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The many meanings of home in video games

Country Roads, etc etc.

Games like to take us places, whether it's space, hidden jungles or a bygone version of England. As much as I love these alternate realities of the real thing and the joys of video game tourism, increasingly they've made me think about the home, the place in the physical world where most, if not all, our gaming actually takes place.

The home, or even just home in the wider sense, seems in many ways antithetical to the stories many games tell. Going on a journey means leaving home - RPGs in particular like to deal in permanent displacement. Baldur's Gate 3 begins after your player character has been abducted by mind flayers, Divinity: Original Sin 2 similarly starts with your imprisonment and escape. JRPG classic Secret of Mana compels you to travel because you've been exiled from your village, and in Dragon Quest 11, the protagonist's home is destroyed completely. This year, I loved Eastward's mild subversion of this classic idea of displacement - here, the whole quest was about finding a home. The game takes its time to introduce us to its different towns and sprawling cities, because it wants to make sure that we see protagonists John and Sam build a life there with all that entails - helping out in the community, making new friends, even sitting down at the end of an eventful day and having a meal together. However, many players later told me that these lengthy segments felt slow to them - pulling them away from the adventure gameplay that only happens when a calamity repeatedly displaces John and Sam.

Eastward trailer.Watch on YouTube

As humans, we depend on our home as a safe space, and the safety that it offers as a human right. The events that displace us - war, natural catastrophes - often only so much as set the stage for what games ask us to do. City builders like Frostpunk work on the premise that humans have gone to inhabit either a profoundly uninhabitable place or that danger, in the form of a storm or a fire, for example, is an ever-present presence lurking just an RNG dice roll away. The appeal of these games lies partly in creating a functioning facsimile of our world that could be razed at any moment. While creating homes is often your very first task, it's economic concerns that pull you away from what those homes represent.

Games that take place inside the home focus on creature comforts and the capitalism that enables them. For a game with such a visceral pull, prime example The Sims is surprisingly mundane 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 to do their TV watching on, or a dishwasher. It's a game we intrinsically know how to play, because for many of us have the same aspirations for our homes. The early games ignored work and careers almost entirely, in part due to technical constraints, but even the earliest expansion packs focused on the comforts of the city or holidays rather than work. Even then the main game happened in the home - going away is a nice diversion, but no more. Animal crossing gives you a home, and friends, and makes sure you feel welcome and appreciated, but it also makes you put the work in that's necessary to make enough money to keep things running. Especially now that you can design your entire island in New Horizons, and online economies like treasure islands and villager trading have sprung up, I increasingly feel that, rather than a place to relax and catch some fish, Animal Crossing resembles the chase for aesthetic perfection and wealth we so often chase in real life.

The recently released Unpacking manages to tell a whole story simply by way of items, their reappearance and placement. The kind of items allow you to guess several things about their owner's likes and personality, and how you place them likely says something about you as a player and how you like your own home to be set up. Do you need all of your games neatly arranged by system? Do they all need to be together on one shelf?

Unpacking trailer.Watch on YouTube

But the idea that items make a home is a deeply capitalistic assumption, and one not everyone can or wants to buy into equally, with gaming itself being a luxury hobby that can take up varying degrees of space in our physical homes. Exploring the metaphorical meaning of home is to neither see it as the mere start of a journey nor to look at the literal space, and this is likely how most games approach the subject. It also allows for the widest set of interpretations. Hades' narrative eventually circles back to this idea that there's no better place than home - that through your escape attempts, you get to know Zagreus family better and learn that familial harmony was perhaps what he really desired, but to me that idea was always at odds with a game where rest is only ever temporary. No matter how many plush rugs you deck out Hades' hallowed halls with, the expectation is that you never stay for long, and your return is involuntary. Despite what the game says, home feels more like a curse here.

Sable, on the other hand, is happy to let you go. You may start off the game by leaving your isolated desert community, but it's also the wider idea of community that makes the desert at large a home - you get to choose the guild you want to belong to, in a pilgrimage that is essentially an initiation rite into society. This is no quest with an uncertain end, and I'd even hesitate to call it a grand adventure, even though for us as players it can certainly feel like it.

Instead, it's a game that feels like exchanging one home for another, like being welcomed into a place where everyone is happy to see you. Unlike Link in Breath of the Wild, which Sable's developers Shedworks took inspiration from, Sable doesn't have to assume the mantle of the hero to make herself useful to her home - being herself is enough to be welcome, and isn't a home essentially a place where you can just be yourself?

Sable trailer.Watch on YouTube

But Breath of the Wild offers another interesting interpretation of home: a place that isn't home to the protagonist so much as one that feels like home to the player. For fans of the series, the name Hyrule is enough to create an emotional connection. Even if not - as you get increasingly familiar with the map, it becomes a place you just want to exist in, not only to explore and solve tasks. In part that's of course great level design, but this definition of home also depends on really solid worldbuilding. Like any Dragon Age fan, for example, I live for every single mention of a location that could appear in the next game. There are places that players haven't physically seen yet and still feel like they know - revisiting worlds like Thedas, the world of the Witcher or logging into Final Fantasy 14's Hydaleyn can feel like seeing a virtual home. Now that we're all busy discussing the need for a metaverse, this definition of home is certainly not without its problems, as it is important to remember that virtual spaces are designed for play - keeping us there can have unhealthy consequences. These second homes (and in case of FF14, the real estate economy that comes with it) bind us to places that aren't real, and are thus probably more like the traditional idea of video games as escape rather than a home, but in games media we have also often talked about how these virtual spaces allow for community in times when the real world keeps us inside.

I think that homes, in games and the real world, shouldn't be about the chase for something perpetually out of reach, or the imminent terror of loss. In a way, the definition of home as a welcoming place that offers rather than demands can be a definition for the wider world of gaming - it can be undeniably thrilling to chase the high of winning and conquering, but there is more than enough space for a softer alternative.

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