When I was a teenager, I worked at a fast food joint, and I clearly remember the stress and anxiety I felt when a customer with a severe allergy came in. We would wipe, sanitize, and clean every utensil and service, but I was also very aware that we were a bunch of minimum-wage workers, some of whom came into work less than sober. If anybody messed up even a little, a person could die. I had forgotten that tension until I played Home Safety Hotline, an analog horror game from Night Signal Entertainment.
In Home Safety Hotline, it’s 1996, and I’ve just started my new job as a phone line operator for the titular hotline. Since it’s the ’90s, everyone can afford a house, and they’re likely to encounter issues like mold, mice, or a strange metamorphosis occurring in their basement. Similar to Control’s FBC or the SCP Foundation, the Home Safety Hotline is an organization dedicated to managing supernatural emergencies in the real world. At first, I mostly deal with mundane pests, but as I continue to do well and earn more trust from my superiors, I get to handle heavier cases with creepy cryptids.
The game plays out on a 1996 PC where I can check my email, watch promotional videos, and log on to the customer service terminal. Once I’m clocked in for the day, I receive short calls from concerned citizens. I listen, check my database of home hazards, select the appropriate one based on the information shared, and then send the caller an information packet.
If all goes well, I won’t hear from them again. If I make an oopsie doodle and misdiagnose the issue, I receive a follow-up call that ranges from irritated to active murder. I also get a few crank calls, just to keep me on my toes. When I see a caller, I get to guess whether I’m getting a new inquiry, getting yelled at for a slip-up, or about to get a crank call from a bored teen.
Home Safety Hotline is the kind of game that can be knocked out within a couple of hours. Even if you want to try for all of the endings and explore each outcome, this is a relatively bite-sized game. Despite its length, it’s memorable and refreshingly unique.
There’s a checklist of things you’re likely to encounter in short horror games: jump scares, the protagonist narrating their actions, creeping through dark hallways. Home Safety Hotline has none of these things. The horror comes from getting a glimpse at another world, one where mirror nymphs lurk in the woods to steal your face or a portal might quietly open in your basement. The more authorization you unlock, the weirder things get, and the slide into weirdness is punctuated by new agency videos and deranged emails from a former employee.
It’s very effective analog horror, complete with mouse and keyboard sound effects. I was born in 1990, so I felt right at home with the Home Safety Hotline interface. The moments where the interface is slow, the sound distorts, or an image is badly compressed convey a strong sense of wrongness and unease. This means even mundane calls about black mold and carpenter ants help ratchet up the tension, and the big scares land better as a result.
Instead of jump scares and violin stings, the horror comes from slow, creeping realizations. That customer I just helped has consumed a fatal toxin. I know it, and my supervisors know it, but he doesn’t. This woman calling in about her missing child has no idea that her son has fallen prey to a paranormal phenomenon. When I check the appropriate file, the documentation confirms he’s not coming back… but the mom is eligible for a memory wipe!
One call in particular really shook me. I failed to diagnose a creeping plantlike growth in a man, and sure enough, he called the next day. But in the middle of our conversation, the plant swelled and cracked through his skull. This is all conveyed through low-quality audio, but it’s so perfectly off and disturbing that it stuck with me for days afterward.
There’s something striking about dealing with people in immense peril from the safe distance of a cubicle or home office. I was reminded of the worry I felt while wiping down grills and cleaning my utensils, hoping I could trust our protocols but fearing that something would somehow go wrong. It’s a fear that feels much more personal and less well-worn than many common horror tropes, and that’s part of why I found the experience so deliciously unsettling.