There are a lot of unique challenges that narrative-focused games have to overcome. By necessity, they have to share an interesting story with engaging characters. They also have to keep things fresh throughout their entire duration to keep from getting stale, and perhaps most importantly, they have justify to the player that an interactive medium is the best means of experiencing this particular tale.
Naturally, many story-rich games excel in a handful of these categories while falling a bit short in the others, which can lead to a lot of them feeling like something of a mixed bag by the time you reach their conclusion. But then you have games like No Longer Home, developed by Humble Grove and published by Fellow Traveler for PC on July 30th, 2021, that does just about everything well.
Soon to Be Parted
The game introduces us to our two protagonists, Ao and Bo, by way of a conversation at the beginning of their friendship. This short prelude takes place about a year before the majority of the experience, and highlights the personalities of the characters before we step into the game proper. Both of them are about to graduate from their university, and this initial conversation discusses the fears and concerns you would expect from two people in such an unclear situation. I was immediately impressed by the level of authenticity this short exchange had, and it quickly became clear that authenticity is something of a through line for No Longer Home.
From the word go, it sets itself up to be a more intimate story than you might be expecting. As soon as it starts, the game informs the player that it’s semi-autobiographical in nature and based heavily on the lived experiences of two of the developers: Hana Lee and Cel Davison. The credibility that this establishes for the game as a whole cannot be understated, as knowing that what you’re reading is based heavily on real events lends the game a more emotionally grounded center.
When the game resumes a year later, we learn that Ao and Bo are now living together in an apartment and trying their best to make ends meet. Unfortunately, due to circumstances far outside of their control, they’re set to be separated for an indeterminable amount of time in the coming months, and it’s in this interim that the majority of No Longer Home takes place.
The mental state of the characters are understandably weighed down heavily by this impending separation. Through their conversations, thoughts, and feelings, the game’s story explores themes like uncertainty in the future, listlessness and indecisiveness, what it means to truly be “yourself,” and the greater sociological institutions that shape the way we live our lives.
It covers a lot of ground, and it does so in a way that feels natural. Ao or Bo might react internally to something as mundane as a pileup of cardboard tubes from toilet paper, and those thoughts will reveal something that gives further depth to one character or both. It’s highly reflective of real life, where the smallest things can remind us of our biggest moments. In a similar fashion, while No Longer Home focuses on a lot of serious things, it also remembers that life isn’t without humor, even during times of uncertainty and stress.
The game is about two recent university graduates on the precipice of the next chapter of their lives, but that’s just the backdrop. The true heart of the story lies in the flux of emotions unique to situations like that; it shines a light on the thoughts below the surface—the ones you keep to yourself even though you know it would probably be healthier not to—and it does so earnestly and with finesse. The only drawback I could find in the story of No Longer Home is that I wish it were just a bit longer.
Chewing the Fat and Exploring the Flat
To better facilitate the narrative of this particular slice of life, the gameplay for No Longer Home is pretty simplistic. Reading and advancing dialogue between Ao, Bo, and their friends is broken up by exploring the various rooms of their apartment. There aren’t a lot of objects to interact with, but as mentioned previously, the things you can examine always lead to new information to help deepen your understanding of the characters.
The most enjoyable feature of the gameplay, and I one I learned to appreciate very quickly, is found in the opportunities the player is given to control the flow of the conversations. Frequently, you’ll be given a choice between multiple dialogue options that can be both from a single character or split between the various participants.
It’s important to clarify that this level of control is not to the same degree as, say, a visual novel. It’s very unclear in the moment how much you’re actually affecting in the grand scheme of things, but it does make you feel like you’re steering the conversation and the feelings of the characters the way you’d prefer to see them unfold, adding yet another layer of engagement for the player. When you throw all of these aspects together, you have an experience that successfully keeps things fresh throughout its runtime.
Putting on a Production
The visual style for No Longer Home is muted and minimalist. As you enter each room of the flat, the walls and various decorative elements descend from above and combine around you. While the immediate events are tied to the apartment itself, the game isn’t afraid to showcase other locations that are pertinent to the conversation taking place. This can be in the form of artistic renditions and symbolism, or sometimes the room will detach from itself and slide away to reveal a new background. It’s something that’s immediately reminiscent of the switching of scenes in a stage production.
Musically, there are some lovely ambient tracks that are more preoccupied with establishing the mood and tone of the scene than crafting a catchy tune. Whenever a character speaks, their text is accompanied by soft, drum-like beats as it appears, and this can interestingly serve as percussion to complement the backing music or the backing music itself, in lieu of a more obvious track.
The text is presented clearly and concisely in a no-frills font, but there were a few typos or missing words in some of the dialogue. These stand out especially when you consider the game’s short length, but they’re not so egregious as to actively detract from the experience.
Facing the Future
It’s difficult to find things No Longer Home doesn’t do well. It gives you exactly what you would want from a shorter, personal story. It could certainly stand to be a bit lengthier, as I finished it in three hours and I’m ridiculously slow with games like this, but there’s something to be said for the game taking the time it needs while also refusing to waste yours.
No Longer Home tackles the issues it presents in a natural, unobtrusive way that allows the player space to muse on them themselves. Even if you’re not sure you can directly relate to the situation that Ao and Bo find themselves in, this title comes highly recommended. It will absolutely remind you of experiences in your past, and it just might help make the stresses of the future seem a little less daunting.
Review copy provided by Fellow Traveler for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.