Alone in the dark: The making of Home – A Unique Horror Adventure
Breathing new life into an old genre
There's a general understanding that, even in the often daring arena that is mobile gaming, indies are inclined to take more risks with their releases than the big boys.
Right at the front of this ensemble of individuality is Benjamin Rivers' atmospheric and often hair-raising Home – A Unique Horror Adventure.
Despite taking a walk down the well-trodden path that is the horror genre, Home has managed to carve out a space for itself thanks in part to the creative way it plays with narrative.
Rivers' passion for self-publishing his own comics over the course of the last 12 years perhaps helps explain that trait. Considering his background in graphic design, it's equally easy to see where the game's visual flair stems from.
In our latest 'making of', we catch up with Rivers to talk through the development process that led to Home – a game that, though critically acclaimed, impressively stands at Rivers' first commercial release.
"Home was created as a bit of an experiment," Rivers tells us.
"I found an old story of mine from years and years ago about a man waking up in a room by himself. It was meant to be an entirely different kind of tale, but I had been speaking to my wife about possibly creating a thriller or mystery game of some kind, and this seemed like a good initial seed for an idea.
"From there, everything was a series of questions: what's the point of the game? What can I do differently? What can I realistically program? How do I make this?
"Every game I do is created to answer specific design challenges, as a way of focusing my efforts. So with Home, the two main challenges were, firstly, can I create a creepy, freaky game with a low-res look?
"And secondly, can I really use the medium to tell a story, in order to do something at least somewhat new?"
In this regard, Rivers has undoubtedly been successful. Home, first on PC before popping up on iOS, has been lauded by critics for its clever use of narrative and the game's foreboding atmosphere.
Traits typical of most games in the horror genre – enemies, inventory management – simply aren't present here. Rivers wanted to create something completely unique.
"In the earliest paper sketches I thought of adding enemies, because I thought I 'had' to," explains Rivers. "Then, through design, I realised that was a lazy idea and it would be tougher to design a game without them."
Homes under the hammer
Spurred on by this desire to smash up years of repetition within the genre, Home exists to turn the accepted language of horror games – the desire to hoard weapons, or the banality of taking on streams of enemies down corridor after corridor – on its head.
Much of Home's fear stems from the expectation that builds up in the player's mind – the feeling that any noise that breaks the game's otherwise sterile silence must be a sign that a horror unknown waits just behind the next door.
It's a trick Home pulls off again and again, though – as Rivers acknowledges – if you were to bring together different players in one room, chances are their accounts of what did or did not happen in play would differ wildly.
Indeed, one of Home's other signatures is that the scenarios laid out in play (delivered in a stark measure via on-screen text dialogues) are intentionally open to interpretation.
"What's clear for one player can be entirely different for another," says Rivers. "There is no one canon version of the game's events. I created the game with five main interpretations, and made sure all the events would make sense from those five viewpoints."
Rivers wanted Home to be a different experience for each and every person who played it – a strategy that also lends itself to people playing through the game a second or third time.
As such, happening on different items in the game can completely change a person's perspective on the story.
"I knew I wanted the player to be able to construct the story," he explains. "But I wasn't entirely sure to what end. The real sea change that defined the game for me was when I took all the game's writing - months of it at that point - and changed it all from present tense to past tense."
"Everyone who played the game at that point seemed upset with me and said it didn't seem right," he continues. "That's when I knew it was the correct choice."
"Once the perspective of the game became the player's retelling of events, as opposed to a much more traditional experiencing of the events along with the game's character, I was able to pull many more tricks out of my hat."
Indeed, it was Rivers belief that the negative feedback he received wasn't the result of poor game design, but rather Home's habit of making players feel uncomfortable.
This, he claims, was exactly what he was looking for.
"If there has been one constant throughout this game's development, promotion and release, it's that getting under people's skin as much as humanly possible means you're on the right track," he explained.
"It was a game meant to create discussion so, if no one was upset, I knew it wouldn't be very interesting."
On top of the decision to change the tense of the game's writing, another gameplay switch also came about as a result of early feedback.
"Originally the game was even lower resolution - barely a step above a nice-looking Atari game - but my wife encouraged me to go a little further," Rivers said of the visual design.
"Again, the goal was to use this specific look to see if people could become emotionally engaged. From there I built a specific colour palette and designed the game as if it was for an old console; I was pretty strict with myself about keeping elements within the palette, and within the grids I had established."
Rivers' desire to have a hand in the relationship players build between themselves and the game even extends down to an advisory message at the start of play that requests those taking on the title do so wearing headphones, play in the dark and finish it in one sitting.
"I knew it stood a better chance of having an impact if players took that time to focus, so I made it an overt statement," explains Rivers. "I can tell from feedback that those who did that always seemed to enjoy the game more than those who didn't."
