Finally, a videogame that doesn’t fetishize nostalgia

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”  – Thomas Wolfe

Even the air feels different at home, at once fresher yet also somehow more suffocating. The moment you step off the bus (or train or plane or Delorean), you can already feel the walls closing in on you—only, instead of walls, they’re fenced-in houses with lawn ornaments. You never see them move an inch, but every time you turn your head, they loom in your peripheries closer and closer.

You can only replay, the memories closing in 

As the holidays approach, the air becomes thick with people mentally preparing to “go back home.” Whatever drove city dwellers to the shoebox apartments they pay too much for is the same thing that drives them back out when the month of November comes to a close. You can’t really go back—everyone knows that. You can only replay; the memories closing in from the corners like those fenced-in houses.

As the designer behind the 4-color CGA (color graphics adapter) game Homesickened puts it, “You can’t go home again. Except that you can. But you don’t really want to. And then you do, anyway.” Every step taken toward your own fenced-in house is colored by the question “why did I come here,” only to be replaced with “why am I here” the minute you cross the threshold. Home. It calls to you like some unsexy siren who knows too much about you. You don’t want to go back. But you must, compelled by magic or memories, or both.

While most games fetishize nostalgia (Final Fantasy VII Remake, Shovel Knight, Axiom Verge, Downwell, Every Other Bit Game Ever), Homesickness reminds you why the past should stay in the past. Most nostalgic videogames lie to their players: they update all mechanics and controls while only using the aesthetic of “the good old days.” Homesickness commits to 80s technology wholeheartedly, the high-pitched whirring of an old desktop PC underscoring a game that refuses to comfort players with the convenience of modern day advancements.

There is no point-and-click or mouse functionality to be found here, nor is there a WASD or multi-directional navigation for that matter. Split screens aren’t a bug: they’re the result of you moving through the world as it struggles to load your next step forward. More than just sluggish and cumbersome, the controls put metaphor into practice. You literally can’t look at Homesickened for too long before feeling the queasiness of time travel take over.

at once the same, at once completely unidentifiable 

The terribly outdated controls of Homesickened are such a stroke of brilliance, in fact, that Lucas Pope, creator of Papers, Please and the upcoming 1-bit adventure Return of the Obra Dinn, felt the need to reach out to the creator (known only as “Snapman“) on Twitter. As Pope notes, while the creator chooses to keep the cumbersome controls of early videogame development in tact, the clever workarounds that circumvent the technological limitations are simply inspired.

For example: to highlight the figures you need to talk to from far away, Snapman renders these figures in a neon blue, which eventually fades into an actual face the closer you get to it. More than just a technical workaround, this also serves a narrative function. The people who inhabit this hometown jumping back and forth between recognizable faces and vague shapes, caught in the out-of-focus sharpness of nostalgia: at once the same, at once completely unidentifiable.

Like actually going back home, the action of Homesickened is listless and aimless. You travel from person to person at a snail’s pace to have pointless conversations, subjected to the inevitable “uhms” and “ohs” of not knowing a person you’ve known all your life. The talk is stilted, only interesting in so far as it makes you want to jump off a bridge. There is always the undercurrent of resentment—these are the people you left behind for a grander escapades elsewhere, after all. By leaving, you told them their life was not worthwhile. Now that your back, they’ll do you the same kindness.

Capturing all the minutiae of a past resurrected from the dead, Homesickened makes an inaccessible videogame retrospective a universal experience. Though it may not be a pleasant experience, like being home for the holidays, it somehow manages to be worthwhile even while it drives you crazy.

You can play Homesickened on Mac, Linux, and PC for free here