Sex, insanity, and terror: we venture back into PlayStation Home
PlayStation Home was supposed to be an enticing digital world where you could hang out with friends and interact in communities built around games. “There used to be the arcade,” Home director Jack Buser told Gamasutra the month of the service's launch. “But that place doesn't exist any more. If you're a gamer, unless there happens to be an event in your town there is no place to meet like-minded people. Home is that place. It really leapfrogs the offerings on other game consoles.” “This has been a really massive undertaking,” Buser said. “You might have seen aspects of its features elsewhere, but the culmination and aggregation of them all together really has created an entirely unique experience.” Sony has had four years to make good on those promises, and it's time someone checked in with their progress. After spending hours exploring and interacting with the denizens of this virtual gamescape, the Penny Arcade Report can say with utter confidence: PlayStation Home is… a thing. A scary, borderline abusive thing.
Yup, still in beta
When PlayStation Home launched in December 2008, it was labeled by Sony as an open beta. Four years later, they're still calling it an open beta, according to the user agreement. It is, apparently, a term Home's team is “comfortable with,” as they told the Report's own Ben Kuchera in March of 2009. The main rationale behind this label is that the Home experience is constantly evolving, therefore it will never be quite done. The service went through a major overhaul in October of 2011, completely revamping the central hub and zones where users could interact. Buser touted the redesign on his PlayStation blog, while also offering a guided tour, which you can see below:Here's the thing that gets me. Notice how at the 3:23 mark, as he's talking about a yacht at the pier, he says, “It doesn't do anything, but maybe someday it might just come alive.” That's a perfect way to sum up most of PlayStation Home. There are lots of neat decorations and little distractions, but they're either mind-numbingly boring, devoid of players, or they just plain don't work properly. They don't do anything, and “someday” and “might” are not encouraging words. In the tour video, Buser shows off Sportswalk, where you can get live updates on real-world sports just by walking into a virtual sports bar. Neat! But when I walked into the same area, all I saw were ads for avatar clothing items. Alright, I thought, I'll just take a seat and play poker. I choose “quick play” so I won't have to wait long. Nope, you have to download poker first. Okay, I download poker, assuming it will seat me at the table I'm standing next to in the bar. The download bar finishes, and suddenly I'm whisked away to an entirely new area, a closed off chamber reminiscent of a prohibition-era speakeasy. I wait for my avatar to be seated, but the prompt never comes. I move to a table and choose quick play again. It downloads and loads again. I'm teleported to the entrance again. This time, I'm given a prompt to be seated. The poker game is sufficient, but anemic; there's no music, no flashy animation, nothing to make the game stand out. At least I found people to play with though, which is more I can say for Home's fighting game, Home-Grown Laboratory. I move to the central hub and see an advertisement for the game Emo Ray Vs. The Intergalactic Teddy Bears. An emo kid fighting off blood-soaked teddies? I'm down. I select it and press square to be transported to the game. As with every area of PlayStation Home, I have to download it. I hit X to confirm my download. Seconds turn to minutes as I wait for it to start, but it never does. I back out and try again. No dice. Only by choosing “download in background” does the game's area successfully make a home on my hard drive. I hit square to be transported to the game's area, but as it was with poker, I'm not actually in the game yet, I'm just in the area that will allow me to play the game. Oh well, at least now I'll get to play. I look around for the game's starting point. I don't see one on the ground level, so I head up some stairs. I reach the rooftop, and check the map. Leaderboards, credits, and “info.” I figure the info sections will tell me where I can play the game. And they do! I can play Emo Ray Vs. The Intergalactic Teddy Bears by purchasing it in the PlayStation Store. I set my controller down in disbelief. After all that effort to play a game I was actually interested in, I end up walking around a 3D advertisement? It couldn't be, could it? No one would possibly think it a good idea to add three steps to purchasing a game, would they? Turns out, yes, someone would. You can enter a garage - which I had missed my first time exploring the ground level - and it takes you through the game's tutorial prologue as a free demo, but again, PlayStation Home is unnecessarily complicating the process of experiencing a game and just playing.
So it's pretty terrible, right?
