To many of us hailing from… let’s say, traditional families, going back to our childhood home can be akin to entering a minefield. It’s like attempting to tiptoe around a tangled mess of strong but conflicting emotions – sweet memories and bitter realities meshing together to form a somewhat confusing state of mind.
This is why visiting my father’s village is mentally a Herculean task for me. Opposing viewpoints of what’s right, who I am, and who I should be, just form too strong of a barrier to allow a true, meaningful relationship with some of the older family. The sea of difference between their expectations and my aspirations have always made our relationship strained – to the point I now feel like we’re not just continents apart but on different planets entirely, though they live literally only a few hours away. So what happens then, if we were stuck with each other for an indefinite time because of, let’s say, a pandemic?
My own personal family history aside, no piece of media that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing has managed to accurately and effectively portray this hard-to-describe feeling, this ideological conflict, as well as author Kyle Muntz’s Home: A Quarantine Story. While Kyle’s last foray into the video game industry was in the form of a dark, pessimist adventure – The Pale City, this one aims for more subtle and grounded storytelling. Aided by the isolation of a Covid-like quarantine setting familiar to pretty much anyone all over the world today, the family dynamics of this fictional (but easily believable) family have no choice but to shine through.
Let’s get into it, shall we?
Skeletally Barebones Gameplay
As you may have guessed from the title, Home is primarily a story-based game so the actual gameplay elements are pretty barebones. It’s essentially a point & click/visual novel, which is something you might be disappointed by if you were a fan of Muntz’s The Pale City. The gameplay basically consists of walking through environments – just the different rooms of the house and the garden for the most part. You click on where you want your character to go and right-click to talk to people or interact with objects, which provides context & additional information about the characters.
The game is linear and focused for the most part, but you do have a hand in deciding how much of the story you want to experience – as most of the object interaction is optional. Each room is littered with objects to examine, and each of them has interesting insights to offer about the history of the family and in properly fleshing out the various members of the family. Besides, interactable objects have fun, intriguing names that actually make you want to inspect the item (almost like clickbait) and reflect the humorous side of protagonist Alli’s personality as well. And the writing itself is, like I mentioned before, solid. It’s fun when it needs to be, philosophical at other times but always compelling and believable.
At a few points, you also have the option to choose between two dialogue options on how to react to certain events. This doesn’t change the story at all, but still allows the player to have a say in the way Alli reacts to certain situations – aggressively or submissively.
Also, the information you get by inspecting items is not just useless, fluff data but actually provides meaningful context to the events of the narrative. For example, at one point early on, you bump into these barrels of sauerkraut in the kitchen if you bother to explore the house. Examining them reveals that it’s her favorite food and has been since she was a child. Later, the morning after an intense argument with the Mom, she offers to teach you the family recipe to make the sauerkraut, almost as an apologetic gesture, which is that much more meaningful if you know how much Alli loves the food. Plus, the clever, at-times laugh-out-loud level witty writing makes examining every object and exhausting dialog options a real treat.
The narrative pace set by object interactions feels very organic as you learn more and more about the characters in a very natural way. As you go through boxes of your childhood things, Toy Story figurines, the old shoes you used to run with, old school textbooks full of doodles, etc. the familiar feeling of nostalgic melancholy is palpable and you learn what each of the items represents and how they made you who you are. Through this mechanic (along with just the conversations), the personalities of all the family members as well as the daily dynamics are distinctly portrayed.
Aaand that’s pretty much it, there’s really not much to say about the gameplay here, except that it works, and works well to support the core of the game: the narrative.
The other aspect that helps prop the story up is, of course, the presentation of the game. The visuals are lackluster, to say the least – I was honestly slightly taken aback for the first 20 minutes or so before I got used to it. I mean, it’s not ugly – the unique art style has a certain charm to it and helps in setting the tone of the narrative, but it’s not impressive in any way, at least not to me.
The character portraits, for example, are amateurish and remain the same throughout the story, regardless of context or what the character’s saying. Similarly, the walking animation of the main character stays the same as well. She always has a hand on her hip which I guess reflects her stubborn & independent spirit but at certain points in the story, that body language doesn’t feel very appropriate to what’s going on in the story. The character sprites are more like pawns representing the character more than the character themselves. Which is fine, because that’s enough to serve as a medium to tell the story.
