You may already be well-aware of this, but on August 15th, 2013 a curious little game came out on Steam called Gone Home. Immediately a flurry of positive reviews started popping up left and right and as of this writing two days after the fact the game boasts a 90 on the ever-controversial Metacritic and has sparked new discussions concerning the narrative possibilities within video-games all over the web. I have been aware of this game’s existence for about a year now, and the premise as it was explained to me by one Chris Remo (who just so happens to be the game’s composer and friend of one of the game’s designers, Steve Gaynor) at a DoubleFine PAX party last year certainly sounded very promising. Now that the game is available and much of the promise has been borne out, its pretty gratifying to see such a great idea being celebrated. I hope to relate some of my experiences with the game, try to explain what makes it interesting and muse about the unique hurdles such an experience has to contend with as a piece of storytelling.
I suppose a brief explanation of the game is in order before we continue. Gone Home is a first-person game with no combat of any kind. Really, it is a First Person Explorer, tapping into that obsessive need game-playing folk have demonstrated countless times in various Bethesda open-world RPGs and action shooters with a big emphasis on scavenging such as Metro 2033 and Bioshock to explore every nook and cranny before continuing onwards. In fact, some members of The Fullbright Company, the small team who made this game, are veterans of the Bioshock franchise, most famously being responsible for the Minerva’s Den DLC from a few years back. They’ve recognized this desire to explore and decided to actually put things in their environment for you to find beyond an extra clip of ammunition or another vial of Adam. As to what you’re exploring in Gone Home, that may be my favorite part of the whole thing. This is not yet another post-apocalyptic wasteland or a dystopic undersea pleasure-dome, it is a large, lived-in house in the year 1995, June 7th, to be exact, as the game’s intro plainly states. You play as a twenty-something named Kaitlin Greenbriar who has just returned from a year abroad only to find her family’s new house empty with a somewhat disquieting note on the door. That, as those who have played it will tell you, is really all you should need to know before experiencing it firsthand. Since the game is so dependent on exploration and finding things for yourself, any divulgence of what it is you find there is detrimental to the potential experience you could have with this game. I shall speak generally of the manner of experience you can expect to find here but in this case the less I tell you, the better your experience may be so bear with me as I attempt to articulate what the nature of my experience was without ever quite hitting the nail on the head. Here we go.
I recently moved from a home I’d been living in for over five years. As part of that process, I had to go through a lot of my old stuff and decide what was worth keeping and what I was finally ready to throw away. Now, that was all stuff I was familiar with. I’d see a binder filled with old assignments, or a childhood toy, or a cup I’d grown fond of and immediately memories would start to rekindle. That is one experience, but it is quite another to go through someone else’s things, which is part of the process I also had to engage in as the place I’d been living was my Grandparent’s fourplex, and they had been there ten times longer than I had. They too were moving, and their volume of stuff was such that various family members were recruited to help sort through it all.
Now, going through someone else’s possessions is a very specific way of learning who they are. I was tasked with shredding a huge bag of documents with a terrible shredder that could manage maybe five or six pages at a time. As such, I could not help but observe what it is I was shredding while waiting for the prior six pages to make their way through the blades. These were bills, mostly, but such a large collection of them that something of a narrative still started to form. I’d always heard my Grandfather was a handyman, a jack-of-all trades contractor, but those years were behind him by the time I came along and was cognisant of the activities of those around me. But here it was, physical evidence that he had bought a great many nails on such and such a date, or needed a great quantity of paint, or some new tools or a tune-up for his truck. All these little mundane records of what my Grandfather had done for the past few decades was strangely mesmerizing for me. I finally had real evidence that he had been here on this planet for many years, working away, providing for my father, uncle and Grandmother years before I came onto the scene.
This manner of experiential storytelling is what Gone Home taps into. You see the mundane props of these people’s lives and, the hope is, they will be sufficient fuel for your imagination to start making connections, forming stories about who these people are and what they do. You may well find certain props more interesting than others, certain family members more relatable than others, but such is life. That this game successfully evokes real lives, in a real world, is one of its greatest achievements. It recognizes that having computer-generated people on-screen talking about their plights may not be the best way to convey an emotional story in this medium. Our imaginations are certainly capable of filling in the blanks, so better to feed those inclinations than construct a semi-interactive movie for us to watch. From minute one of Gone Home until the credits roll (should you elect to have the game end at all, it actually allows you to opt out of explicit narrative elements and truly just explore it, which is a fairly bold choice worthy of its own analysis) you are controlling what is going on. You control where you go, what you see and what you hear (there are various opportunities to listen to music within the game-world, a nice use of diegetic sound) during all of the revelations that take place in the game, which could not be more refreshing right now in a world where many games, even high-profile, critically beloved titles like The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite, opt to show you a cutscene when its time for serious narrative moments to happen rather than trust you to interact with it properly. This is one of the many benefits of not being beholden to the tradition that game’s must have a fail-state. The only risk you run in Gone Home is that you’ll fail to notice something, you’ll miss a piece of information and form an incomplete picture of who these characters are. But, that very dilemma is fueled by your own curiosity, so it could be said its a good problem for the game to have. That is an anxiety the developer’s would surely take pride in saddling their players with, people were so curious about the world they created that players pored over it with a fine-tooth comb for fear of missing something.
