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Thoughts on the design and narrative of Gone Home
by Christian Nutt on 01/02/14 03:08:00 pm   Editor Blog   Featured Blogs

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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… 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… 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...

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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.

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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… 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.

Originally posted on my Tumblr


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Comments


Robert Green
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"Gone Home is a nice step in the medium's evolution, don't get me wrong, but it's not actually exceptional subject matter." - isn't that kind of the point though? Part of the success of Gone Home is precisely because the subject matter is unexceptional, in a medium where almost nothing relatable takes place.
The more I've been thinking about it, the more Gone Home seems like one of the most realistic game ever made. Not in terms of graphics of course, but the story, the environment, the way everything can be interacted with, it does a better job of seeming like something that could actually have happened. Even the music is realistic in the sense that it only plays when you take a cassette and put it in a stereo. With minor quibbles like the layout of the house aside, would it be all that surprising if it were to turn out that the whole game is based on someone's real experience.
That having been said, audiologs still seem like a cheap way out.

Julius Kuschke
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Thanks for the great read, Christian!
Personally, I didn't have the feeling of not being part of the story, but I can understand why it felt like this for you. I much rather listen to a great audio log than watching a "romantic" scene in which two low-poly characters try to express something with awkward facial expressions (see some of the latest BioWare games). At least at the current state of technology and with the budget of an indie developer a good voice actor is much more capable of communicating emotions. I'm glad that the guys at Fullbright Company knew their limits and did the best within them.

"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!""
You're right, these people exist and to a certain degree I may be one of them. But the reason why Gone Home got so much attention is simply because there are only so few games even trying to tell a serious story. It's just the hope of a lot of people that we might see some more stories in games that don't center around saving the world with big guns and swords. And yes, you're right: In every other medium this wouldn't be in the headlines, but this doesn't change Gone Home's potential relevance for our medium.

"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… are they actually interesting? Can you really do anything in them?"
Amen! :-)

Kyle Redd
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"In every other medium this wouldn't be in the headlines, but this doesn't change Gone Home's potential relevance for our medium."

In our medium, yes, Gone Home is relevant for attempting to tell a realistic story. But I don't think it's moved the needle at all for those who generally don't follow gaming.

Or at least, I haven't heard of any such person (that is, someone who typically doesn't get emotionally invested in game narratives) who had their mind changed after playing Gone Home.

Theresa Catalano
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Nice blog! I agree with a lot of what you said... particularly about audio logs. I've never liked audio logs either... they feel cheap and they make the story feel distant and ineffectual.

Also, I'll take Virtue's Last Reward over games like Gone Home any day. Interactivity is nice and all, but when it comes down to it what makes a good story is a good plot and good characters, things which don't really depend on interactivity at all.

Amir Barak
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But what makes a good game is the way players experience/interact with the world by using the gameplay systems to perform self-narration within the story. This is why cutscene-heavy games can still be considered good games on their 'gamey' bits. Because players feel as though they actually affect the overall world by the way they tell their own story within the games. We make linear choices yes, but the choice between success and failure is always there and always challenging (assuming the gameplay systems are adequate for the task).

It's also possible to remove the binary pass/fail conditions and introduce more complex flow mechanics where the story recognizes and adapts to your decisions without a need to mark them as failures or successes.

But going too far with removing choice within the game will make the game a bad game. No matter what the subject matter is. Giving a bad game a good review solely on the basis of a "serious" story is very much like saying that watching Dara O'brian is a good game because there are some interactive elements with the crowd. It is not a good game although it might make for a better experience (you could turn the experience into a game though, but that's a topic for a different discussion).

Theresa Catalano
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Limiting storytelling to the players choices and "self-narration" is fine, but game developers really shouldn't need to be so constricted just to fit into the narrow definition of "game." There's really nothing wrong with just taking the straightfoward approach and putting cutscenes alongside gameplay. What makes a story good is completely different than what makes a game good, they are too different mediums with two different goals... but they aren't oil and water. They can mix.

Amir Barak
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I don't know why people think that the definition of a game is narrow... We've had games before computers and televisions and consoles, we have board games and card games, we have outdoor games and sport games and learning etc. etc. We're playful creatures we are.

It's also fairly easy to see what's a game and what isn't a game beyond our screens, why are we so willfully blind to games in other mediums?

