Games I've played: Gone Home

Posted by GrantHeaslip (1532 posts) -

I grabbed Gone Home on sale a few weeks ago, and played it on a whim last night. I'll be honest, I came into the game sceptical, but I was intrigued enough by the buzz and divisiveness to want to see it for myself. It was about what I expected it to be, and I didn't expect very much. Simply put, it's a two hour game, and I was barely engaged enough to see it through.

The story was trite and predictable. I was aware that Sam was a lesbian going in, but I don't think that affected my experience one way or another given that they practically hit you over the head with it right off the bat. Once I'd seen the picture of Lonnie, spotted the conveniently-placed Bible, and heard the first handful of diary entries, I'd extrapolated a plot in my head, and I was almost entirely right. The only real dramatic tension came from the goofy false suicide leads, and I say "leads" because they come back to the same well at least twice

I know, it's not about the story, it's about the experience, but ruffling through a bunch of carefully-strewn clues wasn't an enjoyable, interesting, or even novel experience. It's been done before, and in the context of more interesting video game fictions. And considering this game essentially has one narrative tool, it's disappointing that it stumbles in the same way ambient video game storytelling so often does: the evidence is so clearly contrived that it undercuts the core conceit of the game. Sam clearly intended for you to find some of the stuff (which in and of itself is a questionable conceit -- why not just put it all in a folder for you?), but it's all so on-the-nose, so perfect, that it couldn't keep my disbelief suspended.

The diary writing itself was earnest to the point of reminding me of the young adult books on tape my Mom would take of from the library and dub for us, especially with the accompanying music. It actually reminded me so much of those books on tape that I'm sort of convinced that it was supposed to remind me of books on tape. That's not necessarily an insult -- the diary entries were the most charming part of the game -- but if we're talking about this game in terms of medium-transcending storytelling excellence, it probably shouldn't bring to mind books on tape I listened to when I was 8.

I also need to point out that the game ran like garbage despite not looking particularly great. My computer isn't a powerhouse -- I don't play many games on it -- but I know it's capable of screaming through games much better-looking than Gone Home. I'm guessing it hovered somewhere around 10-20 FPS, and on a few occasions it freaked out and got so slow I had to open the graphics menu to get it to reload the assets and clear up whatever logjam was going on. This wasn't a crippling issue as there's zero action, but it did hurt my experience, and the game shouldn't have shipped in such an unoptimized state.

If I had more in common with Gone Home culturally or experientially, it might have been able to get a grip on my emotional heartstrings, but good fiction shouldn't require pre-existing familiarity to function. And on the flip-side, there's a difference between familiarity and quality -- a story can speak directly to your experiences and still not be a good piece of fiction. So much of the praise for this game seems to revolve around little ancillary details like "Nintendo tapes", their VHS collection, and the depiction of Riot Grrrl culture. That stuff is neat, and I'm sure it hits very close to home for some people, but it's not a substitute for an interesting story, especially in a game that's all about the story.

I think Gone Home is an interesting thing. I can see what Fullbright was going for, and it seems like they mostly achieved it. I just don't think what they achieved is anywhere near as great as it's been made out to be.

P.S. We read Bottle Rocket Hearts in a literature class a few weeks ago, and if you're into Gone Home, you'll probably love it. It explores a lot of the same themes as Gone Home, but with way more subtlety and believability. I'm not dropping this reference simply to establish that I'm a better person than you for having read a book -- I only read it because it was part of a course, and I read embarrassingly little -- but rather to say that it's a standard by which I judged Gone Home, and Gone Home didn't compare favourably.

#1 Posted by Slag (4044 posts) -

I just blasted through this one tonight after picking it up off the Steam Xmas sale and I liked it quite a bit. I did my best to stay away from spoilers, which definitely helped. I think the over the top praise this game got hurt it's chances with a lot of folks. I went in with medium-ish expectations which I think helped a lot. I knew it was short and easy, and I didn't pay anywhere near full price.

The main accomplishment I think the game has is actually setting. If this story telling style, game length, and mechanics were applied to a D&D setting I think game would have been widely derided.

