These days it’s nice to see developers pushing the horror genre in video games beyond just jump scares. From liminal horror titles like Superliminal, The Exit 8 or Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 to those where you need to spot anomalies like I’m On Observation Duty 6, the horror genre really does seem like it has something for everyone, even for those who don’t really care for the typical blood and gore kind of experience.
Enter Home Safety Hotline, a game where players take on the role of a worker in one of the most terrifying jobs possible, a call center operator who gets to deal with the public each and every day. In this way, players will sometimes be dealing with horrific situations, although they are not in any actual danger themselves, which makes for a lighter horror experience. In a lot of ways, that is very much like the excellent Killer Frequency game where players were talking with callers and trying to keep them safe from a serial killer. The difference is that in Home Safety Hotline, not even the callers are in any immediate danger, so the horror is even more removed.
Home Safety Hotline is also an example of a new kind of genre known as analog horror because it’s set in 1996 and mimics the technology that was both popular and cutting edge at that time. For example, the player’s desktop looks like an old Windows 95 environment, which it renders perfectly. Even the sound effects of the title include those old and noisy CPU fan noises to heighten the atmosphere to make you think that you are working on an old fashion IBM PC. I even got a huge kick out of running videos using the old Video Player interface.
In terms of gameplay, players take on the role of a new employee working the help desk for something called the Home Safety Hotline. People call the helpline and describe some problem that they are having. Players then put them on hold using a button that makes a very funny computer voiced “Please Hold” sound, and the players are then free to search a database filled with pests and other household problems. The goal is to try and properly diagnose what is going on in the caller’s home. Once the problem and solution are located, you select it and send a packet of information over to them using email or some kind of primitive file transfer. And, at least at first, everything seems kind of mundane and normal.
Players will only need to handle a handful of callers every day. Once the day is completed, players get evaluated based on how many responses they got correct. If they obtain an accuracy rate higher than 90 percent for that day, they are rewarded with a digital coupon that allows them to purchase some sort of weird product, like the company’s bug repellant, for a discounted price. You don’t really get penalized for wrong responses other than not obtaining the coupons at the end of the day, although callers who you gave bad advice to will sometimes call back and complain. They are also sometimes in much more dire circumstances when they call back, depending on what kind of threat a player misdiagnosed.
Even though everything seems like a normal call center type of atmosphere at first, there are some hints that something more sinister is going on. If you take the time to read all of the database entries that you have access to (many are restricted until later on in Home Safety Hotline), then you will see a bunch of normal household problems like mice, roaches, black mold and things like that. Most of the descriptions and advice for dealing with those problems are pretty straightforward, but a few have odd notes. For example, the moles entry advises that you should never kill a mole because they are good friends with those who live down below.
During Home Safety Hotline, there is also someone who keeps contacting players via the desktop messaging application and warning them that they are in danger. Also, odd video links keep dropping onto the desktop with disturbing or mysterious messages.
By day two however, the strangeness is no longer hidden. More database entries open up that detail things like monsters that live inside water pipes, evil teeth formations growing on bed pillows and a family of little demonic-like creatures known as hobbs (who are thankfully harmless most of the time unless mistreated). For the most part, the callers don’t know what these things are or refuse to believe that something supernatural is behind their troubles, which makes it a little more difficult to diagnose their problems.
One of the biggest challenges in Home Safety Hotline is actually correctly diagnosing each problem. You don’t get to interact with the callers other than putting them on hold, so you can’t ask follow-up questions. And their descriptions about what is wrong at their homes are sometimes really vague. For example, on the first day you will get a caller (the entire game is scripted, so you always get the same callers in the same order) who describes his backyard as being filled with trash and is seeing little animals running around back there. Based on his description, I thought he was describing raccoons, since the entry for them in the database talks about how they like to raid trash cans and spread trash all around (something that annoyingly happened at my home once in real life). But selecting raccoons is wrong because the caller is actually describing the dirt that moles leave behind when they dig their tunnels. Sometimes those vague descriptions make it really hard to select the proper fix, especially if two or more problems have similar symptoms in the database.
The horror element definitely ramps up as you play, with things getting much darker for the hapless homeowners who call in to the hotline. Home Safety Hotline also does a nice job of making players feel like they might not be totally safe working their job either with all the mysterious messages and videos they receive. But generally, the gameplay loop does not change at all. You will still be trying to help out callers, many of whom don’t know what kind of danger they are in. And a few mundane problems still crop up from time to time.
The difficulty also ramps up. You will get more callers on later days, and at one point will even lose access to the database for a time. If you somehow manage to get 90 percent accuracy despite all that, you may be promoted to a Junior Supervisor, which is the title’s good ending. Otherwise, you are fired, which may not be a bad thing given the shadiness of the company behind the hotline. There is about two hours of gameplay in Home Safety Hotline, depending on how long you take to read and study the database entries. Sadly, there is little replay value, as all of the calls and their order are scripted, unless you want to try and improve your accuracy so that you have a shot at that lucrative Junior Supervisor position.
Home Safety Hotline is certainly a unique entry into the horror genre. Those looking for either a more analog experience or a decidedly light bit of horror should enjoy clocking in for a few shifts at Home Safety Hotline’s unusual and mysterious call center.