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The themes of Gone Home; Story and Mechanics

by Michael Levall on 01/22/14 02:14:00 pm

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.

 

Introduction

In this blog post I will analyze the game Gone Home from the viewpoint of mechanics and story. I will go over the themes of the two elements and how they both work toward their respective themes, my hope is to give a different perspective on the game by focusing on the relationship between story and gameplay. This work was made as a part of my studies at the Blekinge Institute of Technology (Sweden) and I have edited it to better suit the format of a blog post. The work has been made so that the reader does not have to play the game before reading it, even though it is highly recommended. If you have played the game feel free to skip to The game’s Themes.

The following text contains spoilers regarding the story and gameplay of Gone Home.

Story Overview

The story that takes place is set in the 1990s. Katie has just returned home to her family in the USA after a one year trip to Europe and finds the house deserted. The family moved into the house just after Katie left, and she begins searching through the house to find out what has happened to her sister Sam and parents Terrence and Janice.

The main story is about Sam and a girl she meets at High School just after Katie left; Lonnie. Sam and Lonnie falls in love with each other and spend a lot of time searching for ghosts in the new house. Terrence and Janice eventually finds out about them, and confront Sam about it. They tell her that it’s just a phase and that she should find a proper boy. When the parents leave home for their anniversary trip, Lonnie and Sam leaves town in Sam’s car. Katie returns home the day after, finding the house empty and starts off her search for her sister. Katie goes through every nook and cranny of the house and finally finds the last piece of Sam’s diary in the attic, revealing Sam and Lonnie’s escape from town.

Core Gameplay

The player controls Katie in a first person perspective and begins the game just after she has returned on the family’s doorstep. The house is made in 3D and the player can pick up some objects and rotate them to find clues of what have happened. Aside from objects such as cups and books, the player can also pick up and look at written notes or pictures as well as turn on lights to make it easier to search the house. The player progresses by finding the correct objects; unlocking audio logs and revealing hidden passages on the player’s map of the house. When the player finds the last main object, the game ends.

The game’s Themes

Story

The narrative focuses around the growing relationship between Sam and Lonnie, it does a good job of conveying the feeling of growing up and moving away both literally and metaphorically from your parents. This is mainly done using the audio logs and notes scattered throughout the house. The audio logs are addressed to Katie and are written as a part of Sam’s diary. The story interestingly features a fantasy story written by Sam, which Katie finds different parts of. The fantasy story features a man and a woman in love where the man later is turned into a woman; this relates to the transformation Sam goes through from being interested in boys but then finding a new attraction for Lonnie.

The game holds different side-stories for Terrence and Janice, which makes it easier to relate to the way they’re handling their daughter. These stories have their own themes and handle more adult problems such as keeping your job or marriage intact. While they do not aim to convey the feeling of growing up, they certainly make it easier to relate to Sam’s situation.

To summarize the main theme of Sam’s story, it’s about breaking away from a set of rules either imposed by society or parents. Sam is continuously struggling to make her own decisions and lying to her parents to get more time with Lonnie. Lonnie is also struggling to grow up, but being more secure in her affection for Sam. It has been Lonnie’s lifelong dream to join the army after High School, but when it comes to it in the end she chooses to stay with Sam.

Gameplay

The gameplay is very different from the story about Sam and Lonnie, as it makes the player play detective in an unknown house. The gameplay would suit a game about theft, treasure hunting or police investigation just as well. The simplicity of the gameplay puts more focus on the narrative and graphical aesthetics to convey the experience. This kind of gameplay is better suited for players who are interested in experiencing a story without interruptions, and less suited for those interested in what is classically thought of as a game.

The majority of the gameplay is about searching for key objects in drawers, boxes and closets. The backlash with using such simplistic gameplay is that while a game like this can be used to hold a wide variety of stories and themes, it is hard to convey a specific theme with it other than search and find related ones. The theme of Sam’s story is not strengthened by the gameplay as it could have been had another set of mechanics been chosen.

Two Themes in dissonance? A matter of Perspective

I feel like the themes of Sam’s story and the core gameplay of Gone Home are not synchronized with each other. The story is about growing up and leaving your home and past life behind, while the gameplay is about investigating an area and reading notes / listening to commentary. The gameplay almost never progresses or changes, and is only there to make sure that the player unlocks the story in the correct order.

All this being said, the game's mechanics suit the story of Katie exceptionally well. While Sam’s theme is about growing up and escaping a set of imposed rules, Katie’s theme is about the desperate search for a lost friend. Thusly, the developers’ choice of telling the story from Katie’s perspective makes complete sense, as the gameplay's theme of search-and-find is in true synergy with Katie's storyline. Near the end, the player is led to believe that Sam is somewhere in the attic, further intensifying the feeling of searching for a friend.

The player is however never made to feel for Katie the same way he/she is meant to feel for Sam, thusly making the theme of Sam’s story stand out more. The narrative of Gone Home thusly holds two different yet strong and resonating themes, where the one the player is living is the one the gameplay relates to. One could argue that Sam’s story also features a kind of searching, as she investigates her newfound affection for Lonnie. In my opinion, the feeling of breaking away and daring to make your own decisions stand out more in Sam's story than the feeling of searching.

Final Words

The story about Sam is very unusual for a game, and might be one of the reasons why the developers opted for going for Katie’s perspective and theme in the gameplay. Games are often about grand adventures and saving the world while destroying enemies. Gone Home on the other hand might be one of the very few stories in games that is actually relatable.

The following question arises: Is the theme of the gameplay holding the theme of Sam’s story back? By making the player focus on less important things such as the search-and-find routine, instead of reliving the youth of a young girl, this is definitely a possibility. I think that Gone Home is a step in the right direction, and I hope that we soon will see a game like it but with gameplay that aims for the same theme as the main storyline.


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