"What makes a story good is completely different than what makes a game good, they are too different mediums with two different goals... but they aren't oil and water. They can mix."
Story isn't a medium.
Game is a narrative medium which can be set within a story and used to tell a story while allowing players to participate in the story.
Not all games need a traditional story; all games require a "story-logic" or "world" to inhabit, sometimes this is provided by the gameplay systems and sometimes it provides the gameplay systems.
Story and games don't need to mix because they rest on completely different conceptual layers.
Games and Movies can mix. Heck Games and Books can mix. But don't confuse the game parts with the movie parts because you'll start on your way to making a bad game, a lot like Gone Home.

Look at "Papers, Please", minimal story, minimal gameplay systems. Works beautifully. You may not enjoy the game for what it is (I'm finding it difficult to be honest) but if you analyze it from a game's perspective you'll realize it's a great game.

Gone Home's story is cliched, overused, convenient and flat.
Gone Home's gameplay systems are minimal, restrictive and entirely inadequate to tell a story with.

If you think Gone Home's story and storytelling mechanics are amazing I suggest reading "Random Acts of Senseless Violence" then let's start comparing notes on a diary of teen angst.

Christian Nutt
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If Gone Home were prose, it'd be a short story, not a novel.

Amir Barak
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Just not a very good one. It's far too fractured and obviously part of a greater, untold, novel. Passing that off as a short story would be like taking, I dunno, "Deadhouse Gates", tearing about 5 pages from the middle and saying that's a short story set in the "Malazan Book of the Fallen" universe.

Christian Nutt
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I disagree completely. I don't think there's anything about this story that isn't self-contained. Could it be expanded upon? Yes. But what's there tells a complete story.

Amir Barak
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I think I see where we differ. You're talking about Sam and the Parents stories, which yeah, are fairly self-contained. I was referring to Katie, remember her, I understand if you don't given that she's barely even there. Gone Home is Katie's story, or should be, but it isn't and it is far from self-contained or good.

Christian Nutt
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Well, two things:

- I did mention that I wasn't crazy about the nature of playing the observer's role in Gone Home. But the story that's told is complete and cohesive.

- Plenty of fiction has narrators who aren't the primary movers in their stories. That's not a hard-and-fast rule.

So thanks to your comment I do see a potential to make a Katie-like character who works better than Katie does, at least. But I can't say I completely agree that there's a necessity for Gone Home to have been Katie's story to be a satisfying or complete piece of fiction.

Alex Covic
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I am still amazed, how much coverage this game gets with the "media" types, as in game critics or game journalist audiences. This game seemed to have struck a chord with a lot of you, on a personal level, I myself cannot comprehend or follow.

I think, it is great that a game like Going Home exists. I admire the idea of having a story about a "non-usual", non-game-cliche character (although, it introduces and follows cliches and stereotypes in a wider sense, of course). As a story, it has to "connect" with the audience on some level.

But I also dislike Going Home a lot. It is a poor game. I don't mean, it needs more gameplay. I am perfectly fine with storytelling in 3D engines (like "Dear Esther") or a game like "Proteus". I want more of that. Going Home just is not "good enough" - imho - to deserve such a wide media response. I am judgmental like that, I guess.

Every novel has more depth on a single page, than this (or any?) video game? People talk a lot about the "great writing". I don't get that neither. Maybe I am too spoiled by having read all the great 19th-20th century novels (not just English Literature) and then some.

It seems to trigger a lot in people, who write for a living and feel the desire to talk about themselves. But that is not the game. This is not IN the game, as far as I can see. Umberto Eco writes in his literature theory books about the "strong" and "weak" readers, known today as "close reading" (or the opposite). I think, many people read too much into this game. Maybe I am wrong. Apologies, Christian. I do not mean to be flip or rude. I am just amazed.

Kyle Redd
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I believe Christian touched on the reason for the high level of attention in his editorial - the desperation of some within the community to see gaming acknowledged as a serious storytelling medium by those outside the community.

Jason Wilson
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I don't understand the hype for Gone Home, either. While game reviews come from an individual opinion, I've been able to trust that highly reviewed games are good on some significant level. Maybe not my usual type of game, but an arguably good game in another genre, that would provide a reasonable amount of enjoyment. Gone Home has caused me to question every highly regarded indie game from this point forward.

Last week I completed the game in 2-3 hour playthrough. For a pure experience, I like to avoid as much information about movies and games prior to playing or watching. That goes double for mystery entertainment. All it took was the note on the door and any one of the notes in the sister's room to figure out the what happened. That realization was immediately followed by a feeling of dread -- this way all the game had to offer.

