I live in the midwest with my wife where we spend our free time playing and developing games. We are Two Tangled Trees.
(Originally posted on our blog: Tree Carvings)
Spoiler Alert: I discuss many plot detail of Gone Home that would likely ruin the experience of playing Gone Home if you have not already done so.
Gone Home seems to be a name that has been on everyone's lips for the past 6 months; and rightfully so. It is an excellent game that I believe successfully and tastefully addresses real life issues that are typically ignored in games. So, understandably, discussion surrounding this game tends to focus on the writing and themes of the story. However, as good as the story is, I don't think that is where Gone Home excels.
For me, Gone Home's greatest strength is in it's staging. The primary story arc is told exclusively through audio logs and most of the rest of the story is told through letters, homework assignments, pamphlets, and other papers found lying around the house. However, what I found the most fun was examining each room visually and attempting to interpret the current state of the characters lives. Since everyone seems to have left in a hurry, the home is in a very used state. For instance, every TV seemed to have RCA cables in the cabinets below them with nothing connected to them. Did Sam take a bunch of the electronics with her when she left the house? She knew she would't be coming back. But I find it hard to believe that she would have spent the time scouring the house, collecting electronics on her way out to meet Lonnie. Then again, they did just recently move into the house. Maybe they just hadn't gotten around to connecting the VCR and game consoles up. Though, I have never met someone that would go through the effort of hooking up just the cords.
What about that bottle of liquor that seems to be hidden on the top of a bookshelf in your dad's office. After looking at some of the writing he threw in the trash, it seems that he may have a drinking problem. Is this what is causing tension in your parents relationship? What about the disheveled nature of your parents bedroom? I assume Sam was looking for something, but what? Why was the TV in the living room left on? Your parents are gone for the weekend, so Sam must have left it on. But Sam was sleeping in the attic before she left to meet Lonnie? My head went wild with speculation every time I entered a new room. What new clues would I discover just by examining the state of the room?
I had read a user review of Gone Home on Steam recently (as of this writing it was voted as the most helpful review for Gone Home on Steam) in which a player, eternalsnows, complains that the "script for the written notes and spoken dialog probably would't amount to more than 10 pages". That is probably a reasonable estimate about the amount of text in the game, but I feel that one would have to have completely missed the entire point of the game for such an observation to be seen as a negative. For me, Gone Home is a game about discovery in which the current state of your family must be deciphered using your knowledge of modern American families and homes. I think Gone Home could have been even better if they had removed all the audio logs and keys/locked doors from the game. The audio logs could have been in a proper diary that the player would have to sit and read through if they desired. The locked doors were obviously put there to allow the developer to control the pacing of the story. However, I think it would have been more intriguing to allow the player to roam the house at their leisure and piece together the story themselves.
On the same day that I played through Gone Home, I also played 140. In just about every respect these two games are polar opposites. Yet, I felt far more immersed in the experience of 140 than I did with Gone Home. Everything in 140 was so precisely laid out: the smooth animations between shapes, the swapping color palettes, the superb soundtrack, and the intricate and precise connection between the sound and the level design. 140's level design is entirely linear and contains no narrative. It never claims to mean anything, and I would argue that it was never intended too. So why did I have a more personal and emotional response to 140 as opposed to Gone Home which really tries to create an emotional connection between the player and the characters?
I think it is because 140 is what I would call an example of a game that is a narrative as opposed to Gone Home which contains a narrative. The distinction may be subtle, but I feel that it is an important one to make. 140 instantly drops you into its world with no instruction or direction. Instead, it is up to the player to put forth some effort in discovering the nature of that world. The player must listen and watch the world to make it through, and the minimalist design makes everything about the world seem very important. So even though the linear nature of 140 means that nearly everyone who played it essentially did the same things I did, the effort I put into the game personalized the experience for me. I created my own personal narrative around 140 which consists of all of the emotions and thoughts I had while playing the game. The experience of playing 140 is the narrative.
In many respects Gone Home allows for this same experience. Searching the house, examining your surroundings, and attempting to piece together the untold story is the part of Gone Home that feels like my personal narrative. I can look back and remember the pity I felt when I saw multiple closets full of unsold copies of your father's books. I can remember the hope I had when I pieced together that your parents are gone for the weekend on a couples retreat to try to save their marriage. However, the best example for how Gone Home failed to connect with me is when you find a letter from Lonnie to Sam in the basement. For whatever reason, I was slightly distracted when I picked up the letter and did not start reading it right away. Then suddenly the letter is put down by the player character with a sense of "this letter contains to much personal information for me to feel comfortable reading". I tried to pick up the letter again, but I still could not read it. Why am I suddenly forced to behave in a certain way? Why am I suddenly forced to take on the personality of Kaitlin? I, Michael LaRandeau, have been rummaging through this house for over an hour, and suddenly I am supposed to be Kaitlin. At this point it felt obvious that the developers were trying to tell me a story as opposed to allowing me to use their game to create my own personal story. That is the fundamental difference between games that contain narratives and games as narratives. Is the game trying to tell me a story, or is the game allowing me to make my own personal story?
Gone Home and 140 have helped me realize that I don't want a game to tell me a story, I want to live the story. I want the experience of playing a game to be a personal narrative that I craft as I play. I want there to be more games as narratives.