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Exploration in games: Dear Esther has Gone Home…
by Sergio Rosa on 02/10/14 02:11:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I am not going to discuss if the story was good or bad, because you have to decide that by yourself (and chances are you have already decided). If there’s something I can say is that there were quite a few things I couldn’t relate to because I come from a different culture (and no, the whole “sexuality thing” is not one of those things).


I mentioned that because I think it’s important to know if you plan to make a story that could be considered universal (a story pretty much ANYONE can relate to) or a story for a specific audience (something only certain people with a specific background will understand). However, as I mentioned before, the story is not my point of interest here.

If you’ve read my blog before, maybe you already know what I think about Dear Esther. Long story short: I consider it a walking simulator and a missed opportunity.

Now, I consider Gone Home a project with identity disorder. This is where I take the liberty to remind you I am not talking about the story, so if you plan to share your comment about how great and touching the story is, please save because as I’ve said three times already, I’m not talking about story.

I talk about execution.

My main problem with Dear Esther was that, for an “exploration game” you didn’t do much exploring because all you had to do is hold the W key for 1 hour while moving the mouse around. Even turning on the flashlight or crouching was automatically handled by the system.

To me, Gone Home suffers from identity disorder for two main reasons. First, it tries to be Dear Esther and Myst at the same time, forcing you “game-like” elements (look for the key to open this door) just for the sake to deliver the story “in order.” And second, because it confuses itself with a horror game, putting you in dark rooms and triggering thunder effects, and also throwing a “ghost hunting side story” (for what it’s worth, at least the ghost story was entertaining).

I once said it would have been really cool if, in Dear Esther, I could explore more and get bits of the story. For example, maybe you picked up a book and you got an audio log related to the book, and so on. In Gone Home, I kinda got what I expected because you have to explore to get the story, which is cool.

Except when the story flow is interrupted by the game-like elements forced into the game just to control story flow and deliver it in some sort of linear form. My frustration came when I realized I was no longer learning about Sam’s story; I was looking for a key so I could continue with Sam’s story, and that there was the possibility that I’d need to turn everything upside down to find that key…

And that’s when I stopped playing.

Some time later, I decided to start again, using the “all doors unlocked” modifier. Long story short, I explored the entire house and finished the game in a single playthrough. While my first time was a completely frustrating experience, this second time was completely enjoyable. The game did not need any of those half-baked adventure-ish game elements, not because they are not the focus of the game, but because they get in the way of the actual experience.

So I think it’s a fair to ask: why would you even need to put those hidden-object mechanics in the game and not just focus on the story? Did the game really need such story flow control? I am inclined to think gamers are not stupid, and that they are perfectly capable of getting the different story elements in any order, and then put everything together in their heads. Delivering the story in non-chronological bits and pieces is nothing new, so I don’t see how a “chronological order” would benefit Gone Home in any way. After all, I don’t think there’s “a right way to play Gone Home” (or any other story-driven game, for that matter).

If the game hadn’t offered the “all doors unlocked” thingy, I know for a fact I would have never played Gone Home after that first time I decided to quit the game in frustration.

However, I gave it a second chance and took the liberty to play Gone Home to get the story in some random order based on the path I used to explore the house, and I liked the game a lot (even if there were quite a few things that were not relatable at all). Gone Home offered the level of exploration I would have expected from Dear Esther, which is very good considering the house is a hell a lot smaller than the island in DE.

However, in the future please stay away from adventure-ish game elements unless you really need them.

(Just a friendly reminder: I’m not here to discuss the game story).

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Dave Bleja
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I think your willingness to compartmentalise the story away from gameplay is a mistake, and is the reason you couldn't click with the game.

Regardless of whether the story is good or bad, it is a story about piecing together a mystery. The protagonist arrives home to find nothing is as it should be, and the entire rest of the game is about unpeeling the onion layers one by one until the mystery is explained.

