Past tense and the power of Home

I picked up on it immediately. When I was first given a choice, I saw the words out of place in the sentence. Instead of asking me if I wanted to do something, or even if confirming if I should do something, the interrogative started with two words: “Did I?”

It’s easy to miss among trying to figure out the story, but Home does something special with verb tense: all of the decisions are framed in the past. When a choice is made, it is confirmed as having happened. That is, the option picked is not only valid in the present ongoing narrative for the player, it is also confirmed by the character in the future simultaneously. Because, and this is what makes Home so special, it is narrated through the player by the character. His past is the player’s present.

When I talked to Benjamin Rivers, the one-man team behind the game about it, he mentioned the influences of H. P. Lovecraft on the game. And it’s easy to see that in retrospect. First-person horror was very common in Lovecraft’s body of work as a narrator would recount the terrible past from a future point as if it was the present for the reader. It’s a trick many horror authors use even now to limit a reader’s information about the story. It’s common to short stories and novels of the same genre.

Yet, it’s very rare in videogames. Horror by itself is hard enough to design with trying to balance agency and story. Give the player too much power and she will won’t be scared. Limit that same ability too much and the player will get frustrated with the mechanics and stop playing. It’s not a problem many teams try to solve and even fewer succeed at outside of notably series like Dead Space, Penumbra, and Amnesia.

Home mostly gets it right. Between having the character starting with memory loss, walking with a limp, and having to piece together the past from an empty world, it’s effective in its powerlessness and having the player question the narrator himself at moments. It’s even reminiscent of parts of Super Metroid or even Silent Hill with its circle of light placing the character, and the player’s knowledge, at the forefront with the details of the world in constant darkness. Yet, it stands out for its writing.

It’s all about expectations. Even as the player descends into the shadows, and possibly even madness, of the character’s past, the constant verb tense tickles at the player’s mind. The past tense of the words, and its separation from the diegetic space of play, places it apart from the present actions. After making an option, it is confirmed, again, from this future area inaccessible to the player and the current decisions. The player can never be sure what is going on or even when exactly the story is taking place.

The narration is both parallel and a progressive part of the entire game. The player may make decisions, yet the narrator will state that a task went undone or a place unvisited. The chance of misinformation is always at play at the end of every section. Information is controlled and dolled out in cryptic portions; nothing is even completely defined and interpretation becomes as much of the experience as any story choice.

Even at the end, the player can never be sure what exactly happened — or didn’t happen — in the story. All they have to go on is what they read, chose, and saw. As the game invites you after the credits, you can try to answer the question yourself: “What did happen?”