Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
It is a fairly common experience for people who see footage for Kickstarter-funded Homesick to get a creepy feeling: the way the light cascades in through the window, illuminating a crumbling, desolate building, one with weeds growing through cracks in the floor; the torn scrap of paper, which denotes (perhaps) a happier past. All of it gives off the impression of something sinister lurking just beneath the surface of this beautifully-rendered game.
And yet, Barrett Meeker doesn’t see it quite that way. “It has the nightmare stuff in it, but I didn’t expect it to get so much of people expecting it to be horror,” he said, contemplating the impression people get, during a late-evening Skype conversation.
Meeker seems almost amused by the way people jump immediately to the horror label. It doesn’t appear to be an overly happy game or anything, but it’s also not Amnesia. Or so he says. “And even people who just see the daytime part will think, ‘Oh, it’s an abandoned building, and you don’t have a gun. It must be a horror game.’”
Even a recent set of playtesters became unsettled during their experience with the opening section, giving the feedback that they got the distinct feeling that something was always about to jump out at them. This is even despite the fact that the game is mostly bathed in sunlight and not darkness.
The conclusions, Meeker thinks, seem to come from their own minds, or from some kind of trained response gamers have when left alone to wander, without some immediate (and usually world-saving) objective.
He said, “I think it’s because of all of the other media that’s out there and all the other games. They’ve sort of programmed people a little bit to have a certain reaction to wandering abandoned hallways in a game.”
What Meeker says Homesick is, actually, is a first-person puzzle / adventure game, built with the Unreal Engine, in which players explore an abandoned building, solving puzzles to both unlock new areas and reveal more of the story, which he himself is keeping decidedly under thumb.
Beyond the narrative mystery, the fidelity of the on-screen visuals is what draws many people to the game. Meeker’s intention is to bring high-res graphics to a decidedly independent game experience. “I’m trying to make it just as detailed as a game cinematic that we might have done [at previous employer Blur Studios],” he said. “We’re definitely trying to bring basically AAA graphics to a first-person, point-and-click indie game. I don’t think there’s that many games that do that, especially in terms of art quality.”
And he has the chops to accomplish the goal. Meeker began his career as a 3D artist at Blur Studios in the early 00s and worked there for nearly eight years, doing a lot of jobs – but mostly environment modeling, he said – before deciding to strike out on his own to make Homesick.
He founded Lucky Pause with Morgan Wyenn and his dog, Argon (the office manager), because he had grown tired of creating pre-rendered scenes for games, wanting instead to work on something that was more meaningful to him. He wanted to create an experience with interactivity, not something that people would watch for a few seconds or a few minutes and then be done with.
“I really liked doing all of the work,” he said, “[but] I’d like to tell stories that are more important to me.”
What he came up with was the idea for Homesick.
The Kickstarter went up in February 2013 with a proposed budget of $8,000, and it was funded over three times that amount, ending up with $27,897 and surpassing all expectations, even for the stretch goals.
To respond to all of the support the game received, Meeker is working extra hard to give fans value. In addition to creating the game, there will also be a prequel, more content, more puzzles, and access to the abandoned building’s roof, which will also provide the game with more story. The prequel, it should be noted, will be free DLC released after the main game.
He said, “Because so many people really did seem into it, I’m like, ‘I don’t want to disappoint you at all! I want to try to give you the best experience I can,’ considering now all these extra finances that we have. They’re all going toward making it better.”
Communications Director Morgan Wyenn (who is a lawyer by day) feels that the Kickstarter has been integral to the process of making Homesick. “It’s been such a blessing,” she said, “when we’ve had exciting news to share, or we wanted feedback, or we’ve had frustrating news to share, I feel like we had 1500 friends that were there to share the experience with us and give us feedback, and they’re very honest, so it’s been a great experience.”
All told, he said Homesick will take about two hours, and Meeker seems content with that length. “I’d rather someone finish the game and say, ‘Aw, it’s over,’ than be like, ‘this game is dragging on, I want to go and play this other game.’”
With the success of more brief gaming experiences in 2013 – Brothers, Gone Home, and the Stanley Parable, just to name a few – Homesick seems to be in good company, in that regard. “I want to kind of make it a little more movie-like,” he said, “where you play it, you finish it, and you get the whole story, and if you wanted more of that world, it was a good game.”
Meeker is working 16 hour days, pretty much seven days a week, to complete the game, which is scheduled for a 2014 release – “sometime” in 2014 they said, laughing – but a hard date has not been set. A few previous release dates have come and gone, but they’re in no rush. It will be done when it is finished, and not before, so fans can expect a solid, working title.
And despite some grand ambitions for the graphics, Meeker is humble, overall, about his expectations. “If it is a niche game that some people really love, I’ll be really happy with that,” he said. “And hopefully that will mean we can go on and make another one.”