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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).

capture

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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