Thoughts on the design and narrative of Gone Home
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Christian Nutt is the blog director for Gamasutra (@ferricide)
I have kind of mixed feelings about¬†Gone Home¬†as an overall work. I like some of what it's trying to do as a game and a piece of fiction, and I dislike some of that, too. My feelings on the overall package are thus murky. The word for this is ambivalent, which actually refers to an inability to choose between opposing feelings, not a simple vagueness of opinion. Rather than a fog, it's points of light.
Before I begin, just know that I'm going to assume you've played¬†Gone Home¬†before you read this, so you probably should.
What I like about¬†Gone Home:
The teen experience.¬†For me, at least,¬†Gone Home¬†captures extremely well -- better than most fiction I've read and certainly better than any game I've ever played -- the feeling of being a teenager. I'm about the same age as Sam, it turns out, so the subject matter is very close to home for me: not really the gay stuff, but the "have friends your parents don't quite trust, do stupid shit and generally seek autonomy because high school is confining and you're smart enough to want to know and do things outside the system you've been placed in" kinda stuff.
The thing about being a teenager is that it's like being an adult and a kid at the same time. You're mature and intelligent enough to understand many of the complexities of life, like social issues and politics. People start treating you like a mini-adult, and you're eager to act on your new understandings and step up to the role people are offering you.
But the limiter is the immaturity -- the silly ideas, a desire to play and explore your new perspective. That has an inherently childlike quality to it. You crave an independence you may not be emotionally equipped for, and certainly don't have experience to grasp. ¬†
I was frustrated and I did dumb things. And so many experiences were fresh -- it's a formative time.¬†Gone Home¬†brings that sensation back, as Sam's story is told piece by piece, her exploration of her identity not through her discoveries but her actions: the things she (and Lonnie) did. That was the part of the story I related to so closely.
N.B. If you were hoping to read my Real Gay Teen Awakening and Heartbreak Diary, too bad. This is about¬†Gone Home. And for the record, I am writing this from the perspective of a white kid who grew up middle-class in the suburbs. I had cable, a lot of CDs, and my own car. What I say about being a teen may not reflect your experience, and it is not intended to.
The 1990s experience.¬†Boy, The Fullbright Company nailed the 1990s. From the music (Bratmobile! It's been so damn long since I even thought about Bratmobile!) to the ambient subject matter of the magazines, pamphlets and other detritus around the house, it's perfect. Really clever and apt, and brings the strongest sense of reality of anything in the game. Oh, and¬†Leigh is exactly right; setting it in the 1990s made a tremendous amount of sense given the game's constraints.
But the developers also had a soft touch -- they took care not to add 1990s-isms just for the sake of pointing and laughing. It's really easy to go overboard when you look back. Things start to feel posed or inaccurate, and it's easy to compress conspicuous details into a Decade McNugget. That didn't happen here.
Before I leave the 1990s behind, I want to talk about nostalgia as a concept. It's funny;¬†A Link Between Worlds¬†came out recently and while the consensus seems to be that it's an excellent game, which it damn well is, there were a fair few critics who groused that it's a nostalgia-fest, which it's not. It's an entirely new game.
Nostalgia actually isn't an engine that can power new things. Yes, you could play something old and feel awash in nostalgia -- the original¬†Link to the Past, say -- or watch an old movie from your youth and be carried on the tide of your old emotions for a time. But I don't think nostalgia has the strength to carry a work. Certainly not for me, at any rate.
When observing¬†Gone Home's situations, I was thrown back into memories of my own teen years and similar circumstances. Of course that sense was heightened by the game's setting. But the spike of OH MY GOD caused by hearing Bratmobile for the first time in 20 years subsided quickly. And then it was back to the new experience:¬†Gone Home¬†itself, and what it had to say to me in 2013.
In other words, playing the new¬†Zelda¬†and¬†Gone Home¬†back-to-back helped me to understand how nostalgia works in art, which is kinda cool, actually. So here's a tip if you're making something and you're planning to try to coast on nostalgia: don't. You have to provide something new.
