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Come a Little Bit Closer Now

How a horror game helped me better understand the close, personal relationship we have with our touch devices.

I’ve started to notice a pattern when I play horror games on the computer. As the tension ratchets up, my chair begins to scoot away from the monitor. This happens habitually at first, usually in response to a jump scare or a gradual rise in dramatic tension generated by the music. Soon enough, I recognize what’s happening, and continue to move away from the screen. It’s a ridiculous move, though one not without some merit, if I’m to try and defend myself. The more distance between my face and the monitor, the more likely I’m to be fixated on a certain section of the screen, and better setup for an unexpected fright to scare the shit out of me.

It’s what made playing the choose-your-own-horror game, Home, such a strange experience. The iOS version came out recently, and with extra time on my hands earlier this week, I jumped into bed, strapped on headphones, and went into the night.

Somehow, I never got around to playing Home on PC or Mac, even though I’d heard nothing but glowing commentary regarding its experimental and divisive approach to narrative. Home is a 2D, side-scrolling horror game in which the camera is fixated disturbingly close to the main character, preventing the player from seeing much around him. Did I mention that just about everything is shrouded in darkness, and your flashlight barely illuminates anything? Right. You wake up in a weird house, start finding dead bodies, and aren’t sure how everything fits together. Players have substantial agency over the whole narrative--the game is merely a vehicle for them to tell their own story. It’s an atypical approach.

Despite its 2D nature, Home is a profoundly creepy game, buoyed by its hyper detailed art, slow-paced movement, and loud, crunchy sound effects. Part of the reason Home is effective at scaring you is because you do not expect a game like this can pull it off, so you want to applaud when it does so consistently (on the yelp scale, Home got 1/5 real-life yelps from Patrick Klepek). Like I said, one of the ways I guard myself during games like Home is by physically distancing myself. Since I was playing this on an iPad, this was much harder.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from trying over and over again. The music would begin to pulse, my character’s feet would scratch against the cement floor, a pipe would squeak, and the iPad would move a few inches away. Then, a few more. Then, a few more. Then, I’d remember this game is touch-based, and in order to properly move my character, take in the environment, and interact with the world (necessary to put together the optional backstory elements), the iPad would have to move right up to my face again. A few minutes later, the cycle would repeat, and each time my stomach would churn and my fingers would tense up, gripping the iPad tight.

It’s not just that my iPad is smaller than my 21.5” computer monitor, either. We are trained to have these devices right up in our faces, and we develop personal relationships with them. It sounds disturbing when it’s written down like that, but that relationship is part of their DNA, a fusion of the device’s tinier screen size and its requirement that we interact with our fingers. My body’s natural reaction to fear is to move away from what’s prompting my fight-or-flight, but the device beckons closer, constantly reminding me that our relationship depends on our distance.

I asked Home designer Benjamin Rivers about my reaction to his game, and how the devices we interact with prompt unique responses from our bodies. Here’s what he told me:

"One of the weirdest scary experiences for me was Silent Hill Origins on PSP. I played it with headphones, in the dark, as I wanted Home players to, and I started to notice how the portable system affected my play. I noticed that when I went into a new room that I was sure would reveal a scare or something disturbing to view, I started to hold the PSP away from me, because when it was too close and something too intense happened, it felt almost overwhelming, like it was literally invading my personal space.

I wanted something similar with Home, though I know it's a very different game. My favourite part of the touch version of the game is tapping on the screen to advance the full-screen titles (the text boxes). I find the little sound cue I put there, plus having your entire device get taken over by text, often felt a little stressful, because you weren't sure if you were missing something. How often in UIs these days are you asked to look at just one thing and tap just one or two items, completely focused?

Playing the game over and over for testing also revealed that it seemed a bit more morbid to have to touch certain things (such as Norman, or to look up in the tunnels where the bats are hanging). I thought the flavour text describing what you were doing (such as closing Norman's eyes) felt a bit more literal with the touch control, which was interesting, and not something I necessarily anticipated.

The just-updated PC version of the game includes (for the first time) force-feedback when you use an Xbox 360 controller, which I used for certain events and thought made a really nice addition. I wish I could have used this in the mobile version as well; I think it would have added to the creepy touch factor.

To more directly answer your question, I have found the feedback/submissions I have received so far from iOS users sometimes feels a bit more personal than it was with PC. I think it's because of the forced focus you have with opening an app and playing it through. Hopefully people are spending a bit more uninterrupted time with the game there, which was a secret side goal of mine. It seems like more people play it through in one sitting (I can only gather from anecdotal evidence) on iOS right away.