But that brings me to the perhaps the one thing that could be considered a drawback with this kind of narrative experience, it is something of a one-shot deal. Like my experience with shredding my Grandfather’s documents, it is an experience that cannot reproduce the same profound moments of discovery ever again. With a book or a film, the way the narrative is doled out enables you to sit back and revisit it with you being the X-factor. You have changed in the interim between the last time you engaged with that piece of art and the new you may find something interesting you did not before. In a way, that can be said of Gone Home, but I think the differentiating factor is effort. Because the player’s curiosity is the fuel that drives the narrative engine contained within, you are unlikely to ever be as invested as you were the first time through. This can also be said of the first time you read a book or watched a film, but because of the experiential, activity component of game-playing, the degree to which this re-visiting impacts those other mediums is far less severe.
For example, I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was perhaps ten years old. Ten-year-old Nathan found parts of it confusing, parts of it devastating (I recall crying upon hearing HAL 9000 sing “Daisy” as his death-rattle even then) but also large parts of it quite boring. In the times I’ve revisited that film since, I’ve found I have changed, I have grown, so parts of that movie light up in ways they didn’t before. But because it is partially a passive activity, I don’t remember it as clearly as something I have touched, something I have done, which are sensations video-games simulate remarkably well at times. This is where video-games highlight a great strength and, perhaps, a weakness inherent to the medium. Because you, the player, opened that box, found the note inside and read it, you remember it more clearly than reading about a character finding a box with an important note in it, or watching a film where the protagonist found the box with the note in it. Because games blur the line between the player and the character they are playing, it seems so much more personal. It heightens the chances of you recalling very specific details by a significant degree, at least I feel safe saying that is true for me. So, while I’ve had to revisit 2001 maybe four times so far in my life to wring more meaning and wonder out of it, I’m not so sure I’ll need to do that with Gone Home. I did it, I found the meaning in that game. Maybe if I wait twenty years and then play it again, the details will be fuzzier, or I’ll have now changed enough to where it can shine again. Maybe I’ll be a parent and those people you discover in this game will be relevant in a completely different way than they were when I played it yesterday.
That is certainly possible and I choose to spin that as perhaps the strongest endorsement I have for Gone Home, I would be willing to play it again in twenty years to find out if it has that kind of staying power. Its tough in the present, because having just finished it I’m super thrilled with the experience I had, so much so that I greedily want that effect repeated RIGHT NOW. I want to have those quiet little thrills again immediately, because I am used to videogames being re-playable. I similarly sabotaged my own appreciation for last year’s The Walking Dead because I dove right back in, saw how the story branched and didn’t branch as a result of my choices and got angry at it for not providing a bigger, broader experience than could have ever been realized by such a small developer. My own love of the medium can burn too hot sometimes for even the best games to survive the fires. This time around I recognize that my own desires to play it again are at odds with what it can realistically offer, so I shall close for now by saying I had an incredibly rewarding time playing Gone Home, it reminded me of many aspects of my own life and felt authentic and thoughtful in a way few games are and I very much hope you have a similarly rewarding experience when you try it for yourself. I will caution you once again though, know this is a delicate experience that is best experienced firsthand and only once. So set aside some hours, maybe play it alone so as not to spoil the game for someone else, and take your time. Enjoy. Then we can talk specifics and relish in the similar, but different, life-experiences we’ve had courtesy of a small, wonderful team of people over at The Fullbright Company. Maybe they’ll provide us more stories to tell told in a similarly intimate, rewarding manner or maybe they’ll inspire a shift in industry thinking about this sort of thing and we’ll start seeing this level of craft more often. Maybe.
In the meantime, I hope that lets you know what you need to know for now. If you want to see me work through some of my thoughts on the game before conclusions had crystallized and relaying more memories and experiences (again, without any spoilers), see the attached video below. Thanks for reading.