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What Makes A Videogame House A Videogame Home?

On the joys of settling down in games.

Oh boy, am I conflicted. Fallout 4’s main plotline requires that I do this thing and as far as things go, it’s a pretty major thing and a major thing that you’d expect someone with the maternal instinct of my character Halle to crack on with straight away. The trouble is, rather than doing this major thing, for at least an hour now, she, and when I say ‘she’, I mean ‘I’, have been poking around Sanctuary, scrapping anything that glows yellow so I can salvage enough materials to build a house big enough for me and my Minutemen companions. I had largely avoided Bethesda’s drip-feed of Fallout 4 pre-publicity but when I somehow found out that the game had settlement building, I think I might have involuntarily passed a little wind in joyous anticipation.

That's because I’ve felt a similar rosy inner glow while hanging around other hubs and houses in many other games I’ve played. I think it’s easy to underestimate the value of having a ‘home’ base option, especially in open world games where there is a free-roaming element, but it's a part of why I love certain games.

Fallout 3 presented you with a couple of housing options and a scorched world of possibilities yet in all my run-throughs of the game, I can only recall once not heading straight to Megaton. Get your Explosives skill up to 35, defuse the atom bomb and Sheriff Simms will give you the key to your own house and all the other townsfolk will be in your eternal thrall. I can overlook the fact that the lacy sheet-metal walls of the town itself look like they could be breached with a good can opener; the Megaton house feels safe and it’s where I like to make my home even if Tenpenny Tower does seem more impregnable. However, Fallout 4’s mind-boggling suite of construction tools and decor options has upped the ante considerably in terms of how you can choose to live in a post-nuked world, even if the Commonwealth seems to already have a head-start having suffered less than the Capital Wasteland damage-wise.

Not everyone will be bothered with the game’s optional settlement building but I love the ambition of it and the sheer scale of the choices you have. Build a tin shack, a wooden house, a towering edifice, a squat Frank Lloyd-Wright-inspired dream house or some aesthetically-bereft monstrosity that’s the architectural equivalent of a pimple on the arse of someone extremely attractive – it’s entirely up to you. The end result of your efforts will always look slightly tumbledown in what is, after all, a broken world, but can be justified in the manner of ruthless property developers in real life who in trying to convince local town planners of their good intentions are wont to bullshit that ‘the materials and structural profiles are generally in keeping with the local streetscape’. And the best part about being able to endlessly toy with the game’s simple-to-use rotate and snap building tools is that there’s no chance of Kevin McCloud and a Channel 4 camera crew treading something deeply unpleasant that Dogmeat did in the garden into your house, generally getting in the way and making ponderous observations about you ‘realising your vision’.

Of course, Fallout 3 and 4 are not the only games to give players such a profound sense of belonging and unwavering immersion through the inclusion of a nest-building element. Yes, it’s great to be out in an open world, shooting, looting, gathering resources and the like, but equally there are times when you just want to go somewhere safe to admire your stats, rearrange your inventory or barter with traders without the ever-present risk of being stung on the tassel by a Radscorpion or getting a lead injection in a drive-by shooting.

A month or so back I was looking out the window of my apartment in Pillbox Hill in GTA V’s Los Santos. I could hear outside the not-so-distant rumble of a griefer rolling around in some high-level death machine, the boom of its gun sending a steady series of obits scrolling through the event log. Every so often, the text stream was punctuated with what has become a recurring phrase in GTA Online: “R U a hacker?” I’ve ranked up to 61 and for the most part enjoyed doing so but for some time now, after signing in I’ve been reluctant to venture outside – a person can get killed out there, you know.

Instead I’ll move around the apartment for a while admiring the views. I have no compunction about killing and robbing in the game but I’m strangely prudish and resentful about the presence of the drug paraphernalia; for me a bong is something that punctuates the headlines on the News at Ten, so I give that a wide berth. The radio station is tuned to Self because, let’s face it, everybody’s musical taste except your own is a bit shite, isn’t it. Looking around, I admire the ways in which Rockstar have made the down time in the game so engaging and reflect that owning an apartment confers on you a sort of proprietary air. I’m not talking of the virtual real estate per se but of the game itself: you’ve spent your real world cash on the game and your in-game cash on your own little corner of Los Santos and it feels like a very secure, cosy place to be. I can even ignore the thought that there are thousands of players all around the world looking out at the exact same views as me; as far as I’m concerned, it’s my apartment.

