Gone Home: a chat.

In which Evan and Tessa discuss a new video game that they played together and really liked. (So did other people – it is a 2013 Finalist for Excellence in Narrative from the Independent Games Festival as well as getting an Honorable Mention for Excellence in Audio and Seumas McNally Grand Prize!)

screenshot from Varewulf.wordpress.com

screenshot from Varewulf.wordpress.com

Tessa: So, Evan. I learned about Gone Home via a Rookie Mag Saturday Links list in March. I think I talked to you about it, or you noticed that I liked its Facebook entity, or something. Did you hear about it somewhere else, or did you hear about it through me?

Evan: I heard about the game through you mentioning it to me. I remember us talking about a video game to play together while I was playing Bioshock: Infinite and you brought up Gone Home. I don’t really follow video game news or play many games these days so I’m pretty blind when it comes to 99% of new releases. After you mentioned it I watched a trailer and the game started to intrigue. I love adventure games and the idea of interactive stories. As somebody that doesn’t really play video games, what made you interested in Gone Home?

Tessa: It was the whole atmosphere of the game – the 90s riot grrrl bands, an empty house, the sound of rain on the roof and windows. Although I grew up during the riot grrrl phase, I never got to be one (instead, I described myself as a riot nrrrd), so I felt like this could be my chance to play one in a video game.
from Jenny Woolworth's Riot Grrrl Diary

from Jenny Woolworth’s Riot Grrrl Diary

As it turns out, you get to play the sister of someone who becomes part of the scene, so I still didn’t get to fulfill my fantasy. Maybe there will be a game based on Blake Nelson’s Girl in the future. One can hope.

Also, we’d been talking about finding a video game to play together and this one looked like it wouldn’t require so many hand-eye coordination skills. I’m not a huge gamer because I kind of suck at using video game controls. Even when I did play NES during my youth, I would get too into the game and hobble myself with a combination of physical enthusiasm (jumping when my character should jump) and mental terror (what if my character does not make it across that chasm?), so the experience was exciting but terminally frustrating.

So I spend my free time doing things at which I can improve.

What I’m saying is I’m glad you’re into board games.

Is this the time that we declare that this discussion might get spoilery? And do you want to describe your first impressions of the game/the basic plot?

the last game system Tessa seriously played, a.k.a. the point at which you can stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers

the last game system Tessa seriously played, a.k.a. the point at which you can stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers

Evan: Definitely. What makes Gone Home special is the story and it’s pretty impossible to discuss the game meaningfully without discussing what happens in it. Despite my desire for blogging fame I’m going to make an impassioned plea that if you are interested in Gone Home that you should navigate away from this page, log in to Steam, download Gone Home and play it. Then come back here and read.

How to know if this is something for you? If you’re interested in interactive storytelling, video games with rich atmosphere and expertly crafted characters, if you’re interested in exploring a creepy house and looking for the clues to a mystery then you’ll probably dig Gone Home. You will not be killing anything or solving complex puzzles, you will be experiencing a story. Go play it.

With that out of the way, in Gone Home you play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21 year old woman returning home from a European trip in 1995. While she was away her family moved to a large mansion outside Seattle. She arrives home on a dark, rainy night to find a note on the front door from her younger sister and nobody home. As Kaitlin you’re trying to find out what happened to your family by exploring the mansion.

I fell in love with this game almost instantly. The set-up is really juicy. The game tosses you into this scenario with almost no background and plays on your lack of knowledge rather effectively. Mechanically the game is really simple. All you can really do is walk around, pick up objects, rotate them, and read various notes and letters left behind. There are lots of details to dig into in the house. It was fun to just go slow and search for a little tidbit of information that would reveal more of the story.

What are your feelings about the very beginning of the game? Did you have any expectations for how the game would play or what it was about beyond the basic premise?

Tessa: I was really into the game from the beginning, too. From the menu, actually, which I found out was done by Emily Carroll, an artist whose work I’d previously admired in comics form (especially in a creepy story in the Explorer: The Mystery Boxes collection). It turns out her wife (Kate Craig) is one of the game designers, so Emily illustrated the start page,along with in-game maps, and the font is based on her handwriting (more info here):

How great is that? The dusky sky lit by some illumination – the setting sun? The one light on in the whole rambling house emerging from the trees, with the door left slightly open – it’s not clear whether in neglect or invitation. The image works against the usual connotations of the word “home”, and then “gone” takes a double meaning. So the atmosphere is apparent immediately.

