Storytelling, Videogames

Paper Chase

Gonehomemovieticket Gone Home is available now, and it’s extremely well done. Anyone interested in video game storytelling should check it out; it’s an experiment in almost purely environmental storytelling. You play as the elder daughter of a very sloppy family, who’s returned from a year abroad to find the family’s new house empty and a cryptic note from your sister on the door. Your goal is to explore the house and find out what happened to everyone.

The premise is an ingenious way to get around the most common disconnect in a story game: the player enters this world knowing nothing, while the player’s character should know a lot more. The conceit of a year away from home and a change of address means that the character is exploring this place for the first time, just like the player. That’s subtly (and again, cleverly) reinforced throughout the game, as the things your character should be familiar with — her sister’s stuffed animal, her father’s published novels — are just taken for granted and acknowledged in the text description. There’s even a nice touch of finding several post cards that your character had sent from her travels; while “Katie” is never fully established as a character, these bits of writing help keep her from being a completely blank slate.

And the writing is very strong throughout. Characters’ personalities come through vividly through the things they’ve written and the things they own, even though you never actually see them in anything other than generic, static family portraits. The writing almost always sidesteps exposition, instead giving out details intermittently and allowing the player to piece together the chronology and the implications. As a result, almost all of the writing feels natural and realistic.

Speaking of realism: Gone Home is full-to-bursting with details that firmly establish this as a real place (a suburban house near Portland) in a real time period (1995). Brand labels on products, magazine covers, TV listings, multiple versions of book jackets, covers for textbooks, and dozens of other mundane details all work to keep the player completely immersed in the setting. The ordinariness of it somehow makes it interesting. And while I’m a little bit too old to identify with the main character of the game, I didn’t doubt for a moment that this was absolute verisimilitude for a high schooler in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-90s. There were enough details I did recognize — like the stack of VHS tapes of every X-Files episode — that it all felt absolutely earnest and completely real.

What interested me the most during the first hour or so of the game was how the total commitment to exploration exposes the way audiences process stories. It’s anything but passive: we’re constantly constructing and reconstructing the complete story in our minds, putting all the details in the right order, extrapolating towards multiple endings. Each new bit of information either solidifies a theory, closes off one possibility, or introduces another.

While I haven’t yet played the Minerva’s Den DLC for BioShock 2, I have been playing through BioShock Infinite. Like Gone Home, the BioShock series has tried to convey the bulk of its narrative via environmental storytelling. Playing a big-budget shooter version of that at the same time as the smaller-scale independent version really reveals how much more real and more personal Gone Home feels, and how much better it is at telling an affecting story. While playing BioShock Infinite, I feel that I’m constantly barraged with elements that are completely at odds with each other: an opportunity for exploration and world-building is interrupted by combat, which leads to another section of just following instructions from one way-point to the next. Gone Home lets you explore its environments in peace, without their feeling hollow or empty. And while it’s obvious that the game imposes a structure on the narrative by gating your progress through the house, it doesn’t feel particularly jarring or artificial, and it doesn’t interfere with the notion that you’re mostly free to do what you want, at your own pace.

I wanted to make clear that I think it’s extremely well-made, and make it clear what I think it does really well, because I spend the rest of this post criticizing it. I’d hope it’s obvious that I wouldn’t waste time analyzing a game that didn’t interest me, but criticism can often seem like a dismissal.

While I was playing, I was completely engrossed. (In fact, I’d been spending most of the game frustrated that they’d violated the environmental storytelling premise by having fourth wall-breaking voice-overs, but the finale reveals exactly what was actually happening). It wasn’t until the end that I left feeling — “cheated” isn’t the word, but maybe “unsatisfied.” To explain why requires a huge spoiler warning. I strongly encourage everyone to play the game before reading the rest of this!

