I'll take one Common Hobb, please

Review: Home Safety Hotline

I'll take one Common Hobb, please

I've got a soft spot for 'fake computer interface' games. Like Hypnospace Outlaw. Or Secret Little Haven. Or Emily is Away. This is because I am in my mid-thirties, and I seek comfort in anything that remotely resembles Windows 95. So I'm happy to report that Home Safety Hotline has completely nailed the UI and helped to momentarily suspend our grim reality, at least for the few hours I spent with it, by introducing me to a more fantastical kind of horror.

Home Safety Hotline is an analog horror game (currently only available on Steam). It puts you in the position of a call centre operator. Your job is to assist increasingly panicky and irate homeowners with their various problems: black mold, bed bugs, cockroaches, bees, etc. You have to find the correct problem and report this back to the customer, crossing your fingers that they don't call you back to yell at you for making it worse.

You're given a directory, which has mostly redacted entries to begin with. The more the management trusts you, the more entries you unlock. It's not really a twist; Home Safety Hotline gives the game away pretty quickly. You're not just dealing with carbon monoxide leaks anymore. Now, you're dealing with Dream Weavers, Lamp Sprites, Trolls, and Night Gnomes instead.

Each entry provides you with a description, the dangers, and the solution, along with a sound clip if applicable. This helps you to figure out which creature is causing the problem. Sometimes there's an overlap in symptoms, which raises the tension a bit; towards the end, you really need to pay close attention, because the smallest details can catch you out.

It reads like an encyclopedia of interesting beings. Every entry from the Night Wisp to the Closet Labyrinth is enjoyable to read. (I was particularly taken with the Common Hobb: 'They are known for their tendency to consume dust, dirt, and common stick substances found on floors and dishes, cleaning them in the process.' Um. Yes please? Literally can't see a downside to this.)

It becomes a kind of high-stakes memory game. People call you with increasing desperation, and the computer systems intermittently power out, leaving you with no information to cross-reference before you give them an answer. Getting it right can save a life. Getting it wrong can lead to a phone call from a sobbing customer describing the horrific death of a loved one. (Side note: I had a job in a call centre once. I was hired to have irate parents shout at me because the government decided college students were no longer entitled to educational maintenance loans. I'll leave it to you to decide which job is worse.)

The voice acting ranges from brilliant to a bit much, but the content itself is spine-tingling. Playing this reminded me of the first time I found about SCP and I sat in front of our old-school second-hand PC, reading story after story about strange creatures and artifacts that shouldn't exist, but somehow do. There's something absorbing about the clinical description of horrifying things. I don't find it scary to the point of nightmares, just kind of deliciously spooky, like watching an episode of Goosebumps or something.

A plot unfolds. Emails start to pop up from an unknown source, suggesting that something is amiss with the company. Your manager, Carol, is a bit suss. It eventually escalates into something so wild I don't even think I could adequately describe it even if I wanted to, but it is certainly something to behold.

It's about three hours long if you want to explore the post-credits stuff, and I recommend that you do. Every creature was designed by creator Nick Lives, and he details his influences and creative process in a bonus art book you can unlock once you finish the game. I love it when you can enjoy the fruit of someone else's nerdy interests.

I can't help but wish for a little bit more. Your job is the same no matter how wild the calls become, and I wanted it to develop somehow, to have more scares, maybe, or something that got my heart rate up. (The exception to this is the Pooka, which I found so horrifying I genuinely couldn't look at it.) Still, it's creative, fun, and a cool little dive into the world of folk horror.

I've been reading a lot of fairy tales recently. Almost too many, if anything. My brain is full of them, pushing out useful information with giants and wolves and peasant girls with jewels tumbling out of their mouths every time they speak. The stories of the Charles Perrault era are preoccupied with human morality: don't be a dick, and you won't get eaten by a troll or whatever. Mostly, the presence of these strange creatures is benign until the moment you mess up with greed, or spite, or curiosity. You could live in this world, alongside these things, and never 'trigger' them. Unless you're very unlucky. The presence of these creatures is known and understood as a fact of life.

I guess that's what I quite like about Home Safety Hotline: you treat Bed Teeth infestations in the same way you would treat a home teeming with cockroaches. Your job, in either case, is to be calm and relay information. Sometimes, if you give them the right information, they can learn to live alongside them, to accept these creatures as a strange quirk of their otherwise lovely family homes.

And sometimes, they can't. There's no solution, because they are simply unlucky. They've happened to move to a place where the nearest creature wants to eat them alive, and there's not a single fucking thing you can do to stop it.

Which is really horrifying, now that I think about it.