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Monday, January 13, 2014

Game Day: Gone Home

I don't really want to review Gone Home, because a) the experience is significantly dampened by advance knowledge, and b) it's gotten enough attention that if you're interested in at least the conversation about games as an art form, you should probably play it for a point of reference if nothing else. Beyond that, it's an interesting story, told well, and worth your time for that reason as well.

That said, I feel like there's a lot to be said for engaging with the game critically, and I felt like listing a few of the thoughts I had about it here. I'm assuming with these points that you have played it, so take a couple of hours and go do that if you haven't. These points are more loosely connected than my usual, and just what occurred to me over the course of the game and some thinking afterward.


In its capacity as a storyGone Home doesn't strictly do anything special. It relates the experience of a teenager coming to terms with her identity in the face of family and peers who don't accept her. Though it relates it honestly and movingly, these stories - though still kind of rare in popular media - are not new. Similarly, in its capacity as a gameGone Home offers few new mechanics and its improvements on them are mainly refinements. The main thing that makes Gone Home noteworthy is that it tells a kind of story that's relatively new to mainstream gaming - which is either exciting or depressing depending on your level of optimism and confidence in the form. We haven't had many games in the mainstream whose primary story is based around a gay relationship, and Gone Home is an excellent incursion into this kind of story in video games. Truthfully, video games almost never achieve any kind of honest, emotional story of this caliber, and to that extent, Gone Home is a rousing victory. But other media can do better, and has; Gone Home is an excellent achievement but we should view it as a milestone, not the destination.


It's hard for me to engage Gone Home without looking at other recent games that exist in a similar vein. When I first played Dear Esther the concept of exploring a world and piecing together clues about a story in the past seemed novel. We saw something similar in The Stanley Parable, where the main gameplay is in making choices (going places) and hearing a story based on those choices. Gone Home excels in comparison to both of these games. In Dear Esther it was never clear what impact you were having on the story, or what you would find from exploring. Gone Home gives you a few clear threads to pick up on, and you usually have an idea of what you might learn where; you can tell that you'll find information about your sister in her room, about your father in his study, about your uncle in the spaces between the walls. It's easier to draw connections between where you go, what you interact with, and what you learn. In The Stanley Parable, it was usually evident when you were making a choice, even if it wasn't clear what that choice would earn you. However, the game's main conceit was to mock you for trying to exercise a right to choice, and while its smug tone is funny, it doesn't present any kind of cogent story and ridicules attempts to discern one. By comparison, Gone Home seems to trust its players much more, and its willingness to present you with a meaningful story if you look for it feels much more rewarding. Though there's little more to do in Gone Home than in The Stanley Parable or Dear Esther, the experience feels more interactive because the results are tied more meaningfully to your exploration.


For Gone Home and Dear Esther particularly, it's fun unravelling the story and coming to understand the place you're in, the people who've been there, and what role you play - and for me, that kind of experience inevitably requires comparison to the Myst series. In Myst, you explore a world and try to learn about the people there: how they relate to each other, how their machinery works, what happened to them. Learning about the world serves a fundamental gameplay purpose: you can solve puzzles and move forward in the plot. Additionally, learning about the world allows you to discern a hidden puzzle: that neither of the two choices presented to you at the start of the game are correct, and that you must find another solution to get a satisfying end to the game. By exploring, you learn that one of the brothers imploring you for help is a greedy addict, and the other is sadistic and violent, and neither should be saved. This lends a weight to your exploration that Gone Home just doesn't have, and to my mind, the gameplay experience is less satisfying for it. Though the house you explore is full of hidden details, and though the story is intricate and communicated subtly, the game itself asks little of its player but their time and attention, and at no point offers you an acting role in the story; only an observing one.


If Gone Home is valuable because it's a kind of story video games never tell, it is valuable because of the role of passive observation it asks its player to take. A depressing majority of video games are male power fantasies, wherein the character is able to overcome adversity, resolve his inner struggles, get the girl (see: most Final Fantasy games). You, the man, get to come in and save the day and emerge unconflicted, and since success is contingent on your ability as a player, your victory is all the sweeter. Gone Home takes a very different tack: it asks you to listen, to relinquish your power to solve problems and fix people. It is not your story, but your sister's, and all she wants is for you to listen and try to understand. If you explore discussions on game and game review sites too deeply, or if you just watch the kinds of stories that are produced for mass consumption, you'll see that gamers aren't really used to listening to stories about experiences that aren't their own, and certainly aren't used to an entire game constructed around those experiences. Gone Home is a listening simulator, an understanding simulator, an empathy simulator; this is what makes it unique and worthwhile.


All in all, I enjoyed Gone Home quite a bit, and I'm excited about the possibilities it suggests for games in the future. It sets an excellent standard for what sorts of stories games can now tell: sensitive, human, and not confined to a single perspective. Again: it's not a destination, it's a step on the way, but it's a nice step.

1 comment:

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