No Shooting, but Lots of Chekov’s Guns

My feeling at the end of Gone Home was a lot like my family’s after being subjected to seeing The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou against their will: they complained that the movie was obviously trying to tell them something, but they couldn’t tell what it was. When I finally reached the attic, I felt that I’d reached the climax of the game — the keys and combinations pretty clearly (and cleverly) divided the story into a three-act structure — but I felt that the climax was a big bait-and-switch. Essentially, my reaction was: that’s it?

I felt that at best, the game had left a couple of plot threads dangling. At worst, it was mocking me for expecting something more. What did a “psycho house” and a seance have to do with a story about a teenager leaving home to be with her girlfriend?

I understand what it does to establish Sam’s character: she’s got the normal default level of teenage alienation plus having to come to terms with her sexuality plus having a reputation for being the girl from the creepy psycho house. I understand what it does for “the plot”: it gives justification for how Sam & Lonnie could find so many locked-off areas of the house to be alone together. I can even understand how it functions for the game: it’s a natural motivator to keep searching, to be anxious about what you might find, and to lend a little bit of drama to the moments when you do make new revelations.

What I don’t understand is why they’d keep hitting on the “haunted house” subplot — reinforced by the creepy title screen, the storm, the flickering lights, the stumbling in dark corridors, and most significantly, the “seance table” set piece in the very last scene of the game — only to just abandon it as meaningless.

My first response was that the game was saying “HA HA WE TRICKED YOU! You wanted a predictable and rote story about ghosts? The joke’s on you, because this is actually a personal tale about blossoming young LGBT love.” I immediately thought of the “Letter from Grandpa” I’d found in the basement, admonishing your character’s father for lowering himself to genre fiction instead of letting his true voice come through.

Then I thought about all the commentary I’ve read about the game, astounded at the novelty of a video game that has no combat. Was the game including all of the ghost and seance stuff to make a point? To chastise us for only valuing action and not appreciating the merit of a simpler, more earnest and heartfelt story?

Two things about that: First, I’d already “solved” Sam & Lonnie’s story back in the basement. All the subsequent details about their worries over being separated, and Sam’s coming out to her parents and their denial, and the nights at concerts that they spent together — those would be great details for a linearly-told story about their relationship. But the premise of my engagement in this story was made explicit from the first scene: find out what happened. If I know enough to figure out what happened in Act 2, and nothing established in Act 3 changes, complicates, or clarifies that, then that’s a problem.

And the second thing is that “heartfelt and personal” and “reactionary ha ha tricked you” are mutually exclusive. Maybe it’s because the game did such a good job of transporting me to the 90s, but I was reminded of an MTV interview with Peter Buck about the song “Losing My Religion.” He said (and I’ll never forget this quote, for some reason) that “if it does make it into the Top 10, I can guarantee it’ll be the only song in the Top 10 that has a mandolin as its main instrument.” I’d been a reasonably big fan of R.E.M. up to that point, but that quote soured me on the band. It undermined their integrity, which is the thing that had made them unique: it wasn’t about doing what interested them, so much as showing everyone that they were doing what the other guys weren’t.

I hope that I’m reading too much into it, and that the final scene wasn’t intended to be a somewhat smug assertion that they had made the anti-shooter. But I’m having a tough time reconciling everything with any other interpretation.

I’m all for “smaller” stories in games, especially when they seem as genuine as the one told in Gone Home. I think the evolving story of Princess Allegra and the First Mate is fantastic. I loved that the voice overs seemed to break the presentation for most of the game, only to be revealed at the end that they were being told out of chronological order. But I think all of that was undermined by burying it in a haunted house story. It’s not that there wasn’t enough to Sam & Lonnie’s story (or the parent’s troubled marriage) to stand on its own; it’s that the game doesn’t let it stand on its own, but instead surrounds it with artificial intrigue.

That’s All In The Past

Even if I am just being being overly defensive about not getting my final showdown with The Ghost of Oscar, I believe there’s still something unsatisfying about the end of Gone Home that’s, unfortunately, built into the entire premise of the game. It’s all about the limitations of purely environmental storytelling. I’ve talked about it already in a post called “What is Past is Prologue”, about Portal 2.

