My thoughts on Gone Home and what it reveals about storytelling in video games
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.