Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Home, Home on the Lagrange...

If that's not a filk song, it should be...

Those of you with particularly good memories and long attention spans might remember that I talked about the idea of having a "home" in a video game. I said I thought it was important.

I've been thinking more about it, and I realized some interesting things.

One of the major purposes of a "home" in a video game would be to recalibrate the player. To bring his experience back to a set type. This is important because players react differently to pacing and prefer different tempos - so dragging them back together allows you to keep things coherent instead of trying to build a system that magically adapts to their preferences.

An easy example of this is save points. When you run into a save point in a game, your brain does a little mental jig that "resets" your experience. It builds or releases tension, depending on the situation, and resets the tempo from wherever you have dragged it off to.

I don't know if that's clear: Home is a well-lit save point. When you hit a save point, you go "whew. Okay, ready? Let's go!" Everyone does. No matter what kind of player, no matter what your preferences are, just seeing a save point (even if you don't use it) brings your mindset back near the same point as every other player who saw that save point.

This is often taken an extra step by actually resetting the game state to a neutral setting. A save point often restores HP/MP (or lets you use special items to do so), thereby even more blatantly resetting your experience to a neutral baseline.


Not all homes are save points. That would be silly.

Every game has a home or two. Every single one. An RPG with no save points uses the character screen as home. First person shooters use cut scenes. Multiplayer games use the team/map select menus. Short games use the game menu itself. (Interestingly, the same items are not used as homes in games of other genres... they don't produce the same feel! A cutscene in an RPG is not usually a home, oddly enough.)

It sounds like it's just some kind of ivory tower babble, like calling a game "a reductionist viewpoint of classic Marxism" or some such total bullshit, but it's not. The fact is that a player cannot simply always play your game. They get worn down and worn out.

So every game needs to have a break - something that lets the player stop and catch their breath. Let them think for a moment about what happened before, and predict what might happen next.

What I'm calling "home" is simply a method for doing that.

But I'm not calling it "home" because it sounds nice. I'm calling it "home" because it really is. In fact, it is all the definitions of home, if you squint. Except maybe the ones about baseball and old people.

1. A place where one lives; a residence.
2. The physical structure within which one lives, such as a house or apartment.
3. A dwelling place together with the family or social unit that occupies it; a household.
a. An environment offering security and happiness.
b. A valued place regarded as a refuge or place of origin.
5. The place, such as a country or town, where one was born or has lived for a long period.
6. The native habitat, as of a plant or animal.
7. The place where something is discovered, founded, developed, or promoted; a source.
8. A headquarters; a home base.
9. a. Baseball Home plate. b. Games Home base.
10. An institution where people are cared for: a home for the elderly.
11. Computer Science
a. The starting position of the cursor on a text-based computer display, usually in the upper left corner of the screen.
b. A starting position within a computer application, such as the beginning of a line, file, or screen or the top of a chart or list.

The reason I'm doing this lexical gymnastics routine is because home can be more than a save point!

What do you think of when you think of "home"?

I guess if you're a young American, you might not have a really strong sense of home. We move around a lot and we don't usually have much in the way of heritage... but that's no excuse! We don't have much in the way of magic or space ships, either, but we include those in our games.

What else is home good for, besides letting you catch your breath?


There are a bunch of things... like... um...

Gosh, this is a complicated topic.

Radial design ("All Roads Lead to Home")
Comfort and belonging
Protecting something that isn't your own self-absorbed ass

The last one is important. The house was not the player's home in The Sims. In some regards, it could be argued either way, but in general a home has to be a change from the normal course of the game in order to generate a distinct feeling.

Of course, places don't have to be homes. In Ico, Yorda was home.

In games like Animal Crossing you have a home, but I don't consider it to be a good one: there's no emotional or gameplay punch to it.

Anyhow, that kind of went on longer than I wanted, so I'll just leave it at that.

What are your opinions on the concept of "home"? What do you think about the additional features I've suggested?


Duncan said...

I agree that all games seem to have a neutral place. I would argue (for the sake of semantics) that this is rarely a "home", however, it does several things to break up gameplay in to manageable segments.

There are a few games that tend to lack a significant neutral location (or home). Adventure games come to mind. Sometimes they have an inventory or menu, but this can be as much a part of the game as anything else. Sometimes, depending on the writing, there is a location you continually return to (the Myst games did this a lot), but several adventure games have you jump from place to place, until the conclusion.

I'd like to see more games try to subvert the "home" idea. Make the game about finding home. Or making a home. Or leaving home. Or losing home. Or coming home.


As a side note, one my most memorable "homes" in a game was in Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. The Relto age you are given is a neutral, central location outside of the main game play and story. It is customizable, and is a place to regroup, reset, and winds up being a central hub for traveling in-game. All roads lead out from home. It always felt good to return there after exploring the other ages.


Also, wasn't there a Blogs of the Round table about this a while back? Oh yeah, March '06.

Craig Perko said...

Hey, Duncan. Sorry about the delay on responding.

I was thinking about adventure games myself when I was writing this. I think that adventure games - like the new TMNT game - may use a concept to center their game rather than a specific break.

When you play an adventure game, you know you're playing with a net. Whenever the game appears to get dangerous, you quickly realize that it isn't. In modern adventure games especially, it's often impossible to fail.

This doesn't usually pop up. You don't go through the whole game saying "oh, I can't fail!" It only matters - it only changes the dynamics of the game - when the game deviates from safety.

I haven't really decided whether it's a stretch or not, yet...

I played Uru very briefly. I wanted to like it, but I just didn't have any time.

The Myst games have always carried an unusually strong sense of place with them, and the idea that you have your own little micro-dimension in Uru was one of the reasons I really wanted to play the game. Obviously, you couldn't customize it to the level that the fiction might allow (writing new words in the book, for example), but even a little...

The Myst games have always been special to me, despite the fact that I suck at them.

I think March '06 was when I last posted on this topic. It's too good to let die for two years.