The music is minimal as well – the soundtrack basically consists only of a simple guitar tune throughout the entire game, which captures the isolating tone of the game pretty well. Long notes of ominous music in the background of the cheery guitar track perfectly encapsulates the scary, oppressive undertone of the seemingly happy family, and the not-so-subtle screen shakes and flashes at certain let’s say, impactful parts of the game do a great job of getting across the serious, startling nature of what’s happening. I must admit, the first time that happened (no spoilers), it had the same effect as a good jump scare in a horror movie – not only did it take me off guard, it had a significant emotional impact as well, because of what it means for the story and for the inter-character relationship.
Speaking of inter-character relationships, let’s get to the real reason to play the game (other than because it’s free): the narrative. Whether you end up liking the game or not heavily depends on whether you like the narrative, but of course, I can’t spoil it all so I’ll keep the details sparse.
The game starts off with you entering the property of your childhood home – or should I say, mansion, after about 4 years away. And then the quarantine happens, and so she’s stuck there for much longer than anticipated. As if to set the tone for the ‘no-distractions’ way the story is best experienced, Alli’s Mom takes her phone away in-game too. The game makes it clear from the very start that it doesn’t care about graphics, special effects, and all that jazz, but just the characters and the narrative.
You catch up with various members of the family – your messy baby sister who’s now having a secret relationship, your bookworm brother who’s into collecting antique trinkets, your cousin who was a heroin addict last you remember but has now become a master sculptor, your grandmother harping on and on about how it’s time for you to meet a man and birth a child, and your (perhaps a bit too) level-headed, loving father. And then there’s the mother.
Coming to the main essence of the narrative, it’s basically to do with the not-so-healthy daily dynamics of the inter-family relationships, particularly the tyrannical role of the mother. I won’t expand on it too much to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that the dysfunctional, oppressive nature of the family hierarchy is portrayed with alarming precision. No one seems to dare stand up to her even when she’s clearly in the wrong, and the father is too preoccupied with the sick grandmother to care. The siblings are treated like little kids even though they’re plenty old (Alli’s 28), which is plenty familiar from first-hand experience to Indians like me.
Memories of similar things happening in my family continually flashed in my mind as I played through the game, so I’d definitely say the message came through pretty clearly. The quarantine is used as a narrative tool to isolate the family, and Alli in it, and definitely accentuates Alli’s rebellious, independent spirit, giving way to rage against being treated so childishly.
What is at first dismissable as mere eccentricities of a strict mother (getting annoyed at your for oversleeping, forcing you to do random chores, etc.) soon unfurls into something a tiny bit deeper, but sadly recognizable. Not only does it address this conflict of principles between the old & young generations (or liberal vs conservative groups), but it also beautifully – albeit tragically – illustrates the effects that such a conflict can have on a family.
The cult-ish vibes are made worse when you learn that your grandma has been sick in bed for a while now, and your conservative-to-the-core mother refuses to take her to the hospital because she literally trusts no one outside the family, especially not the government. You know that creeping feeling of paranoia ever-present during these last 6 months in the minds of all of us who have grandparents of home? The fear of somehow, despite all precautions, accidentally infecting a grandparent with Covid is, I’m sure, familiar to most of us living with grandparents (or older parents), and that’s touched on here.
I’ll leave the narrative at that, all you need to know is that the game successfully delivers the compelling narrative it sets out to. However, the end came rather abruptly and didn’t really wrap up the story in a satisfying, or even a conclusive way. I wish there were an epilogue or something more of a decisive full stop.
If a narrative-heavy game with a self-contained story and a realistic, interesting cast of family members that takes place during a quarantine is what you’re after, Home: A Quarantine Story will not disappoint (except maybe for the ending). However, you’ll have to lower your expectations for visual flair or impressive graphics pretty drastically.
When it’s all said and done, Home is a great game that embodies the mental state of all of us as a collective during all this Covid shit, a lot of us being forced to spend ungodly amounts of ‘family time’ in a confined space together. So I can say with a degree of certainty that it’ll be at least a little relatable to all of us. And it’s clever too, cause a decade from now thinking back to Covid times (hopefully) past, this will definitely be a game that’ll come to mind. Plus, it’s free. Go play it!