In a way it felt a bit to me the same sort of experience like reading a good comic book. Not really deep literature and you can predict a lot of what will happen, but there's enough suspense and great visuals/atmosphere to keep you engaged. Mechanically really there's not much going on, I wondered why they even had an inventory for what was basically audio-log the game. In fact I think they would have been better off without any pause menu stuff, maybe do something creative with the map (perhaps like the way it was handled in Farcry 2? where it was a sheet the playable character held) that would helped with the immersion.

I see what you are saying about how easy the game is, but conversely I don't think a game like this benefits from added difficulty. If you get stuck for too long you lose the suspension of disbelief and start to notice you are in a game too much. In something like this I would rather blow through it, then have an old school Lucas Arts Point and click stumbling block puzzle.

Definitely I do think you're right this game is a lot more powerful for those of us old enough to really remember the 90's. Hit me right in the nostalgia. I think what I found most interesting about it was that eventhough games were a huge part of our culture back then, I don't think I've ever seen a 90's Upper- Middle Class (well really Upper given the size of that place) American house so well depicted in a game. The main characters really rang true to me as well.

but yeah if I paid 20 bucks for this I don't think I'd have liked it nearly as much.

#2 Posted by GrantHeaslip (1532 posts) -

@slag: Hey, thanks for checking in!

I was fine with the difficulty. I have no problem video game credentials of Gone Home, and I agree that difficult puzzles would have hurt the experience.

You're probably right that nostalgia is the missing ingredient for me. The setting seems pretty well-done, though I don't really have any good point of comparison. I like that the game explores themes you don't see much in games. I just don't think any of that makes up for the narrative itself, and I think it was telling that it sort of rang hollow to me as an experience divorced of nostalgia.

#3 Edited by Brodehouse (9623 posts) -

I like the idea of a video game also being an epistolary novel, but it sounds like Gone Home is significantly lacking in what one might call literary quality. The only thing I've heard about the romance that makes it unique or intriguing in some way is the 90s riot grrl stuff. I've heard nobody repeating lines or ideas from this game, they absorb the plot and events but must not be impressed or affected by the quality of writing itself.

And a good modern epistolary novel is The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland.

#4 Edited by csl316 (8158 posts) -

Be prepared for people attacking your opinion, it seems like this is one of those games people get pissed off about.

I didn't enjoy it at all. I'm glad people did, I'm glad people loved it. But it did nothing for me. The story didn't seem much deeper than something like, I dunno, The Wedding Singer. This game is different, sure, but different doesn't always automatically equate to good.

Oddly enough, I also had technical issues. I can run plenty of 3D games at medium settings or better. But this was constantly chuggy.

#5 Posted by Slag (4044 posts) -

@slag: Hey, thanks for checking in!

I was fine with the difficulty. I have no problem video game credentials of Gone Home, and I agree that difficult puzzles would have hurt the experience.

You're probably right that nostalgia is the missing ingredient for me. The setting seems pretty well-done, though I don't really have any good point of comparison. I like that the game explores themes you don't see much in games. I just don't think any of that makes up for the narrative itself, and I think it was telling that it sort of rang hollow to me as an experience divorced of nostalgia.

Sure man, hope you've been well.

Your take sounds totally fair to me. Thinking out loud here about another factor that may be in play re: the narrative.

I don't know if this story would have even worked if it was set 10 years later. And that could be the central weakness with the narrative, it isn't the cultural references or nostalgia so much, it's that game requires you to understand how people might behave back then.

Around 2006 or so is when everyone started being hyperconnected critical mass (iphone and twitter launches, facebook starts to roar into mainstream consciousness etc) and a lot of the behavioral elements of why a character might conceivably might not know "x" or act like "x" no longer feels plausible in 2013. In 1995 AOL was just achieving deep penetration, but internet access was hardly universal in the US, and email response etiquette was a lot slower than it was even 3 years later. And Cell Phones were largely luxury items, or used only for emergencies. Not to mention the coverage was virtually non-existent out of the Major cities. A Place like Boone Oregon probably was a late comer to a lot of this stuff.

So it would make sense to me that younger players might even think the story doesn't seem believable, because in today's world with today's communication tech everything is different in subtle yet profound ways. A person never really is "gone" like they used to be. Even Soldiers deployed to the Middle East are a click away. Millennials and especially younger probably have little emotional conception of how the world used to be like, although I'm sure they can understand it well enough.

