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Gone Home: design ruminations

I don't imagine that Gone Home suffers from lack of reviews. I heard about it from several directions when it came out, and that was over a year ago. But I just played it.

(Yes, I am slowly starting to dig into the past four years of indie IF that I was too busy writing my own game to play. Yes, I will also get to Bioshock Infinity one of these months.)

I don't have anything to add to the discussion of Gone Home as a story game, or as a game about gay folks, or as a flashpoint of hatred from jerk-gamers. That's all been covered. Nor am I going to tell you why you should like or dislike the game. I liked it, a lot of people liked it, that's not news.

Instead, I'm going to give my impressions as a game designer. This is what I would have said if I were on the team building the thing. Or, more likely, having muffins with the designer during the wild-idea stage. Maybe that'll hit some new ground. If not, well, too late -- I've already written this post.

I'll start right in with some petty interface neepery. This is a game whose interface is entirely about picking things up and rotating them. But when things get interesting, it doesn't do a very good job of sticking to that interface!(*)

Objects in the game which can be manipulated, rather than just examined: housekeys. A combination dial lock. Cassette tapes. Notice something? All of these objects are rotated as part of their normal use.

But the game doesn't make use of its rotatey interface for this. You don't stick the key in a lock and turn it; you just click on the door and zap it's open. You can't turn the cassette over, stick it in the player, and hear the other side. The combination locker is particularly bad; you learn the combination in the familiar form ("turn left to X, right to Y...") but you enter the combination using a four-digit interface with arrows. (Which doesn't even match the format of the numbers you're given.)

I've already admitted this is petty. The interface they've got works and it's easy to use. To make it all rotation-based would require some additional cueing; the housekey wouldn't be automatic. But harmonious UI matters! When you pick up an object, turn it over, and discover something written on the back -- that's got that little IF zing. You used familiar actions in the world, in an intuitive way, and were rewarded. Or when you pick up an object and discover something hidden underneath. Or when you pull a secret panel aside. Gone Home has some of these moments, and they zing. Being thrown out of the UI convention to open a locker: zingless.

A more fundamental clash with my IF sensibility: the game isn't about you. No, strike that -- I'm fine with games where you discover another character's past. (I've written that one, more than once.) But this game's narration isn't positioned the way I expect.

Kaitlin, the viewpoint character, comes home from a year in Europe to discover her house is empty; she (you) then encounters texts narrated by her sister Samantha. But this confused me at first! For a few minutes, I thought I was playing Samantha, recalling her (my) experiences in the house.

When I encounter non-diegetic voice-over in a game -- texts not anchored in a found journal or tape recording -- I expect them to be my thoughts. The narrator is the protagonist is the player. Or the narrator is the protagonist addressing the player. Or maybe the narrator is a third party addressing the protagonist -- but usually there's a cue indicating that.

(This is the convention that Sands of Time twisted so wonderfully, by having the protagonist narrate the game apparently to the player, but in fact to another character in the story.)

The "twist" at the end of Gone Home -- not a spoiler -- is that you discover Samantha's letters, the ones which you've been hearing as narration. This is fine, but then how are we to understand Kaitlin's experience? Has she been wandering through the house, unaware of the story that I-the-player have been hearing, to instead learn it all at the last moment? What does this separation of the player's experience from the protagonist's accomplish? It's not revelatory (as it is in Sands of Time); it's just confusing and distancing.

How would I rewrite this? I have no pat answer. Scatter Samantha's letters through the game? Obvious and clumsy; it erases a story element, Sam's hesitance to trust you with her story. Or maybe Kaitlin should start with the letters, received over the course of the year, and recall them as the environment cues them? This still separates the player's experience (now Kaitlin knows more than you) but perhaps in a more natural way.

Or maybe Samantha should have been the protagonist, after all. Eliminate Kaitlin, who is essentially the classic faceless adventure protagonist. (She has a name, gender, and age, but no personality or relationships beyond the excuse of a year abroad. In retrospect her opening monologue, promising to arrive home, is what tripped me up as much as anything: it's a false promise, a voice that will never be heard again.)

Would Gone Home have worked better with Sam's point of view as well as her narrative voice? I don't know. I just feel like the game-as-it-is missed an opportunity.

(The idea of "I am the protagonist, and I am going to tell you a story even as you manipulate me like a puppet" is one of the great weird unacknowledged conventions in gaming. It's somehow become completely natural, even cliche, to players -- even though it makes no narrative sense. I don't blame Gone Home for not using it! But it's familiar because it fills a need: it credits both the author and player with 100% responsibility for the story, with an unspoken agreement to ignore the contradiction.)

Well. I've made two criticisms, but my goal here is not to complain. (As I said, I liked Gone Home!) Let me switch tracks and talk about what kind of game it is.

(Or, if you don't think Gone Home is a game(**), I'll talk about what kind of game it isn't. I'm an atheist, but I'm a Jewish atheist.)

