GAMING: Half Hour Games – Homesickened

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Homesickened is a short story made in Unity about revisiting old memories by Snapman, released on October 30, 2015. Rendered entirely in vintage-style CGA, Homesickened forces you to relive old traumas to dredge up memories that only re-open wounds. Can you survive the greatest horror of them all: your own anxiety?

We’ll give Homesickened a revisit of our own after the jump.

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Homesickened takes place in a tiny, rural village that the protagonist has returned to after a long absence. It’s not stated why you left, but it’s been long enough that people don’t recognize you when you first talk to them. You’ve returned for something you’ve left behind when you moved away, something that you didn’t realize you would need once you had left. While you wander in the village, talking to emotionally distant old friends, you try to piece together why you’ve left this place behind.

Homesickened is displayed entirely as if it was an extremely old video game, and sticks to that aesthetic through good and bad. The color palette is limited to only four colors, like an old CGA card. This means the entire game is shown in surreal shades of purple and blue, completely detached from any realism. Homesickened embraces the technical limitations of its chosen era to great effect: there is no mouse control, so you must slowly turn around using the arrow keys on your keyboard. Even the top-down screen tearing of an ancient computer slowly loading each screen is fully replicated. When looked at out of context, the game is almost indistinguishable from a real PC game from the 80s. The only giveaways can be seen if you look carefully at the models while playing: they shift when you move in ways that only things rendered in 3D do.

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Unfortunately, this aesthetic causes more problems than it does good. The screen tearing effect, although incredibly true to life, is overwhelmingly dizzying to watch in action. Just moving around caused us to experience headaches and mild nausea. This was certainly an intended effect, to highlight the palpable nausea and anxiety that the protagonist would feel, but it didn’t click with us – especially because the game defaults to full-screen (you can hit ALT+ENTER, but it just puts the game in an identically-large and unresizable window).

Accessibility options would have been nice, to tone down the colors to more earthy tones and put the screen in a window. It was also a concern that the dirt paths are incredibly winding and curved, but you can only turn in place; turning is extremely slow and nauseating, with the sky staying static. We get that these were the points of the game, but it feels unfair that the disabled (a group that’s most likely to find a game about feeling unsafe and anxious in your hometown to be relatable) would not be able to experience it in even a watered down form.

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The plot of the game revolves around one apparent aspect of the protagonist’s personality: they suffer from extreme anxiety. The game is divided up into chapters, and the third chapter is based around the other town members reminding you of embarrassing moments in your past: the time when you thought a picnic was a potluck and inadvertently stole food from another family; a time when you got into a fender-bender due to absentmindedness, and most importantly a time when you broke a stoop’s step by tapping on it after being told not to. When the protagonist finds this step, still broken after all of these years, they suffer a complete panic attack that involves the pixels on the screen enlarging to the point of complete incoherency.

“Incoherency” is a recurring problem in Homesickened. Aside from the issues we had with the graphics system, a lot of the plot points were very difficult to comprehend. In the first chapter, you must find your childhood bike. This isn’t spelled out: the only hint you’re given is an arrow in the top right corner that points to the bike, but we thought it was pointing to the house the bike was leaning against. It took us some time to navigate around the fence the house was surrounded by to get to where the bike was.

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The second chapter was even worse, with you having to find the site your old childhood house once stood upon. To trigger this scene, you must find a faint, flickering outline of the house phasing in and out of where the house once stood, and then stand and stare at it for several seconds. You are not pointed to this, like you are for the bike. Instead, an eye icon appears in the top right and you must wander around helplessly until you find the ghostly image. Even then, we couldn’t tell what to do. Pressing the interaction button gave us a hint that we should “try to concentrate”, but that didn’t make it any clearer; we had to navigate to a specific spot (not the one we were in when the message appeared) and stand still in order to make the house reappear in front of us.

After the fact…

Homesickened was a slog to play through, and we couldn’t feel much of a connection to its intended message. The heart of the game is a retaliation against the idea of romanticized nostalgia: instead of the past being a warm, comfortable place that has been lost to time, it’s a cold and uncomfortable nightmare that can only be escaped from. It’s trying to make the point that things aren’t always good to go back to, but feels cold and alienating in the fact that some people didn’t have that in the first place.

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In the argument of whether the past was truly good or not, there’s a subsection of people who simply don’t have a past to think about. Whether that be due to abuse or being cut out of the life of others, some people can never reconnect with their past for better or for worse. This is an extremely personal reason for us to dislike the game’s otherwise well-composed story, we acknowledge, but it couldn’t resonate for us in the same way that it might for other people.

It’s in this light that we feel disappointed that Homesickened has been utilized by other game journalism websites as a larger metaphor for why we should leave video games behind. When so many demographics have been excluded and marginalized in gamer culture, it feels callous (and even possibly a detriment to what the game is presenting) to reach the conclusion that we should leave the medium alone.

Abandoning your past doesn’t make it go away, in the end, and it doesn’t stop what you’ve left behind from continuing to terrorize others. The stoop will still be there, still hurting the unaware.

Completable in half an hour: Sort of
It took us 30 minutes and 20 seconds to complete Homesickened. This was mostly caused by confusion during the second chapter, when the goal wasn’t spelled out very clearly and we were stuck wandering around trying to get a plot point to trigger.

2.5 out of 5 – Might Be Worth Trying
Homesickened is a tight game that’s concise from its start to its (to our surprise, literally) explosive ending. Unfortunately, it was concise in a way that didn’t really please us that much. The difficult gameplay and graphical issues we had might have been intentional, but that didn’t make us feel any better about it. We give Homesickened credit for its artistic value, but we can’t say we enjoyed it.

Homesickened can be downloaded on itch.io for free.

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