Beyond the request for players to isolate themselves from the real world, another reason Home is so successful at instilling fear into the player is down to its sound design.
Home's audio is both eerie and still, taking players with fillling in the blanks. Who slammed that door? Why is that cat screeching?
"I can only take so much credit [for the sound]," admits Rivers.
"As you may have noticed in the credits, all of the game's sounds were open-source or Creative Commons-licensed pieces. I didn't do any actual recording or Foley work."
Of course, there's more to sound than just recording. Timing, for example.
"I did, however, do a ton of editing and reconstruction to create the final palette," Rivers elaborates. "There is only one music piece in the game - the twangy title screen music - and that was created by my friend Ivor Stines.
"At first I asked him to create a palette of music for the game, and then I realised quite late into the process that it didn't warrant music at all. It needed atmosphere, so I started to build the layers of those droning background sounds and all the ambient noise from those open-source sounds."
Although the sounds themselves weren't recorded by Rivers, he was still very much the conductor of the game's hellish orchestra.
"The sound design was actually my favourite part of the game," states Rivers. "I enjoyed working on it immensely. Although I have heard that cat screech about a hundred million times by now..."
Even the smallest of measures, however, can make a huge difference, adds Rivers. "When you hear that off-kilter footstep in a quiet moment, it almost starts to drive you bonkers. I wanted players to obsess about everything, and this was a nice cue that things were a little off."
Other than the actual sound files, Home is very much a Benjamin Rivers product, though he did seek notable outside help during the game's development process.
"I had a lot of intermittent help from local developers, even folks from YoYo Games, to pull it off," explains Rivers.
"I think I caught everyone in the credits; there was a lot of learning on my part from conception to the final game, and even the iOS port, which required an almost complete re-write."
Re-writing the game proved to be difficult thanks to one factor that is the bane of many developers' lives: not enough hours in the day.
"It was just time," Rivers explains. "Having to update the code for the new version of GameMaker Studio and just smoothing out all the weird new wrinkles that were introduced [was difficult]."
Rivers admits that he had to pull of a - in his words - "George Lucas", pushing out a myriad of changes via the game's most recent patch that means the version of Home that cna be downloaded today is different to the one that originally launched on the App Store.
"[There's] a completely new text engine, for one. That required - oh man - so much work. I don't even want to think about it," remembers Rivers. "But even the cadence in the character's footsteps is slightly different, because of how I decided to re-program it."
Rivers also added another level into the game upon porting it to iOS.
"There is a brand-new area in the game - the train station - that was always teased before," explains Rivers. "I also rewrote a fair bit of the text to improve it slightly, or to make a few things a little clearer and address feedback I would see occasionally."
So the iOS version is the definitive version of the game - a director's cut of sorts. That doesn't mean, however, that the Rivers has neglected his original release.
"All of that has been back-ported to the PC version," he says. "So everyone got all the new goodies. But I had to port the game anyway when making it on iOS, so now the code is all there, all fairly tight, and everything is unified for all platforms."
Many of the problems Rivers faced with Home didn't come about as a result of porting the game across from PC, however. It was during the title's initial development - his relative inexperience combining with a desire to do it all himself - that most issues arose.
"The biggest issues were my own ignorance of how to solve certain programming problems," he admits.
"So much was new to me. But the biggest issue was keeping the narrative threads in check and making sure I wasn't leaving huge gaps or totally missing the mark... I drew a lot of crazy diagrams about that stuff."
In this way, Home almost served as a learn-as-you-go game. Rivers' learned the intricacies of his craft as he set about making his ideas a reality.
"The first PC release was a year-and-a-half, working on-and-off; probably about six or seven months, if you add and compress the time," Rivers muses.
"The new version of the game took another six months, starting from last November. I definitely wish I could have created both versions at once, but the tools weren't there yet. Now they are, which will help for future games.
"Home is exactly the game I wanted it to be. I think I can only move forward at this point."
And moving forward is exactly what Rivers is doing. He's currently in the planning stages of his next title that he aims to begin work on after a much needed holiday. Said game is set to be a dating sim, but one with a twist - it's going to be psychologically manipulative, just like Home.
"It will have a lot more character-to-character conflict, and absolutely zero combat," Rivers reveals.
"I am hoping to keep the process fairly short; I definitely want to get this out next year, but who knows? It all comes down to keeping the budget and sales expectations in check.
"It might mutate a bit, but I have specific goals again, like with Home, that I want to meet. There is a lot more that I haven't mentioned yet - concepts and design ideas that I'm playing with now and trying to paper-prototype to see if it even works at all."
Whatever form Rivers' next project ends up taking, the smart money suggests the one thing it won't be is run of the mill.
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