A pick-up truck brown with rust has sunk into long slanted fingers of dried grass. Behind it, the sun is heavy. It strikes out with the last orange blotches of dusk at the grey clouds smothering it into the horizon. This struggle is projected as moving silhouettes on to a dust road, within view of the truck. Acting as a canvas for the sun to paint its strangled performance is the only service this road has given for weeks. For there is no one, not even the single yellow school bus, that travels to this desecrated house any more.
You might be familiar with this single-storey abode; a trailer, really. It usually has a strict father—and perhaps a forgiving mother—who tries to raise children with a mix of stern backhands, cigarette smoke, and empty bottles. Yes, it is the center of the rural American childhood. Authors such as Alice Walker, John Steinbeck, and Mark Twain have given rise to this familiar symbol. It’s a place of unquestionable beauty, where the sun beats upon lazy towns and fields of bailed hay. But when the door is closed, an ugliness uncoils into a fist that deals abuse and neglect to its younger occupants.
It’s here in this familiar broken home that upcoming first-person exploration game Home is Where One Starts takes place. Its creator David Wehle means to make reference to those stories burned into the shared American consciousness. He even mentions Steinbeck specifically, for his “gift of illustrating a world that is just beautiful beyond comprehension, even when there is so much ugliness in that same world.” He’s also calling upon the visually striking films of Terrence Malick that deal with life in the heartland, especially Badlands and The Tree of Life. The idea is to create an “interesting dichotomy,” and then insert a character who isn’t sure that they belong in this contrast.
As such, Home is Where One Starts looks through rose-tinted glasses at a heartbreaking tale as those films and novels also do. “But a big difference is that hope doesn’t have to be crushed in the process,” Wehle says.
It follows a woman looking back upon her childhood. You play her as a young girl—an entity conjured by her memory—wandering the home that she remembers growing up in. As you do, the narrator will recall details related to objects and certain areas through voiced narration and vignettes. But not all of it will be reliable. Indeed, one of the game’s themes is the frailty of our memories. Wehle hopes that the narrator’s missteps will make you question why she interpreted an event the way she did, and bring you closer to understanding her, and maybe yourself too.
It’s a story that has ties to Wehle’s own childhood, not for the theme of abuse, but for its bucolic location. He grew up in Central Virginia, and as he started to think about raising his own family, he was often taken back there—when he used to run into the woods to think to himself, miles away from the nearest person. He says that the solitariness of the countryside is important to the narrator’s epiphany too. “If this little girl from a broken home missed her one figurative chance to escape, what path does she take? What trails does she blaze?” Wehle said.
Unlike the authors and directors that Wehle looks to for inspiration, he’s working in videogames. He made this choice for a specific reason, as he sees the medium’s potential to be “an incredibly honest art form.” That, and experiencing the ambiguous narrative of Dear Esther, is what spurred him on to try creating the mature type of game he wanted to play. Wehle hopes that, as with Dear Esther and perhaps Gone Home as well, his game is confident enough in its environmental exploration to leave the narrative open to interpretation.
Let’s put it to the test, then. Below is a teasing piece of narration from Home is Where One Starts. Give it a read to see what images fill your head as you interpret it. It should give you some insight as to what you can expect from the finished game when it arrives this summer.
“I remember just waiting at the end of my driveway… waiting for the school bus I had already missed. I guess I just didn’t want to go back inside that trailer. At that age I didn’t know what home was, but it didn’t matter… home found me that morning.“