The problem with Gone Home‘s conclusion is that as soon as you’ve found the diary, it becomes clear that you had absolutely no agency in the game at all.

I’m extremely reluctant to make an argument anything like “Does this even qualify as a game?” because the people who ask that question tend to be just the worst. It is for analyses of video games essentially what “I’m not racist, I have black friends, but…” is to discussions of race relations: a clear signal that everything that follows is going to be bullshit that the speaker thinks is a cogent, reasonable argument.

And yet, here I am at the end of an affecting story, well told, with characters that I’m still thinking about a day later, and I’m still left feeling unsatisfied.

I’m not going to ask “Should this story have been told as a game?” because that’s a stupid question. The answer is “yes, obviously,” because it’s an engaging experience that has a pacing and level of involvement (or “immersion”) that’s completely unique to this medium. And also because why not?

What I am going to ask: in trying to get around the problem of “ludonarrative dissonance,” in which the activities the game’s asking you to do are either at odds with or completely opposed to the story it’s trying to tell, are you introducing another kind of dissonance? One in which you’ve given the player the illusion of control but now completely removed him from the story?

I’ve always claimed that of course story-driven games are still games, because they have rules and they have objectives. You “win” the game by finishing the story. I’ve insisted — and still insist — that the value of The Walking Dead is in making the player make difficult choices, not in seeing the results of those choices. What Gone Home has made me realize is that for me, it’s not non-linearity that makes a game, it’s not the “granularity” of your tool set and the kind of “moves” that you’re allowed to make, and it’s not whether your choices result in multiple outcomes. But it does require agency.

I believe that what’s most appealing about environmental storytelling is its potential to reward the audience for being actively engaged. With non-interactive media, the pacing is constant, so the revelations can come only when everyone in the audience is on the same page. But with a game, I can potentially get more out of the experience if I can figure out within the first act that that the main character’s been dead the whole time. All the “possibility spaces” that the audience is forming in their minds aren’t just rejected or confirmed, but can be acted upon.

For instance: If I can deduce that Mom’s having an affair with Ranger Rick, I can use that information to find her day planner. If I can tell that Dad feels resentful of his father, I can conclude that more family information is down in the basement where he won’t be reminded of it. If I’m able to figure out that Sam’s a lesbian from one of her early journal entries, I can guess that she might’ve been sneaking a peak at Dad’s Gentleman magazines, and find something inside that leads me to the next part of her story.

What’s common to all of those is that I’m doing something. It’s not a change in the outcome; I don’t need to be able to make the decision in the final scene whether Sam runs off with Lonnie or comes back home to make peace with her parents. But I do need to do something. I’ve spent hours gathering information expecting that I’m going to be able to use it at any moment. And finding combinations and then entering them somewhere else doesn’t count; that’s no more interactivity than the form I filled out when I bought the game. If I get to the end and all I’ve done is put together pieces of a story that happened to someone else, that can only be a disappointment.

I strongly believe that there is room for smaller, more personal stories in games, and I’m actually surprised that it’s still a novelty. I like that the stereotype of games as just being about killing is getting to be more and more of an anachronism. I like that the medium has opened up wide enough to allow mechanics-heavy games to peacefully coexist with story-driven games and everything in between. And I believe that simply giving the player control over the pacing and delivery of the game is something extremely powerful that’s unique to interactive entertainment, and Gone Home is an excellent demonstration of that.

But I’m now more convinced than ever that whatever form video game storytelling takes, it has to be a story that happens to me and because of me, not just one that has already happened around me.

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4 thoughts on “Paper Chase

  1. Max Ellinger says:

    First off, I follow your blog religiously, love your work, and study your thoughts on narrative as The Truth. Secondly, the ending of Gone Home left me in tears — like, Oprah in the 90s tears. Like “the moment I realized were weren’t ever going to be together again” tears. With my biases acknowledged, I’ll say that I didn’t feel unsatisfied with the ending in the slightest.