I can immediately think of many great ideas for taking the idea of a touch-based horror game you don't want to touch; there definitely is a lot of room to explore. I wrote this little piece on my blog before about Another Code: R for the Wii and how its Wii remote controls made me feel much closer to the characters (even via their simple pantomime), and with touch, I think, there is a lot to be done. Being forced to perform actions you may not want to, but need to, via touch controls could be used to great psychological effect. Maybe I should have added a real-time door-opening control scheme to Home. :-)"

Good to know I’m not alone on this one. What about you guys?

Patrick Klepek on Google+
39 Comments
Edited by mak_wikus

I've bought Home on Steam over a year ago. Maybe I should finally play it?

Posted by mlarrabee

I need to know what the really good Silent Hill games are. I played Silent Hill 2: Director's Cut back in the day, and tried to play Silent Hill, but other than those I've not touched 'em.

Posted by Arcturne

I need to know what the really good Silent Hill games are. I played Silent Hill 2: Director's Cut back in the day, and tried to play Silent Hill, but other than those I've not touched 'em.

Silent Hill 3 is my favorite. I think 4 is all right, but the fandom is pretty divided on that one and it is very different so take that with a grain of salt. Homecoming is pretty great also, if a bit campy.

All the others are somewhat lacking.

Posted by TheOrz

Home didn't do all that much for me when I played it on PC, but I can see how playing it with headphones on an iPad could make for a better experience. Year Walk was damn spooky, after all.

Posted by Morningstar

I don't have a close, personal relationship with any of my touch devices. Nice read though =)

Posted by Fobwashed

I've only played through the game once on PC back in the day. I didn't realize it warranted multiple play throughs till recently so maybe I should try out the iPad version while I'm on a trip this weekend =)

One of my favorite things about articles on games is when you get to hear from the developers. Especially on indie titles like this and the Novelist. (Which I just listened to and it was fantastic.) Good stuff Mr Klepek, keep it comin!

Posted by Willza92

I played Home in one sitting on the PC ages ago. After finishing it I knew I had been let down on the "game" aspect of it and the player has the chance to completely ruin the story for themselves (like I did, unfortunately).

I also didn't find the game especially scary once I figured out there wasn't a single antagonistic force in the game. It was like playing Amnesia but without the monsters chasing you.

However, I have to give props for the effort and the idea of the player creating their own story as they go along sounds nice because it's kind of different, but I didn't especially enjoy its implementation.

In saying all that Paddy, the article was a good read :)

Edited by tgammet

I need to know what the really good Silent Hill games are. I played Silent Hill 2: Director's Cut back in the day, and tried to play Silent Hill, but other than those I've not touched 'em.

I love Silent Hill 1-3. The first is hard to go back to, as PS1 games haven't aged well. My favorite tends to be SH3.

Silent Hill 4 is pretty great, except that I absolutely hate the combat and monster design. I do not recommend it to anyone.

Silent Hill Homecoming really isn't scary or fun, and I haven't played Shattered Memories or Downpour.

Silent Hill Origins was surprisingly well made. It's too bad it wasn't a full console entry into the series. It's on par with SH2 graphically I think, but if that doesn't bother you then I totally recommend it. It heavily relies on information you would have from playing SH1 and SH3 though.

$0.02

Edited by UncleBenny

FUUUUUUCK YOU AND YOUR LOVE OF SCARY GAMES PATRICK!

God damn it I hate scary games, why would you play them SCARY GAMES ARE HORRIBLE!

Edit: I don't mean horrible as bad, but horrible as in terrifying to me and I genuinely don't understand why you would purposely go and scare yourself. Then again, I have no love for the horror genre in general.

Posted by tgammet

Someone gave me Home on Steam as a bday gift. The way the game is structured I made 1 long play through and left it at that. Felt like "my story" in that world. Even with such little time spent with it, I really enjoyed it. Nice and creepy.

Edited by spiralsin

@mlarrabee said:

I need to know what the really good Silent Hill games are. I played Silent Hill 2: Director's Cut back in the day, and tried to play Silent Hill, but other than those I've not touched 'em.

I'd say the first two are a pretty good start with Silent Hill 2 being my personal favorite. If you have a Wii or PS2, look for Shattered Memories. It was sort of a re-imagining of the first game, but I'd still play the original anyway. I think after Silent Hill 2, opinions started differing a bit more about the future installments. If you like the first two, I'd say go ahead and play Silent Hill 3. It pretty much continued the same formula and made a few improvements.

Silent Hill 4 tried to shake things up a little by focusing more on combat and less puzzles. I think that's where the purists started to dislike the direction the series was headed in. From what I understand, Homecoming wasn't developed by the same developers and was handed off to a western developer. It focused a bit more on combat as well, although it still managed to carry on much of the classic Silent Hill vibe. Downpour, I admittedly don't know much about but it seems to be the most mediocre in the series.

