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November 30, 2014 11:56 pm

The following post was written for November's "Blogs of the Round Table" discussion at Critical Distance, for which the topic was "Home Sweet Home". This entry contains mild spoilers for Mother 3 and one fairly major spoiler for Final Fantasy VI, so consider yourself warned.

I must have left a thousand times / But every day begin the same / 'Cause there's a small town in my mind / How can I leave without hurting everyone that made me?
- Regina Spektor, "Small Town Moon"

I lived in Dundee, Scotland for six years.

I worked for a couple of different studios in Dundee during my time there. I made some games, and some friends, and slowly became more comfortable living there as time progressed. I dealt with periodic bouts of homesickness, and incessant hassles with my foreign work visa. Recently, these factors conspired to overwhelm me; I was expelled from Dundee and washed ashore in my hometown of Nassau, New York.

Now I'm home. But after six years away, Nassau differs from my memory of it. You might not have an idyllic image of your hometown etched in your mind - but if you do, an encounter with the genuine article can be a frustrating experience. Every minor element that diverges from your internalized model becomes a monumental source of consternation, whether it's a new passing lane that has been added to the main street or a small hill you remember seeing many times as a child that has been leveled out since your last visit.

Sometimes, returning home after a long absence is the worst option available for reducing homesickness. You're not the same as when you left. Your hometown isn't the same, either. Many of the friends and other familiar faces that made the place feel so much like your true home have long since moved away. You're so close to the place you thought was your home, but in many ways it's just a faded echo of what you had envisioned. Maybe it doesn't really exist at all outside of your mind. Maybe home is multiple physical places that can never truly merge or be reconciled in the way you need in order to make you feel whole.

Maybe you really can't go home again.

When people think of examples of homes in video games, they're often inclined to remember the living spaces they fashioned and customized to suit their every whim: the cozy nest in Animal Crossing that they filled with knick knacks, or the sturdy fortress they constructed in Minecraft to keep themselves insulated from the harsh ecosystem outside. Even in games that are considered challenging, the act of remodeling tends to be more straightforward than it is in reality - pixels and polygons are generally much easier to shift around than wood and stone.

A real home can be a much more stubborn entity than the fully malleable domiciles that most games offer up to us without a second thought. For many of us, the place we come to accept as "home" in our daily life is still comprised at least as much from elements that are ultimately beyond our control as those that we have actively chosen. Finding a satisfactory home can be just as much a matter of reconciliation as customization. We don't have the money to fix all of the weird artifacts left behind by the previous owners, but we tell ourselves we'll get around to it when we can. Through an ongoing process of slow, painstaking alterations we creep toward our dream home. Who knows if it will still be our dream home by the time we get there.

Games are full of homes that operate on either extreme of the spectrum: as players, we're most likely to encounter either a perfectly configurable doll house or a static locale that exhibits almost no changes over time. It's much more rare to see a game location that really nails the kind of constant, minor shifts that can add up slowly over the course of many years and compound upon each other to smash the rose-tinted glasses of all those nostalgic former denizens like myself who return home in search of the place they remember. Sure, there are game locations that undergo sudden, seismic changes based on some drastic plot point, such as the apocalyptic event that alters the entire world map in Final Fantasy VI. But what happens to us and our relationship with our hometown when we go off in search of an actual adventure is much more subtle. It doesn't take a huge, "Scouring of the Shire"-level calamity for things to change. It just takes time.

There's one and only one location in a game I've played that succeeds in encapsulating all of these crucial elements of how we identify with our hometown: Tazmily Village in Mother 3. The portrayal of Tazmily is masterful in terms of how it introduces both subtle and blatant changes to a location that the player repeatedly returns to at different times over the course of their journey.

Was that rail station there before? Wasn't the Inn smaller, and wasn't it constructed from wood the last time I saw it? Why does the layout of the town square feel slightly off from how I remember it?

The effect is further enhanced by the typical RPG trope of being able to walk into everyone's houses: What is with the proliferation of all these new appliances and products? It seems like these "Happy Boxes" became ubiquitous overnight. Weren't the neighbors happy before?

Toward the end of the game, when many of the citizens of Tazmily start to pine for the big city and move away, it is genuinely emotionally affecting because the game has ensured that you've spent enough time in Tazmily to really identify with the place. You've seen your tiny village change over time in ways that might or might not be healthy, but were almost always entirely outside of your control. Is this place still your true home, or have you drifted away and become unmoored, uprooted, cast loose into the overwhelmingly vast world that exists outside of the formerly comfortable and familiar confines of the village?

For many games, especially traditional RPGS, being set loose to explore a vast world is the whole purpose. We expect the game to provide a call to adventure, some kind of lure to explore and discover. But there's another form of exploration, or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it excavation, that can be performed by planting your feet and taking a microscope to whatever small patch of land you decide to call home.

Take my hometown of Nassau, for instance. It's a sleepy little village, but if you perform some cursory research on its history you'll find out that the local restaurant down the street once functioned as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Also, see those innocuous looking hills in the distance? Turns out they're actually a giant toxic landfill that was used as a dumping ground by General Electric (our very own real world equivalent of Mother 3's Pigmask Army) for many years. No matter how seemingly bland your hometown may be on the surface, it has a history that extends far beyond even the gradual changes that you have seen throughout your own brief lifetime.

The notion of surveying the changes to a single location over time is far from a unique approach in literature and other media - just to choose a single example, Alan Moore created a fascinating exploration of his hometown of Northampton throughout different historical eras in his novel Voice of the Fire. So why don't more games lead players toward this particular style of exploration?

As for me, my brain currently feels like it's split between New York and Scotland. I recently started up a new co-working space for game developers who are based near my hometown, in an effort to reproduce the same sense of community and camaraderie that I felt among the developers in Dundee. If I can't figure out where my actual, physical "home" resides at the moment, at least I can hopefully find a crew of like-minded, inspiring local creators. If I can manage to surround myself with those people, then I'll be a step closer to feeling at home as long as they're around.

Sometimes I think about going back to Dundee to visit, but I know that after even a relatively short absence it won't be quite the same as before. When I left, there was a massive waterfront redevelopment project going on in the city, and many of the buildings along the harbor had recently been demolished. It was funny timing, as if they were dismantling the city to coincide with my departure.

I wrote about it before I left in an attempt to cleanse myself of the place I was leaving behind. It didn't entirely work of course, but I think it helped me to process things a little bit. In the end, there's only so much you can do.

Things change - you can't go home again.

At the end of the tour / When the road disappears / If there's any more people around / When the tour runs aground / And if you're still around / Then we'll meet at the end of the tour
- They Might Be Giants, "The End of the Tour"