Games love to take us to places, be it outer space, hidden jungles, or a bygone version of England. As much as I love these alternate realities of reality and the joys of video game tourism, they reminded me of home, of the place in the physical world where most, if not all, of our games take place. Actually.
The house, or even just the house at large, seems in many ways antithetical to the stories many games tell. Going on a trip means leaving home – RPGs in particular like to deal with constant displacement. Baldur’s Gate 3 begins after your player character has been kidnapped by Mind Flayers, Divinity: Original Sin 2 begins similarly with your imprisonment and escape. The JRPG classic Secret of Mana requires you to travel because you’ve been exiled from your village, and in Dragon Quest 11, the protagonist’s house is completely destroyed. This year, I loved Eastward’s slight subversion to this classic idea of displacement – here the whole quest was to find a home. The game takes its time to introduce us to its various towns and sprawling towns, as it wants to make sure that we see the protagonists John and Sam building a life there with all that that entails – helping out in the community, making new friends. even sitting at the end of a hectic day and having a meal together. However, many players later told me that these long segments felt slow to them – taking them away from the adventure gameplay that only happens when a calamity repeatedly moves John and Sam.
As human beings, we depend on our home as a safe space and on the security it provides as a human right. The events that move us – war, natural disasters – often only set the stage for what the games ask us to do. City-builders like Frostpunk assume that humans have gone to inhabit either a deeply uninhabitable place or that danger, in the form of a storm or fire, for example, is a pervasive presence that is just lurking an RNG dice roll. Part of the appeal of these games lies in creating a working facsimile of our world that could be razed at any time. While creating homes is often your very first task, it’s economic concerns that keep you away from what those homes represent.
The games that take place inside the house focus on the comforts of creatures and the capitalism that allows them. For a game with such visceral pull, the first The Sims example is surprisingly unremarkable if you think about it. You watch your sims watch TV, use the facilities, or do the dishes, and all you really want for them is a more comfortable sofa for watching TV or a dishwasher. It’s a game we inherently know how to play, because many of us have similar aspirations for our homes. The early games ignored work and careers almost entirely, in part due to technical constraints, but even the early expansion packs focused on the comforts of the city or vacation rather than work. Even then, the main game was played at home – leaving is a nice diversion, but nothing more. Animal crossing gives you a home and friends, and makes sure you feel welcome and appreciated, but it also requires you to do the necessary work to earn enough money to make things work. Especially now that you can design your entire island in New Horizons, and online economies like Treasure Islands and the Villager Trade have sprung up, I have more and more of a feeling that, rather than a place to relaxing and catching fish, Animal Crossing is like the pursuit of aesthetic perfection and richness that we so often pursue in real life.
The recently released unbox manages to tell quite a story simply through items, their respawning, and placement. The type of items allows you to guess several things about the tastes and personality of their owner, and the way you place them probably says something about you as a player and how you like your own home. is fitted out. Do you need all of your games to be neatly organized by system? Do they all need to be on a shelf together?
But the idea that things make a home is a deeply capitalist assumption, and not everyone can or will adhere to it equally, with gambling itself being a luxury pastime that can occupy varying degrees of care. space in our physical homes. Exploring the metaphorical meaning of home isn’t about seeing it as just the start of a journey or looking at literal space, and that’s probably how most games approach the subject. It also allows the widest range of interpretations. Hades’ tale ultimately comes back to the idea that there is no better place than home – that through your attempts to escape you get to know the Zagreus family better and learn that family harmony was. maybe what he really wanted, but for me that idea was always lucky with a game where rest is only temporary. No matter how many fluffy rugs you decorate the sacred halls of Hades with, you are never expected to stay long and your return will be involuntary. Despite what the game says, the house looks more like a curse here.
Sable, on the other hand, is happy to let you go. You can start the game by leaving your isolated desert community, but it’s also the larger idea of community that makes the desert as a whole a home – you can choose which guild you want to belong to, on a pilgrimage that is essentially a rite initiation in society. This is not an uncertain ending quest, and I would hesitate to even call it a great adventure, although to us as players it can certainly sound like it.
Instead, it’s a game that feels like trading one house for another, like being welcomed to a place where everyone is happy to see you. Unlike Link in Breath of the Wild, which the developers of Sable Shedworks took inspiration from, Sable doesn’t have to take on the role of hero to make herself useful to her house – just being herself is enough to be welcome, and no isn’t a house primarily a place where you can just be yourself?
But Breath of the Wild offers another interesting take on home: a place that isn’t so much the protagonist’s home as it feels like the player’s home. For fans of the series, the name Hyrule is enough to bond emotionally. Even if it doesn’t, as you get more familiar with the map it becomes a place you just want to exist, not just to explore and solve tasks. In part, this is of course an excellent level design, but this definition of the house also depends on a really solid world-building. Like any Dragon Age fan, for example, I live for every mention of a location that might appear in the next game. There are places that players haven’t physically seen yet and still have the feeling like you know – revisiting worlds like Thedas, the witcher’s world or connecting to Hydaleyn from Final Fantasy 14 can feel like you are seeing a virtual house. Now that we’re all busy discussing the need for a metaverse, this definition of home is certainly not without its problems, as it’s important to remember that virtual spaces are designed for play – we can keep it there. have unhealthy consequences. These second homes (and in the case of FF14, the real estate economy that goes with it) tie us into places that aren’t real, and so probably more like the traditional idea of video games as an escape rather than a home. , but in gaming media, we’ve also talked a lot about how these virtual spaces empower community in an age when the real world keeps us inside.
I think homes, in games and the real world, shouldn’t be looking for something perpetually out of reach, or the looming dread of loss. In a way, defining the home as a welcoming place that offers rather than demands can be a definition for the larger world of gaming – it can be undeniably thrilling to chase the pinnacle of victory and conquest, but there is more than enough space for a smoother alternative.