What Made Gone Home Such a Powerful Game?

What Made Gone Home Such a Powerful Game?

Shamus explores the haunting familiarity of Gone Home, and how it shines next to other, less apt portrayals of the past.

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To be honest if I want narrative, I'm not going to play a game. I find books, film or TV better at narrative than any game. Thats just my opinion. Games are great at running, jumping and standing still but as medium for narrative it leaves a lot to be desired.

Very good article, and it probably does capture at least a part of why I personally enjoyed the game so much. It was not only immersion in a world but immersion in a world I was both familiar with (being approximately the "right" age) but totally foreign to at the same time (being not female and not gay). One of my other favourite aspects of the game was how it played with the typical narrative of games in a subversive way. Playing or even just watching the first 5 minutes of the game makes you feel like you know basically what's going to happen and how things are going to play out, and the game continually toys with that presumed sense of familiarity. This sort of experience actually is likely to impact someone with the sort of extended gaming time under their belt as a critic would have more than it would someone who didn't have as much experience.

The thing is, if you're not part of the narrow age band that this game is dealing with, then none of this will mean anything to you. If you're younger or older than me by more than a decade in either direction, then this stuff probably looks like random meaningless yard sale crap to you.

Now now, I don't think this is the most fair thing to say.

I found Gone Home utterly fantastic and poignant as well (and I'll brag here that I've played it only some weeks ago, after exposing myself to plenty of both the praise and dissent for the game), but I'm a 90's-00's kid. Perhaps not on-the-nose nostalgia, but I'm thinking more of...a cultural offset effect. I think quite a few cultural markers of the 80's persisted into the 90's, and thus into my childhood. Jargon and attitudes (though perhaps from media portrayal), technology like cassettes, etc....

Well, in any case, I don't think the 80's felt so foreign to me playing this game, and maybe that's because my 'time' wasn't too far off.

But yea, great article, Mr. Young.

albino boo:
To be honest if I want narrative, I'm not going to play a game. I find books, film or TV better at narrative than any game. Thats just my opinion. Games are great at running, jumping and standing still but as medium for narrative it leaves a lot to be desired.

Did you even read the article?

The interactivity in this game was integral to the experience. Gone Home couldn't work in any other medium. It would be torture to read page after page of detailed item descriptions, and even the best description couldn't evoke the flood of memories the way Gone Home does when you pick up a random item and turn it over to see some forgotten detail on the base. All of that magic would be lost if you moved it to a passive media, for the same reason that watching vacation slideshows isn't as stimulating as going on the vacation.

I was born in 1990, and so experienced the culture as a sort of "background" to my childhood. While I may not have the same feeling of nostalgia as Shamus, I definitely felt something similar. I guess that if you don't remember rewinding a VHS tape or turning over a cassette tape, then you're probably too young to remember the time period that is captured so well in Gone Home.

I just played the game today. I'm of the right age, turned 15 in 1990. Despite all attempts, the lack of nostalgia was noticeable. It went down the "big in the 90s" checklist but didn't really capture the actual vibe. At least it didn't commit the sin of confusing 80's spillover with 90's culture.

The way Sam's parents' handled her coming out seems just about right for the time though. Not good or bad, just unprepared and uneducated in the matter.

Born 1993 here, and I quite liked Gone Home. Really, I'm not familiar with the 90s. I mean, I always liked (and still do like) the X-Files, and I owned Super Nintendo, but I was two years old when the game takes place. I didn't really get transported back to my youth, because I never experienced that, but I thought Gone Home was great nonetheless. It was a character piece. Just by rifling through people's things - Sam, her mother, her father, even Oscar's possesions, you could really see how their life progressed while the character you were playing were away. The entire family had a dynamic changes in their lives, just by everything being time stamped reasonably. Then there's also all the little bits of reincorporation in the game that made it feel like a real family's home. Just going through Sam's room, you'll find out that she wrote the inscription for the family portrait in the foyer, you'll find out that Lonnie got Sam to start hoplifting things, you find out that the family pet Mitten died while your character was away, and the fact that she puts Mitten's collar into her closet, alongside her untouched Bible (which also tips off her sexual orientation), tells you how she deals with grief. Tiny little details that not only makes it look like that people actually live in the home, but that they've been continuing on with their lives, that things have been changing while your character was away. The level of detail in that was absolutely phenomenal.

