Finding a Home in Video Games

Posted by on Tuesday, 19th June, 2012

Let me say right away that this piece is not about how I feel at home in the world of video games. That’s a very different post, one which I sort of already wrote. Also note that this piece has a spoiler in the final section (“Bethesda Does It Right”) about Skyrim’s Dark Brotherhood questline.

I’m beginning to realize how much I prefer open-world games to linear experiences. So much of my life is dictated by outside forces that I treasure the option to explore or goof around or experiment in a game world. Indeed, a case might be made that linear games don’t really let us experience a game world so much as one narrow strip of activity within a world. But there’s something else too.

I’ve realized the importance of home in an open-world game.

Let’s step back a bit and think about why home is important in the real world. Surely it goes beyond just having a place for our stuff, as Mr. Carlin so beautifully put it. Of course, this is a big part of it, but there’s more. My home is a place that defines me and allows me to be myself in all the ways that matter. (This note is here because I will refer to this concept later.) We never feel quite as comfortable as we do at home, because it’s only at home that we can take off all the armor, all the masks, and all the burdens that we carry with us on our travels.

There is a comforting safety in our homes, which is why we feel so angry, hurt, and violated when someone breaks into them. (Or when someone builds a football stadium next door.) Regardless of what is going on outside — or what we’re enduring while we’re away — the home remains a nurturing space of regeneration, a zone of reclaiming. We can heal up and get stronger before we head back out into that cold, cruel world.

A person’s home is also unique because we have (nearly) total control over who’s allowed inside. We have to share spaces with all sorts of people in the outside world: coworkers, fellow pedestrians, annoying kids in the shops, that guy at your local who thinks you’re best buds but actually you can barely stand him. When we’re at home, though, it’s just you and your person and maybe your little people and occasionally some guests you invite. That’s it.

(Some people argue that we’ve become too insular because of this “home as castle” idea, and we’re so fearful as a society because we’re paranoid about anyone violating our sanctuary, not to mention all the time and money we spend on making our homes plastic palaces and whatnot. I agree with some of these critiques of modern domestic isolation, but that’s a discussion for another place and time.)

Back in the Day

The concept of home has evolved very slowly in video games. In early RPGs like Pool of Radiance, cities and villages were safe havens where we didn’t have to worry about random attacks from monsters. This provided the safety element, and I often entered the city gates with a sense that I was returning home. But we didn’t really have a room of one’s own.

I’m sure there are points of interest along the way (perhaps others can fill in some gaps), but the next major development in my own gaming experience was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Saving was done at home, especially CJ’s childhood home on Grove Street. Mixing (literally) the idea of being saved with being at home, Rockstar also threw a wardrobe, money supply, and weapon cache into the homes of San Andreas.

More to the point, however: Each home in GTA:SA was different. The Johnson family house was simple but warm, with a photograph of CJ’s mother and a video game console (which, by 2004, was a necessity for many of us to feel truly at home). The Doherty Garage has a feel particular to San Fierro, and — true to the transitory nature of Las Vegas — the only “home” we get in Las Venturas is a spot outside The Four Dragons Casino.

Next-Gen Home

With next-generation hardware came some interesting innovation in virtual homes. I never played Morrowind, so I can’t comment on the home life of earlier Elder Scrolls games. (Apparently they were given as rewards for completing storylines.) What I do remember is the sense of satisfaction I had once I owned Benirus Manor in Oblivion. Here was a place where I could (once I had cleared out the evil spirits) store my excess supplies, stash the weapons I didn’t need all the time, and rest my weary bones.

Fallout 3 took the home concept to interesting new places with some customization options. Finally, we were no longer required to decorate our homes in just one way — we could pick from several different options when choosing the look and feel of the Megaton house (or the apartment in Tenpenny Tower). Alas, this concept was abandoned in New Vegas, but I hope we’ll see it return elsewhere.

