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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

REVIEW: Protect your community and appease the creature in the shadows in Home Safety Hotline

Updated: Jan 18

A big reason why folklore, cryptids, and urban legends work so well is that they provide a rational explanation for the irrational fears we experience living in a world we barely understand. They give shifting shadows, frustrating worries, and missing socks a raison d'etre outside of "I'm overly paranoid" or "my attention deficit means I misplace things all the time."

And it can be just as soothing as it is horrifying to be able to imagine the creatures that are crawling through your house at night. (Not talking from experience at all, why do you ask?)

Home Safety Hotline takes that concept and dips it in the ordinary, and then dusts it in a nice coating of the supernatural. What results is a fascinating examination of folklore, analog horror, and artistry in game design.

An in-game screenshot of Home Safety Hotline. It depicts a video player with a warning video showcasing potential threats that the Home Safety Hotline can prevent. The video is paused on a slide that says "Hazards such as: Metamorphosis" with a large image in the center. The image is a photo of a stair case with a large frightening figure lurking in the shadows under the stairs.

​Just the Facts

Developer: Night Signal Entertainment

Publisher: Night Signal Entertainment

Platform(s): PC

Price: $14.99

Release Date: January 16, 2024

Review key provided by developer.

Home Safety Hotline is the latest project of the indie horror studio Night Signal Entertainment, a team dedicated to crafting spooky media, namely games and films. Founded by Nick Lives and David Johnsen, Night Signal Entertainment is all about keeping things small and sustainable while maximizing the horror. Without ballooning budgets and dangerous scope creep, and with a commitment to setting gamer's expectations appropriately (shoutout to their practice of listing estimated game runtimes prominently on the store page), Night Signal Entertainment is set up to be a fascinating studio to watch in the coming years.

Their sophomore effort, Home Safety Hotline, finds its roots in Nick Lives' childhood fascination with the Dungeons and Dragons' Monster Manual bestiary, in learning the ins and outs about how monsters worked and imagining the world that would crop up around them. And so it's not surprising to see that concept manifest as an "interface game." Joining the likes of Hypnospace Outlaw or Sam Barlow's Her Story, Home Safety Hotline's gameplay is entirely based within a fictional '90s computer interface, where you'll scroll through emails and data entries in your new job as a hotline responder for Home Safety Hotline corporate.

You'll be answering calls from regular folks looking for advice about how to handle "common" household pests and issues. It starts simple: frozen pipes, bees, and mice causing annoyances in people's homes.

You'll take note of specific language used in the caller's descriptions — sights, sounds, aches, and occurrences — and use it to study your database and pass on the info they need to clear up their issues. All you've got to do is survive your first week on the 9 to 5 grind by correctly helping callers with their problems. How hard can that be when you're just helping folks identify carbon monoxide leaks and the like?

Well, the best laid plans of mice and moles often go wrong and all that. Things soon take a turn. As you progress, you unlock entries about new home hazards that are a bit more horrifyingly mythical. Only with your help can your callers survive the potentially fatal consequences that comes from improper handling of these creatures.

Although you're a third party helping other people combat the critters in their residences, you don't feel comforted by the distance. Home Safety Hotline's bag of tricks succeeds in making the horror feel all too close.

You've only got one real consistent face to spend time with across your first week on the job, your supervisor Carol. Details are drip fed to you about the world you inhabit and the company you work for, across a series of analog horror-inspired videos and the work documents you have access to.

Narratively, HSH is stripped back. It's an experience that does what the best horror can do... leave the bigger details up to your imagination.

In between calls, your job is to read through every single available entry in your database. To familiarize the traits of various creatures or entities, how to identify them, how they can affect folks, and where they may share traits, making identification more challenging. There are no follow-up questions to be had. You suss things out based solely on the limited information you receive from callers. Sometimes it's straightforward and sometimes you're taking a shot in the dark and hoping you don't get a follow-up call from a screaming customer later. It simultaneously perfectly captures the mundane feeling of a call center while needling your skin with some increasingly chilling hazard entries, desperate or just plain weird callers, and unexpected interruptions to your routine.

The real creeping horror is in the entries themselves. They're written so matter-of-factly, so casually. When you read a line like "if you or a loved one are sought by a Dorcha, it is advised to grieve, and find peace through acceptance," what else can you do but feel dread shoot up your spine?

Although you're a third party helping other people combat the critters in their residences, you don't feel comforted by the distance. Home Safety Hotline's bag of tricks succeeds in making the horror feel all too close.

Your catalog of creepies turns any old household item into a potential threat. It sets in the idea that common household items may actually be a sign of some petrifying creature — a soap sprite that feeds on your skin — or that experiences you haven't been able to explain, like a shortness of breath in the night has a source you can point to, in the form of a hag that sleeps under your bed and steals your breath.

Needless to say this game has had me doing double takes at the shadows under my bed.

An in-game screenshot of Home Safety Hotline. It depicts the desktop of the player's computer. The wallpaper has the Home Safety Hotline logo floating above a wide-open grassy field. Desktop icons sit and represent the Hotline's software, your email, settings, and various video files.

As with many indie horror projects, there's an equal reliance on scares and comedy here. There's an undoubtedly purposeful campiness to the performances of the callers and even some of the art, which will leave you giggling one second and shivering the next — this grab bag helps to drive you forward. Combine that with the game's general satirizing of corporate work life and you've got the perfect accompaniment for the things that go bump in the night.