Plus, as techniques go, it's fucking boring. Try harder.
The writing.¬†Not just Sam's journals, but also the letters, forms, class assignments and in-world fiction, both by Sam and her dad. It's all written really well to convey exactly the tone and message intended. And there's a lot of range to it, too. I can only imagine this project was a huge amount of fun to write for. And, again, they didn't cheat -- either in terms of era or of making characters shift out of character. And since there was almost no real dialogue -- since Sam's voiceovers are journals -- it was an interesting technique for establishing and then developing the characters, none of whom you ever actually see or interact with.
The in-world storytelling.¬†It's not just the quality of the writing, but how it's used. What I mean is this: Probably my favorite (of many possible) bits of this in-world storytelling is the health assignment on the female reproductive system. Sam wrote a strange short story about doomed lovers in World War II that happened to include facts about the female reproductive system as an aside (I'd do this kind of shit, too, as a teen, so it made me smile.) This earned her a "see me!" instead of a grade, which means "WTF" in teacher-speak.
Later in the game, in the basement, you can find Katie's version of the same assignment, and it's a straightforward list, for which she got a check-plus (in other words, "good job.")
The way these two things were executed individually but also the way they unified told you a lot about the individual characters but also their relationship (also, when you add in the "you let Katie go to Europe but you won't let me go to the city? What's the difference between us?" note from Sam that adds another layer. Seriously great stuff, how it all comes together.)
More in-world storytelling please, video games. Most particularly games that are going to go the "here's a world, walk around and pick shit up and look at it" route. And with some nuance to it, too. This is a lesson you should take away from¬†Gone Home.
(Side note: It's so great that the health assignments aren't letter-graded but are instead that check-plus bullshit because they aren't even real coursework. I'd forgotten about that!)
What I Don't Like About¬†Gone Home
The observer experience.¬†Purely as a point of criticism, I don't really like how everything is past tense -- you're simply exploring a world you're not really a part of. That's supported extremely well by the fiction, but it forces things to feel contrived, and makes the game feel rather passive, as a piece of fiction.
Digression: A lot of really smug game designers like to talk up how movies and books are purely passive media and games are the only things that allow for INTERACTIONS, MAN. Which is, okay, literally true! But it rather ignores the way in which you engage with fiction. You don't just sit there and drink it in. Your brain and your emotions synchronize with it. Sometimes you get pulled, swept, or dragged into it; sometimes you even lock horns with it and fight it because you hate what's happening.
Sometimes I think all criticism of film from game designers is based on, like, The Fast and the Furious. Seriously, go find some challenging, mature fiction. There are a lot of nuances to the way you can react to a piece of fiction, and sometimes you veer from one state to another as the action or pacing or tone changes abruptly from scene to scene. Really good fiction can play its audience like an instrument, or sometimes gently lead an audience from a point to another point until they reach an unexpected destination. It's a highly engaged experience. I just saw Spike Jonze's new film Her, and it illustrates this well. Give that a try if you want to see one slice of what film can do.
Okay, moving on -- this is a biggie. I'm going to commit this to writing because I don't think I've said it at all except in conversation: I really do not like audio logs. When I played¬†BioShock, I knew audio logs would take off simply because they're convenient: you can still shoehorn a ton of plot but you don't have to tie the player down, and you don't have to make cutscenes, either. They allow for multitasking, so players appreciate them, too. It's win-win-win.
But fuck that. I don't think they make for very good storytelling. Audio logs are a really weird form of writing. They exist by their nature outside of the narrative you, yourself are participating in -- they're recordings of the past. But they don't serve the function that flashbacks do in other media. They can't really offer much exposition or they'd seem too contrived; they can't really be too much like dialogue‚Ä¶ or they'd seem too contrived. You're kind of stuck in this affected mode that isn't really great for doing most of what you'd want story to do!
