This is a multi-part series of articles about narrative-driven games. Why not start at the beginning, here?
So far, I’ve looked at the way two different games use narrative skilfully to achieve the kind of depth that games have sometimes struggled to reach, and done so in a way that traditional media cannot replicate by using player-immersion in the story. These games were Brothers and The Last of Us.
The final game I would like to talk about has been a modest indie hit but a real smash amongst game critics precisely because it offers a kind of narrative depth and emotional connection with players that has rarely been seen until now. This game is Gone Home.
One of my favourite subculture phrases comes from Pro Wrestling. Pro Wrestling is completely rigged and fake and those involved in it in the kind of carney dialect that grew up around the industry dubbed those who bought into the lie as “Marks”, the same way a con man refers to people he aims to trick. However, in the age where everyone is in on the trick, people still like pro-wrestling and if they like a particular style or performer, they say with some irony, “I’m a mark for this”. If you know anything about me, you’ll know that I am a mark for a game like Gone Home.
This game ticks all of my personal boxes. I have a real soft spot for soft casual gaming that is memorable but doesn’t take over your life. I love exploration games, like the flash-based escape the room genre, which finds it’s apogee in the sublime Submachine series created by pastel games (I’m a mark for that too). I love detailed worlds where I can take my time exploring all the back story content (grown possibly in the vat of the early fallout games). I love stories about real personal discovery and emotional connection. I have a soft spot for feminism and where feminism and punk rock collide. I even have more than a passing interest in the Riot Girl movement based on having read the amazing Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus which is about as perfect as you can get for an exploration of a vibrant and vital, albeit short-lived subculture. It’s like someone made an equation based on all the things I like.
Boxes thoroughly ticked
That’s not to say that this kind of game is for everyone and I’ll cover over some of the reasons why despite my gushing, there are flaws to this game.
First things first, there is very little to no game play in this game. Whereas most exploration games involve logic and puzzles, Gone Home is pure story exploration. The story is spread through the house and you need to discover each element by piecing together what happened from the items and notes that you can find. You might find a game with very little game play in it to be somewhat of a surprise but honestly, I prefer the honesty of this kind of approach to the “Press X to Not Die” type of QTE-based/Dance Dance Revolution fake gameplay that you find in games made by Quantic Dream or recent releases from Telltale Games such as the popular Walking Dead game. The truth is that games that emphasise narrative have often done so in terms of limiting the actual game play involved. So far, games which have done this have generally kept their narrative integrity, whereas those who try to interweave free-roaming game-play have tended not to (for the various reasons I covered over in the first part of this series). It isn’t a perfect marriage of message and media as ideally the player would have a higher level of interaction (more on this later) but honestly the draw for this game is simply how well written the narrative is and this left more of an impression on me than games with more ambition in this regard. Even if the player interactivity is low and the exploration somewhat linear, the experience of playing this game never feels like being trapped, indeed for many reasons the world felt richer and more detailed than most (again, more on this later), dodging the sort of film-set lack of depth that many games with higher levels of interaction feel.
The second obvious criticism is the price of the game compared to the rather short amount of game play time available and the lack of reply value. It must be said that the flaw of narrative games is that they generally don’t have any replay value….but still leave more of an impact if done right. It’s true that the price point for the game is probably too high based on what is on offer but to me this felt like an indie project I actually wanted to put money into. If someone doesn’t feel this level of goodwill, it’s probably best to steer clear. As I said from the jump, I’m a mark for this.
Objection-handling over, let’s start talking about the actual game itself. Sit yourself down into your pillow fort, turn the torch to the ceiling and help yourself to the pizza.
So, there’s a lot going on in Gone Home. Your character Kaitlin Greenbriar has been travelling for a year in Europe and whilst away, her family has moved house. She returns to the new house to find that the place is empty and nobody is there. Faced with an entirely new house and missing family that she hasn’t seen for a year, Kaitlin’s only options are to explore the house and find out what has been happening to her family whilst she has been away and where they might have gone. Unlike the basic premise for so many games, already the story is full of relatable situations and recognisable emotion. It’s not hard to get sucked in, and what’s more without some kind of cumbersome mission structure that tells you what you’re supposed to want. There aren’t really any instructions in the game. The cues are just obvious. Why isn’t anyone there to greet Kaitlin? What kind of events and changes have her family gone through whilst Kaitlin has been away?
