Not quite walking Dear Esther, not quite Myst, Homesick‘s an extremely pretty first-person mood piece propelled by environmental puzzles. I think the unfinished version I’ve played has some big flaws, but I also think a lot of people are going to love it. My eyes certainly did.
First thing to say is that it’s honest-to-god beautiful. The setting is a apparently crumbling, apparently empty towerblock of initially indeterminate purpose, rendered in a bleached-out, almost monochrome palette. Nothing works: the power’s dead, the taps run dry, half the doors are locked and rusted, and there are no blinds or curtains to block out the stinging daylight, but it comes alive with startling colour at key points as vegetation is introduced.
Made in the Unreal engine, there is an abundance of detail in architecture and in ruination, and at least in what I’ve played so far, the painstaking concrete fantasy is never disrupted by the risk of an uncanny human face.
With no voices and no information given about what happened, and even in-game documents and books written in nonsense (or encrypted) fonts, Homesick works hard to create confusion and isolation. Its setting is quietly spectacular, and if there’s even a VR mod for it I’ll be dusting off my little-used Oculus without hesitation.
To some extent, it’s a metaphysical take on Gone Home, making a virtue of the absence of the absence of people and leaning towards architecture-as-personality. Layered on top of this are nightmare sequences, hints of terrible events in the background and an instantaneous-flower-growth-as-progress mechanic. There’s also a whole lot of metaphor there, not always entirely subtly, and far more overt misery and horror overtones.
Homesick is very clear about what emotions it wants you to feel, and perhaps a little too afraid that you won’t feel them without being told to. So there is sad, skeletal piano music throughout, there are crawling, alien shadows which strive to consume you at ‘night’, and there is the not entirely convincing concept that your character has spent so long inside a dark, crumbling tenement that he can’t stand the light – even though it pours through the windows all around him. Be lonely, be maudlin, be trapped: there are ways to achieve this without quite so blatant emotional manipulation, but then again Homesick has dedication to its tone, and clearly wants to make sure its slow pace and a sense of claustrophobia even within a large space feel justified.
I must admit that I’m pushing on to see the sights, not because I’ve enjoyed the puzzles in the first few hours. This comes from the ‘find the sole interactive spot in this massive space’ school of puzzling, rather than from the natural experimentation through exploration mindset. None of the puzzles I’ve encountered are particularly difficult on paper, but in practice it’s fatiguing to wander around scouring the cursor across the walls and floor in search of whatever you can activate.
I’m sad to say that I’ve also found it a little repetitive with it – the structure so far is find a way to introduce water to struggling plant life, flowers grow, you take a nap somewhere nearby and plunge into a nightmare sequence in which you can batter down a locked door with an axe if you don’t get caught by shadows, thus enabling access to a new area once you awake.
It’s a reasonable structure in itself, but my nagging sense was that this is a game which needs to unravel naturally rather than feel mechanical, that annoyance is interrupting the wonder and introspection I should feel. I’m left with the sense that an amazing space – and genuinely, it is amazing, and frequently surprising – was made and then a game applied to it afterwards. Gone Home, as much as I don’t want to make that a stick to beat this with, always felt like both aspects were enmeshed completely; progress came organically rather than being gated into these absolutes which can require aimless wandering and cursing until you find the right spot.
It’s important to say that I’ve not finished the build I’ve got, so it may flower into something far less finickity and far more unpredictable. I will persevere and I will say if my mind changes. Right now, I’m being critical because I think Homesick is on the verge of presenting something incredible, and I’m frustrated that its exploration is hamstrung by frustration. But maybe I’m spoilt by walking simulators; maybe I need to look at it as purely a puzzle game rather than be so dazzled by the place it shows me that all I want to do is walk around it.
Honestly, I’m so glad to have this thing that’s like real-time concept art on my screen, and I’m definitely intrigued about the slow-burn background suggestions of what might have happened – either literally or psychologically – to bring such ruin this mesmerising place. I’m disappointed by the mechanical approach Homesick has taken, but I absolutely want to know – and see – more.
Homesick’s due for release in the not-too-distant future, and is available for pre-order now.