Gone Home

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When Gone Home came out in the last half of 2013, it became part of an ongoing debate as to what constitutes a video game. Late as usual, I sat down to play this particular game in question for the first time a few weeks ago (again, at the behest of my pal Steve). Jumping into Gone Home, I discovered something very, very different than the last video game that I played.

Wizorb is built from the pieces that are traditionally considered foundational to the medium—from before we used words like “medium” to describe it. It has rules of play. It presents an objective (and thereby the opportunity to either win or lose). It has high scores; though, you will never see very large numbers when I play. It is clearly a video game.

As I said… very, very different than Gone Home.

But wait! I’m breaking one of rules of writing that repeatedly emphasize to my students: establish context. I can’t make a claim about how Gone Home fits into the discourse of what it means to be a video game without explaining what Gone Home actually is. I’ll try to be concise.

Gone Home is a first-person experience in which I played as a young woman who returns to her parents’ home from a European sabbatical only to find that no one is home. There is no explicit objective. Just the question that would naturally be implied by coming home to an empty house:  where is everyone?

It’s through unguided exploration that I discovered one of Gone Home’s most striking features. This enormous New England colonial home tells the story of the Greenbriar family in the same way that my cramped apartment tells the story of a young married couple. However, just as with my own story, Gone Home is not a single linear story, but rather a multifaceted, intertwining set of stories about a family in transition. This goes a long way toward making the story feel believable.

Interestingly, very little of this family’s story is directly “presented” in the game. Rather, I found myself constructing my own version of the narrative based on the bits of life that were around the house, a task that would ring hollow if not for the fact that the developers did such a good job of making the house feel lived-in. And being allowed to put the pieces together on my own—as opposed to having them handed to me—was rewarding.

The central piece of the story was delivered through a series of voiced journal entries placed throughout the house. Though the placement of these story bits may approach a more traditional level of game-like contrivance, it made sense to me that the most important thread of the plot would be the easiest to discover. You can miss all the nuances of Janice and Terry’s struggles, but you will not miss Samantha’s story. And if that was all that I took away from Gone Home, I still would have been satisfied.

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So… is it actually a game? Yes. Though it certainly pushes against the conventions.

I can understand why it would be difficult to compare Gone Home and Wizorb (perhaps Call of Duty would be a more sensible comparison) and call them both games. They are a wildly disparate pair of experiences. However, Gone Home uses a few key parts of the gameplay vocabulary of a first-person shooter to challenge the very notion of games that rely on objectives or competition. Its use of this vocabulary warrants a broadening of the definition of “video game.”

The discourse surrounding this definition reveals an almost symbiotic relationship between two philosophical approaches to game design. Experimental games that push the boundaries of the medium require boundaries to push against. Traditional games provide the foundational vocabulary from which all interactive entertainment is built, thus providing the very tools necessary for experimentation (more or less the point of this video from PBS Game/Show).

Let me wrap this up.

I don’t think Gone Home is perfect, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. Depending on your taste, the narrative that you discover may not be worth the effort it required. Personally, I found the narrative to be deeply human, and that appeals to me. And whether it appeals to you or not, I think that this game—along with its contemporaries—serves as a prototype for a method of storytelling that has been largely unexplored in the medium. And I can’t wait for more stories.

What a time to be alive!

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