Home Shit Home

I’m late to the party for Critical Distance’s November round robin affair, writing this on the evening of December 1st, but what the hell: I wanted to write something about this so let’s go for it anyway. This will prove a bit of a freeform ramble, as you’ve probably guessed by the publication date up top.

The theme this month concerns “player-owned” spaces in games, typically understood as a sort of home (or home base, if you want):

There are many games that allow players to carve out and claim a space to call their own. Unlike customizable avatars, these places become part of the fabric of the game environment. We can travel away from them, packed with gear for battle, or we can travel back to them in search of a bed to rejuvenate our bodies, souls, and possibly our magika. They can be urban or rural. They can be ours alone or communal spaces. Much like real homes, they are what we make of them.

Tell us about homes you’ve made in games. Have you built a home and started a family in Skyrim? What music did your Commander Shepard relax to, and what fish were in the tank, what models on the shelves? What makes your Animal Crossing home distinctly yours? Why is your guildhall the best guildhall in all the MMORPG land? How long have you defended your camp in Don’t Starve? Basically, if you’ve carved out a space to call your own, or if you’ve turned a house into ‘Home Sweet Home,’ we want to hear about it.

There’s something about this premise that rings false to me. To try and pin down this sensation I thought back to some of the places I’ve called home in various games over the years.

Let’s run with some of the examples given above. In the Mass Effect trilogy “home” is the captain’s cabin aboard the starship Normandy. Throughout the game you can spend some of your finite currency on aquarium fish, model ships or… I forget what it was in the first game. Memorable stuff, right? You can also play some ghastly electronic pap if you so desire, and towards each game’s finale this is where stuff gets steamy (read: plastic and sexless) with your interpretation of Commander Shepherd and whichever crew member you’ve been courting (read: sexually harassing).

I may be misremembering again, but I think the only functional purpose of the cabin – outside of very occasional narrative dim sum – was to change the armour you had equipped (at least in the 2nd and 3rd games). The Mass Effect cabins frustrate me. They are almost without purpose, apparently existing only because the captain should have a cabin and it needn’t exist only in a cutscene.

Then there’s Skyrim. Fuck me, have I spent a lot of time faffing about with homes in Skyrim. For both of my playthroughs I made home in Whiterun, since it’s the first house you can typically buy and also the cheapest. My first playthrough’s mage was not the richest adventurer in Skyrim, and it took bloody hours of dragging Dwemer scrap from dungeon to market for me to save up for the house and all the upgrades. I was clearly feeling a powerful impetus to buy and own this space in Skyrim’s world. In my second playthrough, my thiefly she-cat was able to buy this home with a fraction of the colossal sum of gold amassed via the Thieves Guild quests. I genuinely did a lol from my face when I went to buy it and saw the price that, previously, had represented hours and hours of single-minded investment to me.

Despite how much I had wanted it, as soon as I actually owned my Skyrim home it turned from an object of desire into a convenient place to dump goods before hauling them to various shops around Whiterun, and a place to keep all of the unique items that I had pointlessly collected on my travels (I probably possess one of the largest collections of “Note” and “Letter” in Tamriel). In a moment that house went from being a home I desperately wanted to a convenient warehouse containing some pretty furnishings and the ridiculous possessions of a serial hoarder.

Earlier this year I played through Dragon Age: Origins for the first time, having bounced off it back in 2009 when I fucked up my character builds twenty hours in. Over the course of the game your camp fills up with the various companions encountered on your travels, as well as a few other followers you pick up along the way. There are no options to bling out your camp as in Mass Effect or Skyrim, nor is the camp something you work to acquire as in Skyrim, and you don’t, er, imprint the consummation of a relationship upon it as in Mass Effect. But it does have something in common: the way it slowly fills up with companions as you play through the game, even where you never take them with you. It’s Pokemon: you gotta catch ’em all! Those disused companions might as well be aquarium fish or those named swords on a weapon rack that you never use.

This is what such “homes” are really about. They are not places with an emotional core; they do not represent a metaphorical grounding of a person or persons so much as a space in which things that you acquire are collected and gather mental dust. They are focal points for mindless acquisition. I remember them, but only because repetition has imprinted their layout on my mind. They are, at best, the boot of my car in Fallout 2: useful containers.

Games like Don’t Starve are a better place to look, although I think Don’t Starve is a peculiar example because you can’t build a roof over your head, nor doors in your walls, nor indeed anything that doesn’t serve some utilitarian purpose. Don’t Starve’s camps feel like ramshackle transient constructions that you build for as long as you need them. But games built around exploration and crafting are still good places to explore this idea of “home”. I imagine that almost everyone who has played Minecraft attempted to build themselves a home within their first hour. I further imagine that it’s one of the first things most people do when they start a new world or join a new server.

There’s a better case for the idea of building a home in games like Minecraft because they do actually serve two purposes that resonate with the actual real-world concept and purpose of a home. Firstly, they offer protection from the world outside. For most of us our home protects us from the elements and plays a major role in fulfilling our needs: supplying water and electricity, the capacity to cook and clean, to store and wash our clothes, and so on. In Minecraft we may be largely seeking respite from creepers, but we can also cook food and set up running water. Secondly, our home – restrictive tenancy agreements aside – expresses some elements of our personalities, whether it is through the presence of pets, the detritus of our interests and hobbies, our taste in furnishings, or simply whether we are neat freaks or slobs. So too in Minecraft, where – restrictive cuboid geometry aside – the grandeur or simplicity of our homes reflects some aspect of our personality, whether it is through planned design or how much effort we choose to invest in these spaces.

There are, finally, two other sets of games. The first are those to which the concept of a home is entirely irrelevant. Take, for example, an RTS or 4X game. Here “home” is a capital city or a cluster of buildings we’ve constructed; it is only a home in that it is the origin point of our colonial spread and the place where the numbers are usually biggest. The second are those games which are thematically or narratively concerned with the actual idea of home. This category includes Gone Home – a rather wonderful execution of the idea of exploring a space which is at once familiar and alien – and Among the Sleep – the earliest segment of which subverts the safety of home through the powerlessness of the player character and the judicious use of horror tropes.

My concluding thought here is essentially that we should be wary of confusing a home with a base of operations. One is about us as people; the other serves utilitarian purposes. Even speaking as the Arcadian Rhythms writer who is typically the most heavily invested in narrative, I’d argue that games very rarely create a space that is about the people who live there – save where they allow us some means of self-expression, or offer an authored experience about the home of a character.

Home, to run with the cliche, is where the heart is, and my heart has never lived in most of these spaces. I am only a visitor: a visitor who fills the homes he borrows with pointless shit.