[27 October 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Making a video game that advertises a product is nothing new. Whether it is being released to support a movie or build on a successful IP, games that are little more than glorified advertisements for other products have always been around. Eventually people started to notice the effectiveness of these games for spreading brand awareness and you began to see products like Burger King’s Sneak King that built on their bizarre mascot. To my knowledge, however, Budcat Creations’ Our House: Party! may be the first time that I’ve ever seen a game that was advertising just a store itself. Revolving around trips to Home Depot and increasing your house’s value through improvements, the game is a decent but somewhat disturbing board game experience.
The game begins with each player selecting a pre-made avatar. Each one then picks from a variety of house exteriors, though ultimately they are all the same on the inside. Gameplay is broken up into rounds, which all begin with a trip to Home Depot. Players race around a store trying to pick up items and drag them back to the cash register before someone intercepts them. Items are bought with screws, which can also be used to improve sections of your house. In turn, items give you bonuses during the mini-games. After their trip to the store, the players dash around a chart of home improvement activities, which slowly narrows until everyone can agree on which mini-game collection they want to play. Whoever wins gets the best improvement, while other players must use screws to improve these sections of their house and increase their home value. After each round of games, players can individually walk around their home to see what needs work and pick which area to improve. Random bonuses are also rewarded or taken away at this point.
Functionally, the game can best be described as the board game that no one ever finishes. Each round constitutes so many different steps (and load sequences) that by the time you finish the first of twenty-four projects, you’ll already be looking at the clock. You also cannot skip the tutorials for each game and section ever, despite how many times you’ve seen them. The fact that each player will insist on stopping and examining their house’s interior drags this process out even longer. The somewhat appropriately named in-game “screw” economy is a bit distorted as well. It’s not always clear what items will give you an advantage in what mini-game. You won’t be told about the bonus until the games start, which is too late to do anything about it. Since the screws used to buy items are also used to make-up for losing subsequent mini-game rounds, it’s not really worth it to buy any of them. You’re better off using the screws for home improvements. After my friends and I figured this out, we all just stopped participating in the opening Home Depot game. The mini-games themselves are the usual hit and miss that you learn to expect in this types of games. Mowing the lawn is fun, digging holes and flinging dirt at people is pretty entertaining, but anytime the motion controls get overly complex, it all falls apart. Painting and wallpapering in particular were almost completely broken.
The biggest disappointment about the game is how much it fails to actually be an engaging Home Depot commercial. The thought of flipping through the huge selection of Home Depot goods and making improvements to my house using items that exist in the real world is an appealing one. This doesn’t have to be something on the scale of The Sims. Just a fraction of that experience would’ve been fine. Instead, the game attempts to capture every part of home improvement except what’s actually enjoyable about it: designing a new room. You move furniture around, paint, brick, garden, and nail things. But you don’t get to pick what any of it will look like, each room is pre-defined and so are the upgrades. If all the houses are going to look the same after buying all these improvements, what’s the point?
As a board game, Our House: Party! is a bit broken and tedious. As a commercial, it doesn’t really do a good job of engaging me with Home Depot’s products. The graphics are all sharp and the portion where you can walk around a house is certainly pretty if not a bit unresponsive. You can’t even interact with the improvements in your home, only observe your new giant TV or kitchen sink. The game’s theme of improving home value, given the current real estate collapse, makes everything a bit disturbing overall. Tax break bonuses will show a miserly Uncle Sam giving money from his piggy bank. Class action lawsuits for faulty building materials give you screw bonuses as well. Scores are tabulated into home value, the winner is the player whose house has the most value on the market. It’s more than unnerving to finish up a round and see “House Value = Overall Standing” pulsating next to your score. While the sentiment of Our House: Party! is certainly an innocent one, it’s also a bit poorly phrased.