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.
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!