Edit: Forgot to mention Origins, but tgammet was kind enough to!

Edited by LarryDavis

@mlarrabee: Shattered Memories is the only one I've liked, using a FAQ for the dumb running segments.

It seems to be divisive amongst SH fans, but I always hated the other games due to the horrible combat, and SM has no combat. It's nothing but storytelling and atmosphere, what SH does best. I loved it.

Posted by mlarrabee

@spiralsin: @tgammet: @arcturne: Thanks, everyone! I played Silent Hill 2 only once and I don't remember many details, but it refuses to move from my list of best games of all time. I recently pulled the discs from storage and downloaded the HD patch but I haven't gotten back to that yet.

I don't know why I completely passed over 3, but the trailer for 4 sat on my hard drive for a few years.

Then the mixed reviews for The Room came in and I sort of abandoned the series indiscriminately. It seems I'll be keeping an eye out for 3 and probably 4 (I don't own a Wii, unfortunately).

Posted by Peacemaker

I can only imagine what a game like Amnesia or Outlast would be like on the Oculus Rift. No way to escape by pulling back. Games like that might actually be too scary.

Posted by Tortoise

Forced proximity is unpleasant. I notice it in horror films were the camera gets in really close to some character's face. You have less time to see what is coming so everything has more potential to surprise you and make you jump.

Edited by buemba

Though I have Home on the PC I'm waiting for the Vita version, which I imagine will offer a similar experience to the iPad port (With the added benefit of physical controls).

And I know it's not the point of the article, but I hope the quick mention at the end encourages more people check the Trace Memory/Another Code series. As far as I'm concerned they used the DS and Wiimote better than any other game I've ever seen, including those by Nintendo. The supernatural elements in the story can get a bit eye-rolling, but Ashley is a super endearing character and whenever the focus is on her and her quest it's an incredible experience.

Posted by Jonny_Anonymous

Yea I wasn't expecting Home to creep me out as much as it did

Posted by BeachThunder

Maybe the game is significantly better on iOS (as you suggest); I played the PC version and thought it was dull, shallow, and generally not very good.

There is a part in the game where a choice you have to make is whether or not to pick up a receipt - fascinating, right? The most exciting gameplay is walking through a maze of nondescript bushes. Basically, imagine The Walking Dead - but without any of the parts that made that game great.

Posted by OneKillWonder_

I need to know what the really good Silent Hill games are. I played Silent Hill 2: Director's Cut back in the day, and tried to play Silent Hill, but other than those I've not touched 'em.

SH 1 and 2 are still amazing games. The first is far and away my favorite in the series and still one of the scariest games I've ever played. 3 is alright, nothing special. Though it is sort of a direct sequel to the first one, which is maybe the most interesting thing about it.

4 I would avoid all together. The only good parts of 4 are in between the actual levels where weird shit is happening in your apartment. There are some interesting story beats, but the actual gameplay is generally so poor that I wouldn't really say it's worth it.

I've never played Origins, so I can't really comment on it. Shattered Memories, what I played of it at least, is a very interesting take on the original game. It's not scary, since all the moments where you are in any sort of danger are telegraphed for you, but there is some really cool stuff in that game.

Homecoming, as far as I'm concerned, is a really good game, though a lot would tell you otherwise. The story is pretty straightforward but definitely serviceable. The game has some of the best creature design and puzzles of the series, and the combat system is fun once you get the hang of it, but punishing if you fuck up during the fights.

Downpour has some some glaring flaws, but it's the most ambitious game in the series next to Shattered Memories. It's the only Silent Hill that has true open environment to explore, with side missions and hidden puzzles that lead to rewards. It's a really cool game with some effective scares and brilliant set-pieces. However, it has that absolute worst creature design of the entire series by a mile, and arguably the worst combat mechanics, too. The final level of the game is also infuriatingly hard and very poorly designed. It's definitely worth playing if you're a fan of the series, though.

Posted by Breadfan

Odd timing with this article. I was just telling myself the other day that I should sit down and play Home.

Posted by Linkster7

get it get it on
Cause tonight, is the nights
When two becomes one

Edited by Kosayn

@mlarrabee said:

I need to know what the really good Silent Hill games are. I played Silent Hill 2: Director's Cut back in the day, and tried to play Silent Hill, but other than those I've not touched 'em.

For me, the hard line for technical problems playing the games starts after Silent Hill 0rigins - the first 4 in-house Konami games are as close to being bug-free (on consoles) as you could wish, and my experience with the PS2 version of 0rigins was bug-free too. As far as storytelling and gameplay, all of them have their strengths, but are a bit of an acquired taste.