A game that I could find less interesting is difficult to imagine. Nothing happened with the story. Some flirting with the supernatural or the occult that amounted to nil. It a mounted to picking things up, examining them and reading someone else's diary (which does not appeal to me). Gone Home seemed to be a just portion of a game. Quite hollow.

Don't get me started on the horrendous girl garage band soundtrack.

Luke Meeken
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While I hate to employ the "...for a video game" caveat, I do think it's important to acknowledge that Gone Home's writing and storytelling are strong and inventive ... for a video game.

Yes, it's not Tolstoi, but as a short bit of writing I certainly found it more emotionally affecting than almost any other narrative game I've played (Cadre's Photopia made me a little misty a decade ago... I've having trouble of thinking of another that comes close), and formally/structurally somewhat more interesting/involving than most other game narratives (while Sam's story is foregrounded, there are other significant aspects of the family's stories - [SPOILER]such as the childhood abuse of the father in the home[/SPOILER] - which are exclusively contained in environmental and contextual elements that require a certain amount of investigation and inference).

I would say Gone Home is being talked about a lot not because it is a 'masterpiece' so much as because it is a 'much needed breath of fresh air.'

Luis Guimaraes
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For me the best storytelling in a 'game ever is still a 5 minute flash game from 2010.

http://www.kongregate.com/games/pixelante/immortall

Anybody pursuing storytelling through 'games should play it a couple times.

Tadhg Kelly
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On the whole I liked it, but am I the only person who suspected that it was all going to turn out to be an imaginary-friend or multiple-personality story? It was the fact that I kept finding scraps of paper with dialog written around the house. I kept thinking "how would these get here in the first place?"

Katy Smith
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Nice review :)

I'm surprised at how few articles mention the story-line of her parents. For me, that was way more moving that the story of Sam and Lonnie.

When the story starts, you are the "good" teenage daughter from a "good" family. You're coming back from a European road trip, you had good grades in school, you did everything "right". When you come back, you discover that your parents are sexual beings. Your mom is considering an affair because your dad has pulled away. Your dad is having huge issues ever since moving into the house. You discover that your dad is mediocre at best at his job. He had a failed dream of being a writer. He had a terrible relationship with his father and he was sexually abused in the house he now owns. And all of these issues have been suppressed for a very long time.

Gone Home told this story in a way that couldn't be done in other media. As Katie, you discover that what you thought was home has never been what you thought it was. Katie can never go back to viewing her family in the same way again. She has changed because she is now seeing her family for who they are, not who they are supposed to be. Because Gone Home is a video game, it allows Fullbright to "show not tell" you what it's like to experience that moment of growing up.

Christian Nutt
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Wow. I literally missed all the stuff about the parents you just mentioned! I didn't pick up on any of it, except his writing career. All I got was that mom was good at the Forest Service job and was an immigrant.

Amir Barak
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"Because Gone Home is a video game, it allows Fullbright to "show not tell" you what it's like to experience that moment of growing up."
Of course the main problem with this assertion is that "show don't tell" is a tenet of movies and not games. "Play don't show" is the basic premise behind games.

Personally I found it hard to relate to what Katie feels or how she changes given that she's a floating mute puppet with no limbs; but heck, I guess that's just me.

Gone Home is a story that could be told in pretty much every other medium under the sun, has been told in pretty much every other medium under the sun and was told better in most other mediums under sun than it has been here using very few and very traditional gameplay systems plucked from the myriad of others that are available to us as game developers.

Brian Peterson
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Amir, I'm curious whether mute, invisible protagonists have the same unrelatable quality for you in other FPS games, or is there something different in how the character was handled in this game that made it difficult for you?

I felt like I was able to empathize with Katie's experiences pretty quickly. I can describe who Katie is and how the events of the game affected her with more confidence than I can for Gordon Freeman, Master Chief, or any other FPS protagonist that comes to mind.

Playing in her role, I actually felt uncomfortable when I started discovering evidence of my mother's affair, or thinking about what could have happened to my father in that house when he was a child. As you said, I've experienced the basics of these stories in other media time and time again. They shouldn't have had these effects on me, but being in this medium seems to be what actually gave these stories weight for me.

Amir Barak
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Haven't played much of Half Life at all to be honest or Halo.

Most of the "silent protagonist" games give you other characters to bounce yourself off as well as providing gameplay systems which provide ways to "customize" yourself.

I can't debate against your personal experience obviously. I do find it interesting that you empathize and can even describe her; so let me ask you something.

