Homes Away From Home
Returning to your digital home after a grand adventure
You wake up. Stepping out of bed, sunlight beams through your bedroom window. Roaming the room, you examine everything: A desktop computer, a game console, drawers, a wardrobe. You stare at photographs hanging on the wall. It is simultaneously brand new and familiar to the player – you’ve been here but not here. You move your protagonist downstairs to encounter another character that has significance to them. They might be a relation or a friend, but they too feel recognizable.
Perhaps instead you are introduced to the cast via an opening cutscene and suddenly plonked into the first level bleary-eyed, waiting for the almighty controller instructions to appear. Despite this hand-holding, your first experience goes from an initial learning curve to common knowledge over the course of the game. Once the credits have rolled, maybe it’s time to go back to level one?
If you choose to continue, side quests are finished, collectibles are picked up, and you will try to make the character as powerful as you see fit. Starting a new game will lead to skipping cutscenes or, if possible, making choices that are opposed to the alignment chosen for the previous iteration of the protagonist. ‘New Game Plus’ is an extension of the meta-narrative; your avatar has abilities that they wouldn’t normally acquire until a certain point, giving the player godlike manipulation over early encounters. Uninstalling to play later or never again is one reason for my love of safehouse areas and side activities.
When you have put hours of time into a make-believe land, you have the most devastating weapons, a garage of high-end vehicles, the biggest house capitalism will allow you to buy. So what comes next? You can take the protagonist back to the starting home/next best bed and allow them to relax and reminisce, either for a day or for the rest of time. Bizarre perhaps, but comforting.
It started in Pokémon Blue. Once my trainer left his hometown, we journeyed across Kanto, defeating gym leaders, the Elite Four, and the Champion to a resounding fulfillment of childlike accomplishment. You watch the names of programmers zoom past, the Game Boy screen goes white and your trainer is placed outside of their home in Pallet Town. Once that has happened, the postgame content lies in being allowed to capture the most dominant monster in the game – Mewtwo. What was surely an epic battle of wits and courage ends with its capture or defeat. Afterward, subsequent battles and catching other Pokémon becomes a breeze. Despite it being limited to those two objectives, I would do as I pleased yet be compelled to return to that starting house, go upstairs and save the game. I had beaten the best, surely…now I must rest.
Open world games scratch this weird itch completely. Grand Theft Auto is fantastic for this; when GTA: San Andreas is ready to gather dust for a long while, CJ drives back to his family home in Grove Street, and goes to sleep. Bully allows Jimmy to have more abodes than any fifteen-year-old could ever have access to, but most will go back to his dorm room and end the day there. Recently, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey took Cassandra across the Mediterranean but you can bring her straight back to her humble shack in Kephallonia.
Days Gone is not everyone’s best cup of tea; most of the cast isn’t likable, the lead character Deacon St. John most of all. The game design choices are maddening most of the time. The plot was long and somewhat predictable. Despite what seemed to be hours wasted on this thing, when it was over Deacon went to the Lost Lake Camp because it felt like his most natural home, as there isn’t much to do in this particular post-apocalyptic world.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is probably the most natural at letting the player unwind, whether that’s a campsite in the swamp under the starlit sky, playing poker, fishing for hours, or staying in a bathhouse in Valentine. To feel a climactic calming wave in what is usually a high octane adventure is a reprieve that is most welcome.
When it comes to a level-based approach, the desire to come full circle and restore the balance takes a backseat. You can’t go back to a place that follows linear progression but you can avoid it. Once the triggers forcing you to continue with no return are learned, you can stay in a state of blissful ignorance to the earth-shattering events that will happen once a certain door has opened. Optional objectives may occur but not optional fun. Improvisation and acting within the limits of a scenario become the tools to successfully retain the status quo.
The Hitman series is a quasi-open world, the levels containing scripted civilian and enemy movements to bring the illusion of a bustling town to life. ‘A New Life’, a mission from 2006’s Hitman: Blood Money is a fan favorite due to its suburban street and memorable mission structure; you have to eliminate a mobster that resides under witness protection. There are various ways to deal with him but once you’ve exhausted those means, how about you restart and procure a disguise to join the events of the birthday celebrations in his garden? Chill out and try not to flirt with the target’s drunk wife.
A homage to this mission was included in the more recent Hitman 2 (2018). Titled ‘Another Life’, the objectives from the previous game are similar – multiple targets in a suburban sprawl under armed protection. Comparative to ‘A New Life’, the streets are teeming with residents and laborers under an autumnal rendering of pure Americana. More options mean every house is available to enter, so 47 can find new paths, hear gossip, even discover a serial killer’s basement before he blends in as one of the well-off residents. You can attend a barbecue, pick a job as a realtor, a police officer, or in sanitation – it depends on what kind of life you want 47 to lead once you decide to take a much more mundane option.
The ‘Sapienza’ level from the immediate predecessor, Hitman (2016) has 47 dressed as a dapper tourist from the start; hang out and read a newspaper near the glistening Italian coast, you’ve earned it! Once the intentional plan for the player to follow has been completed, you are allowed to start 47 in multiple locations, disguised within multiple occupations. Although specific to Hitman, this freedom is homing in on what players want in their modern titles: choice.
Photography modes are now ubiquitous and casual entertainment can be had with them. For the more serious photographer, this usually leads to fantastic results that create a form of spontaneous or focused artistry. These newly evolving utensils and interactivity allow us to envisage brand new stories for lesser-used assets, surroundings, and characters. Role-playing elements are becoming less of a genre type and more of a mainstream staple.
Directorship lets players become creators, with thriving online communities and solo projects continuing to breathe life into games that would otherwise be left by the wayside a month post-launch. Personally, I thank any developer that lets me sit my character down in front of a television or at a bar for a little while. Why not let people drive taxis around full time in Grand Theft Auto V? Unwind by playing baseball in Yakuza 6. Go for a drink in The Witcher 3. See the sights in Far Cry 5. Feel at ease with what’s happened. Don’t worry. It’s time to relax, you’ve already saved the world.