I remember when I was a little girl, waiting at the end of my driveway. I had already missed the school bus, but I stood there anyway… envying the birds.
It’s clear to see where David Wehle got his inspiration to make Home is Where One Starts. In terms of gaming, it has clear ties to other “walking simulators,” like Dear Esther and Gone Home. But even the casual observer can see the literature he’s referencing — from his Steinbeck-ian portrayal of the downtrodden American to the T S Eliot quote that the title draws from. Wehle likens the game to a short film — if Terrence Malick stopped making art house films and instead made independent games, then maybe he’d make something like this.
My frustration with Home is Where One Starts is actually similar to my frustration with some art house films. It lingers where it is not wanted, it begs you to chew the scenery while tugging you every mindfully towards the plot. Despite being 15-30 minutes long, the game has a slow pace. You’re meant to be in that moment, drawn out in the rigors of memory. It has the art house film quality of making you feel kind of stupid.
As with many games with VR support, your method of interaction is a cursor in the middle of the screen that alters when hovered over objects you may interact with. It’s simple, but effective. With a game like Home is Where One Starts, you don’t need to be able to jump or sprint, you need to be able to look.
With Gone Home, searching objects usually gave you prompts as to what they were. Their importance was plainly spelled out for you in big, friendly letters. Home is Where One Starts eschews this method as being a bit too hand-holdy. If you want to find out what the importance of the object is, you’re going to need to sit down and figure that out yourself. The English major in me delights in this method of writing as it is the epitome of show, don’t tell. The reviewer in me was lost trying to complete the game and being unable to find a key.
This also means that you’ll occasionally be permitted to pick up objects, a book in one room with a highlighted passage almost too small to read or a rubber duck in a pile of garbage, whose existence is not readily explained. Or really ever explained.
The story is relatively simple, a wise decision in a game that could take you a lunch break to complete, and focuses on the reminiscing of an important day in a young girls life. We know she is young because the narrator, an older version of the girl, tells us this is the case. About halfway through the game I realized that my body was playing in the present while the narration spoke from the future, and this was partially due to the ruinous nature of the place that I called home. I honestly could not tell if it had been abandoned for twenty years or if the people who lived there simply did not care.
Easily one of the biggest strengths of Home is Where One Starts is in the visual style. The game is lovely and melodic, and my quibbles are minor. I wished that the plants did not appear so flat, or that the skybox looked more like a sunrise rather than a sunset. But these worries would be swept away when the wind would shake through the area. The game was almost designed for gifs.
While later the game references its own invisible walls, it does not make them less frustrating as a player. Limiting the world is one of the ways that games like Dear Esther and Gone Home kept things in a natural kind of state. In Dear Esther, you were trapped on an island, and in Gone Home you found yourself in a house on a dark and stormy night. These limitations are artificial, but they are a bit more realistic than simply finding yourself unable to continue because of a flat plane you cannot see.
There’s a Banksy quote (itself a paraphrase of an earlier quote from Finley Peter Dunne) that says “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted,” and for one main reason I’m reminded of Home is Where One Starts. This is not a happy home, even if you look beyond the poverty. There are beer cans in the closet, and the narrator tells you how the house smells a bit like mold and booze. While you are the only character who is ever in the space, there are moments when you can hear the muffled yelling of a mans voice as if through paper thin walls. Within those raised words you can hear the promise of violence. It makes the hope of escape and survival — referenced by the older woman’s narration — all the more tangible.
If you’re interested in first person experiences (3D graphical interactive fiction, walking simulator, whatever you call them) then this is certainly one to check out. The field is admittedly limited at the moment, but despite its issues and opaqueness, Home is Where One Starts promises to be a worthy addition to the line-up of similar games.