First of all, if you haven’t played Gone Home, go play it. It’s only a few hours long, and it’s a wonderful experience. It’s a rare kind of game—the kind that makes you want to bundle up, make tea, light some candles. It plays like a novel, almost.
Which, don’t come expecting anything else, because in many ways it does play more like a novel than a more conventional videogame. It’s seen a lot of negative attention from players who find its form frustrating and confusing. “Speed runs” can be finished in ~30 seconds. There is no fail-state. This all despite the fact that its game structure comes from a lineage that can be traced right back to Doom. The levels are tightly designed corridors that disclose information in specific orders, with minor possibilities for branching/non-linear digestion, and occasional find-the-red-key type blockages.
But unlike Doom, the game isn’t driven by mechanical difficulty, and it isn’t characterized by adrenaline and excitement, and these are the places where players become confused. Unlike most games, it isn’t even trying to be fun. Almost all of the content is ‘skippable’ (i.e. you can ignore it and still see the credits roll), the game is paced slowly and calmly, and the main narrative is delivered almost exclusively through written language. It’s driven by curiosity and self-motivated exploration, and so has little to offer to players not invested in the story.
I want to respond to the notion that the content is skippable, to the idea of lighting fast speed-runs and low difficulty. The game does not physically force you to read its content for clues, or to struggle with mechanical puzzles, but why should it? Has anyone ever criticized comic books or novels for having easily skippable content? I certainly hope not. Gone Home respects players enough not to force them to do anything. It asks you to be interested and curious about the story, and lets you delve into that story by investigating the artefacts it leaves for you. Skipping to the end credits does not constitute “finishing the game” for the same reasons that you can’t claim to have finished a novel by opening to the last page and reading the last sentence. Grow up, people. For the most part, art is not meant to be consumed as quickly as possible and then placed on a shelf as a trophy of accomplishment. Gone Home is a rare game, one that understands that it isn’t its job to control the player, but instead to give them something worthwhile.
And it does have something valuable to offer. Gone Home has received a lot of praise for its writing, and that praise is well-deserved. Much of what makes the game great is that writing. The characters are believable and empathetic, interesting and round, and their intertwined stories are genuinely compelling. Sam may not represent the experiences of all queer audience-members, but expecting as much is pretty absurd. In its own world, with its own cleanly-structured internal logic, the game’s story works very well.
The main thrust and innovation of this game, though, is in its narrative design. This is a game with at least two kinds of protagonists. Sam and Kaitlin are each the stars of their own stories—Kaitlin leading the investigation, Sam being its primary subject matter. Unlike most games, though, Gone Home does not work to make Kaitlin and the player feel special, important, or central to the authored story. They are of course the natural centerpieces of the game’s present-tense story, but this present-tense story quickly sinks into the background in favor of the past-tense story, one for which Kaitlin and the player were absent. The true, authored protagonist of the game is Sam—a character who is never seen, whose actions exist only in the past, and who is interpreted only through found records. For me, this worked excellently. I rarely thought about Kaitlin and my own place in the world consciously, instead slipping into her shoes to wonder and worry about my little sister. This important shift of focus in the narrative has been largely missed by the critical community, or at least the section of the critical community that I am aware of. Mostly, I’ve seen Gone Home praised for its subject matter and quality, but described as being very conventional in its form. I think this is an uninformed opinion.
Perhaps most importantly though, Gone Home delivers a beautiful story in an interesting way. I was to some degree underwhelmed by its end, but as a whole found the game more worthy of contemplation than most novels. Playing Gone Home also gave me renewed confidence in my work, because most of the risks taken by the game are ones shared by Eidolon. And the risks seem fully worthwhile. For me, Gone Home was profoundly successful.
September 28, 2013
Editor's Note: 'Sam may not represent the experiences of all queer audience-members' used to link to an at-the-time-well-known criticism leveled by Anna Anthropy, that the story was unlike her experience as a teen. The representation in the game however closely matches the coming-out story of one of my own friends, so the criticism felt absurd to me at the time. She was probably trying to get at something more complicated. Or maybe she was just being a jerk. Anyway, the link was broken and I thought this context was needed to make that line not sound... defensive and confusing.