Homecoming has a bad PC port with control configuration issues, and has bugs on the consoles too with missing health items late in the game for some players based on save issues, if I recall.

Shattered Memories uses Wii motion controls, pre Motion+, which means poor fidelity during the escape sequences a lot of the time. It's better or worse depending on your room layout.

Downpour has a lot of skipping, especially as the camera moves. It's a bit better on 360 than PS3, having played both, but it's there either way.

The SH Collection still has many technical bugs and questionable content redesign decisions, despite patches.

I can't comment on Book of Memories, not having played it.

Start with Silent Hill 1, in my opinion. It's a well rounded game. A lot of the high-concept genius of SH2 is that it's about deliberately making the player feel bad, both from the draining story and the repetitive, disorienting gameplay. The sequels all try to recapture that, and it's understandable that not everyone picking up on the series digs it right away.

Posted by mintyice

@patrickklepek You're right Patrick, Home is a scary game especially because of it's abandoned location

Posted by jukeboxzer0

@sooty: how is the first sentence pretentious?

Posted by Lando81

@sooty: HAhahaha wow. Eff you dude.

Posted by AURON570

"being forced to perform actions you may not want to perform"

First thing that came to mind was chopping off a person's leg (ala Walking Dead). Hmm anyways I agree that sort of thing hasn't been explored toooo much in touch-based games. So many touch-games are about rewarding the player for touching stuff.

Posted by WaylonJennings

Patrick is going to look 30 when he's like 70 years old, lucky bastard.

Posted by AssInAss

I guess I should get around to Home in my library, but would love an Android or Windows mobile port :)

Posted by golguin

@spiralsin: @tgammet: @arcturne: Thanks, everyone! I played Silent Hill 2 only once and I don't remember many details, but it refuses to move from my list of best games of all time. I recently pulled the discs from storage and downloaded the HD patch but I haven't gotten back to that yet.

I don't know why I completely passed over 3, but the trailer for 4 sat on my hard drive for a few years.

Then the mixed reviews for The Room came in and I sort of abandoned the series indiscriminately. It seems I'll be keeping an eye out for 3 and probably 4 (I don't own a Wii, unfortunately).

I remember being really freaked out by this trailer when it came out. The way parts of it looked like it was shot with a hand held camera really made it feel legit.

Then I played it and it wasn't as good as SH3.

Edited by MarkWahlberg

This is basically the horror version of leaning when you're trying to make a jump in Mario or something. Maybe more developers should think about this when they're trying to make their next 'visceral' game rather than a ham-handed cutscene or whatever.

@tgammet said:

@mlarrabee said:

I need to know what the really good Silent Hill games are. I played Silent Hill 2: Director's Cut back in the day, and tried to play Silent Hill, but other than those I've not touched 'em.

I love Silent Hill 1-3. The first is hard to go back to, as PS1 games haven't aged well. My favorite tends to be SH3.

Silent Hill 4 is pretty great, except that I absolutely hate the combat and monster design. I do not recommend it to anyone.

Silent Hill Homecoming really isn't scary or fun, and I haven't played Shattered Memories or Downpour.

Silent Hill Origins was surprisingly well made. It's too bad it wasn't a full console entry into the series. It's on par with SH2 graphically I think, but if that doesn't bother you then I totally recommend it. It heavily relies on information you would have from playing SH1 and SH3 though.

$0.02

Shattered Memories is the only one I've ever played, and while I don't know how it would hold up for someone with prior expectations, it's such a bizarre, unique experience that I feel like it's one of the few games people should be required to at least try. I don't know of any other game that tries to do what Shattered Memories does, and with people hating on games being the same all the time, something that experimental really should be getting a lot more recognition than it has.

Posted by drumpsycho89

Great Article man!

Edited by MormonWarrior

Cool article and perspective. I found this to be the case with Year Walk and I ended up having to put my phone away multiple times because I couldn't handle it.

Edited by Brackynews

I played through Home a couple of times, and my Steam recommendation still sums it up.

Who in the world calls this horror? It's a thriller/suspense novel that you write yourself. Nicely done, but I think the horror is a buzzword.

I'm by no means a connoisseur of these genres, beyond remembering very clearly what was in the Thriller and Horror sections of the video store as a teenager. It might be a compliment to say Home approaches an Edgar Allen Poe style of horror, but I think if we're going to use 21st century terms when discussing 21st century products, the narrative is more sinister than horrific, and only if you choose to write it that way.

Resident Evil 1 was scarier. Lone Survivor, a game visually confusable with Home is most certainly scarier. There are moments in Hotline Miami's narrative where I'm nervous to turn my head. I'd appreciate if someone can put this game on the right "horror" continuum for me. Or did I just make all the shruggable decisions each time?