What is Katie like? What did she study abroad? How did that affect her? Did she not meet anyone there? No boyfriends or girlfriends? Is she a virgin? Is she really upset at Sam's behaviour? Does she understand? Does she like her parents? How many friends has she got? Does she make friends easily? Has she had a haircut in a year abroad? Is her hair pink as well? How has she changed through her life experience away from everything she knew? Who is Katie anyway, where's her personality?

Brian Peterson
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No need for debate - I never claimed to know Katie's life story. I claimed that I know more about her than other silent FPS protagonists. This isn't much at all, but for me, it gave me enough to go on to be able to step into that role convincingly.

I could certainly give you my own answers to your questions based on the Katie that exists in my mind, but I don't think it would do much good, since they would be based on my own personality and experience. I think I'm more willing to meet a character halfway when it's a game, since I'm able to control their actions rather than just observe. If Katie were a character in a movie and I was watching her ransack a house and find out secrets about her family, I probably wouldn't have cared nearly as much.

Thanks for elaborating though - it's interesting to see how and why people react to this game so differently.

Amir Barak
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"If Katie were a character in a movie and I was watching her ransack a house and find out secrets about her family, I probably wouldn't have cared nearly as much."
Really? that sounds very strange to me, are you actually saying that neither Scorsese, Welles or Kubrick could make a movie to evoke stronger empathy than Gone Home? Really?

"since I'm able to control their actions "
But, you can't control her actions in any meaningful way. Gone Home has no meaningful interaction with the stories it tells you. You are, by definition, only an observer. The entire case point for this experience is that you simply explore and observe...

Matthew Ribkoff
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I cried during Gone Home, multiple times, I felt joy, fear, and curiosity. Considerably more than I can say for most of Scorcese's work of the last 30 years.
But the point is, which you are breaking up into two lesser points, that by controlling action, pace, and POV, the experience is immersive in a way that a movie depicting the same events would not be.

Brian Peterson
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I think you've misinterpreted some of my comments and jumped to a few unintended conclusions. I'll try being clearer:

I would not want to watch a movie about the events shown in the game.

I don't mean a movie that includes the external events - Sam's romance, the parents' marriage problems, the uncle's history of abuse - that would be interesting in the hands of a good director.

I'm talking about a movie about Katie walking around a house, picking things up, and reading notes about events that are never shown on the screen. I think that would be boring to watch, even in the hands of a great director, and I don't think I would feel empathetic towards the main character.

If I didn't have control over her actions in a meaningful way, how is it possible that people have different levels of understanding about the story in the game? Just look at the comments above from Katy and Christian - each of them came away from the game with a different understanding about the story based on the actions they took in the game. Katy explored the game in more detail, earning the equivalent of the 100% complete, super-special ending, while Christian "beat" the game by getting to the end, but he skipped some of the best parts.

Would it help to think of it as a 3D hidden-object game with a story? Instead of being rewarded with points, you get rewarded with details that flesh out the characters and events. Your enjoyment of the game depends on whether you find the action of voyeuristic exploration and the story rewards to be interesting and valuable. It sounds like you disliked one or both of those parts of the game very strongly, which can explain why you didn't enjoy it. Hope that helps explain why I did!

Luis Guimaraes
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@Brian Peterson

Have you watched V For Vendetta? When Evey reads the note left by the oppressed girl couple about their relationship the movie shows sequences of what happened on top of the reading of the note. It'd take a very bad director to only show Natalie Portman reading the notes and nothing else.

That's what movies were before their language was explored, but Cinema is not Literature or Theatre. Show, don't tell.

Brian Peterson
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@Luis

Definitely true. I enjoyed the fact that in Gone Home, I had to put those pieces together myself, rather than being shown, and that there was always a risk of missing some crucial detail.

Luis Guimaraes
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I love when stuff is not on your face and there to be found too. That's a very respectful way to present your audience with. I have a weak-spot for media underestimating my intelligence. :X

Not that showing stuff is bad either. But if it's a detective 'game (in the case of Gone Home) then let's us investigate! More power! o/

Luke Meeken
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The game uses a variety of strategies at varying levels of subtlety, requiring varying degrees of player inference and engagement, to meaningfully flesh out 3-4 characters and their relationships in a way idiosyncratically well-suited to the medium.

But let's harp on the lack of characterization of the intentionally-mostly-blank-slate player-character, despite the fact that Gone Home is pretty emphatically not her story, and despite the fact that Gone Home more ably handles the 'silent player character' trope than almost any of its antecedents (Myst-style adventures and FPS games) by making a deliberate distinction between 'player character' and 'protagonist.'

