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Houses and Home Design in Video Games: Banal Fantasy Fulfillment

Here's a highlight of a few games about home design, home building, and related concepts that you might want to check out, but also some concepts of game development and how developers tend to view them. The way that game developers feature homes in games not only says things about the developer, but also about how the player processes it.

Pixel image of a kitchen interior.

Podcast Version:

You know, I don’t think I’ve talked a whole lot about my wheelhouse on here that much. Sure, I dove into the ergonomic benefits of gaming chairs and the newest piece of furniture that equally horrified and delighted the Internet at large, the gaming bed–but as someone who’s been in the game dev world for about a decade, I’ve seen the industry go through a lot of wild changes. Ditto for the way that the average person approaches and thinks about video games. (Shameless plug: I have tons of content on Game with Your Brain and my Medium account, on the media analysis perspective and Gamasutra on the developer side if you’re interested. Hey, we’re all stuck indoors for now, I just got you some more reading material.)

So as we brace ourselves for more lockdowns and possible martial law in light of the COVID-19 pandemic keeping most of us indoors, we’re turning to more digital entertainment than ever to attempt staying happy and sane. Games give us control of a world and enable us to engage in stories and lore in a manner that more passive entertainment like movies and books simply can’t replicate.

I decided to highlight a few games about home design, home building, and related concepts that you might want to check out, but also some concepts of game development and how we developers tend to view them. The way that we feature homes in games not only says things about the developer, but also about how the player processes it.

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Related: Types of Lots | Types of Houses | Cartoon Houses and Wave of Pop-Ups | Open Concept Interior Design | Dream Houses

The Home as a Game World

Mystery House from Apple II

The above screenshot is from what’s considered the first graphic adventure game, Mystery House, which led to the rise of Sierra On-Line, a studio that pioneered the way that we tell stories in games. The way that you can spend DAYS playing The Last of Us and Red Dead Redemption? All of that is rooted in the first crop of adventure games that came out in the 1980s and 1990s.

Sierra On-Line (then dubbed On-Line Systems) was founded after Ken Williams, a programmer in inland California, took text adventure games home to his wife Roberta and she was hooked on them. She wanted to make her own and was inspired by classic fairy tales and mystery novels. Seeing a huge opportunity to make games for the Apple II, Roberta Williams wrote the plot for Mystery House and turned it into a graphic adventure. The whole idea is that you get locked into this abandoned Victorian mansion but it turns out there’s other people inside, and you have to find a treasure but the bodies start piling up. It was a concept that would later be revisited in Phantasmagoria, a horror game that made use of full-motion video in the mid-90s.

What makes this so interesting is that houses, and the very concept of “home”, within a video game can be a point of comfort or suffocation when making a game and deciding on the context. It can also be reflective of the developer’s views and daily life, happy times and trauma they’ve experienced.

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Take a lot of the popular, top-grossing games we see today like Call of Duty, League of Legends, and CS:GO, where combat and strategy are often the primary focus. Settings can be fantastical, cataclysmic, or seemingly close to the reality we experience now but then they give the player an opportunity to take on a new role and fulfill some kind of power fantasy.

Looking back at Mystery House and other early Roberta Williams titles, it makes me think of a GDC (Game Developers’ Conference, one of the largest industry events of the year) talk I attended that actually dove into this very concept and particular chapter in video game history– how Roberta Williams shaped game worlds by houses and their distinct rooms and structures. There was also this feeling of being trapped there, or finding interesting hidden secrets within, which could be reflective of how Williams spent a number of years as a stay-at-home mom until Sierra On-Line grew wings and a headquarters was picked out in Oakhurst, California then the tech mecca of Bellevue, Washington later on.

When game makers decide how much focal point should go into a home in a game, it can be anything from a simple single-screen interface to the cavernous mansion in Phantasmagoria. Sometimes, a home can simply make a convenient game world because it’s something that the player is likely to be familiar with.

But homes in games can present other ways that designers and players alike coalesce the very concept: the fantasy of living in a better home, or designing one to your heart’s content.

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Stardew Valley: Customization and Showing, Not Telling

Hands playing a video game on mobile phone.

It’s long been said that Stardew Valley fulfills several fantasies for millions of the people who play it: you can just get a house, make money, get married, and also aren’t penalized if you choose to prioritize totally different things depending on how you play the game.

But herein lies the rub: video games can fulfill fantasies that are really quite banal.

Sure, games can fill you with dreams of travel, fighting for justice, and exploring fantastical settings with anthropomorphic animals just like movies can, except that you are actively taking part. You can assume roles you might not normally play in real life, whether it’s a pizza maker or a hitman. Then the dating sim and eroge (erotic) genres exist to fulfill fantasties of romantic pursuit, having lots of sexy people of the opposite gender wanting to get you in bed, and peering into a fantastical side of the single life that most people probably don’t experience. The reality has both joyous and sad parts to it, and when it comes to having your own place, it gets easy to overlook the awesome parts of living solo whether you’ve been doing it forever or are making adjustments after a divorce or break-up.