The game quickly and naturally becomes an exercise in voyeurism. Kaitlin is clearly the “good girl” of the family (she insists on getting a taxi home rather than asking for a lift, she dutifully sends her family postcards from every stop on her travels, she has a tendency to put items back in a tidier fashion than she found them in the games’ mechanics and is still her teenage sister’s confidente) but since she’s faced with a new house, a missing family and no idea what to do, the game revolves around looking at objects and notes around the house to get a sense of what has happened. Whilst most of these items are left in public places, the game clearly wants you to look in private places too such as your parents’ and sister’s rooms. I saw that for some people this was not their natural instinct to be so intrusive but a note from Kaitlin’s younger sister Sam implying that everything is not right and something bad may have happened certainly made me feel that all this snooping was more than justified. I like to think of Kaitlin as the goody two shoes who actually gets a bit of a kick about eaves-reading some private papers but even so, she’s moralistic enough to leave some things unread and certainly a little creeped out whenever she finds any pornographic materials (yes, there is pretty much everything in this house, but we’ll touch on that later). We really don’t hear from Kaitlin much as we only know what she sounds like from the voice message she leaves on the answerphone and in playing as her, we only receive a handful of on screen messages when she has a comment or memory of something but nevertheless because she exists in such a well drawn context, we still have a strong sense of who she is.
The next thing that the game is also justifies the voyeurism. You see, Gone Home is a non-linear narrative of sorts. Kaitlin’s sister Sam who is the most prominent character in the story (keep in mind that there is only one picture of each family member in the game, and two pictures of another character, so this is not someone we see or meet) has been writing all of her thoughts in a book in the form of letters addressed to Sam that she has left for Sam to read. Though Kaitlin only finds this book at the end of the game, we hear the various letters read out by Sam throughout the game as we are able to locate certain trigger items that are important to the story. Thus, the whole game is really in retrospect. We have to imagine that Kaitlin wandered around the house, looking at all of these items without knowing the full truth and only later remembering finding those items and linking them to her new found knowledge of what happened. Not that this is important to realise whilst playing the game though, any more than it is necessary to calculate exactly the correct linear sequence of scenes when watching Memento. What this does is tell us that Sam wants Kaitlin to look through the house and figure out what happened and wants her sister to understand what she has been going through. The next thing that this game is then is Sam’s story of teenage sexual awakening and her tribulations in being with the one she loves. This is the main part of the story and I’ll cover this in more detail.
A board game that the Greenbriars own
The final thing the game does is to act as a haunted house story. The house is an impossibly large, wooden creaky house in the middle of a torrential rain storm out in the Oregon countryside. We quickly learn that the house is regarded as a haunted house with a dark and mysterious past. It’s not as if you are constantly expecting to see ghosts but there is a certain atmosphere to this house and the constant rain patter which the game plays upon well. As you explore the rooms and switch on the lights, you do become wary of the darkness and just as in real life you know there is no such thing as a ghost but feel some trepidation, here you basically know that the house is empty and there are no character models and yet, the house can be deeply unsettling. This meshes well with your character’s fear over what may have happened to her family. A shockingly red splattered bathtub turns out to be hair dye stain. The light bulb in a certain room is programmed to expire just as you pick up a spooky inscribed crucifix left by the house’s previous owner. The latter moment works very well indeed and I immediately and illogically dropped the crucifix and high tailed it back into the light of the adjacent bedroom (as many other seems to have). There’s not much of a better test of the atmosphere in a game than when you actually start to steer clear of the shadows even when the game has no nasties. It’s almost as if we’re scared of real ghosts in a game, which I guess is just another way of saying that you get sucked in to the game and treat it as real. Condemned is an excellent horror game with the best jump scares and unnerving sequences I have ever seen in open gameplay but because the game is a game where you fight others I never felt actually afraid of the dark corners if only because I knew what the enemies would do to me and how I could fight them. Fear of the unknown and unrealised is much stronger. Nevertheless, though impressive in atmosphere, this spooky element to Gone Home is more of a supporting element, the ghost hunting and ouija boards being how two of the characters have bonded. In fact, there are real spectres in Gone Home but their the issues facing the Greenbriar family, not anything supernatural.