The entire game is essentially a detective story. You spend your entire time finding pieces of the puzzle and putting them together. You do detective work to unlock new rooms, and you do detective work to piece together the story. The mystery starts off as inaccessible to Kaitlin, and if she wants to uncover it, she has to work for it. Laying everything out at the beginning would be to the detriment to this detective experience.

In this way, the gameplay is a perfect match for the narrative, and each is a natural extension of the other. It's actually one of the most cohesive story-based games I've ever played.

Even the best story-based games usually have 'pure gameplay' bits sandwiched in between the narrative, whether it's shooting (Half Life, GTA), fighting (Batman Arkham, Remember Me, Witcher) or abstract puzzles (Myst, Monkey Island). Others become self-conscious about their stories by using narrators or a contrived meta-narrative device (Stanley Parable, Driver: San Francisco, Assassins' Creed).

Gone Home does none of these things (I honestly can't see any relation to Myst at all). It insists on basing its world on reality, and it doesn't ask Kaitlin to do anything that wouldn't feasibly be done by a real person in her predicament (which itself is an unusual but very feasible one). The "adventure game bits" are nothing like the tacked-on contrivance you make them out to be.

I personally think that Gone Home is over-rated. It consists of strong writing, good mise-en-scene, and excellent voice acting: a strong piece of work, and an enjoyable little gem, but certainly not the masterpiece people seem to make it out to be. There are better games, and there are better stories.

But the criticism you offer just doesn't resonate with me at all. The marriage between story and gameplay in Gone Home is about as effortless and natural as it gets, considering the overt contrivances most other games employ. Other devs would do well to learn from it.

Sergio Rosa
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As you say, it's more like a detective story and I am ok with that. On the other hand, to me the gameplay elements that get in the way are the "hidden object" aspects, because it's not in my mindset to go through someone else's things to find a key, for example, and that's what I felt I was doing.

Maybe I was too lazy, or maybe there was something on the back of my head telling me I shouldn't be going through other people's things, so it was a weird scenario of "I know I need to check out everything, but it just doesn't feel like I should!" Now that I think about it, maybe that's even a good thing because "my Kaitlin" (aka me as Kaitlin) didn't want to invade someone else's privacy, while other games don't make me think too much about "IRL I wouldn't be doing this, but it's a game so I will."

The Myst comparison was not meant to make the game sound like a pure adventure game. I was mostly referencing the same hidden object mechanic.

On the other hand, when I say the game didn't quite resonate was because I come from a different country and there were many things I didn't have to deal with (like patriarchy, having students who are in military service, kids running away at early age, and not even knowing what riot grrrl was until I played the game).
Add the fact I didn't like Lonnie because she was in the army (blame it on the civil war we had 20 something years ago, I can't even stand near a soldier without feeling extremely uncomfortable).

Andrea Scambia
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I personally liked both games because at different levels they try to convey a new kind of experience to the players.

Dear Esther was peculiar at the time, and I appreciated the way it explored new ways of telling a story (somewhat interactive, at a really superficial level).

Gone Home takes this genre of game/experience a step further, and that's why its success spread where Dear Esther did not succeed.

I understand what you mean with your experiment, trying to change the game to fit more your play style, but the operation you made is like breaking the warranty of the game.
You can do it, but it was not designed to be played like that by the developers.
It might have worked for you, but who guarantees that the majority of the players would do the same?

I feel that the urge you have about a different approach might be addressed as a new step in this genre with another game, but I don't think it's really the way Gone Home was meant to be played.

The linearity assures that every player who walks through the game gets every piece of the story without leaving anything behind.
But who knows, maybe the "Memento" of videogames is already on the way! :)

Sergio Rosa
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"The linearity assures that every player who walks through the game gets every piece of the story without leaving anything behind.
But who knows, maybe the "Memento" of videogames is already on the way! :) "

I for one would completely love to see that happen. Actually I've been thinking about that kind of storytelling for a while, but I still can't get my head around it.