Warning: Labels

Why Gone Home isn’t technically a game, why that’s not a bad thing, and why the distinction still matters

Metacritic header for Gone Home
Two disclaimers first:

  1. I’m currently contracting with Telltale Games, and I’ll be talking about some of Telltale’s games here. But I absolutely don’t represent the company or speak for them in any way. This is a personal blog. My opinions aren’t necessarily theirs, and vice-versa.
  2. This is a blog post that I’ve started and abandoned several times over 2013, so I’m going to be referring to a few things that I can no longer find the links for. You’ll just have to take my word that I’m paraphrasing actual things said on the actual Internet, and not just making stuff up.

Now: Don’t be fooled by the URL, dear readers! Gone Home isn’t actually a game.

This is exactly the kind of thoughtless accusation that’s caused a lot of consternation across blog posts, message boards, and user reviews. What are you so afraid of? demands Leigh Alexander. Are you saying it’s not a “real game” because you can’t blow shit up and you have to actually read and think about a simple family story or is it because it’s about girls and it’s an attempt at genuine “maturity” for once and God why do I even bother talking to you people?!

All right, I’m exaggerating a lot for dramatic effect. But you have to admit — and I’m saying this as someone who liked it quite a bit — that there’s a lot of “stop complaining, this is supposed to be good for you” in the discussion around Gone Home. Along with a healthy undercurrent of “you just don’t get it.”

And to be fair, it’s easy to see why. There’s also a lot of frustratingly facile “Ugh. It’s not even a game! Zero Stars!! And that is indeed stupid and ripe for mockery.

But mocking it doesn’t say anything interesting about game design or even formalism, and instead says everything about how needlessly argumentative and defensive people get when talking about video games on the Internet. Everything I’ve seen argues against the “It’s not even a game!” bit, usually with some variation on, “Is too!” But that’s not the part of the argument that makes it vapid; what makes it vapid is saying “It’s not even a game, and therefore is a failure.”

I Don’t Know Much About Art, But I Know What I Can Play

The complaint definitely isn’t a recent invention. Just off the top of my head, I can remember seeing the “Pfft! It’s not even a game” leveled at Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, the first two seasons of Sam & Max, The Sims, Half-Life 2, and Grim Fandango. It’s always presented as a discussion-ending sick burn. Of course this isn’t any good; it’s not even a game. ‘Nuff said!

Because everyone, on all “sides” of the “argument,” has this notion that “not a game” is some kind of value judgment in and of itself. Here are some other things that aren’t games: Miller’s Crossing, Appalachian Spring, the Guggenheim Museum, The Taming of the Shrew, and Rear Window. Few of us have experienced these things without a controller and thought, “God, this is such bullshit!” So why would we take such a myopic and close-minded view of interactive entertainment as separate from all other forms of entertainment? (Now I’m thinking about going on Metacritic and reviewing every book, movie, and television show on there with “Not even a game. 1/10.”)

Part of the problem, of course, is that we in the video game audience aren’t particularly known for thoughtful, cogent, holistic analysis of games as creative works. But I think another very real part of the problem is that we are increasingly trying to do exactly that: treating games as some entirely separate and wholly new thing. Acting as if the fundamental rules of dramatic storytelling go flying out the window as soon as you put a controller in the audience’s hands. Decrying some creative decisions as if they were violations of the very medium. I don’t think we can entirely dismiss the “not a game” criticism as worthless when we’ve had years of criticism and analysis that makes up terms like “ludonarrative dissonance” and gets applauded for it. You can’t spend years saying, disdainfully, that “games aren’t movies!” and then say that complaints about a lack of interactivity are shallow and immature.

You also can’t rattle off a list of game-like elements and then conclude that if something has these, therefore it’s a game. Several of the works of art I mentioned earlier have game-like elements — puzzles to be solved, symbols to decipher, a starting point and an objective — but are just fine not being games. For the record, I don’t think The Walking Dead is technically a game, either; it’s somewhere between an interactive movie and a Voight-Kampff test. If I were going to compare Gone Home to anything, it’d be a museum exhibit. And I’ve been to some outstanding museum exhibits.

An Angry Digression

But why settle for a perfectly rational, sensible, and value-judgment-free observation like that, when you can take it to an extreme so ridiculous that it actually becomes offensive?