Amir Barak
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"blank-slate player-character... deliberate distinction between 'player character' and 'protagonist."
Really? I think other people might disagree;

Brian found it easy to empathize and can even describe Katie while Katy not only experienced Katie's (this is confusing :P ) growth and discomfort she also goes on to describe Katie sometimes as us (You) and sometimes as the character (Katie).

If Gone Home is not the story of Kaitlyn Greenbrier then why is it called "Gone Home"?

The puzzles in Myst make it a game; we can debate whether it's good or bad depending on the puzzle designs but that's irrelevant for our purposes. If you take out all the puzzles in Myst it'd be a boring game and most definitely not a good game. In fact it'd be Gone Home.

I understand that the designers of Gone Home wanted to tell four human-centric stories (Sam, Lonnie, Mom, Dad) even let us glimpse others (Grandpa, Uncle whats-his-name) but the main strength of games isn't just interactivity, it's reactivity (ie. meaningful interactivity). It's about having rules that allow players to affect the story/world around either directly or indirectly.

This is where games should and do push technology, to give us as players better ways to interact with the world we inhabit and it should go beyond just graphics. Which is where alot of AAA titles fall and where Gone Home falls as well. It's also why very simple puzzle games are so easy to get into and can be considered good (even though I pretty much loathe most of the business models they're set on). It's the cycle of interaction->reaction->interaction. Gone Home only has interaction.

Luis Guimaraes
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"to 'meaningfully' flesh out 3-4 characters and their relationships"

Meaningfully?

"isn't just interactivity, it's reactivity (ie. meaningful interactivity)"

If anything I'd say it's the opposite. Interactivity is "meaningful" reactivity: https://vimeo.com/24212555

Amir Barak
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Chris Crawford is awesome! I will finish watching that when I get the time though.

That said, I'm not sure I understand what you're saying with this sentence:
"If anything I'd say it's the opposite. Interactivity is "meaningful" reactivity"

Why did you put the word 'meaningful' under quotations? are you implying it has no value in the sentence? Are you using it ironically?

Also, negating a statement by saying the exact opposite of it isn't really an argument it's just a weird construct outside the context of the original concept.

We could easily program a simple form with a single button that you can click on. That's interactive. It has no meaning. We could also add text popups every time you click the button. Is that a game? Is that an interactive book? Clicking the button still has no meaning. It's interactive but has no reactive value in any shape or form to the clicker. Which is why it's not a game.

Add a counter to the button and a leaderboard and you got, well pretty much every Facebook game ever made at this point. Which are bad games (but at least games) because the "interactivity" they purpose has no meaning. Has no reactive value.

There are other ways to add meaning to clicking on buttons and making good games, I've got a very specific example in mind but I can't recall the name of it. An old RPG flash game about clicking on boxes in the screen. I'll have to dig it out.

***
Ah, watched a bit more; I think I see what you mean with that. Did you mean to say that true/complete interactivity is meaningful reactivity (or contains it at least)?

I also agree with Chris Crawford on many levels of his view. I think the conversation model is somewhat misleading though.

Luis Guimaraes
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I'm not using the word ironically, it's an overused buzzword that doesn't mean anything 99% of the time it's used, that's why it's in quotes because it's replacing some other word that should be there, not sure which word. I guess it means "important", but if so, every times it's used it's wrong IMHO.

I guess I just have to accept that I put "meaningful" in a different layer of the Maslow's pyramids in comparison to everyone else (or rather, from people from the first world).

"We could easily program a simple form with a single button that you can click on."

Well that's exacly the point of what I said: no, that button not interactive, it's reactive. Chris Crawford's video explains that better than I could.

Yes to your last sentence. A sheet of wrapping-bubble is reactive, the person acts, it reacts, but it doesn't act. Similarly, QTE is likely the opposite: the 'game acts, the player reacts. Interaction, I guess, means both act and both react.

Now if both is better than each is subjective and case-by-case, therefore irrelevant, but I'd say if we're to say which one is more "meaningful" (in quotes because I don't know what it's trying to say), I'd say it's interactivity, assuming meaningful means it has an extra amount of "something".

Edit:

Ultimately it's about frequency of interaction. When people say "this is barely interactive" it meanse 'game's – both are apostrophes, not quotes; 'game is short for "video-game" and not "game" – turn to act last too long and the players time to react is too short and don't cause the kind of reaction that's enough for their turn to be considered an action and not just a reaction to the 'game's action.

