Home Is Where One Starts
Real life memories don't work like flashbacks. No matter how vivid our memory or powerful our imagination, we can't simply replay a perfect recreation of the past. Feelings change, wounds heal and the events that defined who we once were in turn are redefined by the people we become. Home is Where One Starts attempts to capture this complicated, emotionally charged process of remembering, merging past and present in a first-person narrative vignette that explores a woman's memory of a pivotal moment in her life. Combining environmental storytelling with voice-over monologue, it offers a smaller scale take on the format established by Dear Esther or Gone Home and yet builds toward an intense emotional pay-off to match either.
Like all memories, HWOS exists in a moment outside of any standard measure of time. The narrator's childhood home, a shabby trailer located somewhere in rural America's bible belt, is frozen in a perpetual autumn evening. Auburn leaves fall patiently and endlessly from trees lining either side of the road; telegraph poles cut long, perfectly still shadows across the dry grass. Players see the trailer as it appears in the present – run down, filthy and strewn with beer bottles – but they do so from the physical perspective of narrator's prepubescent self: door knobs appear at eye level while reeds tower overhead.
This surreal juxtaposition of a child's viewpoint with the narrator's adult voice is a neat trick that lets the player actually act out the past as the narrator describes it, imbuing their appreciation of how events played out with a sense of spatial and corporeal immediacy. Importantly though, the player remains firmly in the present and it is in this way that HWOS cleverly emphasises not the literal events themselves but the nostalgia and conflicting emotions that come with remembering them.
It's approximating this sort of cognitive dissonance that is the game's central achievement. The narrator's home was not a happy one and visiting it all these years later, the signs of trauma are still painfully evident. Yet, lit by the warm evening sun and surrounded by natural beauty, it looks peaceful, evoking an odd sense of melancholy that complicates an otherwise harrowing story of abuse.
All around there are touching relics of the narrator's formative years, evidence of an abundant imagination that, despite the circumstances, never gave up on the possibility of a different life, fuelled by the enduring flora and majestic birds circling in the sky. Her father, too, is revealed as no simple villain; while the extent of his backstory pales in comparison to the detailed portraits of the Greenbrairs we get in Gone Home, it pointedly demonstrates the way in which memories can become permanently transformed with the maturity of hindsight.
The game's most poignant attribute, however, is its exhilarating conclusion. In a moment where past and present finally coalesce, HWOS deploys a tasteful gimmick that riffs on the limitations of first-person exploration games to place the player inside the narrator's psyche in the instant that everything changed; to feel the memory as if it was their own. Thus, while less extensive and technically ambitious than its forebears, Home is Where One Starts is still another remarkable work in a genre that can generate empathy like no other.