‘Gone Home’ expands the territory of conventional videogame storytelling

GoneHome

Gone Home
The Fullbright Company
Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux

As a teenager, I felt I would never age. Yet I also knew I would, and more than that, I could anticipate that when I did, everything would change. So I stood then, with confused ideas about time. The future would never arrive, yet it was also imminent. Now, my teenage years were horribly boring and sexless, so I was certainly looking forward to some sort of revolution. It was only a matter of emerging out the far side of high school, into the end of the world as I knew it. Life is a succession of points of no return, and if we find apocalyptic stories about crashing asteroids and alien invasions so absorbing, it might be because they exaggerate this fact. Popular fiction brims with characters who undergo processes of self-discovery while everything around them burns, from The Lord of the Rings to Akira. Watershed moments can be as monumental as they can be personal and private, and though graduating high school or parting with your family are not exactly comparable to a tidal wave, such commonplace events can inspire fear and trembling regardless.

Gone Home is a coming-of-age tale, with a poignant twist to the heteronormative formula: Kaitlin, the protagonist – or playable character – is already an adult and is uncovering another person’s narrative; and it is this other person, the protagonist’s seventeen-year-old sister, Samantha, who actually comes of age, as she discovers she’s a lesbian. On top of all the awful pressures of adolescence, she must put aside the conventional trajectory of coming-of-age plots – which often deposit formerly adolescent figures at the doorstep of social acceptability – and learn to embrace her sexuality, even when doing so will be deemed immature and childish by others, especially her parents, who were hoping for her to grow up into a “normal” girl.

Kaitlin, some years older, has already graduated high school and has spent a year traveling across Europe. She comes back home – not to the one she left, but the one her family moved into while she was away – and finds it empty. This massive new house is alien to her, and as she rummages through it, scanning notes, letters, diary entries, leftovers, and lovingly rendered consumer products, she not only becomes familiar with this domestic space, but also verifies her erstwhile absence. During her transatlantic voyage, her family coped without her, and as she steps into what is supposed to be her room, she stumbles upon boxes her parents never opened, containing personal belongings that were never placed on shelves. Perhaps, she feels irrelevant – or we as players do, through her eyes and body.

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We hardly learn anything about Kaitlin, because the house she explores knows nothing about her either. This conceit partly resolves a perennial problem of videogame storytelling: how does one reconcile the player’s ignorance with the protagonist’s knowledge? Indie developer Brendon Chung, on the commentary track of his brilliant Thirty Flights of Loving, mentions this conundrum and admits he was not able to work around it himself. When the main character has a flashback or meets a secondary character, he recognizes the memory or the person, but we do not. We control his actions, but not his mind. Conventional solutions include: having the protagonist be a cipher, as in Zelda, or suffer from amnesia, as in Bastion or Planescape: Torment. Both alternatives set players and main characters on tracks of mutual discovery. As we expose the backstory, it is as shocking to us as it is for the protagonist, who is either ignorant of the world or has been detached from his or her past by a traumatic incident.

Gone Home takes a slightly more sophisticated route. Kaitlin pieces together the narrative of a family that no longer includes her into its everyday routine. She is an outsider to the house and almost a stranger to Samantha, because the sister Kaitlin left behind is not the one she finds in the documentary fragments scattered in bedrooms, studies, and hallways. As for her parents, they remain who they have always been, but as their secret desires and disappointments unspool from telegrams and letters, they are transformed in their daughter’s mind. Kaitlin ferrets out what her loved ones were never able or willing to tell her, and this is why our surprise possibly mirrors her own, solving the contradiction that bothered Chung.

Since being released, Gone Home has inspired heated debate, not only about its quality but also about what to call it: videogame, interactive fiction, visual novel? Even enthusiastic critics have struggled with categorization. Ryan Vogt at Slate writes, “Gone Home isn’t really a book, and it isn’t really a videogame; it occupies a middle ground, a narrative territory not much charted.” Carmen Machado at the Los Angeles Review of Books claims, “The word ‘game’ seems insufficient to describe the experience of Gone Home,” though she does call it both a “game” and a “videogame” throughout her article. My own position, actually, falls closer to what Christian Nutt puts forth in Gamasutra: “If Gone Home is just a rewarmed adventure game, what’s with the huge reaction?” He’s more critical than I would be, but his argument is sound. There is little that distinguishes this title from a typical adventure game. Naysayers condemn it to a fuzzy and uncategorized valley, while supporters hail it as the medium’s bright destiny, but Gone Home is the heir of a storied videogame tradition, harkening back to Infocom’s text adventures in the 80s.

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Admittedly, in this game, the accent is placed on reading rather than on playing, but both activities are required. We manipulate papers, open cupboard, locate secret compartments, and unlock doors, as we advance towards a specific goal, the attic where we find out what happened to Samantha. Taking a page from classic videogames, from Zelda to Metroid and Castlevania, parts of the house are closed off at first, and only by diligently checking every interactive item, some of which are sneaked below piles of books or under false drawer bottoms, can they be accessed. We gather information and maintain an inventory, infiltrating locked wings of an intricate domestic maze. None of this is very difficult, but it constitutes a challenge, if not a very demanding one. Without our interaction, there is no path to a conclusion, and this interaction requires not only a survey of documents, but also a productive use of them: we find a key through a locker combination acquired by analyzing a map. Gone Home even flirts with tropes from the horror genre, endowing the literary scavenger hunt with urgency and supernatural menace. The house is said to be haunted, and its shadowy corridors and flickering light-bulbs seem to confirm the legend; and in one bathroom, red hair dye spilled on a tub immediately reminds of blood, priming us to expect the worst.