Similarly if the player acts but the 'game doesn't react, the player's action is incomplete for not having a reaction (I think I start to get the idea "meaningful" means "virtually meaningful", or rather "worth it" in some of the times it's used, that makes a lot more sense...). Feedback alone is reaction and can make the players action complete, but still doesn't make it interactive unless the 'game acts for the player to react too. And for it to be perceived as more and more interactive, the frequency of interaction must be made shorter and shorter, and allow for multiple simultaneous actions and reactions from both sides (player and 'game).

It's an advantage of audio logs and voice acting over written text that the player can be acting by at elast moving around (reaction is that he's moving through space) and the 'game is making exposition (reaction is the player is listening and maybe thinking about it if it's "important").

More edit:

Density and Sinchronicity of interaction (action and reaction from both sides; "Inter-Action") makes said interaction be perceived as such in a scale (or layer) of time that "matters" for the human brain. Say, is a war that lasts ten thousand years in which each "play" takes a generation really "interactive" for the individuals involved? Sure the involved nations are interacting but each person is player their own other smaller games in their own layer of things and time.

This makes me think now about the heated reaction (exactly: reaction) on forums and comment sections some 'games receive. Maybe the 'game itself only acted and talked all the way the players only get to react (yep) and talk back outside the medium (the original software the 'game came in).

Players will always find a way to play and express themselves, and if the 'game doesn't let them do it inside it's world they're going to do it outside.

A meta-game is a game nonetheless.

(Sounds like we found something interesting to study further.)

Amir Barak
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With all this conversation going on one might start arguing that the Gamasutra comment sections are interactive :P

I'm going to mull things over for a bit. Thanks for some really interesting insights :D

Matthew Ribkoff
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"So if Gone Home is just a rewarmed adventure game, what's with the huge reaction?"

Because it so lovingly connects audiences that are at best ignored, at worst actively derided and abused by, the games industry.

Ben Fowler
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I appreciate the in-world storytelling and the writing, but not the main story. The way the story is conveyed (the Reproductive System assignment was the highlight) is superb. But in the end, it's just a story I've heard a thousand times; the coming-of-age story. There's nothing new there. If you're going to try to excel on the strength of the writing, you need a more interesting story. There's nothing wrong with what they gave us, but there's nothing new and interesting about the story, either.

I'm probably just biased against coming-of-age stories, though.

Bart Stewart
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Christian, thanks for posting this. It got me thinking about Gone Home in ways I hadn't before, and that's exactly what I value in criticism. (I will say I didn't think all the "fucks" and "shits" added any value, though.)

1. Why is a designer "smug" for pointing out that the *inherent requirement* of games for interactivity makes them different than other storytelling media? Interactivity doesn't just mean engaging emotionally or intellectually with pre-determined messages from the writer -- real interactivity means the world that's simulated in software is capable of changing and responding to the choices you make in that world. I see no smugness in pointing out that a computer game that doesn't take full advantage of this wonderful feature is not making full use of the medium. That's not "bad" -- just disappointing.

So to the extent that Gone Home is an adventure game, with a fixed story offering no real freedom for the player to affect anything, then I'd agree that it missed an opportunity to use the medium fully. More true feedback-loop interactivity = more player engagement/immersion/investment in that game's intended play experience = a better game.

2. I don't know the extent to which any of these were a factor for the Fulbright folks. But here are some possible reasons for the use of audiologs to tell a past-tense story rather than animated characters to tell an as-it-happens story:

* limited developer resources (animating characters is expensive)
* the game is not so much a reference to BioShock as to System Shock, which emphasized a past disaster and encouraged exploration to learn how it happened
* setting the story in the past gives an elegiac feeling, much like ruins in Elder Scrolls games, that's important for the "feel" of Gone Home

On that second point, even System Shock had communications in present-time from outside persons. It might have been effective for Gone Home to have telephone calls from an outside source to help make the story more immediate for the player.

3. I haven't played Gone Home. (I don't enjoy "message" games.) Even so, I've followed it closely, and I believe this is a game worth making because it's about *people*. That's radically different from most games, which to an almost monomaniacal degree emphasize action.

Even if it's not perfect, making a game that's so strongly focused on human thought and feeling offers an serious alternative to the many games that are basically mindless time-wasters. There's nothing wrong with those as fun... but games can be more amazing than that. Talking about people is a valuable step in that direction.


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