This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries.
WARNING: The tenth paragraph contains minor spoilers for Heavy Rain.
Just last Monday, I returned stateside from a three week excursion across the Atlantic. As you all know, the sense of comfort one feels upon returning home from a long journey is immensely satisfying - you almost want to sing about it. Home is more than a place of central operation. The idea of home is often associated with calm normality, refuge, contentment and peace of mind. It is our reward after a long days work and a venue for relaxation. The sensation of feeling at home is undeniably strong, yet videogames rarely exploit this emotion.
The mythological adventure of the hero's journey begins with a departure from home, leaving the mundane world behind. The home environment may contrast with the perilous realm, heightening its abnormality. It can also tell a story on its own, displaying the hero's faults which will be mended during the adventure. Of course this story could also be told entirely in the home. However, incorporating the ordinary into a game system designed for extraordinary feats can be difficult and seem meaningless. Thus, the home is mostly neglected. Most games begin just across the border into the fantastical.
There are a few notable counter-examples. Chronotrigger begins with Chrono lying in bed, awoken by his mother. Home is given a physical presence, although the house is quickly abandoned and rarely revisited. His village does become home-like in a way. As Chrono returns with his compatriots in different time periods, it generally remains geographically similar. The town's frequent appearance makes it familiar, somewhat evoking the sensation of home, but it is still not a bastion of comfort.
Familiarity only partly captures the sensation of home. By the end of Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Termina's Clock Town becomes very familiar. Link navigates its streets and interacts with its citizens constantly. He only does this on a superficial level, however. Link is a still an outsider, a voyeur dawning various masks to interact with the town and its inhabitants as someone else entirely. While it is clearly a home, it is not his home.
The construction of a personal place is very important to our idea of home. It needs to feel like ours, sometimes through ownership. The apartments in Quantic Dream's Indigo Prophecy feel more personal because their residents conduct within them both important business and mundane tasks. Yet as players, watching Tyler Miles interact with his girlfriend at his home feels a bit intrusive. So while it does depict Tyler comfortably at home, it does not evoke within ourselves the same sensation.
Some games try to give players a personal investment in their abode. Many players are attracted to The Sims because they can imagine and build endlessly diverse homes of their very own. Each dinner table, grandfather clock, and bathroom is put there by the player specifically. This act connects players to their houses in a way other games do not. The home is undeniably personal.
Assassin's Creed 2 attempts to capitalize on the collector's satisfaction of ownership and personalization by allowing players, if they so choose, to amass an impressive array of 14th and 15th century paintings. Likewise, players can discover statues to adorn the Villa Auditore. Whenever they wish, players can visit and peruse their gallery. I personally took pride in my estate as it became wealthier and better attended. While this too can be associated with home, the Villa still feels cold and emotionally lifeless. It feels more like a large display case than a home.
Home ownership in Fable II personalizes the experience, but also expands beyond what AC2 offers by allowing players to merry and raise children within their residence. For some players, the experience of returning from an expedition and actually being greeted by a welcoming family evokes a strong sense of home. While I did not experience compelling family ties myself, Fable II has the potential to engender the sensations of comfort and respite associated with home.
As the old adage says, "home is where the heart is." Home is deeply associated with family and friends. While we all relish solitary activities in the home, these small moments often become rituals sandwiched between interactive relationships with other people, or even animals.
Interestingly, Heavy Rain captures this sentiment with its depiction of Ethan's various living situations. The most powerful sensation of home is created in the beginning of the game, when Ethan plays with his children in the yard and enjoys a meal with his family. When Ethan lives alone and has a strained relationship with Shaun, his home is dark, rundown, and shabby. Once Shaun is kidnapped, Ethan sleeps in a hotel; he essentially has no home. Finally, in the optimum ending, Ethan moves into a new apartment waiting to be furnished, creating a new family with Madison and Shaun. Throughout Heavy Rain, the physical home environments are metaphors, reflecting the current state of character relationships.
Games have largely abandoned homes on account of narrative and technical limitations. The few titles that successfully evoke sensations of home do not rely on the creation of physical space. Instead, they recreate the relationships which many of us associate with home. The most evocative sensations of home are not created in kitchens and bedrooms, but in the moments between battles, the calm before the storm.
The Normandy of Mass Effect is a constantly moving space ship, yet it feels like home. As does the fireside camp of Dragon Age: Origins. In Chronotrigger, and a few other games, "home" is created through the comfort of friends, when allies come together, share stories, and rest. The idea of home within the mundane world still remains largely unexplored by games. However, in many of our journeys, we may yet find the calm and familiar sensation of home along the way.