E.g. when somebody like Lonnie leaves, back then it practically felt like they died. The relationship stakes were a lot higher back then when someone left town. Similarly the parents being gone without a note, is something that would have been considered dramatic and maybe even reckless. Furthermore people didn't share feelings like they do today, reading Sam's diary would have felt thrilling and a little wrong in the time before livejournal etc. And the fact she left it out to be found would be interpreted most likely as very worrying. I instantly assumed she was dead.

I don't know if that's a factor with your perception or not but I do know that Gone Home evoked that feeling "of where are these people" in me that I hadn't felt in a long time. I don't know if you can really feel that dread, if you've never really felt that dread before if you get my drift. And if you don't feel that, then I imagine the Plot probably does lose most of its' impact.

#6 Posted by GrantHeaslip (1532 posts) -

@slag: If anything, I do get the context from reading books and watching older movies and TV shows.

I'm just old enough to have lived on the cusp of the internet getting big (high school class of 2007). MSN (the equivalent of AOL messenger) got big when I was in grade 6 or so. Texting wasn't really a thing until I was in university, and it wasn't soon afterward that I was reading news stories saying teenagers were sending dozens (or hundreds) of text messages a day.

I used to call people on a landline to make plans as late as 2008. I'm too young to have written letters to friends, but I do get the sense of people feeling gone if they left town. Friends would go to Hong Kong for the summer and I wouldn't hear from them at all. It's weird how quickly everything changed.

I like the idea of a video game also being an epistolary novel, but it sounds like Gone Home is significantly lacking in what one might call literary quality. The only thing I've heard about the romance that makes it unique or intriguing in some way is the 90s riot grrl stuff. I've heard nobody repeating lines or ideas from this game, they absorb the plot and events but must not be impressed or affected by the quality of writing itself.

And a good modern epistolary novel is The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland.

I didn't want to lean too heavily on this in the post because the whole "good for a video game" thing is a bit played out, but I tend to agree that Gone Home's narrative doesn't have much going for it by the standards of literature or film. I'm not sure that's fair to hold against it too much, but when I hear people talk about how emotionally powerful and affirming it was, I feel like they're either exaggerating, in love with the idea of Gone Home more than the execution, or too easy to please.

@csl316 said:

Be prepared for people attacking your opinion, it seems like this is one of those games people get pissed off about. [...]

So far so good!

#7 Posted by Humanity (8844 posts) -

It's weird the back and forth on this title and the unanimous praise, mostly from games media, along with their subsequent defense of it. What really got me was a recent post on Jeff's Tumblr where someone jokingly asked if Gone Home is a video game, to which Jeff responded "It contains 400% more video game than Myst did. That’s a lot of video game!" I suppose as a fan of Myst games this irked me more than most, because Myst most definitely was a game to me when I was growing up. The original release as well as it's subsequent sequels were basically what Fez aspired to be today. I remember sitting at my desk, taking in the lavishly detailed worlds and sketching numerous diagrams in my notebook in order to unravel the secrets of those locations. So Jeff's attitude of defending one game's credibility by undermining another felt like a low blow to me personally - especially since the argument always is that we shouldn't even have these distinctions in the first place. Not to mention that ascertaining relevance by comparing a modern release to something released over 20 years ago isn't a great idea.

#8 Posted by Brodehouse (9623 posts) -

I didn't want to lean too heavily on this in the post because the whole "good for a video game" thing is a bit played out, but I tend to agree that Gone Home's narrative doesn't have much going for it by the standards of literature or film. I'm not sure that's fair to hold against it too much, but when I hear people talk about how emotionally powerful and affirming it was, I feel like they're either exaggerating, in love with the idea of Gone Home more than the execution, or too easy to please.

Yeah, I didn't mean to put across "good for a video game", but more the idea that what they're appreciating is the story rather than the storytelling. They resonate with the situation in the story, but I've heard little about any sort of new insight or information that came from it. Like I said, I've heard no one quote or reference a line in Gone Home; in comparison I can think of many games in which I learned new things or had some insight revealed to me. The first Mass Effect game referenced Isaac Parker with "it is not the severity of punishment that deters crime, it is the certainty." Fallout New Vegas introduced me to new ways of thinking of different situations, and I knew more about a number of subjects at the end of that game than at the beginning. I don't know if that's true for Gone Home, less the riot grrl stuff which I would want to see.