In games where pacing and momentum play a greater part in the overall experience and I’m thinking here of say, the Dead Spaces, the BioShocks and Alien: Isolation, apart from shops or stations where you can re-stock with health and other items, there are no real hubs, nor any real areas of safety – you’re reliant on reading the sound cues and NPC chatter to ensure your continued survival. And obviously in all those cases, that’s the whole point, but even a save station or, for example, spending a few seconds at Team Fortress 2’s bountiful slamming lockers affords players the opportunity to go “Phew!” and take stock of their situation for a short time. However, to have your own special bolthole in a game world, that’s something to treasure.

BioShock 2’s multiplayer had a short-lived existence but one thing it got spot-on was the player’s personal hub, a spacious art deco apartment as finely appointed as anything Andrew Ryan might have built for himself. You could customize your playable characters at the wardrobe, fiddle with load-outs at your own Gene Bank and listen to some cornball oldies on the music player. Quite wonderfully, you also accessed matches via your own personal bathysphere. But a game, or at least its multiplayer element, hasn’t got an automatic right to survive merely on the basis of how good it looks and this one sure as hell didn’t. After a few months of initial excitement your bathysphere ‘journey’ was most likely to terminate at a bank of empty servers.

Skyrim’s optional purchase houses were a mixed bunch. Breezehome in Whiterun was pleasant enough and convenient for the local shops but I was never tempted by the properties in Markarth and Windhelm which seemed way too dark and cold. Honeyside in Riften, on the other hand, I always found quite acceptable despite the socially toxic atmosphere amongst the locals. Proudspire Manor in Solitude was also quite handsome but despite the option to fast travel between locations, it still seemed too far removed from the action. The game’s Hearthfire expansion provided a fine house-building toolkit with many customisable elements that allowed you to put your own stamp on the landscape. I built Lakeview Manor on a hill a few hundred metres from gloomy little Falkreath, taking advantage of its commanding aspect over Lake Ilinata then installed Lydia as a companion. She never said much but I found her surly belligerence strangely reassuring when helping keep at bay the bandits and beasts that occasionally spawned near the house. It was a great place to come home to after a long day shooting arrows into guards’ knees.

It’s been a while since I’ve played World of Tanks - certainly the 937 emails Wargaming have spammed into my Inbox tell me so - but one of its great joys was outside its battles when you returned to your garage to fiddle with your tanks. Things may have changed since the last time I logged in but that the developers could convey to the player an atmosphere that evoked images of industrious, hard-swearing grease monkeys and the smell of oily rags with just a dimly-lit shed, a ‘rotate tank’ function and the looping sound of something going ‘clang’ in the distance was quite an achievement. Upgrade any component of your tank and you really felt like the next time you took it into battle you would detect a noticeable difference in its performance.

Another beautifully realised hub appears in Wolfenstein: The New Order. Improbably concealed deep within the concrete bowels of some brutalist Nazi-built edifice, BJ Blaskowicz and the rag-tag bunch of resistance fighters with whom he teams up go about their daily business in this believably ramshackle safehouse. With its warren-like structure and deft human touches such as Max the man-child’s endearing infantile bedroom decor and J endlessly playing (ahem, left-handed) Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing on his guitar, your visits there - for a time at least - provide much-needed respite, punctuating as they do the fantastic excesses of the main story and its wonderful shooty-bang stuff.

One of my favourite exchanges in Batman: Arkham Asylum is when the Dark Knight explains deadpan to Barbara Gordon over comms that years ago he built a secret laboratory on Arkham Island against the possibility that the shit might hit the fan there at some point in the future. On reflection, they may not have been his exact words but in any event, how prescient of him, eh? But while I’ve stumbled into Bats’ secret cave hideout accidentally outside of the plot-driven visits, trying to track down Riddler trophies, it’s not really the sort of place I would want to stay in for too long. In my mind, the Batcave under Wayne Manor in the 60’s TV series remains the high watermark for what the ‘child’ me thought, and still thinks, was ‘cool’ in that regard.