    I think the game’s engagement comes from the part where you fill in the blanks with your own experience, more than trying to figure out the characters’. Clearly there’s the primary, spoon-fed “Lonnie and Sam” narrative — but I think that serves as the distraction necessary to preserve the sense of discovery with the other threads. It’s like “narrative hierarchy” that rewards you for sniffing out the lower ranks. Specifically, I’m thinking of the blurry mystery of what happened in 1963, the implications of the toy in the basement and the height chart. With those I felt engaged as a detective, and I think the experience would be entirely deflated if it were mapped out in stark relief. But even more than that: the vagueness, the space in-between the facts allowed me to squeeze myself in there.

    Having experiences like the abuse referenced and reflected in a situation where you have agency, well, that’s a Big Deal. Heck, simply as a boy who fell madly in love with another boy over a shared interest in the paranormal — a boy who unknowingly wrote incredibly symbolic (and equally transparent) weird-as-fuck short stories throughout his youth, who ran away from home to follow that love — it’s going home in a big way. And for no logical reason, it was cathartic as fuck. As in “this actually gave me closure and had a discernible difference in my life.”

    I suspect that if the story ever left the realm of reality with the sort of ending that demanded swelling orchestral music that effect would’ve been ruined. Sometimes “and life just happened, maybe things fell apart, but the feeling was real” is enough — because that’s life.

    I don’t think Gaynor & Co. were self-consciously using the tropes of video games to mess with your head and prove a point. I know the video game industry tends to get pretty naval-gazey (as much as I loved it, that was what I felt kept Little Inferno from having a sense of universality) — but I’d love to give them the benefit of the doubt. I felt the rain outside, the creepy house were purely aesthetic and tonal.

    The triumph of the game, in my mind, was the ability to keep such a small-scale story engaging and wrought with suspense. Clearly there’s not enough tension within the story elements themselves to carry a game, but there is tension between the story elements and the player’s expectations. I don’t know that it would’ve worked if those expectations didn’t already exist, but the player is responsible for those — not the game, right?

    As an aside, I even got a ton out of trying to piece together Lonnie’s point of view contrary to Sam’s. Was she really into her? Was she just stringing her along? Did it matter?

    I don’t know man, to me Gone Home was the most resonating and meaningful experience I’ve ever had in front of a computer (aside from talking to other human beings). I don’t think we’re necessarily in disagreement, I just wanted to share my experience and say that the game, for me, as what it was, was more than enough as it was.

    I question if I could have the same catharsis in a story that unfolded around me in realtime — only because of the distraction that comes with that sort of engagement and the specifics required. I never had time for meaningful reflection during The Walking Dead, I was too caught up in the moment, in what was. With that said, I can’t wait to encounter a game that pulls off both.

  2. That’s fantastic that you had such a powerful reaction from it!

    I completely agree with your observation that the process of piecing together the story from disparate elements is exactly what makes it more interesting than passively listening to a narrative.

    Like you say, it’s really well-told. I’m just wondering how much of its power depends on being able to personally identify with the characters and that situation. I also wonder how many expectations are just inherent to interactive entertainment — is that sense of agency absolutely required, or are they making something new?

  3. Played this straight through last night. I didn’t get the sense that the supernatural elements were a commentary on game design, exactly. But then again, I didn’t notice the obvious connection in the letter from Terrence’s father, and I hadn’t read any reviews until today, so I think you’re on to something. Though I don’t think we’re supposed to believe Terrence’s father is right; if you look at that letter as meta commentary, I think it’s more aimed at people who think addressing LGBT issues within a pulp medium like video games is a bad idea. The main thing is I didn’t find it distracting (and it sounds like you didn’t either until after you’ve played it). What I found distracting was the way Sam’s voiceovers got really treacley towards the end; I would have liked to piece together more of her story myself.

