Gone Home is not a game you can be good or bad at. It’s not a game that will test your twitch reflexes or resource management strategizing or tactical adaptiveness or even really your puzzle-solving abilities. For a small subset of capital-G-gamers, it’s not even a game – not a “real” game, at least. (And if you’ve ever been to a comments section, you’ve met these people.) Gone Home and other games like it have been dubbed “walking simulators,” a term intended as a pejorative by those who think these aren’t “real” games and embraced by those who enjoy them. But the discussion (such as it is) of how to classify Gone Home misses the point of such games, which is ultimately the point of all games: the experience of playing them, whether or not you want to call it “play” or call them “games.”
By now, two-and-a-half years since the game first appeared on PCs, many people are familiar with the essentials of Gone Home: you play as Katie, a 21-year-old just returning home from a year in Europe to the unfamiliar house her family moved to in her absence, only to discover that, though it’s the middle of the night, everyone – Mom, Dad, and sister Sam – is gone. To figure out what has happened, you wander through the house, picking up objects and reading documents, trying to piece together a year’s worth of family drama. And that’s it.
To some, the “that’s it” is a criticism: what the game is missing is the need to defend yourself from hordes of attacking werewolves using the increasingly sophisticated arsenal of weapons you find around the house, an adventure for which the family drama is context and backdrop. To others, the “that’s it” is grand praise, as in: that’s all developer Fullbright needed to make an engrossing game. I find myself squarely in the latter camp.
If you watch a lot of competitive cooking on TV (as I do), then you’re familiar with a certain scene that plays out again and again: contestant A will break his or her brain trying to come up with an inventive dish that combines three different cuisines, uses a half-dozen cutting-edge techniques, and probably has a foam; and then contestant B will make a steak with rosemary and garlic, and will win the day. The judges will praise contestant B for things like “restraint” and “respecting the ingredients” and having the talent and confidence to offer up such a straightforward dish. Gone Home is that kind of dish: four ingredients, simple presentation, near-flawless execution, delicious.
Gone Home’s core components – scattered clues, audio-logs, environmental storytelling – are the secondary or tertiary components in most games. It’s as if you took a BioShock game and removed all the weapons, plasmids, puzzles, hacking, vending machines, Big Daddies, and Little Sisters; you’d be left just wandering around Rapture, listening to audio-logs, trying to piece together what had happened. And it’s to the credit of a game like BioShock that this environmental storytelling is as engaging as it is, despite being less central to the game than its systems and mechanics.
But the BioShock series is a bit of an outlier; in a lot of games that attempt environmental storytelling, you can happily ignore these various clues, never try to puzzle out what story is being told, and still enjoy the game quite a bit. You might find a third of a game’s collectible documents, realize that the story they’re telling doesn’t make much sense in this incomplete form, decide it’s not worth it to track down the rest, and have a perfectly fine time with the game. On the one hand, this is a testament to such a game’s mechanics, that you can be partially or totally ignorant of a game’s story and still enjoy it. But this is also an indictment of such a game’s storytelling, if the story is so uninteresting that you don’t feel at all compelled to figure it out.
In a lot of games, finding all the documents or collectibles or audio-logs is something you simply do Because Videogames. You do it to fill out a checklist, to reach 100% completion, to unlock an Xbox Achievement, or at best to earn some XP so you can upgrade the shotgun. Plenty of times in my life, I’ve finished a game having found 97% of the collectible widgets, and then gone back to tediously comb through completed areas simply to knock that number up to 100%. By contrast, when I finished Gone Home with 21 of Sam’s 23 journal entries unlocked, I felt compelled to go find the remaining two not (exclusively) to satisfy my inner completionist, but because I wanted to hear more from Sam. I wanted to know more about her life, and hear her voice just a few more times. Even the bonus Easter egg journal entry, which was a bit tedious to collect even after I looked it up on the Internet, provoked this reaction: I was happy to share this tiny moment with her, even knowing beforehand what that moment was going to be.