Being the independent and untamed wandering spirit he is, Geralt of Rivia never really puts down roots anywhere and his ‘home’ as such in Witcher 3 is a succession of trunks located within the inns and other public buildings dotted around the Northern Realms. So the titular ‘Wild Hunt’ might just be as much about the brutal cull of earthly souls by a barbaric spectral horde as it is about the search for a nice pied à terre where Geralt can:

1. [Shag Triss]
2. [Shag Yen]
3. [Shag casual acquaintance met in a secondary quest]

There’s no compelling reason why he should spend much time there apart from when the story dictates that he do so but Adam Jensen’s apartment in Deus Ex: Human Revolution is clearly the domicile of a single man. Bijou and diffused with hazy golden light, it’s an ideal bachelor pad he can return home to at the end of the day to rest his weary augmentations. I can’t recall if you can open Jensen’s fridge (you can probably fling it quite a distance) but if you could, I reckon you’d just find two cans of Red Bull, a pint of semi-skimmed milk that’s gone off and a turkey dinner for one in the freezer.

I’ve seen the regeneration of Monteriggioni in Assassin’s Creed II criticised as cheap game filler but I have always found throwing some money at the problems in the town and renovating Uncle Mario’s house quite rewarding. You spend so much of your time earning and pick-pocketing florins, you’ve got to spend it on something. But then thinking back, I can’t recall actually ever going back to Mario’s house solely to inspect my various sets of armour or to gaze upon my many collected art works; I was usually just putting feathers in a box for my miserable old mother. Nevertheless, it was always good to see the old town buzzing again off the back of my hard-won coin. Mind you, Ubisoft haven’t always got it right. AC III was so poor no amount of community-based improvements were going to make the Davenport Homestead or the wider game a more attractive proposition but in a welcome return to form, the concept of base-pimping was very effectively channelled into the need to fashion a more mobile and offensive capability in tricking out the Jackdaw in AC IV: Black Flag.

And speaking of conveyances as mobile bases, the clinical interior of the Normandy in Mass Effect always felt like a secure refuge. Well, it did up until the moment it fell out of the sky. The commander’s cabin had a few interactive amusements where my Shepards would change outfits or feed her fish. And in the bigger picture I always enjoyed going back to the Citadel where that nice Fleet Admiral Anderson would protect me from the grumpy carping of sour-faced Donnel Udina. A prime example of every estate agent’s hoary descriptives ‘light’ and ‘airy’, the Citadel’s shiny pristine loveliness gives the appearance of a celestial Westfield Shopping Centre but without the all-pervasive reek of Nando’s. And the Citadel has more visible exits.

This brings me to my favourite hub in gaming, Dishonored’s Hound Pits pub. The scene-setting transition sequences with judgemental boatman Samuel in Dishonored give Dunwall’s topography a tangible credibility with each of its areas commonly linked by the need to get there by travelling along the Wrenhaven River. All have their own distinctive atmosphere and each has its own inherent dangers but for much of the game the Hound Pits seems solid, welcoming and full of hope, bathed as it is in the light of a seemingly perpetual winter sun. Despite its spartan furnishings, the pub seems all the more homely and secure for its apparent geographical isolation from the rest of the city. The tower and Piero’s multi-storey workshop add architectural interest and while the game’s soundtrack tends towards the melancholy, I find the ambient noises of the waterway and its margins near the pub strangely comforting. Eradicate the plague and I could happily live there for a time.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s ever wanted to jump inside the screen and inhabit a game world or at least one comfortable little corner of it and I’m hoping that when it’s released, Dishonored 2 has a hub with the magnetic charm of the Hound Pits. Until then, I’ll have plenty to keep me busy in Sanctuary and the other settlements in Fallout 4’s Commonwealth. Be patient, Shaun, Mommy’s coming.

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