What I most dislike about them is that there is no present tense. It's literally impossible!
Gone Home¬†sure did run head-on at the audio log thing. They're requisite to the narrative and contain all of its forward motion. (Try and imagine the story without them.) And the devs actually did successfully use them to create a linear narrative that takes place entirely in the past and moves forward to a single moment in time -- finally almost, but not quite, joining up together with the present in its conclusion. It was definitely a heroic use of the form, but even so, Gone Home didn't change my opinion of them much.
The best thing about them was their intimacy (again, buoyed by the fiction's conceit as a journal written from sister to sister) and the worst thing about them is that man, would a game about Sam and Lonnie (or a movie about Sam and Lonnie!) been a lot more interesting than¬†Gone Home.
I am well aware that's not entirely a fair thing to say about a game made by four people in Unity, but it's still true! I'm not asking for¬†Gone Home¬†of the quality and budget of Heavy Rain, but with way better writing‚Ä¶ actually, fuck it, I am. I know that we can't have that now, because I'm realistic about where things are right now. But let's get there, or at least get as close as we can.
Too awkward and game-like.¬†The environment was kind of... terrible. The props (and I mean that in the movie sense of "props" -- so the letters, etc., the significant interactive objects) were fantastic, but the house was incredibly unrealistic in its layout and (particularly) in its locked doors and keys. Yes, it's a big, weird, old house. But come on...
The secret passage conceit I could deal with -- more because it added a real sense of fun and character to the Sam/Lonnie stuff, rather than because it was plausible -- but the locked doors and weird layout just made it feel like a key hunt in a maze. Or like a¬†BioShock¬†level.
It's funny, right? The secret passages and the whole ghost story element add some interest to what could well have been (should have been?) just a generic suburban American house. But at the same time the goofy architecture undermines the reality of the setting. I wonder if a different approach to the art, something less realistic and more impressionistic, could have freed the game. I don't know.
The story's propensity for titillation.¬†I originally titled this section something like "The maybe-she-killed-herself problem" but that's not it alone.
But let's take that head on. I felt uneasy about the game's implication that maybe Sam killed herself while playing it, but it wasn't until my husband Francesco put it into words that I realized how much it was bugging me.
While I really applaud the earnestness of this game and its treatment of Sam (and Lonnie!) as individuals, it is really undermined by this narrative choice. And the devs really play into it with the later notes from Sam -- and you start to wonder if you're going to find your sister's corpse in the attic. Really, it's tawdry, and undermines the story.
I am well aware that gay teens, particularly from unsupportive homes, are much more prone to suicide than straight teens. But let's face it -- Sam's parents' initial reaction is neutral enough that a smart kid like her should be able to deal with it. The "Lonnie's going into the army" thing is definitely traumatic but it seems a bridge too far that it would have pushed Sam over the edge. Teenagers can be melodramatic -- apocalyptic, even -- but I didn't get the sense that Sam was ever ON the edge, let alone about to teeter over.
And the spooky ghost stuff -- on one hand I love that it's something for the two girls to act goofy and center their relationship around, because it rings very true to me. On the other hand, making the game itself overtly spooky seems like the creators weren't confident enough to fully leave behind the supernatural and focus on the real. It's muddled.
Really, while the suspense elements impel the plot forward, they don't gel with the message.¬†
Some Mixed-Up Thoughts That are Neither Good nor Bad
It's funny. Did you notice that¬†Gone Home¬†is really just an adventure game?
Between this and¬†The Walking Dead, the adventure genre matters again. If you were around in the 1990s, you'll remember the rise and fall of the genre, and if you were around in the 2000s, you'll remember the gnashing of teeth and wailing about its demise, and what we lost, and constant cries for it to come back.
Turns out that it just needed to be presented in a new, creatively vibrant way that today's audiences can relate to. I mean,¬†The Walking Dead¬†is a STRAIGHT UP 1990s point and click adventure game. Isn't that odd? Nope! That's how things work. It turns out the way to revive something is to figure out how to present it in a way that appeals to people and which contains subject matter they are interested in and which is relevant to them.