Oh, PlayStation Home is indeed terrible. It's a nightmarish, dystopian world. Avatars stare back at you with soul-less, vacant eyes as they jog about a lifeless, plastic world. Within 10 minutes of logging on, I was asked my age, name, and location, witnessed a Pedobear wannabe named CanIBangYoSister dancing with a succubus, and watched as a male avatar ran around asking if “any gay dudes wanna cam?” Controlling your avatar is sluggish, and you can't move above the pace of a slow, shuffling jog. You can use L1 and R1 to browse through quick conversation responses or avatar actions respectively, which helps if you don't have a keyboard handy. Pressing triangle opens up your chat input window, and will also cause an icon to float above your avatar's head so that others know you're working on a response to the insanity that almost certainly surrounds you at any given moment. You can also set your mood, which will change your avatar's body language. Basically, these are all your basic MSN Chat functions, realized and animated in 3D. It was clear I was not the target market. The female secret agent costume made my avatar's breasts jump up at least two cup sizes, and was unzipped in precisely the right way to expose everything but nipple. “Standard protocol calls for a bit of ventilation for this skin-tight outfit,” the description explained. There is also this haunted mannequin, which is a real thing you can actually put in your Home apartment:It's not like these things aren't described well, everyone knows what they're getting into with these items, but I doubt we'll see a “sit down and talk about gender roles in pop culture” couch for sale any time soon. Home is a sexually charged, aggressive environment, and the items for sale reflect that. And yet, there is something strangely wondrous about this place. I was surprised at the densely populated locales, even if it seemed like everyone was simply dancing or standing in a circle. There may not have been many interesting games, but who am I to judge if you want to sit and relax with a game of – albeit inconveniently structured – poker? Who am I to say your neon pink angel wings and bunny ears look dumb? Home as a space for games is pitiful and lacking in both convenience and usefulness. It is an inconvenient, awkward solution to a problem that doesn't exist. As a space for people to come together and chat about common interests while representing themselves with a custom avatar, it's strangely delightful in dark sort of way, even if most of it is utterly incoherent. Everyone is comfortable letting their freak flag fly, and everyone seemed to be at full mast all the time. Let me give you some examples. The following is an almost completely unedited stream of conversation from the central hub. Keep in mind each line of conversation is from a different user, and I started transcribing this well after I walked into the area. “i love your lolypops” “u gotta loose some weight bro to keep up with her lol” “Cuz like, people with your same car will “wtf” when they see you take off” “He has an agenda and he's sticking to it” “slow” “eeyup” “what” “moose” “god” “yup” “Goodbye” “lol” “No” “My personal space is so shagalicious now. :P” “Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.” “///_- I WILL CUT YOU” “He's over three hundred pounds of body fat dude we know you aren't in shape in real life” “fat sack of ch** lol” “You're such a HOme user.” “So what's up girlies?” During a poker game: “grab da wall an shake it lk a dog. dam dam dam. i f i had i wish ray j i luve tht gut. im a f en moron. rufff rufff. my pker. my pker.” Keep in mind that somewhere there was a human being with a mind and soul trying desperately to communicate… something. All of these people were born, grew up, bought or were given a PS3, logged into Home, and then went insane and started to type messages such as that. Later, at the pier, a group of users was dancing to a techno-electric club beat. Not wanting to be a stick in the mud, I decided to join in. From my spot, I could overhear two male avatars chatting. “No new girls yet,” one said. “Let's bail,” said the other. They started to move away, so I jogged after them. “Why are you looking for girls?” I asked, even though I was pretty sure I knew the answer. “Finding a girl for him,” the first avatar said. “I'm his wingman.” The rest of the encounter was as awkward as you'd expect, with some flirty messages sent my way complimenting the way I'd maneuvered sliders at character creation to form an aesthetically pleasing virtual face. I didn't know if I should be embarrassed or flattered. Don't get me wrong; this is a world that can be utterly twisted, and I wouldn't recommend the service for anyone under the age of 18 due to the intense creepiness of many Home residents, but it's a service unlike anything you'll see on other home consoles. There is an active forum of Home users on the PlayStation community pages. There is a news feed dedicated to all things Home. There is a Home machinima community that collects avatar headshots for casting. Clearly PlayStation Home is not for everyone. But if you can brave the stormy seas, there is something here. It's not a good something. It barely feels like a safe something. But it is proudly that thing.