It powerfully conveys the message that you should seek out youtube and user reviews instead of listening to "critics" at Kotaku and RPS lavish praise over a somehow brief yet ponderous meander through a house full of mix tapes and trapper keepers interspersed with a hackneyed romeo and juliet story that shamelessly panders to the tumblr crowd.

I think the reason modern gamers have been so averse to environmental story-telling and 'walking simulators' in general is because they have been raised on a steady diet of modern military shooters, where the environment can be nothing more than a corridor to traverse and the slow, unstructured play is an antithesis to the fast-paced follow-the-objective-marker gameplay they are used to. They are lashing out because this is essentially terra incognito for them in terms of what a game can be, and we all know how a mob acts against something they don't quite understand.

aaron552:

albino boo:
To be honest if I want narrative, I'm not going to play a game. I find books, film or TV better at narrative than any game. Thats just my opinion. Games are great at running, jumping and standing still but as medium for narrative it leaves a lot to be desired.

Did you even read the article?

The interactivity in this game was integral to the experience. Gone Home couldn't work in any other medium. It would be torture to read page after page of detailed item descriptions, and even the best description couldn't evoke the flood of memories the way Gone Home does when you pick up a random item and turn it over to see some forgotten detail on the base. All of that magic would be lost if you moved it to a passive media, for the same reason that watching vacation slideshows isn't as stimulating as going on the vacation.

Yes I did read the article but I disagreed with Shamus's subjective opinion. Games are extremely poor at narrative and by imposing an unchanging narrative you reduce player agency, not matter what the player does the outcome remains the same. I am old enough to remember the days of Sierra On-line adventure games franchises and also remember what happened to their sales in the post wolfenstein world. The majority of people preferred to play Doom, where plot was gratuitous sound effect than the latest Gabriel Knight game. One gave you freedom and agency and the other made you make a fake mustache from cat hair.

USE the piece of masking tape on the shed door hole (behind church).
USE the spray bottle on the cat (behind church).
PICK UP candy from the bowl on the desk (hotel lobby - you can pick this up as early as day 1, 10:00 am).
TALK to Mosely about his passport (Mosely's room).
USE the candy on the table under the painting depicting the street scene (hotel second floor).
PUSH the room buzzer for room #33 (hotel lobby).
PICK UP the passport from Mosely's pocket as he eats the candy you left on the table (hotel second floor).
PICK UP the gold coat (Mosely's room).
PICK UP the black pen from the desk while Jean is away (hotel lobby - you can pick this up as early as day 1, 10:00 am).
PICK UP the packet of syrup from the buffet table (hotel dining room).
USE the black pen on the passport (inventory).
USE the black fibers on the syrup to create a mustache (inventory).
USE the cap on the gold coat (inventory).
USE the mustache on the gold coat (inventory)
USE the disguise on Gabriel (moped rental area).

Another good article and i feel i have to aggree with you, even if i see absolute nothing for me in this game.
I played it and was bored out of my mind. But you said the reason for that yourself. The game is for an audience that grew up in a very specific timeframe. I not only not grew up in said time frame, i don't even live in america so there's even less familiarity feeling there. Just a bunch of boring stuff lying all over the place for me.

So the only thing you really cared for was the nostalgia factor and the story; not the actual gameplay, or anything unique to video games as a medium. To me, Gone Home does nothing unique outside of presenting a homosexual relationship in a realistic way. And while it's quite different from what video game stories do, it's not completely new. The way the story is presented isn't very unique as well. Several games present their narrative indirectly to the player and require them to fill in the gaps themselves. Gone Home's problem is that its story is rather simple and doesn't leave much room for interpretation. Many other games like Thief, Resident Evil, and the Souls series present their stories in a similar manner, but I find they do it in a more interesting way. The Elder Scrolls series alone is rife with texts that all build a lore with more depth than any other game series I can think of. It's all presented in unique ways (journals, historic texts, religious scripture, folk stories, etc.) and allows for various degrees of interpretation, but it all contributes to an overarching narrative. The subject matter alone make all these games more interesting than Gone Home, but maybe that's just me.

