The terror and solace of tiny apartments in video games

Open worlds are getting stale; small virtual spaces can be just as enthralling.

Rear Window, a 1954 mystery thriller by Alfred Hitchock, is, as film critic Roger Ebert wrote, all about feeling trapped.

Its hero, a photographer played by James Stewart, sits in his apartment with a broken leg. He passes the long days watching his neighbors, first with a set of binoculars and then with a camera. Each resident has their own quirks and routines, and as a viewer, we see only what he sees; the movie is conspicuously limited by his perspective. Watching now, following the past twelve pandemic-inflected months, Hitchcock’s single-setting masterpiece feels eerily familiar. Stewart’s looks out of the window — full of longing, jealousy, and paranoia — are relatable to so many of us now.

One irony of modern video games is that despite their increasing capacity to represent space in intricate detail, their focus always seems to be on the next glinting horizon. This is the primary selling point of the open world adventure’s panoramic scale; the battle royale, meanwhile, is the most popular game mode of online shooters, one whose vast virtual plains represent a shift away from the tight corridors popularized by the likes of Counter Strike. Nearly everywhere in virtual entertainment, the prevailing logic seems to be that bigger is better, and that freedom and choice — cornerstones of mainstream game design — trump all. But when applied to video games, the reduced scope of single settings like that of Rear Window can stoke different sensations in the player. Wide-eyed wonder makes way for something else; consequences land differently in virtual apartments or houses — spaces which resemble our own homes.

720 seconds.Annapurna Interactive

The upcoming Hitchock-inspired interactive thriller 12 Minutes shows precisely this; it’s also a rare example of a video game whose scope has been reduced over the course of development. Directed by Luis Antonio, the game is structured around a time loop and the idea that preordained events will happen whose cycle the player must break. It was initially set in an open world rural town reminiscent of the setting for Hitchcock’s The Birds, but Antonio soon discovered this was too large a space to keep track of all the consequences of the player’s actions. Slowly but surely he started sculpting the space, eventually refining it to three simple apartment rooms. This was accompanied by a whittling of time, from 24 hours to six, and then, eventually, to the titular twelve minutes.

Antonio says the game’s loop structure is a way of resolving an inherent dissonance of video games. “They’re all loops,” he remarks, “the protagonist just doesn’t realize it.” Befitting the dual Groundhog-Day-home-invasion conceit, 12 Minutes is simultaneously maddening, upsetting, and strangely comforting. Its events will cause you to draw a sharp intake of breath the first time you experience them, but through repetition they become predictable. Like the board of a tabletop game, the digital apartment acts as a foundation for a set of rules upon which everything else is built. It’s reliable and unchanging (at least from the demo I played), but offers a surprisingly flexible sandbox. Crucially, the homely environment makes the stakes clear; a violent break-in is a nightmarish scenario for most players.

“They’re all loops, the protagonist just doesn’t realize it.”

Antonio’s thriller is far from the only game to represent the home as a site of turmoil. More disturbing is Silent Hill 4: The Room, the 2004 entry in the survival horror series whose protagonist Henry Townshend is unable to escape his own unnerving apartment. The front door of Room 302 is padlocked shut, covered in medieval-looking chains, while festering walls spit out disfigured creatures. It ultimately descends into B-movie hokum of alternate dimensions and grizzly rituals but, first and foremost, Silent Hill 4 is about how one’s place of residence can feel hostile; its walls are never comforting.

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Silent Hill 4 feels a long way off French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s description of the home as “the first universe” of its inhabitants, and the way even “the humblest dwelling has beauty.” For Bachelard, author of 1958’s The Poetics of Space, the home is a way into the soul of a person — a physical representation of our own mental interiors. Silent Hill 4 is one gruesome extreme; 12 Minutes offers something different — a protector fantasy which reflects the way our minds can obsessively construct events which haven’t yet occurred. Like each of these, Yuha’s Nightmare is an apartment-escape game but one which explicitly draws on its maker’s own dreams and experiences. In it, the mind is manifest as a series of unnerving glitches and impossible architecture, themselves nestled within a surreal rendering of the home.

All too familiar in 2021.3-Fold Games, Plug In Digital

The latter, in particular, represents the efforts of an independent video game scene that regularly stretches the expressive possibilities of virtual architecture. Many of these games aren’t straightforward horror like Silent Hill 4 but map how everyday spaces change according to our often fragile psychological states. Take Before I Forget, released last year for PC and which has just arrived on consoles. Its story centers on Sunita, confined to her own seemingly comfortable apartment because she suffers from early-onset dementia. But the debilitating illness changes the space. Doors all look alike and a giant void sits in the hallway; then, later in the game, the apartment hallways contort. “It's not a haunted house,” says the game’s writer Chella Ramanan, “but Sunita's perception of the house is such because she's anxious and afraid — that's a result of her disease.”

