No Longer Home 2

Humble Grove Want to Immortalise Memories

Making games wasn’t always the plan for Humble Grove’s Hana Lee and Cel Davison. The two met at university; both were studying illustration, with Lee wanting to go into animation, and Davison into illustrative comics. “I didn’t know anything about indie games till I started talking to Cel. I didn’t know that making games is an option as well,” says Lee. “I think one [indie game] that really moved me was Proteus just because it was so free, it was open to interpretation. You don’t really do anything. And from there I [thought], ‘Oh, so it’s okay to make stuff like this as well, and not just kind of… puzzley stuff like Braid’, which I started crying while playing because I hated it so much.”

You can really feel that sense of ‘not doing anything’ in Humble Grove’s first title, the recently released No Longer Home. A semi-autobiographical game, No Longer Home sees protagonists Bo and Ao preparing to move out of their South London flat after university, with a touch of magical realism thrown in. The story is inspired by their own experiences of leaving university and living in South London, as well as how they first met, although the truth of it isn’t quite what’s presented in Friary Road, the game’s prologue.

“We were doing a class trip to Camber Sands, and we’re staying at a Pontins,” says Davison, both of them laughing as they recall the story, “And we’re messing around, in the park at the Pontins, and there’s a zipline. And so [Hana] approached me with a small entourage. I think Nana [a friend] was asking if I was like this other person on the course [who] never turns up. And I was like, no, then I ziplined away.”

“So that was our first conversation,” Lee adds, sarcastically emphasizing on the last word. Neither of them could help but guffaw as they regaled their ‘first conversation’, the infectious laughter resounding even through our chat.

A Tale of Two Cities

One key element at play in No Longer Home is Ao’s concerns with going back home after graduating, directly paralleling Lee’s own experiences post university. Unfortunately, Lee wasn’t able to stay in the UK post-university, leading to much of the development of No Longer Home being intercontinental.

Studying in the UK isn’t easy for an international student. Applying for a student visa will set you back £348, while international fees are outrageously expensive, starting at £10,000. At University of the Arts London, where both Davison and Lee studied and met, international students are currently expected to pay £22,920 a year for a course, which, on a 40 hour work week, is more expensive than London’s living wage.

But going back home to Japan wasn’t easy on Lee either, who’s Japanese-Korean. “I’m like, I think it definitely really affected me at first and it still does, I don’t think that will ever change, unfortunately. It’s more the process of getting used to working in this sort of environment, of going back and forth and doing mostly everything remote[ly].” Lee says.

This largely stems from the difficulties they face due to their multiracial identity, which they’ve spoken about semi-regularly on their personal Twitter. Korea and Japan have an incredibly tenuous relationship, due to an ongoing dispute that dated more than 100 years ago. This is in part due to the Empire of Japan’s brutal occupation of Korea during World War II, and what Korea perceives to be the lack of reparations from Japan. Because of this, neither nation views the other particularly fondly, leading to a strong sense of displacement for Lee in a country that’s meant to be their home.

It used to be a lot harder for Lee initially, but over time they were able to make new friends. “I used to be really bad with it. I was just like, “Oh no, being in Japan sucks. Being at home sucks.” I’m more reserved around that now, just because I have a bit of a community that I belong in here as well. There’s kind of a solidarity between people who don’t really have a place they can call home country-wise.”

Conversely, moving to England was incredibly appealing for Lee, although they admitted that they found this embarrassing, as they were “a bit of an Anglophile back in the day”, which Davison couldn’t help but laugh at. One initial consideration was moving to the U.S. as their sister has moved to Chicago to study, but tuition was too expensive there. Thus the UK felt like the next natural choice for Lee, since it’s a place where they could probably “talk about music with people who understand me”—a point they recalled almost sheepishly.

University wasn’t exactly easy at first for Davison either. While in the UK you can apply for student loans, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s affordable for everyone. Living costs can be exponentially high in cities, with loans not always covering every expense. In turn, students from lower income families can essentially be prohibited from studying because of these barriers, which results in universities filled with mostly middle class students.