Speaking just for myself, the Carmen Sandiego games made me want to travel as much as I got to pre-pandemic. Many movies, TV shows, games, and other media contributed, but getting to actually do that in a game drove it home. That could straddle “fantastical” and “mundane”. But when it comes to the banal fantasies we talk about less than travel and romance, designing and just plain living in your own home is definitely up there.

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There’s an entire Internet cadre for broke Millennials who’ll never afford a home unless housing policy, labor relations, the economy itself, and other forces seriously change. It’s something that SHOULDN’T be a fantasy, but sadly is for millions of people. Then for those of us who do our own places? I’m over here dreaming about more square footage and making these radiators from 1930 kiss the Bruckner Expressway at rush hour.

But when it comes to home design and what homes tell us about the inhabitants, Stardew Valley is an excellent example. There’s no hard and fast rules for what you can and can’t do in your own home, which you can expand up to three times (the third time produces a wine cellar to age things like wine, beer, and cheeses). You can decide what types of wallpaper, flooring, windows, and accessories go in there whether they have a purpose like the fridge, or are just for decoration like tables, sofas, and statues.

It’s not just the decorating decisions, though. It’s also how you occupy the space. Will you have a spouse (or Krobus as a platonic roommate) then eventually kids? A ton of color-coded chests for all the items you pick up in this game and various tools like the kegs, barrels, and cheese makers, or is it totally bare? You’re customizing the experience, not just the way it looks.

As for the NPCs (non-player characters, if you’re not deep into gaming lingo), exploring their homes also shows you things about the characters and setting rather than straight-up telling you. Sometimes, the player will be directly told pieces of information when leveling up friendship with those NPCs. But when you get to explore their rooms and common areas of the homes, you also just inadvertently discover things about the characters. Alex comes to mind, you find a bunch of books about sports in his bookshelf near a gridball helmet and sportball-inspired wallpaper. But you also find a book about coping with grief and loss, which sets the stage for his tragic backstory. Visiting Marnie’s house that doubles as her place of business shows that she’s a hard-working provider to her niece and nephew, and it’s evident the latter has serious depression even before you dive into his storyline.

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There’s a million things that have been said about Stardew Valley before, probably further analysis into the role played by the player character’s farmhouse. But it’s worth noting that it doesn’t just fulfill the banal fantasy of having a house and dating and marriage made easy: it also makes the home the center of the game while providing enough outside world to interact with at your own pace, and how you customize your home goes beyond choosing wallpaper and floor colors.

Plus, the realest thing about this game is that once you deck out your farm with enough different functions and buildings, you think you’re getting so much done by 9AM then wind up not leaving until 4PM. This is EVERY person who worked at home before the coronavirus hit.

Build-A-Lot Series: Flipping Houses and Urban Development

Taken from the Steam app page.

This one might not be as well-known as the other examples I gave, but I remember coming across the Build-A-Lot series in 2011 during the casual game boom. While games like Stardew Valley give you the ability to customize your house and choose so many aspects of it like furnishings, who you share it with, and how much of your work seeps into where you sleep, Build-A-Lot focuses on the top-down aspects of land development.

Urban planning plays a huge role in how homes get designed. Good neighbors can make a block into a community, but does local culture and urban planning foment isolation or the ability to form close-knit relationships? Everything from how well you know your neighbor to whether the nearest 20 houses have the same exact floorplan all comes down to urban planning, local regulations and culture, and forces like HOAs.

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American homes are built significantly larger than homes in most other parts of the world, with European homes being built with more community-focused elements in mind and East Asian homes being built for density and taking advantage of urban planning that provides for more convenience. Homes also aren’t always ready to be moved into, they could require a lot of TLC or maybe even need to built from the ground up on bare land.

In Build-a-Lot, you level up from building and selling small ranchers to big honking McMansions before you graduate to the highest levels where you pawn off mansions and castles like a game version of Flip This House. In later installments in the series, you also take a more active part in building out each community with amenities like playgrounds and banks.

As we currently face inequities of housing relief in the face of mass job loss and freelancer/small business hemorrhages as a result of the pandemic (no moratorium on rent? Condo and co-op owners who can’t pay their fees don’t exist?), it can feel strange to play a game about flipping houses. But hey, games can help us fulfill fantasies about having all the capital to ourselves to build fucking castles that don’t require reverse mortgages in the future when no one can afford to buy them in real life. In later installments of the series, you can go from flipping houses to taking on a role as an urban planner. Games like SimCity crank up that concept a notch, and a quarantine is a better time than any to take a break from our horrifying newsfeeds by getting lost in the intricacies of virtual mayorship if being a virtual land developer as we watch capitalism sputter and fall to its death in real time is a little too much.

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The concept of home in a video game is not that dissimilar in real life. It can be a place of comfort and respite, but for people who have to spend protracted timeframes at home such as caregivers, people who are housebound due to disabilities and chronic illnesses, and people with abusive and/or bunker family dynamics, home can also feel like a suffocating place and game worlds can subsequently reflect this. The media that people will create in this time is likely to reflect the toll that self-isolation is taking on their mental health, including how the great things about working at home diminish when we have no choice but to stay home. We’ll get through this and home will become a beloved sanctuary once more, virtual or otherwise.