For straight-up, single-setting horror, we can look to Kitty Horrorshow’s 2016 first-person spine-tingler Anatomy which derives its chills not from people but the house itself. The dark space is filled with tapes that must be played on an ominously glowing tape recorder. These recordings start as a philosophical comparison of the home to the body but with each subsequent playthrough the audio becomes distorted. The space also changes, subtly at first, and then to increasingly grotesque degrees. In so many housebound titles, even those exploring the sensation of feeling trapped, game architecture can mostly be trusted; it remains constant, or, at the very least, legible. But in Anatomy, space is slippery — a malevolent, mutant force. The game truly earns its dedication to Shirley Jackson, author of the 1959 horror novel, The Haunting of Hill Houseregarded as one of the scariest ever written.

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And yet, video game homes can also be places of solace. Safe houses are one popular incarnation, from Niko Bellic’s grubby apartment in Grand Theft Auto VI to Adam Jensen’s wonderfully noirish home in 2016’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. My favorite is the nomadic camp of 2018’s Red Dead Redemption 2 which contains a handful of beautifully low-key activities: I can wake up and drink a hot cup of coffee or help myself to some steaming stew. I don’t do these because of the temporary buffs they grant my abilities; I do them simply because they feel good, it’s how I imagine the game’s gruff protagonist Arthur Morgan would act.

It’s this dimension of video game homes that designer Sean Wenham is looking to channel on the upcoming, working-titled Apartment Story. Befitting its code name, the game is set in a single space, not unlike 12 Minutes, but Wenham’s hinges on a simpler, less time-bending story involving “three people and a gun." There will be light needs management elements, similar to The Sims, as well as a script that explores the drama of the trio’s interpersonal relationships. Despite the pleasingly grainy mid-’90s PlayStation aesthetic, the apartment itself is rooted in Wenham’s experience of renting homes in the UK for over ten years. He mentions magnolia walls, cheap lampshades, and exposed plastering, and the ways we colonize these spaces with our own possessions. “I think any time you look at someone's bedroom you can tell who they are,” says Wenham. “Their class, education, how introvert or extrovert they are — vices even.”

Two.Sean Wenham

Like the base camp of Red Dead Redemption 2, Apartment Story seems content with letting players simply exist within the confines of an intimate space. Before its story ramps up, the game could also offer a cozier expression of Bachelard’s idea of the home as “our corner of the world… a real cosmos in every sense of the word.”

Wenham makes the point that in video games space is cheap. “You can have a procedurally generated infinite galaxy,” he says. “But character interactions are really expensive.” A smaller game space means more time can be dedicated to human details. For me, the idea of a game simply involving a few characters in a room is a tantalizing proposition, arguably no less ambitious than a virtual solar system. The 2006 tech demo for Heavy Rain, in which a woman inhabits a kitchen, shows what one big budget version could look like. 2005’s Façade, an apartment-set story involving a couple whose relationship is imploding, offers a more experimental take. The latter, in particular, attempts something (with admittedly goofy, AI-based results) that no blockbuster studio has yet been able to achieve: how to simulate a free-flowing conversation.

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What’s surprisingly underrepresented in the pantheon of video games set in single homes are those that investigate the idea of domestic labor. After all, many video games have asked players to perform a job (Papers, Please, Cart Life, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor) but fewer have interrogated the gendered aspects of household work. Two titles stick in my mind that tackle this subject: 2018’s Behind Every Great One, developed by Deconstructeam, and Tale of Tales 2015 first-person narrative game Sunset. Each unfolds day by day, the challenge of which involves prioritizing tasks and forgoing others. But their greatest pleasures derive from refusal. In Behind Every Great One, I can simply smoke a cigarette at the expense of a chore; in Sunset, I can snoop through my employer’s lavish furnishings instead of tidying them. Each is an act of resistance.

In a way, these single-setting titles are acts of resistance in themselves, conspicuous dissenters to the idea that games should resemble never-ending sites of content.

In a way, these single-setting titles are acts of resistance in themselves, conspicuous dissenters to the idea that games should resemble never-ending sites of content. Blockbuster studios seem to be taking note. Ninja Theory, maker of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, is currently working on Project: Mara, a game set in what could be the most photorealistic video game apartment ever made. In a development diary, you can watch the team obsessively rendering single fibers of its carpeted floor, intended to precisely mimic a plush real-world location. But even this seems to merely apply the same logic of blockbuster visual fidelity to a concise space. The approach might well support the game’s story which chief creative director Tameem Anotinades has said explores mental health themes similar to that of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. It could also end up as yet another video game environment to ogle — a technical showcase of spectacular, shallow glory.

Judging by the development diary, none of Ninja Theory’s production team has ever lived in the pristine apartment that Project: Mara is modeled on. This seems to neglect what’s most appealing about small-scale video game apartments. Each of them feel distinct, as if you can sense the contours of their makers’ own recollections and lived experiences. Perhaps this is because, as Bachelard wrote in Poetics of Space, “Memories of the outside world never have the same tonality as those of home.” Like the real thing, apartments in video games find a way of burrowing deep within the mind. As either places of solace or terror, they are homes away from home, and we need never leave our own living rooms to inhabit them.

Grounds for further investigation.Sean Wenham