This was something Davison had to get used to at first. “I grew up in a working class area with this background and I think it was just a bit of a cultural shock meeting, all these like middle class people who I didn’t really speak the language that they spoke… there’s just all these ways in which I felt like a bit of an alien.”

Davison grew up in London, so the city already felt like a home to them, though they’ve now moved out of the city upon graduation. “It’s been good to move out in some ways, because I think having lived there my whole life, I kind of needed to know what it was like living outside of London.” says Davison.

But the high cost of living in London, with the average rent of approximately £1572 a month, means that staying in the city wasn’t a viable option for Davison. “I do really like it up here in Yorkshire. But I miss being able to see my friends and I wish moving out felt more like my choice and not like a thing necessary because of my finances.”

Capturing What’s Real

Even though life didn’t exactly pan out exactly the way Lee or Davison envisioned, their personal experiences were instrumental to shaping their game development.. That said,  inserting anecdotes from your own life into your game, particularly as a developer of a minority group, can potentially expose you to harassment.

Indie developer Nina Freeman, who often injects experiences from her own life into her games, is one prominent example. One of her most notable works is the MMO inspired Cibele that was released in 2015, which heavily features aspects from Freeman’s own life, and which saw her dealing with rampant harassment as a result.

This was something both Davison and Lee were conscious of, due to the autobiographical nature of No Longer Home. Yet, it didn’t stop them from developing the game. “Towards the beginning especially we were like, is this something we are allowed to be making?” says Lee. “What if we get flack for [the game] having LGBT [representation], or representation of mental health issues? But I think as time went by, we were able to distance ourselves from the characters in the story. I think we kind of grew more confident in the game.”

No Longer Home went through a big rewrite at the beginning of this year, which was a big undertaking for Davison as lead writer. But it was part of what helped them grow into that confidence, while allowing them to be more true to their convictions. “I know we were definitely very worried in the early days.” says Davison, “[But] with the rewrite we specifically went through it like, ‘Okay, how can we make this more personal like let’s, let’s be more honest, if we can’ you know. ‘Are there bits where we’ve been holding back, where actually it’d be good to dig a bit deeper?’”

I think initially, we were making it because we wanted to immortalise a lot of our memories. It’s been really nice seeing their reactions to the game and how it’s captured this, this memory that they have. And it can stay there as this way to go back to that in a way, and be a bit nostalgic.

That honesty comes through in No Longer Home, and even with touches of magic and surrealism, it’s one of the most authentic portraits of everyday life I’ve seen in a game. What sold me was a simple mention of Elephant and Castle, an area in central London. It’s where I studied at university, and to my knowledge, I’ve never seen or heard it in a video game before. It’s a place I must have spent hundreds of hours in, and to see it brought up, even just casually, felt strangely comforting.

Such moments are what realism in games really boils down to: it’s the simple vignettes of life. It’s about sitting and having a barbeque with your friends, while offering someone a beer. It’s staying up late, talking about the future, and how frightening that is. It’s preparing to move out, packing up all your belongings, and hitting the road.

These are what make up No Longer Home. Yet for Humble Grove, the game was also more than just about delivering these moments of realism. “I think initially, we were making it because we wanted to immortalise a lot of our memories.” says Lee. It wasn’t a game made for themselves, but for their friends too; Davison also shares that Bo and Ao’s friends are based on their own. “It’s been really nice seeing their reactions to the game and how it’s captured this, this memory that they have. And it can stay there as this way to go back to that in a way, and be a bit nostalgic.”

No Longer Home is very theatrical in its presentation, with moments and transitions in the game highly resembling that of a stage production. Listening to them talk about it with a note of nostalgia feels akin to watching an old home video, its scanlines distorting an already imperfect memory: that it’s captured from one person’s perspective only. In contrast to the analog tapes of home videos, No Longer Home, as a video game, is a distinctly modern way to immortalising treasured memories of their time together at the university. And it’s their shared experiences that would continue to influence them through their game development journey.