Sam, your/Katie’s younger sister, is the centerpiece of this game. If somehow you’ve made it into 2016 without having the story spoiled, I’m not going to be the one to do it, but suffice it to say that Sam is (or was, in the year before your arrival) going through some stuff. As were Mom and Dad. It’s not groundbreaking, intricately plotted stuff. [Spoiler alert: no one gets killed by werewolves.] But it is still deeply affecting.
A lot of this is owing to the writing and to Sarah Grayson’s performance as Sam. Her character is captured with a nuance and sincerity that are lacking in most games. And a lot of it is owing to the nature of Sam and the other characters. These seem like real people we might be or know, unlike the interchangeable buzz cuts and jawlines that populate a lot of AAA games. It’s just a lot easier to care about Sam and the game’s other characters than it usually is in videogames, a medium that historically hadn’t always put the highest priority on characterization.
Certainly, though, some of the game’s effectiveness, at least on me, is owing to its mid-90s setting. Sam is a high school student in 1995, the year I turned 16. A lot of care obviously went into capturing the era. It doesn’t feel like a “hey, remember the 90s?!” pastiche of pop culture references; it feels like one family’s particular experience of the 90s. The X-Files paraphernalia, the SNES cartridges, the VHS collection of taped-from-TV-movies, the punk zines, the mixtapes – these things all feel like artifacts from one particular family’s 1995. Sam doesn’t just seem like a character existing in the 90s; she feels like a fully formed individual, someone I might’ve been friends with in high school.
This pitch-perfect rendition of the 90s is just one layer of environmental storytelling in the game. Though the main story is brief and the game can be completed in just a few hours, there are layers upon layers of story to uncover, each requiring more careful consideration of the clues than the last. Plenty of games reward a close reading, but few dare to demand it as much as Gone Home does.
But perhaps the game’s greatest accomplishment is that it manages to be engaging and affecting without being all that enjoyable. This might seem like odd praise, but consider cinema, the art form to which videogames are most often compared. Many films occupy this space, admired but not enjoyable, affecting but not entertaining. In other words, films whose artistic merit is judged independently of their entertainment value. In the world of games, Gone Home holds this status.
Like many gamers, I long for the day that videogames are widely considered a legitimate art form of the same cultural import as books, movies, television, and music. While there are many obstacles between here and that day, one of the biggest has always seemed to be the fact that games kind of have to be fun. Or, rather, that making games on par with some of the most revered, acclaimed, “serious” works of literature, cinema, and music would require getting people to play a game that isn’t necessarily fun. Playing the videogame equivalent of Kafka’s Metamorphosis would probably not be a great time. (Whether such distinctions are pretentious, and whether games should aim for them, is another discussion.)
But Gone Home – though not uniquely, I’m sure – cracks this nut. It’s not fun. Contrast it with a game like Destiny, where the minute-to-minute gameplay is so much fun that you can spend an enjoyable hour or two running around just shooting random enemies, even if you aren’t at all invested in its narrative, progression systems, or loot economy. Gone Home is the opposite of this. Your investment in the narrative is essentially the only thing that keeps you playing the game. How enjoyable the minute-to-minute gameplay is hardly matters, and has little impact on your appreciation of the game. That the game keeps you engaged despite not being fun is a tremendous and important accomplishment.
Gone Home lacks the two ingredients that seem essential to a good videogame: fun gameplay mechanics and challenge. The only things it lets you do – walk around and look at stuff – are things you can do in a lot of other games, but those games also let you shoot zombies. And the only thing it requires you to do is collect a few not-hard-to-find keys. When you finish a game of the “pew pew pew” variety, having overcome its increasingly difficult challenges and proven your mastery of its complex mechanics, you’re often left with a sense of accomplishment. When you finish Gone Home, you do not feel this. Instead, what you do feel is something that satisfies on a much deeper level, and is much more rewarding.
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