Developed by graduate-student team Penny Jar Studios at SMU Guildhall, Rhome is a thriller-horror game that puts you in the role of Hailey Rhome, a famous architect who returns home from work one day to find everything has gone terribly wrong. Inspired by the artwork of the surrealists, the game turns your journey through the architect’s house into a desperate battle for survival in a landscape of nightmares.
The game was created in a 16-week development cycle. It’s clear the development team carefully considered their assets—the horror genre lends itself to budget and time constraints, and great horror stories can be created with very few resources. The result is a game that’s creative and clever. While clumsy in moments that do drag the quality of the game down in parts, the whole of Rhome is a wonderful look into the imaginations of the next generation of video game developers, and a fun game to play.
Rhome follows the evening of Hailey Rhome, a famous architect who arrives home after a long day at work. A storm lashes the windows of the opulent house, but it soon becomes clear the storm is the least of her worries. She calls after her husband, Derek, who gives no answer and is nowhere to be found. Before long, the house begins to move and change. These changes are subtle at first: a locked door, a chair moved; but as time passes the house begins to openly rebel against its maker, forcing Hailey to run through her home like a rat in a maze, completely at the mercy of whatever force is guiding it.
All the while we’re drip-fed hints of what the situation may be, and before long the player is able to figure out what it is. There’s a bit of environmental storytelling happening in the form of recurring visuals and the books lying around the house—most prominently classical horror literature featuring the works of H.P Lovecraft and Mary Shelley, a nod to the genre and the classics that came before.
All in all, Rhome is a small story and it’s handled just fine. The premise is simple enough to work within the time frame of the game (it takes about twenty minutes or so to play from beginning to end), and the simplicity of the story and setting allows the developers to play with other elements of the genre, such as creativity with the visuals and using the story and setting to create that all-important tension. My biggest problem with the story was handing all the answers to the player on a plate at the end. It would have been nice for the game to not have spelled it out so obviously—a little mystery at the end is always good and stays with the player as they wonder what had really happened.
Rhome has full controller support, and is played from the first-person perspective of Hailey as she explores the house. The corridor-style elements of the environment allow the player to move through the various sections of the house while being unable to anticipate what’s around the corner, particularly when approaching the source of a sound. Hailey is able to interact with plot relevant objects, and there’s a small amount of puzzles and problem-solving. Hailey is also able to open and close doors in order to navigate through the various areas of the house. There’s no combat and very little reading to do, making this game simple to play.
Graphics and Audio
The main theme song is a catchy elevator tune, which becomes delightfully creepy when placed into the world of the game. The juxtaposition between the cheerful tune and the disturbing visuals on-screen creates that wonderful atmosphere of dissonance and the feeling that something isn’t quite right, and takes you on an audio-visual excursion into the uncanny valley.
As you begin the game, that cheerful tune is used as a device to lead you through the house, a clever use of sound and is extremely helpful because the house itself is huge and can be a bit intimidating at the start. Once the game gets going, however, the atmosphere of the game is dictated by the sounds we see onscreen, rather than relying on music to create tension. As Rhome is a horror game, this is a technique that works well and stresses the silence and loneliness of the house (especially with the sound of the storm outside).
The game is fully voiced by the game’s protagonist, Hailey. While having a voiced protagonist can be an asset, I feel as though in this case it detracted from the game to an extent as it felt jarring and awkward in parts of the game, especially moments that would have otherwise had high emotional impact or would have illicited a fear response. Perhaps having onscreen text for the player to read, or leaning more on visual cues instead would have been less obtrusive on the atmosphere on the game.
The house in the game is modern and (in-game) has clearly been designed by someone wealthy (the house from Parasite comes to mind). The distortion of the environment and objects in the house works well on a visual level, and they’re effective in creating that M.C Escher inspired tones of surrealism and absurdity. The Penny Jar Studios team clearly put a lot of work and research into the art style of Rhome.