While the game never jump scares you, it plays with your expectations in other ways through subtle changes to your desktop in between work days, full-on analog horror videos that unlock as you progress, and the slow unraveling of your database of Home Safety entries into more and more terrifying concepts.

More than anything, it's Lives' art and writing that does the heavy lifting on the horror. With the analog horror inspiration, Lives focuses on taking the mundane and familiar and warping it into something that's just... slightly off. Just off enough to be upsetting but just normal enough to draw you in. He pulls from public domain imagery, layering in his own original art and creature design to great effect. For example, a false rose bush — a familiar shrubbery whose only major difference is an almost branch-like, but inarguably humanoid, pair legs sticking out where its roots should be.

It's always a simple twist like that, implemented extremely well — and crunched down by the '90s aesthetics, they come off as eerily realistic.

Needless to say this game has had me doing double takes at the shadows under my bed. 

Johnsen handles all the music and audio design, and for a game so based on implied horror, Johnsen takes the baton from Lives and runs with it. There's the incredible '90s hold muzak that plays when you put your callers on hold to pore over your hazard handbook, and the beeps and boops of your computer.

Frightening audio samples accompany many of the home hazard entries to give you something to listen for in the background of calls or to compare to callers' descriptions (or half-hearted impersonations) — rustling and faint clicking, rodent-like chirping, groaning and belching pipes... and worse. All of them contribute to a constantly unnerving experience, one that has you holding your breath each time you unlock a new set of entries or get a new call.

An in-game screenshot of Home Safety Hotline. It depicts the HSH Responder software. This particular photograph focuses on taking in an incoming call. A large window takes over the screen, showing the current caller and a transcription of his call. The photo of the caller is a mish-mash of pieces from other faces assembled to make a strange-looking face. His name is Buzz Goober and his call is mostly nonsense.

The 2-3 hour experience is a fairly straightforward one without too much difficulty. We actually felt that HSH was at its most difficult early on, when your options are more limited and so the challenges set ahead of you rely on vague descriptions and deciphering very subtle clues — differentiating between termites and carpenter ants, for example.

The more entries you unlock, the more you're able to get into the granular details of these monsters and latch onto very specific concepts that jump out in each call you take. Your only goals are to not get fired — which you can do with even just a 60% success rate — and try to earn coupons for the company's home safety equipment by hitting at least a 90% success rate each day. There's also difficulty that eventually reveals itself in certain calls coming with "network errors." These require you to rely on your memory, so make sure to read as much as you can.

There are no time limits to taking each call, which relieves some pressure. And if you play this with a partner as we did (which I wholly recommend to elevate the experience and have fun debating and poring over the entries together), the game is even easier.

When it comes to accessibility, Night Signal Entertainment has more hits than misses, with a variety of phobia options present to help folks avoid triggering imagery and text, but one obvious point remains: the game has a lot of reading. Whether for accessibility reasons or simply gaming preferences, that's not everyone's cup of tea. If you have issues processing large swaths of information or vision challenges, you might face some difficulty. It could be helpful if the game allowed for narration of each entry or something to that effect.

We also wish the game had a shift selection tool after you get to the end, so we could go back and attempt to perfect the calls we messed up. Seemingly the only way to go back and redo things is to restart the entire game. We even would appreciate the ability to go back and purposely fail, because it's worth experiencing the calls you get after a slip-up, too: folks screaming at you for feeding them the wrong information and now things in their life are falling apart. It's a small thing that would help the game's overall replayability. We'd love to keep poking around and experience everything the game has to offer.

An in-game screenshot of Home Safety Hotline. It depicts the HSH Responder software. In the upper left, a window with the active caller shows a transcript of their message. Under that, a scrollable catalog of the active entries. A bulk of the screen shows the active entry. In this screenshot, it's Rain Nymph. Their photo shows a living room and a rainy scene out the window, with a monstrous handprint in the window and a large shaded figure looming.

After you beat the game, Home Safety Hotline unlocks a fun little art book showing some behind-the-scenes tidbits and inspirations. It's a fun prize for reaching the end, but more importantly, it's a testament to the care and passion this team puts into its work.

Night Signal Entertainment packed this game with a genuine love for the craft. They hand-made props, recruited their acting friends from a past life, used old photos of themselves to craft monsters.

This is horror straight from the heart. That makes Home Safety Hotline a special game — one of the better analog horror experiences we've played — and it certainly showcases the potential of what Night Signal Entertainment's mixed media efforts may achieve in the years to come. If you're up for the kind of horror that crawls under your skin and has you rethinking what the rustling in the corner of your room could be, this game is 100% for you.

Video Games Are Good and Home Safety Hotline is . . . GREAT. (9/10)

+ a tight package delivering creeping horror with impressive and effective art and writing, shows a genuine care for the art that seeps into all aspects of its design

- lots of reading, only difficulty comes in incredibly vague challenges, could use a shift selection tool to boost replayability

The key art for Home Safety Hotline. A corded phone is off the hook. Vines crow out from under it and wrap around the base and the receiver. A creature with long brushy hair can be seen hiding just behind it, two fingers curled around the receiver. This all takes place in a room tinged in green with mushrooms growing against the wall.

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1 commentaire

17 janv.

I'm looking forward to this, as scary as it seems >w>;;

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