Even in a year chock full of divisive, sophomoric campaigns of self-righteous indignation disguised as progressivism, one event stood out for me. It was the point at which I lost all patience with the video game “community,” my “at long last, have you no sense of decency?” moment. And it was, ostensibly, about a formal definition of games.

What happened was that author and blogger Raph Koster was born straight, white, and male. Some number of years after that, he dared to write an analysis of a work made by a transgendered game developer, in which he praised the work overall and then explained how it wasn’t technically a game. In other words, he did the exact thing that he does for a living.

For this transgression, a bunch of the most unrepentantly loudmouthed people writing about video games decided to attack him. Another Straight White Male perpetuating his hegemony over the games industry! He’s trying to silence the voices of the disenfranchised! One particularly vocal asshole wrote — and I’m not exaggerating — that it was a deeply personal work that Koster couldn’t possibly understand, so he shouldn’t be critiquing it at all. That’s right: it was designed to let the player experience what it’s like to go through life as a transgendered person, and if you’re a straight white male you can’t know what it’s like so should just shut up about it.

I should make it clear that Koster handled it infinitely better than I would have. He was repeatedly sympathetic instead of defensive, and said that he understood why people were angry. And when people are screaming stupid things at you, it’s almost certainly a better idea to calmly explain to them how they’re wrong than to start shouting back at them. Rational arguments will stand as valid long after the petulant screaming has been forgotten.

Still, it was gross. And depressing to think that this is what passes for video game commentary (not to mention progressivism) these days. It’s also impossible to escape the irony that a lot of the same people were disgusted and outraged when a video game reviewer wrote an overwhelmingly positive review of Grand Theft Auto 5 but was heaped with abuse by idiots and assholes because she’s transgendered. That disgust and outrage is completely justified, and should be shared by anyone with a conscience. What’s not justified is doing essentially the exact same thing to a writer for being straight or white or male.

And it had absolutely nothing to do with video game formalism. It was another clumsy attempt from people who don’t understand how empathy works, to politicize something that’s intended to be shared by all. And it’s a perfect example of how stupid it can be when you try to turn “not a game” into a value judgment.

Good Luck With That

So why do I say that Gone Home isn’t a game? And why would I say the same thing about The Walking Dead? (I even helped work on that one! Such betrayal!) It’s about agency, and the lack of it.

Several years ago on his blog, Steve Gaynor proposed a hypothetical game that was based purely on exploring an environment. You wouldn’t be following developer-imposed narrative events, but instead be dropped into a world that was as realistic as the developers could make it. Your own interactions would drive everything. If I remember correctly, part of his argument was that simply walking down an alley in a real city is more detailed and had the potential to be more interesting than anything in the elaborate game worlds that AAA developers were trying to create.

At the time, I thought “good luck with that.” Remove the tension between a developer’s narrative and the player’s narrative, and you don’t get player freedom; you get boredom. Either the developer tries too hard to make an open-ended sandbox, leaving the player just talking to himself; or the player’s just triggering a bunch of canned responses, seeing all of the developers’ ideas but never truly interacting with them.

Gone Home proved me at least partially wrong. Going through an experience based entirely on environmental storytelling is a lot more engaging than I ever would’ve thought it’d be. I was completely engaged throughout, and a couple of the characters (mostly Sam) genuinely established themselves as characters more interesting than any blank-slate avatars or NPCs with a predetermined agenda. More important than that, the developers established themselves as participants. I got a real sense that this was a personal work, and they were sharing their memories and nostalgia with me.

But I got to the end of the three hours and realized that I hadn’t actually done anything. In fact, I felt cheated because I’d spent three hours preparing myself for the chance to do something, and then was suddenly confronted with “The End.” Everything interesting about Gone Home had already happened by the time I arrived on the front porch.

That’s why I compare it to a well-made museum exhibit: I’m engaged, I’m finding things out, and I’m actively putting pieces together, but it’s still ultimately passive.

What’s Past Is Prologue

After playing Portal 2 and Skyrim, I wrote about the problems I have with environmental storytelling. Or more accurately: the over-reliance on environmental storytelling.

Used well, it’s fantastic. As all three games prove, it could be completely engaging on its own. But it’s still passive — at odds with an interactive medium — unless you can take what you’ve learned in the past and somehow apply it in the present.