Of course there have been less-than-impressive attempts to create virtual homes, too. PlayStation Home is a great example, mostly because it inverts the usual shortcomings of video-game homes: Here we have plenty of ways to make it our own, but there’s not much game world surrounding it. As a result, I’ve never felt a desire to spend much time in either place. (Perhaps we might say that a home providing safety and comfort in a world featuring nothing but these things is a home we don’t really need.)

I’ve also been unimpressed with the meager forms of customization in the homes of Saints Row. Sorry, Jon, but I don’t want a stripper pole or a grand piano in my crib. Fortunately we do have plenty of interesting ways to design the vehicles in those games — and because we spend so much time driving around, a case could be made that your car is truly your home when you represent Third Street.

Most video-game homes aren’t superb or disappointing. Instead, they tend to be forgettable by virtue of utilitarian mediocrity. They serve a purpose — usually just a place to save the game, as in Red Dead Redemption (with one obvious exception at the end) — and that’s it. Would you want to live in a place that contained only essential devices? Imagine a real-world home containing only a bed, a clothes closet, a refrigerator, a microwave oven, a toilet, a shower, and a safe.

A home needs more. A home needs pictures that make us feel good. A home needs comfortable chairs for unwinding. A home needs plants in or near it. A home needs comforting smells and aesthetically pleasing furniture. A home needs textures that soothe us and sounds that ease away the noise of the world. A home needs bookshelves filled with books.

Bethesda Does It Right

As silly and (relatively) insignificant as it may be, I really do consider the user-filled bookshelves to be a highlight of Skyrim. (The photo up top is from my home in Markarth, where three glorious shelves are arranged in the main room.) We don’t get much choice about which style of furniture is added to each player house in the frozen wilds of the north; each is decorated to suit the city in which it’s found.

But we can customize in some very nice ways. Weapon racks stand empty, into which I can slide Red Eagle’s Fury or The Mace of Molag Bal. (Not to mention the Wabbajack!) Dagger cases allow me to show off Mehrunes’ Razor or a Blade of Sacrifice. Mannequins stand ready to display armor I’ve earned from the Nightingales — or clothing I’ve snatched off Cicero’s bloody corpse.

These methods of home decor are important to me, because they allow me to be my-in-game-self in all the ways that matter. (Here’s the return to that note in the first section, remember?) I can create a home in my own self-image, providing me with a place of aesthetic comfort and fond memory. After I get done bashing Draugr Deathlords and protecting Dawnstar from dragons, it’s nice to sit back and admire some mementos from my adventures.

I hope future games will expand on these subtle possibilities: Perhaps I could arrange to have a throne from one of those crypts I’ve cleared out placed in my living room? Or maybe a grateful artisan from Solitude might offer to paint my portrait to hang in the bedroom? (The statues in Fable II were pretty nifty.)

Some people will accuse me of whining about minor aesthetic details, and I can’t really argue with this indictment. My only defense is — and I’ve provided all the evidence I have, in the paragraphs above — that one’s home is a matter of major aesthetic details. So come inside and have a tankard of mead. If you like, you can take down one of the books on the shelf there and read it.

Now it’s your turn. Which games have I left out? Which virtual worlds have made you feel most at home? Please leave comments!

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13 Comments

  1. Duffstuff123 says:

    I cant think of any others that haven’t been mentioned, but i really loved my house in megaton in Fallout 3 (i ended up with soooo much stuff in my house it took like 2 minutes just to load it up),Whiterun in Skyrim (Whiterun was great – more as a town as a whole than just the house, the town had everything you will ever need in a sort walk was great place to test out all of the creation options available) The Firelink shrine is a great center point for your Dark souls adventure, really great game design the way the world converges at that one point and you never knew it until you found a shortcut (and more importantly how safe you feel there when you are incredibly vulnerable outside of it).
    Going a bit retro i loved Hyrule castle as well in Ocarina of Time (as Child link that is, that place scared the crap out of me as adult link) Its a great Hub for returning to so you can pick up supplies before your next adventure.

