The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home is an experience. It is a challenging game that, while being critically well-received, raises difficult questions about what it actually is. The game-or-not debate is less interesting than Gone Home‘s relationship with its own story. Its experience and the story within that of a family house full of conflict is meaningful, reasonably moving, and thematically relevant in the way it deals with gender identity, rebellion, and transgression. The story’s aesthetic, and the game’s overall atmosphere, create an experience the Guardian called “neurotic”1 and rated third among games published in 2013. That atmosphere creates a general sense of immersion but throughout Gone Home lingers a problem. It is hard to define, but it is a problem that, in combination with the game’s overall appeal, presents both the promise of narrative gaming and all the challenges it must overcome. Its story, pushed into the spotlight by minimalist mechanics, is interesting but when subjected to close examination, falls apart. Characterization problems, lack of present action, and issues with pay-off diminish what the story could have been. That Gone Home is not yet quite there spoils what it tried to be while also pointing to the possibilities and challenges of close writing that future game writers must overcome.
The mechanics in Gone Home are unapologetically simple. The developers even boast on the game’s Steam description that the game has no puzzles or combat. This is as much a weakness as a strength, but that the atmosphere overcomes the game’s lack of gameplay immersion is indicative of what Gone Home is capable of when it works. The atmosphere, communicated mostly through sound and art effects such as persistent rain, dark corners, and scrawled notes, manipulates player emotions through tension and release. It is immediately obvious what this family is like and so their travails become more interesting as a result. The fact that the player does almost nothing in this game is minimized. If flow or game balance is a key part of immersiveness, then Gone Home is not immersive. There is no challenge save opening drawers. Even figuring out the secret passages is not that difficult. This could be viewed as a gameplay fault. It is. At times, the player’s mind wanders outside of the house. What keeps the game relevant is the constant emotional arousal—another key component of immersion. The game’s introduction is scary: the house is dark, the lights are out, rooms are a mess. It has a haunted feel. But even this technique unwinds. An attentive player quickly learns from Sam’s early notes that there is no real ghost, only a metaphorical one, which is a neat effect but pushes focus onto the story again. The actual threat to the player is non-existent, which saps the game of its emotional urgency in exchange for a lush backstory and a sense of having been cheated of anything that might happen. This game is not so much a world—it is entirely in its characters. Gone Home is a completely unfiltered character-driven narrative experience, more short-story than game.
This lack of game complexity, as well as the focus on characters, forces examination of the story and this is where Gone Home falls apart. Most games are primarily world-driven, not character-driven (because the player has agency); most short-stories are primarily character-driven, not world-driven. It is an inherently literary style and in reducing its gameplay to minimalistic nothingness, Gone Home announces itself as a literary game. Its story is internal. There is no way to save the world. Unfortunately, the story fails to hold up under the kind of close reading this style traditionally demands. The intricate character relationships cannot operate on their own, and there are three things Gone Home fails to do as a story to replace the “reader” investment needed to make a more nebulous narrative experience interesting enough to sustain this close, unfiltered focus.
First, the dramatic situation is flawed. The story’s protagonist is Samantha Greenbriar, not Kaitlin Greenbriar. Kaitlin is, in fact, invisible—the game’s camera does not show her at all, even looking straight down. This is a quirk of the Unity engine and the game’s scope, but the metaphor is apt. Kaitlin can act on none of the story’s events. Unfortunately, the player plays from her close perspective, only their situation will never change. Games rarely manipulate perspective in the way Gone Home does or the way a first-person story can. Gone Home is a first-person story, but the story does not happen to that person. This disconnect creates, in effect, two separate stories: Sam’s, which is more interesting as a series of events that changed a character; and the player’s, which is the discovery of the family’s secrets. Ironically, a statement from the game’s developer contradicts this perspective: “you have a connection to the house and feel like you should be there, you’re not just a home invader… you’re like, ‘I have a reason to care about these people’.2“ But the player is effectively a home invader, and that dramatic situation takes precedence over the invisible Kaitlin Greenbriar. The player-as-character contributes nothing to her own family, and Kaitlin becomes a vehicle for an omniscient narrator in a close-knit story. The player’s role is that of detective, but Kaitlin offers no distance, which makes the way the player learns about these events, and her reactions, feel wrong, costing the story believability. In order to discover anything about the player’s character, something has to change. That leads to the second, and perhaps fatal, problem.
The narrative has no discovery of change or truth. It does have a tremendous twist which builds up over time (though arguably the sexual abuse storyline is cliché, at least in the genre Gone Home is emulating). The characters’ reactions should tell the audience something about themselves. In Gone Home, the characters’ reactions are the plot, and have already happened. They can only be told, not shown. When dealing with stories so closely, the expectation can and should be higher: why are these events important for me, the player, to experience? Gone Home does not answer this question, it only provides story and never reaches for a larger truth.
Whether that is due to the above storytelling mistakes or due to the nature of the medium itself is a much larger, though central, debate. That Gone Home allows the asking of these questions raises the expectations of game writing. By removing mechanical complexity Gone Home shifts its entire focus onto the story. It creates a literary game. It fails to live up to this combined expectation of gameplay and a more intense story experience because it is not truly an immersive game. Its story is interesting and politically relevant but leaves its “reader” feeling it should mean more—never the ideal feeling. What Gone Home does do is show, with its complete experience, that such a combination of game and literary story is possible. It lays the challenge to adopt and reinterpret deep storytelling techniques for the game medium—not an easy task. It forces game writers and designers to find a way to maintain both an overwhelming aesthetic and a game to play. That Gone Home can attempt this and still garner critical acclaim speaks to the way games are finally ready to unite the truths of story and play, and that there is appetite to do so. That it fails is a challenge, but a good one. There is possibility in failure.
1Stewart, Keith, “Top 25 video games of 2013: 5-1.” The Guardian. Dec. 20, 2013. Web. Accessed Dec. 20, 2013.
2Ellison, Cara, “Gone Home – and how games can tell stories about everyday lives.” The Guardian. April 26, 2013. Web. Accessed Dec. 20, 2013.