Friday, April 30, 2010

The Sensationalist: Homeward Bound

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.


  1. Silent Hill 3 had an interesting take on "Home", with Heather returning to the first place in the game that didn't feel like it was constantly endangering her - only to have her then encounter not only her father being slain but also the first boss monster.
    The next part of the franchise was all about "home". But not in a very positive way, as the home in the game was more of a prison to begin with, transforming into a more and more horrifying place as the outward chaos crept in.
    The latest GTA also does some interesting things, since the player can decide to just sit down and watch TV in one of the numerous safehouses of the game (or step out onto the veranda and start a random sniping spree...
    And then there's Metal Gear Solid 4, with it's semi-interactive, semi-explorable briefing scenes aboard the airplane HQ, which serves a somewhat similar purpose, should the player actually bother to switch to the Mk.II and explore the place.

    This concept of calm between the storms, the island in the sea of chaos, there are quite some games featuring that, while some succeed more than others.
    Actually, I wouldn't say that games have abandoned the concept. Would you say that games in the past had more "home" moments? Thinking about it, I can come up with just as many contemporary titles dealing with it.

  2. @ Tellurian

    I missed out on those two Silent Hill games, but that sound look cool examples. They have been about a person's inner turmoil for awhile now, so I can definitely see the home environment as useful for telling that kind of story.

    I do want to separate the "calm before the storm" idea from our idea from home. Writing this article was challenging because "home" brings with it a lot of different feelings, some contradictory and based on personal experiences or cultural upbringing. Certainly my own feelings towards the ethereal "home" is different. I wanted in the piece to touch on a few commonalities that were significant.

    So, I would say no, I don't think past games have had more "home" moments. While the calm might be there in older titles, and newer ones, it also has to be familiar and personal. Almost all games give players some form of respite, but rarely does it meet all my personal criteria for evoking the "home" sensations.

  3. Interesting mention of the Normandy, since 'she' is a ship, and might arguably have that strange, even more intense relationship with certain of the crew members. Normally one associates that protective, symbiotic relationship of ship with captain, but its Joker that displays that kind of affection for the Normandy, not Shepard. For Shepard I felt like the Normandy was more of an office, for work, where for Joker, the ship seemed something more.

  4. ++respect for starting with Chrono Trigger.

    I've oft noted that "home is where your family is". I don't have any particular attachment to *stuff* or a place. In games, home is where my team is.

    In a different direction, though, the notion of "home" is why I've argued before (and likely will again) for player housing in MMOs. The world, combat and socialization are neat and all, but sometimes players just want a place to rest their rump, as it were. A space where the player has a lot of control, and can always return home to.

    Then again, maybe it's nice to always feel like a tourist or vagabond in games, since real life and our real homes really are more important. (I know, I know, that's not about game narrative and such, which would indeed be well served by exploring the notions of home and attachments to it... but I really do wonder sometimes if it's healthier *not* to feel at home in a game world.)

  5. What, no mention of PlayStation Home? ;-) What a disaster...

    I'm reminded of Earthbound. Calling your mom from all over the globe always brought back memories of how safe and quaint Onett was. The first thing I did when I got warping abilities was go back and visit.

    Also: damn you for trollolololing me in my own digital home! I thought I was safe from that terror!

  6. @ Adam

    Joker definitely had a stronger relationSHIP with the Normandy than Shepard. Considering his lessened mobility, I think he also sees it as an extension of himself. Personally, the ship felt like home because it is was where I interacted with my crew on a personal level. I found the feeling of home was strongest in ME2 when the ship was first destroyed, scattering the crew I had known in the first game.

    @ Tesh

    We can't stop talking about Chronotrigger at EXP actually. I'm glad you brought up MMO housing, since it seems to be a contentions subject. I have no experience of my own with such a thing, but I could see how it could be appealing, especially for role-players. Could you imagine hosting in-game gatherings at your home? Or having mini-game tournaments within a larger MMO? That could be great. Ideally though, to really convey a sense of home, there should also be world events that threaten the safety of these homes.

    I wonder if EVE Online players consider their ships a form of home.

    @ Scott

    I seriously almost talked about PlayStation Home. Sony undeniably wants to make you feel comfortable within their entertainment software. I think there is a desire to recreate a familiar comfort and approachability to the interface of the system as a whole, so maybe PSHome was their effort to create that feeling over their sterile UI.

  7. *chuckle*

    Many of my articles are about MMOs, but I've not really logged much time in them as a player. I dig into them from a design standpoint, and honestly... there's a lot that I find lacking. The sense of home and *place* is one of the things that I think they really could capitalize on, but simply ignore most of the time in the gear/leveling treadmill in the race to the endgame instance treadmill.

    It's odd to me, since home is a key component to the Hero's Journey. It's where the threats start to feel real, prompting action (so yes, homes should be actually threatened), it's where you wish you were in hard times, and it's where you go back to after becoming the Hero. In many ways, home is your measuring stick, and without that baseline to work from, the sense of progress and threat assessment just don't work nearly as well. Level 80 is meaningless without level 1.

    Going further afield, it seems that many vigilante movies start with the vigilante's home (OK, and family, who are usually at home) directly threatened or hurt in some way. We seem to be wired to be deeply protective of our turf and our kin, sometimes even more than our own person. Even soldiers far away in a fight are often motivated by thoughts of home.

  8. Oh, and sorry for the double post, but sometimes, I look at Chrono Trigger as one of my "gaming" homes. It's the first RPG that I really dug into as a player and potential designer, and playing it again, even after years away, still feels like "going home" to my RPG roots. It's also still my measuring stick in a lot of ways, and even modern superexpensive RPGs have things that they refuse to learn from CT. CT also drove me to really dig into why RPGs work, ultimately leading to one of my earliest design documents. Today I work in games, and would still love to take a crack at a proper Chrono sequel, both as a designer/artist and as a player.

  9. That would be amazing! I hope you get to do it some day.

    Every time I hear the "Peaceful Days" it makes me think of home.

  10. Speaking of CT music, are you familiar with Chrono Symphonic? Yummy, yummy stuff.

  11. **Minor Fallout 3 spoilers below**

    I know I'm a little late to this comment party, but I just wanted to mention that I found Fallout 3 to have a pretty solid take on The Home.

    Vault 101 is where you start the game, and you're safe there. It serves as an introduction to the game and its mechanics and a launching point for the story. But I never thought of it as a home until the mission where you return after being out in the Wasteland for so long.

    I was surprised at how emotional it was for me to see the vault and everyone in it again. It was like recalling faded memories of a time long ago when I was safe from Deathclaws and knew nothing about Super Mutants. Of course, once you lose your innocence, you can never get it back again, but Vault 101 served to remind you of the time when you were innocent. And that's another thing that home (or at least a childhood home, or perhaps hometown) does in life, as well.