There has been a lot of (very silly) debate about whether Gone Home is a "real" game. While the "yes, it definitely is," camp has almost certainly won that particular argument, at a GDC session, The Fullbright Company's Steve Gaynor expanded upon this a bit.
In Skyrim, for example, you can do all sorts of crazy things, but you can also put cheese wheels in your pocket. Quite a lot of them. He then showed a screenshot of a house in Skyrim, filled entirely with cheese wheels. "The game doesn't tell you to do that, that something you can do with cheese wheels is you could fill a house with them," he says. "But the rules allow you to do that."
In Gone Home, there's no reason you need to pick up Kleenex boxes, or papers. "Nothing about the physics objects says 'what you really should do is find every one that you can and fill the front hall with it,'" Gaynor jokes. "The game is not asking you to do this, it's not a challenge. But the players, as they play, internalize the ruleset and say 'I see the opportunity to play and I'm going to take it.'"
Gaynor thinks it's very important to give players those low level verbs. "They can connect the high level structure -- in the case of Gone Home, the story -- with these low level verbs that allow them to express the empathy they've built for the characters they find in the end," he says, showing a series of objects lined up in tribute to a certain character in the game. "You'll recognize these are objects that only through having engaged with the story, do you know these objects all have a relationship to the characters."
"I think it's important for games to have two players," says Gaynor. And the second player can be the system. "It can be the expression of rules created by a designer," he adds. "We wanted to have that presence -- the feeling of something else that's acknowledging you, which knows you're there. So we did that by thinking about what players might do, and makes them feel acknowledged, like they're not completely alone."
An example is turning lights on and off. It's useful simply to see, but players can also use it to mark their progress, to know they've been in a room. "You start in a dark house, you turn on every light, now you know you've been there. It has a practical space organizational purpose," he says. "In a game that has a fiction of being in a family's house, what was happening was one of the teenage daughters was going around the house leaving every damn light on, so we had this idea, half hour into the game, putting this note that says 'Sam, stop leaving every damn light in the house on!'"
They knew 98 percent of players were going to leave the lights on, so this would resonate with them. "This was a way of saying 'we know what you're doing. We're playing back with you, not by AI dodging when you shoot a bullet, but by winking and nodding at you,'" says Gaynor. "We want you to feel like you're in a space, but also that you're playing a game, and the game is playing back with you."