Christian Nutt had many of the same observations in a blog post on Gamasutra. I agree with almost all of it, although I don’t agree at all with his take on adventure games. He calls out Gone Home‘s story being told in the past tense, the artificially game-like layout of the house and its enforcement of a three-act structure, and the “story’s propensity for titillation” (which is a perfect way of describing it). I had the same problems with it, but I don’t think they’re three separate issues.

The conceit of the house’s locked doors calls attention to itself because it’s so at odds with everything else. For one thing, the player’s actions are completely mechanical, while the much more vivid descriptions of what Sam & Lonnie are doing are emotional and character-driven. There’s exactly one moment — when you’re stuck in a hallway and a light suddenly blinks out — when it seems as if the player’s participating instead of just observing. As a result, Katie’s “story” is insufferably mundane when compared to Sam & Lonnie’s (I got to the house, I went here, I went here, I picked up a key, I went here….)

Another problem is that the things you’re asked to “do” are so simple, requiring almost no deduction. But piecing the story together — as is the case when audiences “actively” watch horror, suspsense, and mystery movies — does require more thought and deduction than is usually required by a more straightforward, “plot-driven” game. Paradoxically, this wouldn’t have been a problem had Gone Home not been written so well. But because the game combines overly simplistic “puzzles” with mature and thoughtful snippets of story content, the result is a bit like reading a novel via a See n Say toy.

And then there are the “haunted house” complaints. Christian expected a teen suicide; I expected some kind of climactic showdown with an angry ghost. I’ve seen lots of comments in response to this, to the effect of “why are people getting so hung up on the haunted house?! It’s clearly just to establish mood!” or “the game revels in the mundane, and therefore you’re in the same position as Sam & Lonnie, treating all the ‘supernatural’ stuff as a goof,” or “this is a mature, character-driven story without shooting and explosions, that should be enough for adult audiences.”

The first problem with that is that we’re not in the same position as Sam & Lonnie. We’re in the position of people who are routinely asked to fight ghosts and deal with other calamities both supernatural and not, just in the nick of time. And that’s not “gamers,” either, that’s “audiences of fiction.” If the shocking twist of The Sixth Sense had been “oh wait, it turns out I can’t see ghosts after all,” the proper response wouldn’t be, “Well of course he can’t see ghosts; we adults all know that ghosts don’t exist.” The proper response would be, “What in the hell was the point of all that?”

But I think the larger problem is that the entire fake-out — the dark and stormy night, the emergency broadcast signal, the panicked note implying that something horrible has happened, the seance table — would’ve been forgiven if something had happened that required Katie to take action. It’s entirely a problem of agency. I didn’t need to fight Oscar’s spectre back to the ghastly netherworld from whence it came; I would’ve been happy to run interference with my parents, or give Sam the crucial piece of information she needed to reunite with Lonnie, or give Sam the important piece of sisterly advice that could change her decision and the rest of her life. Any of that, and I would’ve been fine saying, “yes, of course the ghost stuff was a silly goof.” But as it was, I was built up for a climax and confronted with just “And they all lived happily ever after.”

Choose Your Own Adventure

All of that is why I think it’s a bad idea to say, “I have a very inclusive definition of ‘game'” and leave it at that. People are understandably weary of and dismissive of the whole question of “What Makes a Game,” but the distinction is still important. Not as a value judgment. And not even for the sake of some academic classification. It’s important so that all of us — artists and audiences alike — can understand all the implications of how games work, and all the connotations that go along with certain aspects of the medium.

It’s a little easier to understand coming from the opposite side. Most of us are familiar with the argument “games aren’t movies,” because we’ve seen so many games trying to incorporate cinematic elements and doing it so poorly. For many years, “cinematic” was synonymous with “legitimate,” so game developers tried to shoehorn cut-scenes and camera angles into the same old action game template. It was an exercise in style without entirely appreciating how the style works, how players watching a cut-scene and players driving an avatar are actually thinking in significantly different ways. And it helped give rise to the whole shallow “not even a game” criticism in the first place.

As developers are getting better at incorporating storytelling into games, I think there’s been a tendency for the pendulum to swing back in the other direction. To say that as long as something includes most or even some of the same elements as games, then it is a game and is therefore using interactivity “correctly.”

For years, I’ve been saying that traditional adventure games are indeed games, since they have all the same elements that games do: there are rules, even if those rules are completely prescribed by a narrative. There’s a win state, even if there’s no losing state, and winning the game is just finishing the story. Most significantly, you have a role in the game and take actions to advance the game state.