    I didn’t find the lack of a ghost unsatisfying; you’re sort of in the position Sam & Lonnie were, right? You don’t really believe in that stuff but it sure is creepy and fun wandering around this house late at night. By about halfway through I was immersed enough in 1995 to not be expecting the supernatural–although that séance table as a final misdirect, that could have been earlier. I didn’t feel tricked though, just a little bit of that childhood disappointment when you first say Bloody Mary in front of the mirror and nothing happens. (Imagine how the game would feel if you went up to the attic and DID find Oscar, or Sam possessed by Oscar, and had to fight him because the house was EVIL: are you really going to say you wouldn’t have written a blog post about how the game fell apart at the end? On the other hand, imagine if six months from now someone discovers clues that players have missed so far, leading to another wing of the house with Uncle Oscar’s ghost, where the game’s “real ending” takes place–I’d be on board with that.)

    The game’s power doesn’t depend on being able to personally identify with the characters or situation, I don’t think — I mean I remembered and appreciated all the period details, because I was the right age, but that’s about it. It would have worked equally well in a different time period. I mean, anyone can identify with well-written characters, that’s what makes them well-written. (By the way, someone should tell Chris Suellentrop that Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy were local bands for those characters, and the odds that they’d like “Jagged Little Pill” are approximately zero; did a spittake reading that.)

    I’m interested in what you say about agency–I didn’t really think about it while I was playing, but you’re right, Katie doesn’t make any decisions that affect anything at all during the game. I’m not sure that’s a problem–I find solving mysteries to be one of the most satisfying things games can do, and this one was a lot of fun (Of course, Katie would have known a lot of her family’s history already, but that’s a whole other issue.) Since they made the decision to spell out the Sam/Lonnie thing, I’m glad the parent’s stories were a little less obvious. I was entirely cool with Katie being a nearly blank slate, and I thought having all her stuff still in boxes was a pretty good way to do that. Which is weird because until last night I would have said that the most interesting tension in games was the gap between what I would like to do as the player and what the character would or could do in that situation, and that was entirely missing here. I mean it’s basically a room escape game, and there aren’t that many narrative ways to justify having the player’s character almost entirely absent from the game–amnesia!–so I think this may have been a one-off.

    Personal favorite details: the sex-ed assignment, the stolen VCRs and laserdisc/CD player, the attention to the handwriting styles each character would have learned (that’s a pet peeve of mine in period games; L.A. Noire in particular was terrible about this), and the stuff with Daniel.

    Least favorite details: the fact that a lot of other stuff still hadn’t been unpacked, that very curved sideboard that I guess Oscar bought in bulk, since he had twenty of them all over the house.

    As an aside, I thought the neighborhood kids were calling it the Psycho house, not the psycho house, because of the gables and the recluse owner–so I wasn’t expecting there’d been a murder there or anything. The most off character note in the entire thing was Terrence moving his family there; I would imagine he wouldn’t ever want to see the place again. Did I miss some explanation for this? (And even if he wanted to move there, would his wife let him? Though I guess she doesn’t know his history, or she’d know why he got withdrawn and depressed once they moved.) Anyway, I can’t think of another game where there was anything approaching an interesting family dynamic, so that’s a win right there.

    Also, what was inside the Gentlemen magazines? I found the one under the remaindered books, and the one in Sam’s locker, but there must have been a leap of logic I missed there, because I didn’t go looking for them and don’t remember finding anything in or under them. Incidentally, I think Sam bought or got her own, because her father’s was from the 1980s and stashed away, hers was recent. I didn’t find the ticket stub in the screenshot you used, oddly, and I’m sure there were other things I missed or didn’t look at closely enough to piece together. (who did the cross belong to? Were those Oscar’s or Terrence’s father’s ashes? When was the painting defaced? Is it “Terrence” or “Terence?”)

    Anyway: I thought it was great and I’d love to see more games that assumed players had the ability to piece things together themselves.

  4. Kevin says:

    Hey Chuck,

    I agree! It was a good story, but didn’t fundamentally offer me significantly more agency than a book. When reading, I control the pacing of consumption, and I can skip chapters if I want (which happens on occasion). I can go back a re-read to enrich my understanding. But I can’t really make my presence significant to the story itself. Gone Home is an interesting project, but ultimately not an important work of story telling and a missed opportunity.

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