The Greenbriar Family Portrait, showing Kaitlin (“Katie”) at the top and Sam on the left (the only picture of either character in the game)
So a lot of things are going on in Gone Home even with only basic mechanics of exploration. So why did I say earlier that the game’s limited mechanics and limited interactivity with the plot was somewhat overcome by the depth of the world? Part of this is the plot, which I will go into more detail on in a second but also this has a great deal to do with the level of detail that has gone into the house. This is not only the house’s design and the excellent continuity and logic of all the items there (the colourful mexican skull being mentioned in Lonnie’s letter, the school report mentioning Sam’s work on the metal portrait label that you can see above) but simply the level of detail that has gone into each individual item.
The house is full of items, most of which you can pick up, move around, put back or drop anywhere else in the house that you like. Many of these items further the plot but I would suggest that the majority of them don’t and are merely ordinary items rendered in ridiculous detail. For example, turn over a box of cereal in the kitchen and you’ll likely find a list of ingredients on the back and probably a puzzle too. Keep in mind that this level of detail is not restricted to certain items but applies to practically all portable items in the game. The game might not have given you the sort of puzzle and collection mechanisms you find in other games but it gives you a level of freedom to explore and examine everything you can find that I don’t remember having seen in any other game. Since the main point of the game is exploration, the ability to actually do that to any item makes the game feel incredibly rich and detailed, especially when you are able to find items that drive the story forward amongst a whole room of items that don’t.
The closest analogy to what this kind of depth feels is a comment I can remember a prominent Battlefield player and video maker saying upon reviewing the game Titanfall. He gave a very positive review of the game but added as a throwaway comment something to the effect that since battlefield allows you to blow up walls and generally affect the environment with your actions that it felt odd and weirdly unreal to play a game full of rocket launchers and giant robots where the world was largely indestructible. In other words, the level of depth needed to make a war game feel real is that actions have realistic effects on the environment – that buildings that are blown up fall down or show damage. To play a game straight after where your actions cannot affect the environment is alienating. The same is true for Gone Home. After playing a first person exploration game where almost any item can be held, manipulated and examined, to then play a game where much of the environment is a static, immobile dead polygon (as most items in most games are), it’s likely not to have the same level of realism even if it has copious bells and whistles in terms of puzzles and mechanics on a limited number of items. Thus, the depth of environment of Gone Home ends up feeling (if anything) more immersive than many other games despite the lack of plot-interactivity.
I can only imagine that because of this, games in the future will have to catch up to this level of detail. Republic the Revolution was a god-awful game that was almost impossible to play through but it could not help but impress with sheer scope and audacity of giving you a full city full of individual people with jobs and spouses who live at certain addresses and travel to their individual places of work each day. This is a standard large scale games are only just catching up to and probably the detail levels of Gone Home are much the same. Gone Home is similar in that it shows what games should be trying to do and are capable of (both in narrative quality and environment detail) and makes you forgive its somewhat limited scope.
Sam’s note to Katie at the start of the game
So these are the reasons that game succeeds in being immersive and multi-layered. However, the main attraction of this circus is the plot which succeeds in drawing you in and making you actually care about what is happening. It’s the great writing in this game that is garnering all the attention, not anything else. With that, none of us would have heard about this game. Rather than typing everything out anew, let’s let Wikipedia take the strain:
Samantha then went to her new school and was eventually recognized as “The Psycho House Girl” after a man, who we discover is Samantha and Kaitlin’s great uncle; upon his death everything was left to her father, even the house. During her first few weeks at school, Samantha spotted a girl in senior year, sometimes dressed in an Army uniform. Unfortunately, Samantha never really had any chance to speak to her. Samantha once had a friend named Daniel, who was her neighbor before they moved, and Samantha explains she was only his friend for his Nintendo games but realizes she really should call him at some point about it.
Samantha eventually gets to talk to the girl in the army uniform; she’s named Lonnie, and she’s always wanted to see “the Psycho House”, so Samantha obliges and invites her to come over the next day. Samantha really feels like she’s made a friend with whom she can feel normal. They share activities over the months, such as hair dyeing and watching Pulp Fiction. They eventually begin to form a strong relationship, with Lonnie claiming that Samantha looks beautiful. After seeing a Halloween show in “the city”, they stay overnight at a friend’s brother’s house, and sleep together on a futon. The lights go out, and Lonnie puts her arm around Samantha and tells her she likes her. Samantha feels the same way but cannot bring herself to say anything afterwards. A few days later, Lonnie visits Samantha in her home, but it’s a weird encounter. Lonnie obviously feels uncomfortable about whatever is going through her mind, and kisses Samantha. It’s there that their relationship begins to bloom as they become girlfriends in secret.