Maybe I just couldn't get wrapped up in the nostalgia in Gone Home (despite growing up in the 90s). Maybe I couldn't appreciate the coming out story it was trying to tell. To me though, game stories, and stories in fiction in general are the most interesting when they deal things unfamiliar and tackle subject matter people are unfamiliar with. And while Gone Home does that to a certain degree, it's still firmly grounded in 90's nostalgia and the story is not really unique, nor is how its told; the last point is especially important for video games, because the medium can present story to us in so many different ways.

Plunkies:
It powerfully conveys the message that you should seek out youtube and user reviews instead of listening to "critics" at Kotaku and RPS lavish praise over a somehow brief yet ponderous meander through a house full of mix tapes and trapper keepers interspersed with a hackneyed romeo and juliet story that shamelessly panders to the tumblr crowd.

Ah yes, simplification. The fast road to pseudo-criticism.

Let's insert a few other games into the formula for fun:

"...lavish praise over a somehow exhaustible and linear trudge through a world full of unmowed grass and concrete interspersed with a hackneyed zombie story that shamelessly panders...",etc. - The Last of Us

"...lavish praise over a somehow never-ending yet redundant shootout through a bloated galaxy full of uninteractive NPCs and flying cars interspersed with a hackneyed messiah story that shamelessly panders...",etc. - Mass Effect

Love. Family. Salvation. Whatever. There are only about a dozen or so possible stories worth telling, and yeah, we've probably heard most of them. But it's sort of unbelievable that in an industry where there's a space marine or a steroid-induced war buddy game released every fifteen seconds that you find a story about a teenage lesbian relationship played out. If the protagonist's sister was a giant dragon, would that have helped?

As an experiment in interactive narrative? Loved it. But judged as a £15 game? Ehhhh.... no.

Look i hate to be part of the "lol not even a game" crowd but we really do need to have a debate about how we use the term. Are all forms of moving images a film? No. We have lots of different words and terms of moving images. All we have for games is... game. Game implies play, it implies mechanics. Judged mechanically "Gone Home" is not a good game. It's a series of drab 'fetch the thing' segments and walking around. If you call it a "Game" just like GTA5 is a "Game" then it's going to lose out, like trying to put up a 15 minute online art segment against a feature length blockbuster.

We need a better term for interactive experiences like "Gone Home" so people don't expect the type of "Play" the word "Game" suggests. Look at mountain. Mountain isn't a game. I'm sorry it just isn't. There are no mechanics. There is nothing that we define a game as having. It is a graphical art installation. Calling it a game makes the word "Game" meaningless.

It's getting towards the dreaded postmodernism where gaming will disperser firmly up it's own arse with chin-stroking and intellectualized masturbation. I don't want the medium being taken over by a bunch of loud pretentious pricks who will take 'game' as a term and fuck it as hard as "art" as a term until we can no longer use it. There is a line between what is and isn't a game and we need to find that to prevent this kind of backlash against critics. Critics who clearly went over and above to advocate on behalf of this interactive sotry because it tickled their personal ideologies and views of the future of the medium.

Not calling something a game no way invalidates what it is, it only better prepares an audience to have correct expectations. As gaming grows it will also grow beyond the confines of it's earlier definitions.

Lets not end up in a world where Phil Fish, king douche himself, comes out of hiding and declares that HE is in fact a game and no one can say he isn't. People applaud his genius and the indie scene rallies around this thinking outside of the box. Polygon makes Phil Fish game of the year because of this genius artistic statement. 10/10. Applause all round.

Zoe Quinn declares her unmade bed is also a game because it has had such an impact on the gaming landscape. GOTY 2015. Turner prizes all round. Tracy Emin claps with Joy.

Bolo The Great:

Zoe Quinn declares her unmade bed is also a game because it has had such an impact on the gaming landscape. GOTY 2015. Turner prizes all round. Tracy Emin claps with Joy.

Y'know, similar to Old Man Murray's 'Start to Crate' metric ( the number of seconds from the start of a game until the player first encounters a crate or barrel), we need a 'Time to Zoe' metric for the Escapist forums.

