[TW: This piece contains a reference to suicide and self-harm. Also, spoilers abound as always.]
Homesickened is a cruel and beautiful game.
In it, the player must embody the fixed, first-person role of an unnamed protagonist visiting their hometown for the first time in what I interpret to be a long time. The player begins with a hesitantly slow walk forward on a narrow path through a forest while white and neon-cyan lines streak across a black background. Homesickened recalls the aesthetics of Vaporwave, particularly in the sense of achieving a certain ‘80s tech nostalgia—the developer, Snapman, deliberately composed it to resemble a four-colour CGA DOS game with plodding, four-directional movement. But playing the game, it becomes almost immediately clear to me that within this aesthetic it expresses a palpable disdain for romanticism—arguably, even a degree of cynicism.
At a painfully languid pace, I make it to the arched gateway of my tiny, rural hometown. The town is a circular, claustrophobic settlement partially enclosed by hedges and stone fences, and surrounded on all sides by mowed, flat, empty space. In the distance there’s a deep wood made up largely of blue conifers. It’s blocked off by a rather flimsy-looking wooden fence that, along with the distance between the town and the forest, I imagine is meant to discourage predators. But the relevant factor for us is how this composition inflects the poetics and tone of the space: the town itself feels isolated, a small nucleus of activity within a closed node. I can’t leave through the open gate and return to the narrow path on which I first spawned for the duration of the game—doing so before completing all the acts into which the narrative is divided only results in being pushed back by the system and startled by a harsh, low, electronic tone.
I begin to feel isolated, trapped. On the outskirts of the town, I find nothing but skybox and my own thoughts. All this empty space proves useful for taking an in-game walk whenever I get stuck on one of Homesickened‘s opaque puzzles. But, along with the cold neon palette, walking the perimeter of the forest fence feels lonesome, and seems to reinforce my character’s relationship to the town as alienated, frigid and distant.
The scenery is deliberately repetitive; very little within the space actually changes and I find equally little to directly interact with. NPCs—old friends and neighbours with whom I must make awkward conversation if I am to progress—change their spatial position at the beginning of each act. But they never actually move autonomously. They look like cardboard cutouts, impassive and as flat as the land, and appear dressed like so many generic, medieval peasants from classic RPGs. They look like throwaways, but of course they do: the protagonist hasn’t even attempted to speak to these people in years, and lord knows if they even recognize them. All of these people may as well be made of paper considering how little I know about them. On the other hand, none of the nameless apparitions in this town really care to know me. As a player, I can expect to be met with, at best, cold indifference, followed by passive aggression and resentment. In retrospect, the choice to make the protagonist functionally invisible also feels like a thematically-charged one. I can’t see myself reflected in this world because I don’t really belong here anymore.
At Kill Screen, Jess Joho further contemplates the ways in which Snapman’s commitment to the “retro” CGA aesthetic underpins not only the slow, icy texture of the game, but elements of theme and character as well, writing,
“[…] To highlight the figures you need to talk to from far away, Snapman renders these figures in a neon blue, which eventually fades into an actual face the closer you get to it. More than just a technical workaround, this also serves a narrative function. The people who inhabit this hometown jumping back and forth between recognizable faces and vague shapes, caught in the out-of-focus sharpness of nostalgia: at once the same, at once completely unidentifiable.
Like actually going back home, the action of Homesickened is listless and aimless. You travel from person to person at a snail’s pace to have pointless conversations, subjected to the inevitable ‘uhms’ and ‘ohs’ of not knowing a person you’ve known all your life. The talk is stilted, only interesting in so far as it makes you want to jump off a bridge. There is always the undercurrent of resentment—these are the people you left behind for a grander escapades elsewhere, after all. By leaving, you told them their life was not worthwhile. Now that your back, they’ll do you the same kindness.”
I don’t really want to be here, and it becomes clear almost instantly that no one really wants me here, either. Part of it is that I don’t fit in, and that I melancholically realize I never quite did. Part of it is that the people, and the place itself, are not how I remember them, if memory could ever be said to be reliable. Unlike the NPCs, the structures and objects in the world appear in three dimensions. Talking to NPCs may give me a hint as to what I should be looking for in the space, but anything with meaning (and therefore, dimension) is no more than a thing—or an idea of a thing. An old bike, a tree may serve to trigger some important memory and consequently a new act. At one point, I encounter the mirage of an old house my character expects to be there. It fades away to reveal nothing more than an empty plot of land. These things can take ages to actually discover, and I find myself going over the layout of the town three, four, five times, only to realize that they were hiding in plain sight.
I’m tempted to speculate as to whether Homesickened is an homage to, or perhaps a parody of, Lucky Pause’s Homesick, which came out in April, 2015. Then again, neither game would be the first to play with themes around the historicity of spaces, and the uncovering of stories embedded within them. Lots of games do this, from Valve’s Portal  to Fullbright’s Gone Home  to Kitty Horrorshow’s CHYRZA . Many games are as much about “a thing which has happened here” as they are about a thing which is in the process of happening, and which serve a variety of narrative, symbolic and thematic purposes.
Homesickened unquestionably engages in the same kind of environmental storytelling and “antecedent action”, spinning those techniques into a metacommentary against the romanticization of nostalgia. While our protagonist may not want to go home, we as players are drawn in by the scan lines, high-contrast colours and horizontal runs that cut across the screen with each painstaking push of the arrow keys. We feel a certain affinity, a certain familiarity with the aesthetic, but there’s perhaps also a certain knowing irony. The title of the game alone is a dead giveaway for this, of course, but there’s an extent to which we must be alienated from those things we pine for in order to fantasize about them. Like the apparition of a house we’ll never get to haunt one more time, our desires to have our formative media experiences reaffirmed stem as much—maybe more—from an idealization of a perfect moment that never existed than from a memory of an actual experience.
In his book, A Year With Swollen Appendices, Brian Eno observes,
“Whatever you now find weird, ugly or uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit—all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”
Homesickened appeals to that superfluous nature of obsolete tech not just in its use of a “glitchy” aesthetic, but in its commitment to recreating an experience that most of us, when we stop to consider it, don’t really want to return to without it being heavily bracketed and removed of its necessity. But the game does more than just dwell in metacommentary over tech and aesthetic philosophy. This is, after all, a story about someone returning to a home that never was.
What gives Homesickened its gut punch is that, ultimately, it is a story about trying to go home, but how, for many of us, we can never really do that again. It’s a story about loneliness, isolation and the consequences of putting more value in things than in the people around us. The ironically wistful reproduction of CGA DOS conventions is, after all, the earnestly resigned sigh too heavy for the software designed to render it.
In the center of the town, there’s a well upon which the player can make a wish. Sometimes, when I got lost, I would walk to the well hoping for a sign, and each time the protagonist would close their eyes, open them, and remark,
“It didn’t come true.”