Their relationship blossoms and all told not through text but through artifacts, notes, letters, gifts and, most notably considering their immersion in the Riot Girl scene, pins, buttons, posters, zines and mix tapes. The tapes are some of the only music you can access in the game and are played through finding a tape player. The idea of naturally playing a tape through from beginning to end in a certain room amongst the ambient sounds of the creaking wood and the storm somehow makes the music part of the story and not just background accompaniment. The artifacts are almost a museum to the Riot Girl movement which is delivered with the same degree of affection as is given to the characters. The real tunes from contemporary bands such as Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile complete the homage and the wonderful sense of being on the crest of a wave, right in the centre of a movement whilst it develops and rages and long before it becomes pop cliché. The location choice in the northwest fits perfectly, as does the history of Lonnie’s own band which is an all male affair Boyscout until she joins as singer and changes the name to Girlscout.
However, though the Riot Girl movement was essentially feminist, struggling against patriarchy isn’t really part of the narrative, though obviously it touches on LGBT issues. As their relationship becomes more overt, Sam’s parents disapprove and crack down on her, at one point considering that brand of dire Christian literature that wants to pray gay people straight. However, Sam has a strong sense of herself and her sexuality, saying in one diary entry that, “She’s known since She-Ra,” and that she knows that Kaitlin must know this about her too, even if her parents are out of touch. Lonnie too struggles with her sexual identity, seeing it as incompatible with her long term to join the Army and follow in her beloved father’s footsteps. As a result, she sees her relationship with Sam and indeed much of her extrovert rebel personality as something that cannot last and must eventually be suppressed and forgotten.
The sadness that is conveyed when Sam believes that soon Lonnie will leave her for the Army is heartbreaking. Voice actress Sarah Robertson is absolutely incredible in making Sam feel like a rounded fleshed out individual and adds spark to all these artefacts by really conveying the emotional plot behind them. It is as Lonnie and Sam decide to spend a last weekend together before Lonnie ships out, exploring the full run of the house whilst their parents are away at couple’s counselling, that the state of the house makes sense. The house is a mess and Lonnie and Sam have left evidence of their comedic ghost hunts, zine manufacturing, photography, sofa forts, pizza boxes and such everywhere precisely because it is their last time together and that they have resolved to enjoy it rather than being sad. Behind all this evidence of play is a real sadness that Sam just doesn’t feel that anything after is going to matter any more. It’s during this phase of exploring evidence of these sad last nights and the revelation of Sam’s broken heart that one reviewer stated that he felt that he worried that, “once I made my way into the locked attic, I’d find my dear sister’s body hanging there“.
If you read the rest of that article I linked, you’ll see that the ending of the game is controversial, perhaps as controversial as that to The Last of Us in terms of how conflicted it is designed to make the player feel. When Lonnie goes away to join the Army and Sam lies in despair, she finally realises that she can’t live without Sam and goes AWOL. Talking again on the phone, Sam leaves the house to meet with Lonnie and run away together, leaving only her diary and the note on the front door for her sister to find. On the one hand this is terrible – Lonnie could be arrested, Sam is skipping out on her creative writing course, both of them are alone and lost with no money, Sam and Kate’s parents are going to freak out and immediately find her and punish her and all without mentioning the worry that Kaitlin must feel. Nevertheless, because they are in Love and they can be together and Kaitlin understands this, the game moves you to agree and laud something that seems so wrong in much the same way as The Last of Us made me feel about Joel’s lie to Ellie. Everything is a mess but somehow I was rooting for and cheering for love to come through and win and mean something at any cost. If there’s a chance they can be together and feel something they couldn’t with anyone else, that seemed to me precious enough. I wanted (as Kaitlin) to go and try to find Sam myself before her (our) parents found out. I felt shattered but full of hope and remembrance for teenage feelings. Even now, as people change and mature, if you are in love, you are in love, and that love is the same as it was when you were a teenager, everyoung.
People who have children will likely have a different reaction to the endings of both games to people who don’t. The reviewer quoted above (the heartless Paul Tassi who roots for rational sense rather than romantic heart in a way I never could) stated:
I think too much lenience is given to Sam in the narrative because she’s a lesbian. It’s supposed to be touching, but it’s horribly irresponsible. Girlfriend or boyfriend, no high school aged kid should be making life altering decisions like that in the “name of love.”