I did connect to the time and nostalgia, being the right age, but there was a theme there that did connect even more with me and I'd like to share because that maybe is a new perspective to some.

Yeah, spoilers.

One substory it tells is one of sisterhood, more specifically, the dynamic of older/younger sister. The older sister being the one that is more praised, more academical and seemingly "successful" and the younger being the oddball that can't really live up to the standards of the bigger sister. There are many subtle hints about this, e.g. tablets where there are their names spelled out and for the bigger sister the letters of her name were filled out with words like intelligent etc. and the little sister graceful and things like that. Then the same homework appointments in biology about women bodies where the big sister gives the perfect A+ biological answer and the little sister more of a sarcastic, artistic prosa.

This resonated so much with me that I actually started crying when I encountered the name plates. Holy god. I have a little sister 1,5 years younger than me and I was always the successful, praised, sciency and math girl studying psychology. She was always the artistic kind, drawing very well, writing a lot, even though she is intelligent and good at maths she chose to study literature with the parents always shaking their heads what she will do with her life and suggesting she at least could become a secretary with that and so on. (Actually, I think she is more likely becoming university professor and making much more than me but anyways). I also often oppressed her in our childhood, always wanting things to go my way since I was older.
I was literally sobbing like a little girl over this game. Few games ever made me feel these feels.

I bet if like older couples play this and see the mom/dad subplot it will connect to them on a whole different level. Everything was so intimate and honest the way this game was presented, never did a movie connect with similar themes at this intimate level with me (e.g. Frozen which had a similar theme but sure as hell didn't have me crying).

Bolo The Great:
Game implies play, it implies mechanics. Judged mechanically "Gone Home" is not a good game. It's a series of drab 'fetch the thing' segments and walking around. If you call it a "Game" just like GTA5 is a "Game" then it's going to lose out, like trying to put up a 15 minute online art segment against a feature length blockbuster.

But in doing that, you're judging the quality of the game based on the quantity of the mechanics. Is Road to Hell better than Portal because it has more gameplay mechanics? Does that make The Phantom Menace better than A New Hope because Phantom Menace is longer? What abritrary amount of gameplay mechanics is the line for being a "game"? There's a lot more going on in The Sims than there is in Super Mario Bros or than in Need for Speed, so does that make The Sims more of a game than either of those? Does that make Super Mario Bros and Need for Speed not games anymore? If you took out all of the shooting in Grand Theft Auto, would it no longer be a game, even though the remaining emphasis on exploration is still present?

We need a better term for interactive experiences like "Gone Home" so people don't expect the type of "Play" the word "Game" suggests.

Well, there are plenty pieces that people would have no problem calling a game that aren't meant to be fun, ergo the "play" aspect fails to apply. I don't know anybody who would say that Spec Ops: The Line isn't a game, despite it not meant to be an enjoyable experience, nor having a win-state. The same would apply for the entire horror genre.

Not calling something a game no way invalidates what it is, it only better prepares an audience to have correct expectations.

So is it fair for me to call military shooters "brainwashing tools" because of the implicit and explicit xenophobia and jingoism present in the genre?

RA92:
Y'know, similar to Old Man Murray's 'Start to Crate' metric ( the number of seconds from the start of a game until the player first encounters a crate or barrel), we need a 'Time to Zoe' metric for the Escapist forums.

I think appearance of a Vivian James avatar would serve the same purpose.

And now I suddenly want to play a game I had no interest in before. Thanks a lot Shamus, that's time and money going bye bye for me :p

Thanks.

Ok, I'll write this here since I haven't vocalized it anywhere else.

Gone Home's ending made me very angry. And for that reason, I think it's what made the game so powerful for me.

I personally loved the story of Sam and Lonnie. I loved how the rebellion continued to grow and how Sam's parents were frustrated without betraying the fact that they loved their daughter and were genuinely trying to do what was best for her.

Sam running away with Lonnie seemed so shortsighted. All I could imagine was the pain that her sister and her parents had to feel as soon as they realized what happened. I was torn apart and I was angry at Sam for handling this in such an immature way.

And then I took a step back. A game had gotten me so invested in the characters that I cared about the pain that they unintentionally inflicted in a moment of desperation.

I was angry.

And I was happy about it.

 

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