The game itself opens with Kaitlin seeing her family’s new house for the first time. It’s raining. The enclosed front porch is lit by a lonely lamp, and she has to find the key (our first task as players).

I personally find it difficult to imagine that anyone in the world doesn’t like the idea of exploring a big old empty house, so I was already into it. And then when she finds a Christmas themed duck, and a text box proclaims “Good ol’ Christmas Duck”, I was delighted.  There was humor, familiarity, character, history.

As you can see from the screenshot below, the graphics in Gone Home aren’t trying to fool you into thinking that it’s anything but a video game. It isn’t Final Fantasy-level…rendering? I don’t know what the word is.

Not to say that creating a game didn’t take lots of love and work, but they don’t have to, because the strength is in the story. Your brain attaches to the story that you’re building through exploration and smoothes out the edges of what you’re seeing, so it doesn’t end up mattering. It feels real.

I didn’t have any expectations about how the game would play, but I did somehow expect that it would have a creepy angle.  And there are some moments in there that pander to that expectation – but this isn’t a murder mystery or a tragic story.

As much as I want to play a video game where I explore a haunted house, I’m glad that my expectations weren’t met, and impressed that they were fooled with by the game designers – not just the stories of the parents, which I thought could go in a couple different directions, but the back story of the house’s original owner, especially a blown light bulb in particular.

That story I hope requires some further digging. I’d like more than the hints we have now.

What did you think of the game experience compared to your other video gaming experiences? Do you think it lends itself to more than one play?

Evan: The title screen is super impressive. It feels like the cover to a book, which is appropriate because Gone Home feels like an interactive book. I’m glad you mentioned the Christmas Duck and the textbox joke. There were lots of great little moments like that in the game. I especially liked when you find a condom in your parents bedroom and the text description of it is just “Eww.” I loved all the items you could interact with. I liked finding tapes to put in stereos or playing records that you find. All those little things add to the character of the house.

Good point on the “horror” elements of the game. They are definitely there to subvert the expectations of the player. Gone Home is a game that is boldly about ordinary people. I listened to a great extended interview with one of the game’s creators (Steve Gaynor) on the Qt3 Games Podcast, and he explained that those moments are in the game to help ground it in reality. For example if you find a teenage girl’s ghosthunting journal in a video game the expectation is that at some point of the game you’ll be seeing ghosts, but if you found one in somebody’s house in the real world you would just think it was the result of kids having fun and not assume that the house is haunted.

As you begin to piece together more and more information from exploring the house you begin to realize that your younger sister Sam has met Lonnie, a young woman at her new high school. As the two girls bond and become friends they realize they are in love with each other. The moments that build up to this realization are beautifully detailed. When you find a key piece of information you hear Sam’s voice reading her diary. These were some of the most moving portions of the game. The voice actress playing Sam was great. The V.O. diary filled in big pieces of the story, but there’s a ton of details to be found by looking at items, reading notes, and rifling through drawers. You get to see a lot of items that Sam and Lonnie bonded over: riot grrl cassette tapes, a ticket stub to pulp fiction, SNES game cartridges, VHS recorded episodes of the X-Files. I loved finding all those details. It gave me a real sense of who all of the characters were without even interacting with them once.

I really have to applaud how this game features a real, loving lesbian relationship that wasn’t sensationalized or sophomoric or all about sex. Maybe this is my lack of current videogame playing speaking, but I can’t think of another game that approaches love with this level of maturity and believability. You develop a very strong emotional bond with Sam and her struggles to hide her relationship from her parents, or her struggling to find herself and realize who she is.

Sam is the heart of the the story and is the main character of the game, but there are great story arcs for the parents as well and you get to know them to a great level of detail. You get the sense that real people live in the house and they are just away. Ironically Kaitlin (the character you are controlling) is probably the least developed character in the game. I think that’s an asset of the game because it lets you insert yourself emotionally into the story with a greater ease.

I’ve never played a video game like Gone Home before. Genuinely. I think most games emphasize thrills and intensity over quieter story moments. I think there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but Gone Home feels like a gigantic leap forward in what a video game can do with narrative.

