Wherever I Lay My Nuka-Grenade: On Finding Home in Video Games

What does "home" really mean to you? In gaming it represents a host of different situations.

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Jul 24 2015, 3:30pm

Your home to begin with in 'Fallout 3' is inside Vault 101. But where you go from there is up to you.

Having recently uprooted myself to move from England to Scotland, the question of what "home" really means has been on my mind a lot. The very nature of what makes a home is intangible in a way, while also being grounded in the physical: the smells and colors, the feel of the carpet between your toes. The people you share it with, your memories and roots. A home is more than where you live, more than the books and bricks, and that abstract feeling of comfort and familiarity is built out of any number of overlapping memories and associations which all differ from person to person. There's no single formula that creates that feeling of home, it just is.

The types of homes that video games represent differ widely depending on where you look. There are homes you can customize, homes you spend very little time in and homes that can act as narrative devices. In the process of moving out of my student room in Southampton I came across a number of forgotten-about possessions, including a barely used notebook. It had just a few disjointed words and sentences scattered through its insides, with a shameful amount of blank pages completing its content. Within the white spaces there was one hasty scribble that stood out.

"I've felt homesick for most of my life. A feeling that I don't belong and, perhaps naturally, trains feel like home. Perpetual movement from place to place gives me respite from the biting homesickness that follows me."

That was it. With no context or following comment to connect the statement to a specific place in time, it still managed to hit a nerve. The idea of the "forever traveler" has long been romanticized; the lovable vagabond who makes friends everywhere they go and, despite not truly having a home, somehow always has a safe place to lay their head. They drink all day, soak up the local culture and learn about their delicacies and art before heading to a home where they're welcome and loved to rest, before another day of excitement.

In 'Mass Effect 2,' the Normandy becomes a temporary home for an unlikely band of heroes.

In reality, this kind of lifestyle is exhausting and largely comfortless. Post-apocalyptic video game series Fallout represents a world in which the lack of a home and constant traveling are central to life outside your abandoned vault. Spending days padding across hostile deserts, defending yourself against radiation-fueled monsters like Radroaches and Cazadors to finally bed down in a dirty tent, with nobody to turn to for comfort, before you repeat the process the following day. The Fallout series shows a central fear present in all post-apocalyptic fiction: the loss of the home.

The loss of personal space for an individual reflects the larger loss of the world for the human race. Your home is, in effect, your world. In the Fallout games your ability to shape your world based on what's important to you is taken away, and the guarantee of safety that a home provides is no longer attainable. Instead, you have to do what you can to survive through an increasingly hostile environment. Similarly, in Mass Effect 2, the companions you recruit to help you on your mission against the Reapers do what they can to carve out homes for themselves on the game's "hub"-style spaceship, the Normandy. Though, like the nameless traveler in the Fallout series, your companions cannot guarantee themselves safety, they do what they can to replicate that feeling of home and make what limited space they have truly their own.

Jack tucks herself away under a staircase, hidden from the foot traffic of the ship, hugging the cold, metallic structure of the ship instead and shying away from human (or alien) contact. This haphazard, temporary home is representative of what's important to Jack to make her feel safe and happy. Like Garrus in the engine room and Thane in the driest room on the ship in a desperate effort to slow down the progression of his illness, the personalities and quirks of your companions are emphasized by the way they emulate their previous homes.

When replicating your friends, favorite fictional characters and celebrities in Nintendo's Tomodachi Life, every aspect of their personality is taken into consideration; they develop tastes for certain foods, fashions, and activities. As they build relationships with other residents, they can choose to invite some of them into their homes and share their space with them as they hang out together. Once two characters are friends, they'll often be found in each other's apartments chatting away or just standing around together. That level of trust isn't afforded to everyone on the island and, as such, these relationships take on a greater sense of intimacy and can progress into romantic ties.

A screen shot from 'Tomodachi Life,' showing how your pals and you can get up to activities outside the home

As a result of its privacy and intimacy, the home is often used as a thematic symbol for family, safety, and love. While presenting all the trappings of a happy family setting, Gone Home subverts the traditional idea of the home as once-familiar objects become unknown in the context of an empty house and an ominous letter from your younger sister.

Gone Home is the uncovering of a ghost story. Items that once represented everyday life become foreign, suspicious, and capable of extreme harm. Books rashly thrown on the floor, letters, or cassettes or any object that may have been absentmindedly left on a table or a chair can be picked up and examined for hints of malicious intent in an attempt to uncover what's happened. The home is utilized to tell the story of Gone Home and becomes a physical sign of betrayal, its grand, all-American foundations hiding something altogether darker.

In 'Gone Home,' the house itself becomes a kind of threat.

Homes are complicated. There's no singular universal experience of what a home is that ties everything together in a neat checklist. Homes can host good and bad memories alike, they can be messy or neat or they can lie anywhere in between that binary. American author and poet Maya Angelou perhaps sums it up best: "The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned."

For now, I'm still attempting to make my own safe place, which I envisage as being warm, tacky, and welcoming all at once. And when I eventually get to the point that my Tomodachi Life islanders are at, and can casually invite Nicki Minaj over to sit on my floor and play 3DS, then I think I might finally feel at home.

Follow Ria Jenkins on Twitter.

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