[Featurama] Home Is Where The Horror Is: An Interview With Benjamin Rivers
Benjamin Rivers’ new game, titled Home, is a horror-adventure game being releasing today for Windows PC. Featuring pixelated graphics and no soundtrack, the game puts you in a house that isn’t yours and forces you to unravel the mystery. In the following interview, find out Rivers’ thoughts on being creative, the future of consoles, and the unusual JRPG that helped shape Home.
What inspired the horror-adventure theme?
I’ve always wanted to do a horror game, since I love the genre so much. And since I have an obsessive interest with narrative games, creating something that was more adventure-oriented seemed the best fit. My wife really wanted me to make a scary game, or some kind of murder mystery—and in Home, there are elements of both.
What are you hoping to bring to the table with this game that is unique? What’s “So Ben” about this game?
As far as I know—and I could be wrong—no one’s done a narrative-based game quite this way before. Even with Heavy Rain (a personal favourite), you were able to exercise a small amount of personal freedom that lead to the same general conclusion, but with different flavours or perspectives associated with that. In Home, the concept is expanded upon somewhat; all the major plot points are the player’s to make (or interpret). The player chooses how the game ends, in more than one way. My personal goal is to make a narrative-heavy game that people love because of how the gameplay serves the story, and not despite it.
Did you have a team working on this at all?
I designed, wrote, and programmed the whole game. A good friend provided the title music; several other people gave me invaluable support with testing, advice, and fulfillment of the physical packages… and my wife helped keep me sane. Though it looks like I’m a one-man team, I had a lot of support that made this possible, and am grateful for it.
Have you always viewed this as a PC title, or do you think it would translate well to consoles?
It was originally designed as an iPad game—when I was so brazen enough to believe I’d actually be able to pull that off—but once I realized I’d need to work with what I know to get this done, I made PC the focus. And once the keyboard controls—choosing “Y” for “Yes” and so on—became integral, it started to feel like the right fit. I would love to make an iPad version still (or even a Windows 8 tablet-compatible one), but I need to do a lot more fiddling around to see what I can do about that. Unless I team up with an iOS programmer, I’ll need to do it myself, and right now that’d be impossible. So, onward and upward…
There’s a great deal of bureaucracy involved in getting a game into the console space, anyways. In general, not only for you but others as well, do you think that’s a deterrent? Do you think that’s keeping amazing games from reaching certain audiences? Do you worry that the next console generation will further exclude indies?
Well, I think a lot of “real” developers learn a lot from indie teams, so one way or another, our ideas get translated to consoles. I think the next generation (Wii U, PS4, etc.) of consoles will probably the last traditional cycle; I don’t think Gamestop will exist in 10 years. I’m not sure exactly what will replace it—I’m hoping it’s not exclusively one monopolistic app store—but I think the field will get a lot more mixed, and more of these kinds of experiences will be available to everyone who has an interest in games. The walls between PC, consoles, and phones will disappear.
You are busy with all kinds of things, from teaching to illustrating — and obviously programming! What’s a typical day like for you? When do you find the time to do all of this? How long did it take to make Home?
Yeah, I’m not so smart sometimes. I can’t sit still for too long, and I want to do so many things, so I wear a lot of hats. I keep my days regimented and orderly, for my own sanity—I take a morning walk or run every day and then I just tackle the day’s tasks once I get back to my home office. It might be a few hours of web work for clients, followed by a few hours of game work—it all depends on what needs to get done. I quit at the same time every day, whenever possible, so I don’t just sit there and work my life away. This spring was a little nutty: I was teaching four classes per week, and it was one of the busiest periods I’ve had with clients in a long time, and of course I was really trying to ramp up the game. I always strive for some kind of happy medium, but I do burn out every now and then. My only absolute is that I never work on a game and comic at the same time—I always rotate.
Personally, I don’t think that adventure games have ever gone away, but it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a certain kind of adventure game renaissance happening right now. Are you happy to be part of that, or do you feel it complicates things?
I am definitely excited to be part in a newly found appreciation for story-driven games. I agree that adventure games have always been with us, but the key difference is that games have taken most of the lessons we learned with the old versions of those games, and applied them to different genres and titles. I don’t miss 90′s-era point-and-click adventures; I find them really hard to slog through now. But evolved versions of what those games were trying to do—anything by Cing comes to mind, as does Heavy Rain—are where my interest lies. The real secret is that a lot of great story-based games were released for DS, and there are a lot of lessons to be learned there. Even AAA developers are cozying up to those ideas, which is lovely.
Do you play a lot of games? Do you find it’s hard to detach yourself from the technical aspects so you can simply enjoy the game?
Oh yeah, I play regularly. I don’t play 24 games a year like I know some folks do, but I keep up. I’m very picky—not because I’m elitist, but just because I know where my interests are—so I usually play about one new game a month. Except when Skyrim came out; that took over two months of my life (and probably slowed down the development of Home quite a bit). I definitely pay attention to games from a developer’s point now, though I don’t don thick, black glasses and a pipe, and start declaring my ironically-detached disgust for anything. I try to learn. While creating Home, I played a metric tonne of Final Fantasy XIII-2, and while doing so, I was pulling every moment apart. But it actually gave me a lot of info I translated into my own work. So there you have it—Final Fantasy XIII-2 made Home a better game. Take that, haters!
I don’t think I’ve seen it mentioned — who’s doing the soundtrack for Home? Will it be available anywhere?
This is my favourite part—there is no soundtrack for Home. My good friend Ivor composed the title screen music; this is the only piece of music in the game. Everything else is atmospheric and ambient, like a sound novel. But I guess that means I lose out on some bad-ass promotional opportunities.
What have you been coding Home in?
Home was created in GameMaker. That little program allows ham-fisted idiots like me to actually produce worthwhile things. i got to talk to the developers at GDC, and I sincerely thanked them for their product. I’m not a traditional programmer, so it was a godsend.
Alright, so, someone plays Home, loves it, and then starts checking out this “Benjamin Rivers” character. As mentioned before, you’ve got your hands in a lot of projects. Do you have any advice for anyone looking to get into artistic work, or even just programming?
I’ll say the same thing I tell my students – there’s no easy way out. It’s all just hard work. But the dirty secret is you can still be smart about it, which makes things a lot more realistic. My number one tip: No matter what you do—design, art, programming—the first skill you need to learn is time management. If you can figure that shit out, the rest is just a formality.
For more information or to purchase Home (for a paltry two dollars), please visit the official website.