There’s a completely wonderful radio programme that I feel sure almost everyone hasn’t heard of… because it’s a radio programme. It’s called Pilgrim, written by Sebastian Baczkiewicz, about an immortal man called William Palmer (known by some as Pilgrim), cursed to live forever and walk the line between the worlds of magic and mortals. His tales see him reluctantly intervening where the two realms meet, protecting humans or fae, while facing enemies made over the last thousand years of his life. It’s never not brilliant. (You can listen to the two most recent episodes from 2020 right now.) Home Safety Hotline feels like something that could exist in the same reality, albeit from a very different perspective.
Set in 1996, this is a game about working in a call center for a company called the Home Safety Hotline (HSH), which provides emergency information to callers who need support with issues in their home. You answer calls, listen to people’s pleas, the put them on hold and send them an appropriate bundle of information. Perhaps they’re experiencing the effects of frozen pipes, or have a nasty infestation of black mould, or they could be growing a false rose bush. Whether it’s carpenter ants or night wisps, termites or unicorn fungi, you need to correctly diagnose the issue, and proffer the appropriate solution. Handle these calls well and you will be better trusted by the HSH, and given access to more diagnosable issues. Handle them poorly and, well, you’ll certainly lose your job.
The result is something Papers Please-esque, in so much as you’re operating a screen in a day-job. In this instance, it’s a faux Windows 95 interface, with a desktop that offers email, your work browser, and due to an error, occasional promotional videos for the HSH that you should probably ignore. You answer calls over seven days, under the scrutiny of your boss, Carol, learning more about the various issues that can plague a household.
Learning is pretty important, as there are network glitches that mean sometimes you’r required to diagnose without access to the entries’ descriptions. This means reading through everything unlocked each day is always worthwhile, and thankfully the game doesn’t try to rush you along, giving you time and space to read without being nagged. However, get a diagnosis incorrect and you’ll know about it, with the client calling back to bawl you out, or perhaps just sob incoherently.
So, there’s one big issue within this fantastic fun: it’s occasionally too vague. What should have been very precise puzzles, where every caller’s words contain subtle but vital clues that limit their situation to one specific response, a few too many times things are left vague and I felt certain that my pick entirely met their description. A smaller but important concern is that it does start to get a bit repetitive, failing to throw in enough twists or surprises as the week goes on.
However, what’s so important here is how persistently entertaining it is. The calls are all recorded by actor friends of the developer (who, brilliantly, made this game in response to the hole left in his life after he and his wife left the astonishingly ill-fated Evermore theme park. (I implore you to watch all of this almost four-hour documentary on Evermore by Jenny Nicholson.)). The writing is fantastic, every entry a treat to read through, accompanied by some fantastic artwork that adds to the humourous chills.
It would be an exaggeration to call the game scary, and it’s always primarily silly, but there are some lovely spooky concepts within. It’s these that remind me of Pilgrim, despite the very different approach to realities that blur the known and the fae. This would be a very appropriate helpline for William Palmer to recommend to those he meets.
Oh, and it has a very brilliant, and extremely reachable ending (something I think too many post-Papers Please games make unrealistic for most to ever see), followed by a new game+ that will address any lingering questions you may have. I know this has received more coverage than some other games featured on Buried Treasure (including some pretty huge YouTube attention I wasn’t aware of until after reviewing–it’s fair to say our audiences don’t overlap much), but for some bizarre reason this hasn’t extended to reviews, and all-important review scores, so here we are. Home Safety Hotline is certainly too repetitive, lacking that one extra twist that would have propelled players to the ending, but its imagination, writing, and performances ensure it succeeds.