My most significant problem with Gone Home is the lack of that last aspect. You could insist that it does satisfy that requirement — the objective is to get to the attic, and finding keys and going from room to room are advancing the game state towards that objective. But again, that game is near-trivial and so much less interesting than the narrative that it can’t help but suffer in comparison. A game about getting to the attic of a house wouldn’t have generated so much discussion.

Still, that’s a very broad application of the term “game,” even to the classics. The point of contention for decades has been how the game handles choices. As adventure games have gotten streamlined, the choices have been weeded out; in many of the best adventure games, there is exactly one correct solution to each obstacle. And for that reason, they’re often — completely fairly — described as being more like puzzles than games.

The Walking Dead and now The Wolf Among Us have taken the emphasis away from the puzzles and put them on narrative choices. They’ve gotten a lot of criticism for being full of “false” choices and, predictably, “not even games.” My own personal take is that complicated choices are infinitely more interesting than multiple outcomes. If I’m given the choice of chopping a guy’s leg off with a rusty axe, the outcome “I decided to do it” or “I decided not to do it” isn’t all that interesting to me, at least not when compared to the outcome of “This is really happening right now and I’m the one who’s doing it and I can’t look away.” One is just triggering developer-created cutscene A vs developer-created cutscene B. The other is putting all the weight on me — not on my decision, but on my role as the person who decides.

Why It Matters

That doesn’t mean that the complaints about linearity are completely invalid. It just means that it’s arguing about apples and oranges. Because the most interesting choices (to me) are all experiential instead of decision points, you’re not actually advancing the game state in a meaningful way. Therefore, The Walking Dead is even less “game-like” than traditional use-the-key-in-the-lock, everything-pauses-until-you-find-the-right-solution adventure games. And Gone Home is even less “game-like” than that, because you have no meaningful agency in the present; your actions are no more advancing the state of the narrative than turning the pages in a book.

Again, none of these aspects are inherently better than the others, a “game” isn’t a superset of a “puzzle,” and there’s nothing inherently bad about not being “game-like.” It’s only bad if the work doesn’t account for all the implications that come from the creative decision to be more or less “game-like.”

Some of the criticism does come from people who, frankly, think that games can only behave a certain way, and anything that doesn’t do that sucks. But I think it’s important to be able to distinguish the valid criticisms out of that: “I wanted branching outcomes because the choice wasn’t significant enough for me on its own.” “The story implied the freedom to choose and then imposed one ‘correct’ decision on me instead.” “I felt I was being set up for a narrative climax and then had the rug pulled out from under me.” “I was presented with a bunch of interesting characters but had no way to really interact with them.”

As a more concrete example: I’ve written scenes for games that I’ve been perfectly happy with on the page, but then frustrated once I’ve seen them in action. I’d still stand by the dialogue itself as clear, clever, and — surprisingly for me — concise, but in the context of the larger game, they brought the action to a halt, or didn’t stand out against the dozens of other things the player was thinking about at the time. There’s no one right way to do any of this, and what works well in one context might not work so well in another. I used to believe that all the elements were supersets of each other, and that shooters and adventure games would eventually converge into the One Perfect Game, one that combines action and introspection, thinking and shooting, genuine character development and shooting. Now, I don’t even think that’s a good idea in theory. Adding too many disparate elements doesn’t make a work chock full of goodness; more often than not, it just becomes a jumbled mess with too many things at odds with each other.

I’d love to see more games projects like Gone Home — clever, well-written, detailed, personal, with adult characters half as complex and mature as these teenagers, showing that quieter moments can be every bit as exciting as alien invasions, and giving insight into the personal struggles of a long-persecuted cultural minority (people from Portland). I’d love to see player choices that have emotional significance, and not just be checking off a list of developer-defined objectives. I’d love to see more environmental storytelling, with more resonance and more impact than just telling me someone’s life story and ending with “…and that’s why I made the combination to the safe 1234.” I’d love to be doing more stuff that made me feel as clever as the puzzle solutions in Day of the Tentacle, and I’d love to get more of the sense of discovery that came from unlocking new islands in Monkey Island 2.

Maybe all of that stuff will be in the same game, or maybe it won’t. Maybe it won’t even be a game at all.