  2. Thejcmyster says:

    @Be love yo
    Interesting thoughts, mabye the reason o
    Loce riften house so much is the comforting feel of it.
    markarth has never been my favourite house but the cool windhelm one with the secret wardrobe door is my second favourite.
    @GanguCrimes
    What with the plugging of riften I’ll just say that riften has two mannequins in the basement with no display cases (only a few wall racks) but also windhelm has the most cases of all the houses.

  3. Be Love Yo says:

    Yo Duke, great article…
    I’ve been thinking about homes within games and everything for a while now. How coincidental that you would write an article about it a short time later.
    I believe home customization is the best idea to be implemented in video games. It adds that sort of comfort while playing the game(referring to Duke’s “Comfort Games” article a few weeks back), it give’s the player a deeper connection to the character as well. I just started ANOTHER play-through of Skyrim with a High Elf using nothing but magic; I am ALREADY planning out what my home in Markarth will look like! Soul Gems on the table, pieces of blank parchment with pieces of chalk as if i were making new spells, books EVERYWHERE…its going to be remarkable.

    I have pretty much all homes in Skyrim, my favorite by far is my home in Markarth. Amazing…

    @ GanguCrimes….Whiterun doesnt have a mannequin to display clothing. Get a home in Windhelm, Markarth, or Solitare. best homes in my opinion.

    Great job Duke!

  4. GanguCrimes says:

    i was inspired to buy a home in whiterun thanks to this article and i have decorated it.

    how do i get a mannequin and a display case? lol

  5. MovieGeekMan says:

    Although it’s not necessarily a home, the shelter in the left 4 dead games are a good example. The sense of relief and solitary you get when you enter the shelter at the end of the level is incredible. Like you said Duke, “We can heal up and get stronger before we head back out into that cold, cruel world” is taken quite literally in Left 4 Dead. Just remember to close the door behind you.

  6. Verbalrob says:

    As desolate as it was I always quite liked the Nexus in ‘Demon’s Souls’ as it was nice to go somewhere in that game where you are not in constant danger of getting your ass handed to you.

  7. Thejcmyster says:

    Brilliant article duke! It got me thinking, what home in skyrim do you use the most? I don’t know why but even in the saves that I own all the houses, I always go back to riften. I have memorials from my quest neatly arranged on the table: eyes of the falmer, dibella statue, 256 dwarven ingots (all of wich I got from two dwarven ruins worth of plunder melted down)
    25 obsidian ingots to name but a few. When I transport these items to other houses like the extravagant proudspire manor or the sinister hjern It never feels quite the same. And I’ve had the same experience in oblivion with the archmages quarters but I’ve never felt any other video game “home”as being homely. It’s a strange phenomenon!

  8. stepjay says:

    great article. personally, I struggle to play open world games. They make me feel like I’m in a dentist waiting room. Sat down patting my knee’s whilst looking left and right waiting to be called in to see the dentist. Im surprised mine craft hasnt be mentioned yet.

  9. Chrismjw says:

    I always loved the house in Legend of Mana as well as the kakariko village in Zelda 3 (such chilled out music). Monster Hunter always had a great house with a friendly village and good local fishing opportunities. I also like how he always fell back onto his bed in relaxation with a dragon bone sword the size of a canoe attached to his back.

  10. esselhaych says:

    I liked Shepard’s cabin in Mass Effect 2 & 3, and that personal items would appear or change depending on what was happening in the story. I got very fond of the fish and visiting them between missions! Also love the one home I currently have in Skyrim and when I go there to do some storing or sleep, I actually take off armour to put on something comfier. It really does feel like the closest thing to home I’ve experienced in a game so I agree with what you’re saying here Duke.

  11. Jake says:

    This is something that I love about Minecraft. The way that I play it usually means that the whole game revolves around me building a home. It’s given more meaning because I need that home to keep safe from mobs and because I built it myself. I usually stop playing a world when I can’t think of anything more to do with my, by now, mega-castle.

  12. Gangucrimes says:

    i dont have a home in skyrim. homes are too expensive… i still use the chests to store all my things in the pub in river wood.

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