Friday, March 10, 2006

Homeward Bound

Corvus asks everyone to talk about the nature of home and how it dances (or fails to dance) with video games.

I'm not everyone, but I can talk.

In this case, I can talk a bit too much. In order to answer the questions of how homes can be put in games and what purpose they would serve, the essay has to address them sideways. First, I have to ask, "what is a home?" Then I can ask, "How do you make one?"

These two questions are really the same core concept, like saying, "What is two plus two?" and "how do I add two plus two?" Unfortunately, two questions leads to long essays, so I'm going to speed through this. Feel free to ask for clarification.

What Is Two Plus Two?

Everyone's definition of "home" is different, and I'm going to use one you've probably never heard before: A home is the center of your universe. Emotionally, physically, and socially. Distances are measured "from home". If distances are smaller, you're closer to home. If distances are larger, you're further from home.

"Let's get together: your place or mine?" "I don't act like this at home." "Work is so far away." "This is weird." (IE, things aren't like this at home.) There are countless examples, and this is in English. Many other languages are noticeably more home-centric.

It's almost self-evident. Almost a tautology. Home is where you spend a huge amount of your time, so therefore it's pretty much your "base state". Of course everything is measured from home: you spend most of your time there.

But it's more complex than that. Not all homes are good homes. Many people - even some with good homes - are eager to get away. With today's working schedule, the majority of corporate drones spend only a few hours a day awake and at home. And something can become your home after less than a week.

You even have more than one home, especially here in America. You have the home you grew up in, the home your parents now live in (often two or more different homes), and the home you currently live in. All of these are homes to some degree. All of them provide you with that feeling we're looking for. A feeling of relief, relaxation, and often of nostalgia.

It doesn't even have to be a home! You can feel that way about a skyline, a plaza, a pub, a sea breeze. Anything!

How? It has to do with simplification. It has to do with centers. Let me explain:

How Do We Add Two Plus Two?

The question is, how can we put these things in games... and do we want to?

All media has the same problem: homes are diverse. When it comes to including blood-pumping action, everyone has the same starting point: violence, explosions, blood. These are cues everyone shares. When it comes to romance, everyone in the same culture has more or less the same core cues. When it comes to honor, bravery, evil, corruption, peace - a culture shares enough of the same core concepts that you can put them in your movie, game, or book and people will feel what you want them to feel.

But here in America, we really suck at building homes. Not only are we unlikely to stay in the same neighborhood as our parents, our parents are unlikely to stay in the same neighborhood! American movies and games have a terrible sense of home, because everyone has a different shantyhouse built up around their highly unique past.

This isn't universal. Many non-American films have very strong feelings of home. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is one you're probably familiar with - the Greek have a very strong and unified sense of home in their culture. Most other nations do, actually, perhaps simply because they are smaller.

And, of course, many American films are built around a particular feeling of home. A home in the projects. An idealized suburban childhood. Home in New York. These serve a minority, however. Most people didn't live in New York, didn't live in the projects, and didn't have an idealized suburban childhood.

How can games, which are set in fantastic realms, possibly hope to do better?

The answer is not actually too complex:

Put a central point in the game. Center the game around it emotionally, socially, and physically. The player orbits it. The player bounces off of it. It will take some time, but in a few hours, the player will come to feel it is his home. If you can make the home remember him, this will be a much deeper, more powerful feeling.

You can do this without even having it exist! Simply continuing to relate the current situation to an imaginary "home" will do the same. For example, I remember a movie (was it Dark City?) which related everything to a billboard ad for a beach.

Some games do have a sense of home. The Sims didn't, in my opinion, for reasons too complex to post here. But Animal Crossing evidently does. It's got a center of the universe, and you regularly journey away from it and then come back to it. Beyond Good and Evil also had a home, although the home was nonadaptive so didn't pack as much punch as it could have.

Some games have homes, but no sense of home. Such as MMORPGs. This is because the home isn't the center of your universe. It's a doodad off to the side.

Just make your game have a center that you constantly bounce off of, and you'll have a sense of home. Most designers are loath to do this, because they're geared towards a shallow progression which should never double back. But your gameplay doesn't have to bounce and orbit: just your physical, emotional, and/or social experience.

It's not so hard!

Why would you want a sense of home?

In addition to the way it leads a player around when threatened, damaged, or destroyed, a home is useful for contrast. Something games don't have enough of. Everything is contrasted against the home.

Contrast is more important than you might think. Try taking your favorite game and redesigning it so that it orbits around a "home". You might be surprised at how much you like the outcome.

Remember: Physically, emotionally, and socially, homes provide a center. And centers provide a home.


Craig Perko said...

Self-indulgent comment: This was very fun to formulate. Thanks for the topic!

Textual Harassment said...

Interesting to note that a place doesn't acheive homeness until you venture out of it. Until then, it's just your universe. Even when you move, a new place doesn't become a home until you start to explore with this dwelling as a base.

This is probably what happened in the Sims. The Sim's house is the site of all conflict, and they rarely venture forth to explore. When they do, it's usually just another of the player's households.

In the case of movies, I don't think the particular type of home is important, as long as the filmmakers pay service to the qualities of home that are universal such as family, safety, and normalcy. Of course, it depends on their reasons for describing the home in the first place.

Craig Perko said...

Textual: You're very right! Very insightful. Or so I'd like to think, because you're thinking the same things I think.

Except: remember that "home" doesn't have to be good. Home can be feared. Hated. Loathed. It is simply the center point, and that center point may be vile. It will still come with feelings of home, even so.

Also, the usual "shortcut" in moviemaking is to create something that resonates with things the audience already knows. You can establish anything as a home, but it takes longer than, say, establishing that something is violent. People all agree on violence. They don't all agree on homes.

Darius Kazemi said...

Chrono Trigger had a great feeling of home.. in fact, "home" was different places and times for each character, and specifically it touched upon how home CHANGES over time.

Craig Perko said...

I think that's really what made ChronoTrigger so great, and was the reason ChronoCross didn't feel nearly as strong to me.

Japan has a much stronger sense of home than America - many of their games do this fairly well. Especially Nintendo games: Mario Sunshine, for example, did it extremely well.