A True Interactive Story
There is a piece of paper on a cabinet. You read it, it reveals itself to be an exam from days gone by. The exam has one question, a simple biology task: re-arrange these sentences to form a coherent story about the reproductive cycle. The answer is nothing of the sort. It’s long, a full two page story with character, excitement and passion. It is the writing of a child, so you’d be hard pressed to call it good, but the cheek of it makes you smile. It makes you laugh.
Underneath there is a teacher’s note, written in red: See Me.
This moment comes mere minutes into Gone Home, before you’ve even crossed into double digits. It lasts maybe ten seconds. It is inconsequential, it gains you no XP, it yields no key for locked doors, it is a dead end. And yet, it is everything. That paragraph contains not even half of the information, the character development that you will glean from that one, everyday object. And the object is one of hundreds that you will find. Gone Home is environmental storytelling perfected, a masterclass in level design.
This isn’t to say Gone Home is a revolution in gameplay mechanics, breaking new ground and blowing you away with every click. In fact, it’s the opposite – most games have had you press buttons to move a character, and many games allow you to pick up items. That is the extent of the gameplay on offer in Gone Home. You never escalate to fighting off demons or solving mini-game esque adventure puzzles. You merely walk, look and look closer.Ostensibly, Gone Home is the story of Katie and her sister Sam — Katie (the PC) arrives home after a year travelling in Europe, but when she gets there, she finds a note on the door. No one is home. Your goal is to find out why. From these opening minutes, you’d be positive that a you are about to play a horror game, where the supernatural mystery gets deeper and more terrifying at every time. Gone Home is not interested in such easy categorisation.
And yet, the effect is magical. Imagine if someone made an entire game out of the saferoom scribbles from Left 4 Dead, except the saferoom was your old house and the scribbles were just “things.” Characters that you never meet have fully realised arcs lasting in the decades. Even the house itself tells it’s own tales. Nothing is irrelevant – every scrap of paper reveals something about someone. You could spend hours just peeling away the layers. It is a true interactive story – not in that you interact to change a story being told to you, but that the story is entirely framed through interaction.
A mainline narrative exists too, of course. From the second you find that note on the door, there is a question in your mind, a mystery to solve. In fact, scratch that. To even describe it as a mystery is disingenuous. Gone Home lays it’s cards on the table early, it doesn’t hide them up it’s sleeve, in fact there’s no narrative slight of hand of any kind. It’s not based on plot twists or backstory or mythical exposition, it is a character driven story, which is primarily concerned with emotional honesty. In a video game. I know!
This story unfolds linearly as you search the house, which is easily the most impressive aspect of the game. For all the emotion (which is excellent) and simple environmental storytelling (which is also excellent), nothing impresses as much as the level design. The game is essentially an open-world which you can explore at your own leisure, and yet it contains an entirely linear story in which you travel from point A to B. These two goals seem completely at odds but the way in which the house is designed is simultaneously completely natural and perfectly constructed. It is an obviously authorial and intentionally designed game, but you’d be hard pressed to describe it as “gamey.”
Gone Home isn’t a beacon of true and pure perfection – the few puzzles can draw you out of the experience if you get stuck, having missed the one crucial piece of paper. And the scary atmosphere whilst impeccably formed, can be at odds with certain emotional beats, reducing their effectiveness – but they’re really nitpicks in the scheme of things. Gone Home is fantastic. Through commitment to simple mechanics, it allows you to experience a story with emotional themes that didn’t fit in the medium until now. Any negatives are outweighed by the fact that you are seeing, playing, and feeling something new.