Although dated, a well-known article by game designer and theorist Greg Costikyan, “I Have No Words and I Must Design,” comes immediately to mind. In this essay, the author maintains, “Interactive entertainment means games.” He defines a “game” as an “interactive structure of endogenous meaning that requires players to struggle towards a goal,” and then asks, “What kind of interactive entertainment could be something other than this?” According to Costikyan, no kind at all, except for certain sorts of “interactive storybooks” that “basically no longer exist, except as games.” Certainly, Gone Home fits his definition. Players reach the attic only by struggling – easily or not, doesn’t matter – through textual material, looking for clues that not only tell a story but open up a house to their navigation. Which suggests the structure in question is definitely interactive, while its meanings are certainly “endogenous.” That is, “the form contextualizes itself” and “provides meanings that make sense in the context of the work itself,” like in “film and music and novels.”

Beyond such formal concerns, though, Gone Home is also marketed as a videogame, sold in videogame marketplaces like Steam, reviewed in the videogame press, and incorporated into the video game cultural conversation. Player movement is determined by keyboard and mouse, like in a typical first person shooter, while the parsing of documents and the activation of audio logs are based on models established by canonical videogames, from Metroid Prime to Deus Ex and System Shock 2, to say nothing of Bioshock, Bioshock 2, and the latter’s expansion, Minerva’s Den, with which Gone Home’s development team got its feet wet. If we cannot call this a videogame, what could we possibly call it?

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Given the above, then, like Nutt, we might ask, “What’s with the huge reaction?” I would risk that opinions have been inflamed, both for and against, because of the game’s notoriety, subject matter, and style. It offers a script reminiscent of Young Adult novels, dealing with sexual identity in a mundane suburban setting, which is not at all common in the medium; it has received adoring marks from critics; and it can be fitted into a recent sub-genre, the so-called “walking simulator,” typified by the likes of Dear Esther, Thirty Flights of Loving, and The Stanley Parable, usually disliked by those who would emphasize the “game” over the “video.” All of these titles, coincidentally, find their roots in first person shooters, either lampooning them or deriving from them, which might account for the “huge reaction,” since they twist the violent conventions of an exceedingly popular genre. (By comparison, old adventure games were safe within the confines of their point-and-click niche.) As theorist Ian Bogost writes, in his considered and lukewarm response to Gone Home, for The Los Angeles Review of Books, “What would a game like Bioshock be like if you took out all the combat, all the violence, and just left the environment and the story?”

However, Gone Home does more than just remove the combat, it also smooths away nearly all bumps and obstacles, making progression as simple as possible. Most adventure games, from Myst to The Longest Journey, are notorious for their head-scratching puzzles. Even when they focus on storytelling, they nevertheless interrupt their plots to allow for extensive pixel hunting and the activation of arcane machinery. Gone Home integrates modest challenges and light inventory management only to encourage player involvement and organize narrative exposition. Their main purpose is to draw the dramatic arc of the story – because for all its apparent clutter and freedom, Gone Home is quite linear. Letters, notebooks, and diary entries are placed so that we follow a loosely chronological sequence. Some jumping around the timeline is inevitable, since we choose what to read, when, and where, but documents containing later parts of the story await in locked rooms and chambers, stalling our inspection. This is what the game designers wanted, but I cannot help but feel that an opportunity was lost for real nonlinearity and more satisfying detective work.

This need for texts to be organized according to a loose chronology also means that the environment feels contrived. Bogost explains, “Environmental storytelling is difficult because anything less than ontological fullness breaks the immersive promise of a lived-in world.” For a “lived-in world” to live up to its “immersive promise,” it needs to include “a surfeit of extraneousness.” That is, useless objects, digressive materials, and intentional disorder, all of which might obscure quest-relevant items, but which would make their seemingly accidental presence more persuasive. As it is, Gone Home highlights its narrative path too clearly, and the ridiculous proliferation of cabinets and drawers, some of which contain oddly isolated pages conveniently singled out for our scrutiny, weakens its representation of a believable domestic space.

Still, that in itself is admirable. How many games have even tried to represent a believable domestic space? That is, without surrounding it with extraterrestrials, magical beings, international military conflict, and the end of the world. Gone Home is about events that are epic only for those who experience them. Samantha sheds the certainty of who she was supposed to be to embrace the adventure of who she actually is. She looks beyond the insular universe of high school and the cradle of her family, weathering uncertainty and traveling to a place few videogame characters have gone before – which happens to be much like our own, outside our computer screens. Gone Home belongs to a medium that often resorts to fantastic concepts to communicate similar themes. I approve of such feats of the imagination, but there is something to be said for a title that expands the territory of conventional videogame storytelling, retracing the boundaries closer to home.

– Guido Pellegrini

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