The Uncanny Reality of Virtual Homecomings

The complicated feelings of returning to old haunts, and how games can really hit home.

“Don’t be a stranger,” my dad said when he and my mom dropped me off at college. I was two hours away from my hometown in South Carolina, where I’d lived up until that point. He’d repeat this reminder when I moved across the country to Los Angeles, and again when I moved to Chicago, essentially saying I could always come home. It was a nice sentiment, but like the adage about stepping in the same river twice, the hometown I left would continue to change. Businesses closed, buildings were torn down and rebuilt, friends moved away or settled down and had kids, and adults who were fixtures of my youth passed away. The town’s name was the same, but very little else was. 

Many video games, like Silent Hill 2 or Night in the Woods, center around someone returning to their hometown after a prolonged time away. Life had carried them away from home and now, whether through kindness or cruelty, they have to come back. For the character, returning home can be bittersweet, a sign of defeat, or a needed reprieve. For the player, the character’s nostalgia puts us on the back foot: we’re learning information that, as the main character, we should technically already know.

In the real world, returning home means playing catch-up. A few years ago, when I flew home for Christmas, I was struck by how few businesses in my hometown were the same as when I’d last visited. That confused fumbling for context on everything I had missed made me feel out of sorts in my own home. It wasn’t the same as it used to be, so I had to learn the map like it was the first time. 

Games thrust familiarity upon us. As the player assuming the role of a character in a game, we should know our old haunts. But they’re new to the player, and rendered unrecognizable for the character through time. Video games haven’t cornered the market on framing a story through a protagonist’s return; after all, it’s one of the final required steps in Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” story structure. But they give players the unique opportunity to walk through their character’s return to “familiar” ground. 

Our Special Place

In Silent Hill 2, protagonist James Sunderland gets a letter from his wife Mary, whom he had believed to be dead. The letter mentions the town of Silent Hill, where Mary says James promised to take her but never did. “Well, I’m alone there now…” the letter reads, “In our special place.” 

The Silent Hill that Jason finds is certainly special. It’s a sort of psychic catch, a place where one’s inner baggage is made physical. James drives to Silent Hill, but “Silent Hill” — or at least the version James will come to — has always been in his head. The grief and guilt motivating his return exist beyond any spot on the map. It’s a Special Place, one with significance for himself and Mary because it is synonymous with these emotions. To use another folksy aphorism: “Wherever you go, there you are.” 

James was always going to be “in” Silent Hill because that terror and dread about who he was, is, and might have always been is in him. Whether he recognizes it or not is a matter of his own awareness, and perhaps which ending the player gets.

That’s the risk of clinging to old places and the ideas of home we preserve in our minds. Memory and reality can’t coexist, and holding on too tightly to the idea of a place can make reality feel even less welcome. When I was in my childhood home, sleeping in my bed with my legs hanging over the sides, staring at the Mario Party 5 promotional “Mario for President” poster I got in an old Nintendo Power magazine, I’d feel a bit like Jason. Was this really the place I remembered, or was I filtering it through a layer of nostalgia and willful refusal to see change, like pretending my father’s hair hadn’t greyed?

The flaw might have been in thinking I was coming “back” to the same old place. It’s not going “back”; it’s a visit to the current version of where I used to live. Holding on too tightly to what used to be would warp it, turn me into the sort of person who can’t shut up about the glory days before I’ve turned 30. It might not be as bloody as James’ Silent Hill, but it could be just as harrowing.

Small Town Memory

My hometown might have problems, but it’s no Silent Hill. It bears more similarity to the rundown Rust Belt town of Possum Springs in Night in the Woods

When protagonist Mae Borowski returns to her hometown’s bus station, she finds a Possum Springs that’s lost much of its shine. Industries have continued to dry up, her friends who didn’t go to college are working dead-end jobs and weighing increasingly fewer options for their futures, and her parents are looking less like parents and more like old adults. Night in the Woods is about many things, but it’s often about the way time passes even when we’re at our most powerless. 

Coming home might have seemed like a tactical retreat for Mae when she dropped out of college, but she can’t go “back” anywhere. Her college education has financially impacted her family, and the small town gossips won’t let her forget that they remember her mistakes. As she walks around her hometown and talks to old friends and neighbors, Mae finds herself caught in a moment of painful but necessary growth. The past is not sustainable, and the future, whatever it might be, is struggling to be born. Whatever shape her life is going to take next, she has to commit to it first by breaking through the fog of what her life, friends, and hometown used to be.

