Homesick is a superb bit of a home-invasion horror by Chloe Sagal.
Right off the bat, on the main menu, the game hits you with a creepy, sparse piano melody reminiscent of Halloween. It plays very much like Slender in that you have to explore a dark environment looking for random objects while being hunted by an antagonist that can appear at any second. You have no means of fighting back. All you can do is run.
Okay, so it plays exactly like Slender, but context is everything, and the context here is completely different. You’ve come to visit a friend since you haven’t heard from him in a while, and you’re worried because the house that he bought was the site of several brutal unsolved murders years before. When you get there, the lights are out, and the front door locks behind you. And so the game is afoot.
That sudden start is surprising—in a good way. I knew going in that this was a home-invasion slasher flick of a game, but I initially expected some sort of build up to that revelation. I expected to wander for a bit, then find the body of my friend, and then run for my life. Instead, I wandered a bit, then the killer literally popped out of a kitchen cupboard, and I ran back and forth in shock and panicked bewilderment until he killed me.
Fuck this game. It’s great.
You’re only goal is to get out of the house. The exit path is pretty easy to find since it’s the one locked door in a relatively small house, but the key for that door is randomly spawned in one of the many cupboards, drawers, dressers, closets, or beds that populate this home. What’s great about these simple rules is that they’re so simple that they can’t be manipulated. One of the unfortunate paradoxes of horror games is that horror is always less scary when you can find a workaround, yet we’re always looking for workarounds because it’s scary. You can’t do that in Homesick. You’re forced to explore the house thoroughly every time you play.
The lighting creates an atmosphere of dread, and the total darkness is oppressive. Your mouse cursor acts as the flashlight beam, so to look around a room you have to physically move the mouse around the room. This also focuses our attention on one small piece of the room at a time, resulting in great jump scares when you turn around to the see the killer has you cornered.
According to the brief instructions, you can escape when cornered if you run past him while he’s taunting you, but I could never get this to work. He never seemed to taunt me. He just appears and goes straight for the kill. Maybe this is a bug, or maybe there’s just something I’m missing. However, regardless of what’s gone wrong, I don’t ever want to know how to make it right. As a game to be beaten, these kind of no-win situations are awful, but as a horror experience, they’re something essential.
This is the key philosophical difference between Homesick and Slender. The latter is much more of a game with systems that can be learned and abused so as to ensure longer survival: memorizing the spawn points of pages and knowing how to keep the light off can help a lot. But Homesick, thanks to its utter randomness and willingness to fuck over the player, captures the honest hopelessness of this rather clichéd horror scenario.
Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have entered a house with no lights, and, yes, I probably shouldn’t have gone into the basement. But y’know what, it seemed like a good idea at the time. The front door was locked, and I had a basement key. What else was I suppose to do?
I suddenly have a lot more sympathy for the “idiot” that gets casually tossed aside in any slasher flick now that I’ve played as one. That’s the arc of playing Homesick and why the context matters. We take on the role of a commonly seen disposable character, which gives us new insight into their experience. As a result, playing Homesick isn’t really a self-contained experience. It’s broader than that since it re-contextualizes past horror experiences.
This doesn’t happen in Slender because its setting and context are unique. Homesick achieves something universal because it forces you to experience the inherent terror and tragedy of even the most clichéd of horror clichés. Sometimes you’re the Final Girl, and sometimes you’re just another victim. Sometimes you can run away, and sometimes you get stuck between a psychotic killer and a locked door. Sometimes you’re the hero of the story, and sometimes life just fucks you over. This is horror without the guardian angel of a director or developer watching over you.
Homesick is the kind of game that you can only play for a few minutes at a time. Each attempt is extremely short, but the randomness of the key drops and the randomness of the Killer’s appearances are stressful. Your body and mind can only take so much paranoia.
Homesick can be downloaded for free from Chloe’s YouTube profile, though she’s also running a donation campaign for her gender reassignment surgery, so if you want to “buy”Homesick, you can just donate to that.