This is a groovy lesson if you're paying attention.
So if¬†Gone Home¬†is just a rewarmed adventure game, what's with the huge reaction? It says a lot about the medium, the response we're seeing to¬†Gone Home, I'm forced to admit.
There's a certain amount of desperation out there -- people either want to see games as a significant storytelling medium, or they're still worried that nobody yet believes that they can be purely emotionally resonant art. These individuals have their agenda and they are dying to point to something as an example of "look what we can do!" This accounts for general overblown reactions to anything that tries at all -- particularly for people who have until now felt like the triple-A space is the beginning and end of what games are. And we're going to see this again and again as we inch forward, until people stop feeling insecure.
Gone Home¬†is a nice game. It's a flawed but nice game, with some good writing, really great in-world storytelling, and like zero intrinsically interesting verbs. But it's where it is at least partially because people can point to and say "look!" And I get it. But can we just hold our horses? If for no other reason than there's a lot more work to be done. We have not arrived at a destination (spoiler: that's not how art works anyway!)
But not everybody is in the throes of desperation. I think some people had genuinely never considered the game medium could be used for serious storytelling, so I'm glad they played¬†Gone Home¬†and now are like, "Wow, I guess it can!" because we really need to eradicate this mentality.
If you look at my Game of the Year list, you'll see it isn't big on Serious Storytelling Games, but I am personally quite big on serious storytelling and would like to see games grapple with it a lot more. My favorite game this generation may be¬†Virtue's Last Reward, after all. And let me be clear: by serious I mean serious in terms of the creator's commitment to it, and craft, not storytelling that is entirely devoted to "serious" topics. The Stanley Parable also fits the bill (and its storytelling is inherently interactive, by the way!)
I mean, it is sad but true: It would never be headline news in another medium. Imagine: Author Leaves Hyper-Violent Fantasy Behind to Concentrate on Realism. How backwards are commercial games?¬†Gone Home¬†is a nice step in the medium's evolution, don't get me wrong, but it's not actually exceptional subject matter.
What I want to see more of, from a theoretical (but hopefully never-to-exist, because do something else!)¬†Gone Home 2¬†is more environmental storytelling, some realtime, in-world storytelling, fewer audiologs, less need to contrive puzzles, and much more organic discovery. The world should tell the tale as much as possible; I do believe that games are very good when the intrinsic activity you get out of them, that which is interactive, is what makes them special. And if your goal is storytelling you have some really tough work ahead of you.
I'll also admit that I went into¬†Gone Home¬†to find out if¬†BioShock¬†without combat would be more satisfying to me than¬†BioShock¬†with combat, because I didn't actually enjoy playing¬†BioShock.
The answer is not really, though not less, so that's sort of a win, I guess.
And to quickly go back to the "creative constraints" thing, it's kind of a chicken/egg thing, isn't it? Without knowing for sure, on¬†Gone Home, it's impossible to say what creative choices were dictated by scarcity of production resources, and which were deliberate creative restraint, but if even if everything was the former this game is still a good lesson for other developers regarding the latter.
One problem with games, I think, is that they are just TOO MUCH. People who like¬†BioShock Infinite¬†like to praise the huge and creatively realized world of Columbia but honestly I think we could use more less-is-more! Concentrate on smaller, more intricate, better-realized things. I know the calling card of Assassin's Creed is these giant cities but‚Ä¶ are they actually interesting? Can you really do anything in them? (No.)
I look forward to a future where the tools that let people make games like this and experiment with the medium are more accessible; playing¬†Gone Home¬†excites me a little, even if I do feel ambivalent about it in the end, because it at least says that you can do things like this and get people's attention by doing so. That is a win for¬†Gone Home, and the game medium, but the bigger win will be when people -- different kinds of people! -- can tell any kind of story in a game¬†and nobody is surprised by that.