The replayability of the game is an interesting discussion to have. It has been one of games aspects that has drawn some criticism. There’s nothing variable about the game other than the order you find items, so once you find everything in the house it won’t change on subsequent plays. So if you want to come back to Gone Home and have a different experience you probably won’t play the game more than once.. But I could certainly envisions people playing the game again to revisit the story. I think the reason replayability has been so hotly contested is because of the video game medium. People don’t criticize books or movies because they don’t inherently offer different experiences when you revisit them. Yet people do read certain books and watch certain movies more than once. That said there is a lot to discover in the game. I’m positive there are still details we haven’t found yet, so there is a reason to come back until you’re sure you’ve explored every nook and cranny of the house.

What are your thoughts about the story? Were there any specific moments of the game that you found especially moving or fascinating?

Tessa: I like your comments about replayability in games vs. in books or movies. If you’re measuring Gone Home by the standards of an adventuring, quest type game, it will fail. Because it doesn’t belong in the genre. It’s definitely a storytelling experience. But while Gone Home has a rich world, I’m not sure it can be judged yet on the level of things like a book, as far as equating replaying and re-reading.

Sam’s and Lonnie’s relationship isn’t played as a huge twist, and I like that. Gone Home is really mining the theme of discovery and self-discovery. You can see it not just with Sam, but also with the parents, and to a superficial extent with Kaitlin, coming back from time abroad.

And I love the way it plays with the idea of home – not just the house space, but the idea of the people that give us the feeling of being home. Home is a deceptively simple idea, but one that carries different experiences for everyone and can be counted on to hit some emotional chord. I can’t praise the game designers/creators enough for the way they created both a home and an unknown space. As Edgar Albert Guest so colloquially says,

“Home ain’t a place that gold can buy or get up in a minute;

Afore it’s home there’s got t’ be a heap o’ livin’ in it”

So I do think the game succeeds in atmosphere and thematic elements, and I believe you when you say it is a giant leap forward in depicting  a realistic first love between two teenage girls. But I’m not sure if it has enough meat in the story to draw me back again once I discovered everything in the game. Sam & Lonnie’s story is sweet, and open-ended. I’d probably end up yearning for more instead of re-enjoying it ,although it might be something that I pulled out from time to time to revisit the environment, though, or to play with a new person.

I also hope its success paves the way for more games like this.

 

 

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8 Comments

  1. TV's Adam

     /  October 27, 2013

    This game is so, so brilliant.

    I just finished it literally five minutes ago. I saw that you had posted something about it, but refrained from reading until I had played through the game myself, then came straight back here.

    Gone Home does precisely, perfectly what it sets out to accomplish as a video game; and, more importantly, could not really do so as anything OTHER than a video game. As someone who plays a frankly ridiculous amount of games, I know what a rarity that is, and that’s a big part of why this 2-hour walk through a spooky old house spent listening to cassettes, reading notes and slowly rotating stuff you picked up off a nearby surface is one of the best games I’ve played in years.

    I’m inclined to say there’s precious little reason to play through it again, because it really is about the slow reveal – now that I know the answers to all the questions the game raises about its characters (even the house’s former owner), I feel like replaying would just be…mechanical. Checking boxes off a list to make sure I got everything. So I would probably not play it twice…but I’d like to get more or less everyone I know to play it once.

    • I’m so glad to have your take on this, Adam! And that you played and enjoyed it. Are you going to play The Stanley Parable? That’s one that Evan just showed me the trailer for.

      • TV's Adam

         /  October 28, 2013

        I’ve played an older version of The Stanley Parable, and very much intend to play this new release, which near as I can tell is a more elaborate version of the original. It’s another really good example of a game that accomplishes things it couldn’t accomplish as anything other than a game. Both games simultaneously communicate in and subvert the typically agreed-upon language of video games, though I think for different reasons. Or at least to different ends.

      • rad. maybe you could write about it. 🙂

  2. Dudes, I haven’t played a video game since the gaming system pictured above, but this was so intriguing that I totally want to try it! Is it a game I could play on the computer, or is it for a particular system? I LOVE the image of the house—it looks almost like the drawings from Fun Home, only with better colors. I’m so delighted there’s a riot grrrl lesbian creepy house mystery video game I can’t even tell you.

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