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Where the Heart Is: The Use of Home in Video Games

Home is where we see characters in a state of normalcy. We get to know what the protagonist does between adventures, seeing who they are at home, away from it all, is a significant experience that more developers should consider investigating.

Leene’s bell chimes three times from the town square and a teenage adventurer is awakened by his mother, a cadet at Skyloft’s knight academy throws together his belongings and dashes to his practicum, a busty archeologist hones her skills on an obstacle course in the gardens while her gremlin of a butler scuttles behind her carrying a light midday meal. These are the first scenes we see of three characters in three different games. In these opening scenes, we meet the star characters in their homes, seeing how they live day-to-day when they aren’t adventuring. Games have long been good at world-building through locations: towns, monuments, castles, skyscrapers, markets, schools and squares are structured to illustrate a sense of setting that often carries over to character building, but surprisingly few games explore their protagonist’s home.

In the openings to Chrono Trigger, Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and the tutorials of the early Tomb Raider games, the protagonists’ homes establish the status quo. We know from the first frame that we see them that Crono and Link are well behaved, well off, slightly slothful, mute teenage boys off to enjoy another day in a good life. We know that even though Lara Croft enjoys every luxury of a British manor, she’s dedicated enough to her physically demanding job to dedicate a substantial portion of her property to maintaining her strength and ability. When these characters answer their calls to adventure, the player has an immediate sense of their motivation and the kinds of lives that they’re trying to protect. It makes sense for them to run off to save the world because we’ve seen that their day-to-day lives are worth defending. 

Home is where we see characters in a state of normalcy. We get to know what the protagonist does between adventures. In Joseph Bernstein’s critical review of Assassin’s Creed III on Kill Screen Daily, he offers that the difference between the charming and dynamic Ezio of AC II and the dull and melancholy Connor of AC III, is that “We know exactly what Ezio would do if he didn’t have to avenge his family. What the hell would Connor do if he had some spare time?” The point that Bernstein is making is there isn’t anything to Connor other than his immediate circumstances. He wears an assassin’s hood, so he’s an assassin. That’s all he is. Metaphorically, he never takes the hood off.

Seeing a character’s home lets the player see the versions of that character without the assassin’s hood. Home ought to be where people’s versions of themselves converge, where they can—or rather, should—be open without being vulnerable, alone without being isolated. It’s where someone can make a mess that they’ll get around to later, it’s where they stand next to a mirror and crane their necks to evaluate their waistline, and it’s where they keep their prized collectibles and hand-me-down family artifacts. Home is where heroes don’t have to be heroes. And while the lack of that kind of place can speak volumes about a character, most of the time video game adventurers are presumed to be adventurers only—with nothing to go back to.

As good as the Normandy is at creating a sense of community among the characters of Mass Effect—as are the ancestral JPRG airships on which it is based—in that it gives the cast a place to rest en route to the next mission, the Normandy was never home. It was a place to gear up and get focused for the next task. Crew members opened up and bore their souls to the player, but ultimately everybody was there to get a job done. Sure, crew members relaxed and could let their guard down, but it was more a base camp than it ever was a home. The fact that Jack prefers the bowels of the engineering deck or that Liara can turn Miranda’s once immaculate office into a cluttered hive of screens of buzzing information might speak volumes about who these characters are, but players still aren’t technically seeing them in their own element. They’re still at work. Even Shepard isn’t at home in the captain’s cabin. She’s still at work. It’s why the addition of a personal apartment to the Citadel DLC is worth bragging about. The game finally offers Shepard a place where it’s okay for her to not be the galaxy’s savior.

Similarly, the montage of major life stages as the protagonist grows up during the opening of Fallout 3 give insight on a whole culture in a foreign world through twenty minutes of gameplay, rather than through the encyclopedia that doing so might otherwise require. The dread or awe or excitement that flashes through the player after they flee from the vault has weight because the player is intimately connected with what the character is walking away from. While both Mass Effect and Fallout 3 use residences to great narrative effect, they only take limited advantage of the protagonist’s home as a way to build character and atmosphere.

Link begins his adventure from his bare but cozy cabin and meets Zelda alone in an elaborate palace. The humble, amiable hero is called to action by the regal keeper of Hyrule. What more needs to be said about these characters that can’t be revealed by their disparate origins? So much of the world and main character of Deponia is summarized in the jury-rigged shack that opens the game. April Ryan’s modest apartment in the Border House of The Longest Journey is a perfect window into a struggling but optimistic artist’s soul.

While it’s certainly appropriate to design a protagonist’s nesting ground in lengthier and/or plot-driven games like point-and-click adventures or RPGs, it makes sense in the context of more action-oriented games also. There were problems with the way Gears of War 3 left the series, but it is worth noting that it provides the only instance in which we see how Marcus actually lives. His spartan cabin below the deck of an aircraft carrier is hauntingly similar to the prison cell in which he was introduced. Through just that room, we see how Marcus has been trying—and largely failing—to cope with the fall of his society after the events of the first two games. Likewise, when we see Devil May Cry’s Dante in his apartment sucking back bourbon, we get a frame of reference for how he lives and what he does with his time when he isn’t hunting demons. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Sega Dreamcast that Mike Thorton of Alpha Protocol lugs to his safe houses around the world is a detail that reveals something about who Mike is as much as it is a cute nod from the publisher.

This is not to say that the marked absence of a home can have just as much to say about who a character is. Master Chief, for instance, spends his shore leave in stasis. He’s only ever awakened for combat. He doesn’t have a home. He lives in his armour, and really, he’s sacrificed the non-martial aspects of his personhood. He’s utterly alone save for an encouraging AI with whom he shares his shell. He is a super-soldier, and that’s all. The point that Chief’s life in the armor punctuates is that he’s willfully made himself into a weapon to defend Earth.

But in many games, it’s just taken for granted that the player character just doesn’t live anywhere. We accompany them on their journey, and when it’s finished, we see nothing of who they are most of the time.

The home has a unique meaning in video games. Like television or theater, it’s a set that becomes familiar and associated with a character and their lifestyle. Like in written fiction, every detail can be painstakingly pieced together or a home can be implied through a broad, general atmosphere rather than with the inclusion of minutiae. But in games, home is unique. Players are seeing something that their characters are supposed to be intimately familiar with. Home in games is a place that has never been seen before but that has always been lived in. It can set up everything that a player needs to know about their protagonist in just a few frames, which is why it is disappointing to see that most games take place entirely “on the road.”

Adventures last anywhere from 10 to 60 hours, but life lasts much longer. Most games don’t take advantage of that. Most video game protagonists, even those in the most elaborate and decorated worlds, either live on the road or it never comes up. This smacks of a missed opportunity given that even a brief sequence in a small location is usually enough to leave the desired impact.

All things in moderation, of course, but catching a glimpse of a character’s humanity underneath the combat suit is refreshing. In their private, relaxed moments what do video game heroes do that make them people? For some characters, the answer is obvious, for others it’s far more guarded (just like real people). For a medium that depends so much on empathizing with the lead character, seeing who they are at home, away from it all, is a significant experience that more developers should consider investigating.


Originally posted on PopMatters.

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