#9 Edited by Milkman (16540 posts) -

@humanity: I don't think he was really comparing Myst and Gone Home at all. He was just saying:

1. the whole "is this a game?" debate is fucking stupid

2. Myst sucks but it, like Gone Home, is a game

#10 Posted by TheHumanDove (2523 posts) -

Yep, it was a game that lacked in most areas.

#11 Edited by EuanDewar (4776 posts) -

Im quite excited to see what Fullbright do next. I haven't played/probably never will play Gone Home at this point but it is maybe one of the greatest examples in recent memory of a game and the way it's recieved leaving me with no idea where they go from here.

#12 Edited by yyninja (59 posts) -

I know, it's not about the story, it's about the experience, but ruffling through a bunch of carefully-strewn clues wasn't an enjoyable, interesting, or even novel experience. It's been done before, and in the context of more interesting video game fictions.

I'm curious what other better games have done this? The only ones I can think of is the Portal and Left 4 Dead series and both of those games lacked the same level of environmental detail that Gone Home provided.

Also I had the same frame rate issues. I had to turn the settings to medium and turn v-sync off and there were still some parts that were laggy. It's built on Unity and I'm guessing there's just some inherent problems with optimization with that engine.

#13 Posted by Humanity (8844 posts) -

@milkman: Myst was actually pretty cool, although not very refined. The later releases were much better with Myst IV: Revelation being a really great game. It has a really interesting plot of betrayal and revenge as well as beautiful graphics (at the time anyway) and interesting, logical puzzles.

I can only imagine the gripes people have with the Myst series is that the first game was really rough in some areas and the puzzles fluctuated wildly in terms of difficulty - one of them requiring you to actually know how to play a piano if I remember correctly(which I probably don't). But the later games, Myst 3 and 4 are simply awesome.

In terms of exploring an abandoned "area" and picking up notes and clues in order to piece together what had transpired before your arrival, Myst IV has Gone Home beat. It's a story about two brothers that were outcast to their own respective prison worlds (in Myst each book is a world you can travel to) and they spent years brooding and scheming on a way to not only break free but exact vengeance on their captors. When you travel to their worlds and read the notes they've left behind starting with the first days of their imprisonment and leading up to their escape it's a truly dark and twisted tale.

#14 Edited by Slag (4044 posts) -

@slag: If anything, I do get the context from reading books and watching older movies and TV shows.

I'm just old enough to have lived on the cusp of the internet getting big (high school class of 2007). MSN (the equivalent of AOL messenger) got big when I was in grade 6 or so. Texting wasn't really a thing until I was in university, and it wasn't soon afterward that I was reading news stories saying teenagers were sending dozens (or hundreds) of text messages a day.

I used to call people on a landline to make plans as late as 2008. I'm too young to have written letters to friends, but I do get the sense of people feeling gone if they left town. Friends would go to Hong Kong for the summer and I wouldn't hear from them at all. It's weird how quickly everything changed.

It sure has hasn't it? I'm not sure how to explain what the world was like to today's teens. Glad you get it, now I don't feel as old.

I do think you've got a point that people are more in love with the idea of Gone Home than the execution. If there's ever a Gone Home 2 (and I hope there's not), I sincerely doubt it's going to get as much praise the second time around without major improvements.

#15 Edited by crithon (3081 posts) -

I felt the same way dude.

Like early on, it's easy to tell she's a lesbian, but then it's the production of somewhat a pre-recorded cartoon voice actor emotions. Just felt a bit tired, maybe in that sense of Chasing Amy of that era of story telling but nothing as real as people I grew up with. I guess it's just her alone, and then I'm just projecting ideas of other family members through clues or red herring, but even by the time of the bath tub I just realized all of the red herrings went no where.

I still think the whole idea of the house design and making levels out of it and gating sections was excellent design. I was surprised I could jump around like a monkey and just break the game. The whole putting back things is interesting mechanic because recently with games using Havok Physics just picking up things on a table can just shift anything else onto another table and they fly off into space. Just picking up things and examining them felt rewarding, or at least I knew what to look for instead of being overwhelmed.

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