So it is with actual homecomings, particularly for those of us from small towns. The home we know, or rather knew, may stay the same; it may change drastically, for reasons chosen by the people that lived there or decisions made by institutions beyond our control. Factories close. Jobs disappear. Loved ones die. 

Catching up with old acquaintances when I’m home is always a gamble. It’s like flipping a coin, where one side is a brief, pleasant, if slightly awkward conversation where I hear about the good things that have happened in someone’s life. The other is a glimpse into lives that haven’t gone the way people planned. A random encounter at the grocery store can end in someone I barely remember confiding in me about their financial troubles and loved ones getting sick. This evokes a strange sense of guilt: the guilt of leaving this town; of slipping out of the trap that has snared so many people I grew up with. Did I deserve to get out? Don’t these other people deserve better? Can they ever escape, and do they want to? 

Eventually, the only thing connecting you to the place you came from is whatever keeps you coming back. Even when visiting your old spots, where friends and family still live, the gulf between who they are and who they used to be can make any house feel empty, even haunted by the version that used to be there.

Welcome Home

There are a number of games in the “walking sim” genre that are built solely around exploring this haunting between a place in the present and its past self through diary entries, letters, and other environmental sources of information. 

Games like What Remains of Edith Finch and Gone Home center around ominous homecomings, as players control a character returning to familial ground and finding mysteries in spaces that should be familiar. The Finch family’s strange “curse” and the curiously abandoned Oregon home of the Greenbriar family are mysteries that are only possible due to the distance of time and geography that has kept our protagonists away. What should be known is rendered unfamiliar to the characters, and we the players are completely in the dark, bringing only our own preconceived notions of what a homecoming should be. 

What’s especially unique is their use of emptiness. Both houses are empty, except for the player, which has the mechanical benefit of letting you explore at your own pace. Thematically, though, this is the most potent version of the strange pull that familiar places can have on us. When there’s no one left, and nobody is home to greet us, why would we still be drawn back? 

When my parents inevitably pass away, and when I finally don’t have any family to return to, I’m not sure if I’ll still care about the hometown that used to be. When there’s nothing left that’s familiar between how the space was and how it will be in the future, this place might finally lose all power over me, and just become another place on the map. Maybe I’m wrong though, and like in What Remains of Edith Finch, this place that holds so much history will be even more magnetic, the histories I overlooked finally worming their way into my attention in a way they couldn’t while I still had living connections. 

Either way, instead of trying to reconcile the past with the present, I’ll have to square the past against itself. In Gone Home, protagonist Katie gains a new understanding about the troubled past and present of her family members. In What Remains of Edith Finch, it’s a reverence for the misguided and random lives of those who came before. For myself, the final reconciliation will likely involve coming back at least once, just to see how it feels.  

Many Happy Returns

All of these games use familiarity as a tactic to endear their worlds to the player. The comforts of an old bedroom, the warm comments of someone claiming to have known you since you were a child, the encouraging words of a loved one thought lost — all of these are means to an end. They make you feel a keen sense of place in a game’s setting and, more importantly, inform you of the specific place your character has within it — or rather the place they used to have, in times past. As a player, it makes you more invested in the world you’re exploring because you’re literally being told that your character already cares about it on some level.

The limitation of games as constructed environments means there’s a limit to the changes that can happen to a place, barring live-service games. The major changes that Fortnite or Apex Legends’ maps routinely undergo allow them to become strange sort of old hometowns for long-time players — ones that become increasingly layered as the in-game seasons pile up. Old games become old haunts too, especially as time and technology marches on, like those memories of Halo 2 all-nighters or bygone digital spaces like The Matrix Online lost to time. The places we used to live, the houses of friends, the old hang out spots, the quiet clearing that’s now a Taco Bell — whatever they are now, it doesn’t invalidate what they used to be nor the people we were when we frequented them. 

The question is how to reconcile these ghosts, these former worlds that we might have unfinished business with, against what they are now. We can’t go home again, but we can find new meaning and distance in the new realities of places, and appreciate the distance you’ve made in the meantime. “My entire life feels like running after something that keeps moving away into the distance, while I stay in the same place,” Mae’s friend Bea says at one point in Night in the Woods. “…and I guess proximity counts for a lot right now.” What we have proximity to and how we get closer to the next place we’ll cherish, or how we find ways to cherish the present version of what once felt like home, is a game we each have to play against ourselves.