What game mechanics are we given? A dense environment with a lot of environmental story elements. Locks and combination dials, with the keys and combos found elsewhere, mixed in with story cues. Notes about secret passages and hidden panels, which are then marked on a map. A plot which is gated using these keys and map markings. A structure in which you have to backtrack to use them, discovering new elements in familiar rooms. Creating shortcuts, once you've reached an area, by unlocking a door from the other side.

Any of these mechanics could appear in nearly any kind of character-centric game: action, adventure, platformer, RPG. But if you ask which archetype game had all of them, I immediately answer: Silent Hill.

My contention: Gone Home is survival horror minus the horror and the survival elements.(***) And this is not surprising, because the core trick of survival horror is getting you to move slowly and focus on your environment. That's what this game wants. It doesn't lean on the threat of stumbling into a zombie pit, or even (c.f. Fatal Frame) the penalty of missing a one-shot ghost manifestation. But it does put you in a dark room, fumbling for a light switch. And you don't want to miss anything.

I do wonder how much of this flirtation with the survival-horror form is deliberate. While playing, I knew (from minor spoilers) that Gone Home doesn't end in blood-soaked tragedy. But I half-expected a tragic ending anyway! My expectations were drawn by the familiar horror trappings, both the environment (the dimly-lit empty house) and the Silent Hill mechanics. I suspect that was deliberate. Certainly there are story elements which allow you to imagine both a ghost story and a contemporary tragedy, a Gay! Teen! Suicide! plotline. Again, I knew that the story wouldn't be resolved that way (and I would have been deeply off-put if it had been). But the form plays into that tension as much as the text does.

I also wonder about the decision to place the game so firmly in 1995. I imagine (without checking) that this comes from the experience of the authors, that they were in high school in the mid-90s. It's a personal game, certainly. And the setting helps place Sam as a particular character, rather than a projection of the contemporary player. (Though Kaitlin is such a projection.)

But the effect is that the game feels dated; it was dated the day it launched. (As distinct from feeling retro or nostalgic or a period piece.) The experiences of queer high school students today are not those of Sam and Lonnie. Lonnie is a ROTC student; Sam comments on the don't-ask-don't-tell policy -- brand-new in 1995, but two years gone by the time the game was released. High school students today still have problems, but they're also (nationally) (on average) ahead of the curve, openly dragging their elders ahead.

It's hard not to notice, playing in 2014, that Sam and Lonnie could well be married and raising kids today. Or split up (high school romances, right?) and married to other people. Or not married. Or not identify as lesbians, or not identify as women, or not be alive. Gone Home does not address this, and that suits; it's the narrative of 17-year-olds. I'm not that age; the authors aren't. Are they writing for today's teenagers? People their own age? (Maybe this is nostalgia after all: the nostalgia of having believed that 17 was forever.)

The game feels dated in another way. It's personal, as I noted, but not in the confessional sense that the Twine community has embraced. It's about the experience of otherness, but it doesn't present it as your experience. Again: not the player's story, but a story told to the player.

I've come to expect this genre to be in my face, daring me to empathize. Radical otherness. But of course Gone Home isn't in that genre, or any of the intersecting IF communities that I'm familiar with. So there's my extra, un-looked-for dose of alienation: Gone Home is outsider art to me. I have no conclusion to draw from that.

Coincidentally, the day after I played, the author tweeted:

(quote from email): "...why do you think the majority of people are in agreement with lesbian relationships..."

interestingly, of the criticism Gone Home has gotten, this has been the rarest type of complaint. -- Steve Gaynor, 3 Dec 2014

The obvious reply is that it's 2014 and the majority of Americans are "in agreement" with lesbian relationships. That's been true for many years. (Same-sex marriage flipped more recently.)

That wasn't my reaction, though. I would reply: Gone Home is the story of your sister coming out. Is that something you are "in disagreement" with? What would your sister say to that? Or: what if you project yourself as the parents in the game? They are, after all, depicted with far more specificity than the faceless Kaitlin. So you're horrified by homosexuality; can you reject a game about what it's like for your child to come out? Because that's a thing that can happen.

(Ironically, if you assert that it can't happen, you're aligning yourself with the parents as they're depicted. So Gone Home should speak more to your interests. This is awfully clever of it.)

I guess that's all. Lo. I have ruminated.

Coincidentally (again), this weekend after I played, Fullbright Games announced their next game: Tacoma. There's a video teaser. I have no comment, except to say that if they really plan to do an environmental exploration game in free-fall, they've got a hell of a lot of design work ahead. I look forward to it.

(* It may have been Nick Montfort who first pointed this out in my presence.)

(** No, I don't have any real patience for the argument that Gone Home "isn't a game". One can have an interesting discussion of what "game" means, but not on the Internet, not this year. The bullshit artists have drowned out the genre analysts. We move on.)

(*** I have just cheated and done a web search on "gone home" "survival horror". Okay, I'm not the first person to assert this. Fine.)

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