Hey Paul. I liked your article and you discussed the game rationally and intelligently. Secondly, that’s bullshit. To pick out the lesbian nature of this relationship as being somehow selected for maximum acceptance (no pregnancy risk I guess is what you are hinting at) ignores pretty much all of western culture. Are you the guy in the back of Romeo and Juliet thinking how irresponsible this all is? What about Dirty Dancing, which is a much more dubious relationship than this one? I think that this was just one of those tales about love that could have been gay or straight. Following my floor-hugging adoration of the BBC series In The Flesh, and the handling of Ren and Rick’s teenage love pretty much convinced me that even a story about two men probably could have flown with the intelligent audience this game got, even with the somehow greater disgust over two men in love than two women. However, this was a game about young women because it was about Riot Girl. I think the game’s LGBT loyalties are further exposed by the observation that “Uncle Oscar” became a recluse for some embarrassing event is never explained. Though most critical websites that touch on this have speculated wildly and inaccurately as you did (generally assuming he was a child abuser), surely the dressmaking equipment and pictures of women’s dresses in the secret passages when Oscar had no wife imply that in fact his social withdrawal was caused by the shame of being a cross-dresser.
There’s a lot more in the game despite the love story (a collapsing marriage, a potential affair, a father refusing to open up to his son, a man choosing between a failed dream and a boring job) but the love story is the pinnacle.
Yes, it’s linear. Yes, some of the items in the house make no sense (nothing is ever filed away, only scattered). Yes, the doors that are locked are locked for no reason. Yes, the house is huge. Yes, the game lacked gameplay or puzzles.
Yes, I wanted to do more. I wanted to hide things from the parents. I wanted to clean the house. I wanted to pick up the spilled china and take it to the dishwasher. I wanted to put Lonnie’s picture and Cap in Sam’s room. I wanted to act.
Yes to all of that.
But in telling a story which I think will stay with me forever? It somehow makes all those other games look stupid and those articles about the so-called stickmen characters in GTA and Assassin’s Creed look like dissertation essays about the plot of children’s wooden counting blocks.
Yes, this is the last article of the series I set out to write about the state of narrative gaming. Yes, we just saw the release of one of the dumbest stupidest narrative single player modes I have ever seen but overall the state of gaming narratives are good. In fact, I could have talked a lot more about games like Amnesia, Outlast, The Wolf Among Us, The Walking Dead and The Stanley Parable which all focused on narrative over game play but I feel like I picked the best and brightest (David Cage released another boring game too). What this list shows though is that people are willing to buy narrative heavy games just as much as they are willing to buy a sports simulator. Maybe in the future we will not think of everything under the same title of “games” but actually see excellent narrative games as different from excellent Sandlot games (GTA), excellent open encounter games (Minecraft, Day Z) and excellent action games (Battlefield).
All of these games are great games within what they offer to provide but the point is that you don’t look to a Call of Duty for great narrative, which is what the press have done for too long. The cliché question that is constantly asked is whether computer games have produced their Citizen Kane. The problem with this is that it judges all games based on whether they are as good as the best films. But that’s silly. Films only focus on narrative and games can offer far more. It’s only right that films be the better medium for telling a story because they do literally nothing else. And that too protects films from criticism of their own. Citizen Kane might be a high point but so much of what Hollywood produces is exploitative attention grabbing crap, the same as most games. Both industries have their high points and their low points and need to be judged on their own merit. Games are already a part of everyone’s lives frankly at least as much as Cinema right now and under that umbrella is narrative, but many other things too.
But even if it’s a silly question, are any of these games a Citizen Kane?
I’m not sure. But what I would say is that all three of these games (especially the latter two) were incredible stories and meant more to me and were clearly in my opinion better than so many other classic films. Let’s chose a slightly lower target at random which is also considered one of the greatest films – say, something like, The Godfather. In my opinion, The Last of Us is a better more engaging, more emotional and better constructed narrative than The Godfather. Gone Home too. If we agree on a top ten of films then probably any game player can think of a game which is better than one of those films. It’s only because of a certain kind of shame of speaking about games out loud as anything other than shoot ’em ups and a certain demographic bias in media to under-represented voices that this isn’t recognised.
If I see a film next year that touched me more than Gone Home, I’ll let you know.
But then I’m a mark for that stuff.
Thanks for sticking with me. If you read any of this, I owe you a personal favour.