues a picture of dread begins to form, one that may be confirmed when you finally pass into the familiar confines of your home. Or it may not.
I would call Home a side-scrolling walking sim without a hint of derision, because it does a fine job of approximating a desperate journey in 2D. Your poor fellow shuffles left and right, checking highlighted objects he passes and climbing stairs and ladders with a press of a button. You have an inventory but not one you need to manage, as it will only ever contain a few key items. There’s no combat and only the barest traces of puzzles, which allow you to focus on the unfolding story and the oppressive atmosphere than runs through the entire hour-long experience.
There are two problems with Home that spoil its premise, and to explain them I’ll need to spoil aspects of its design. If the premise and presentation sound interesting enough to you, go ahead and check out of this review and pick this one up. But if you’re still here, we can talk about how long that presentation holds up. There’s no denying that areas of Home are genuinely creepy, and the occasional creaking board or rattling door or throbbing mechanical hum will tense you up. It all works for your first stroll through the game, at which point you will discover there are no threats of any kind, at any point. The game will still try to jumpscare you a times with loud bangs and slams, but they’re a cheap, unpleasant way to maintain the illusion of danger when there is none.
I would be a bit more forgiving of the gameplay if the narrative paid off, but it’s this primary selling point that is Home’s biggest fumble. As you progress and discover new clues about what’s happening around town, this supposedly shapes the story and conclusion that you reach. At the end of the game, you are presented with a series of questions about what did or did not happen. You can answer these in accordance with the evidence you’ve found or try to resist the apparent conclusions, but it seems either way you go it won’t actually give you any sort of resolution. The first two times I played, I got frustratingly vague “guess we’ll never know” endings. And the third time, I followed all the clues to their logical conclusion only for the game to give me a meandering explanation of how the opposite thing from that conclusion happened.
Home claims that “you decide what ultimately happens” but all you really have control of is how much of your time this game will waste. Beyond the convincing atmosphere of your very first run through the game, there’s very little to compel or reward the player. The gameplay is thin, the writing is passable, and all that changes between attempts are small vagaries in the nebulous ending you get. We’ve come a long way in interactive storytelling since 2012 but if the review this one is replacing was worth anything, Home didn’t have much to offer the medium even back in its day.