One of the most consistent trends you see in modern games is the element of environment storytelling. It’s something that games are especially fit for, even if it’s not technically unique to games. I’ve seen it in System Shock 2, Bioshock, Fallout 3 and many other games and it’s usually a very economic and elegant way of creating atmosphere and immersion. It works especially well in first person games because you get a better and closer view of your surroundings. It’s a relatively recent way of story telling too, because there’s a certain level of visual fidelity needed to create an intricately designed space with objects and lighting etc.
Though I haven’t played it, the Bioshock 2 DLC “Minerva’s Den” is widely thought of as one of the best examples of environmental storytelling in games to date. No surprise then that a few of the people who worked on that particular project have gone independent and made a game where the entire focus is just that. Gone Home is the fruit of their labor and promptly became one of the most acclaimed video games of 2013.
I’m not going to spoil anything about this game. But know this: gameplay-wise, it’s about exploration and invoking a story in the player’s mind, and it’s almost purely about that. If this isn’t your cup of tea, wait for a sale and get it then. I’m not going to warn you off, because this kind of gaming experience is all too rare. In recent times I can only think of Proteus, Dear Esther or To the Moon as games in a similar vein, and even these are very different from each other. It’s worth trying and to then make up ones own mind. My thoughts one the Gone Home are as follows:
Design wise it’s a staggering achievement
Gone Home takes place in the mid-90’s and that is a very deliberate choice. First of all, it invokes a kind of nostalgia that is very relevant to a whole generation of gamers but is yet very underused in popular culture. The process of reanimating time periods has been all over the 80’s, 70’s and earlier times but the 90’s are still quite untouched. Gone Home therefore feels refreshing out of the gate for that reason alone, but it’s reassuring to then realize that it’s not trying to coast on that effect by itself. You see, this game is trying to tell its story using objects that the player can pick up and inspect. The 90’s were at time when people still would more often communicate by mail rather than e-mail, leave notes for one another instead of sending SMS or Twitter DM’s to each other phones. As a side effect of that, you the player can now embark on a quest of a kind of archaeology and piece together the events of the people who left these artifacts there.
The attention to detail to authentically recreate old 90’s style magazines, letters both personal and official, books and other media like VHS tapes or cassettes is immense in Gone Home. There’s an eerie familiarity I felt that I don’t when watching a movie set in the 80’s, for example. It feels like a game that is designed to speak to my generation. Everything else, the furniture and themes people talk about in those readables also capture the spirit of the times incredibly well and all without trying to hit you over the head with it.
It’s extremely immersive
Thanks to its lowered scope and narrowed focus, Fullbright were able to do everything in their power to create a sense of immersion. It’s immersive because of the intricately designed space you explore, but also because it’s all first person. You control a returning daughter named Katie who was off on a trip to Europe for the past year. It’s a house you’ve never been in since your family had moved in the meantime. And while you don’t know much about the parents or the sister at first, you feel put into Katie’s place immediately. The house it just as unfamiliar to you as it is to her. Her curiosity and bewilderment of finding the house without anyone to welcome her home translates perfectly well to what you the player is feeling. It’s incredibly easy to emphasize with Katie. This isn’t a game about saving the world or becoming a hero, but simply about coming home and not knowing what happened. It’s refreshingly mundane, yet mysterious.
The writing is of the highest level
I don’t envy the task of fleshing out real characters and then having to communicate their personalities and thought-worlds by pieces of readables and visual design. But it is through these means that Katie and you get to know who her family members are. And it’s much more personal than having a simple cut scene or dialog with them. You read things they’d left for you do read, but also more personal pieces of writing like diaries or letters addressed to other people and vice versa that give you a different window into their lives. Soon enough, you understand the multiple layers of what defines these characters. The game never tries to bombard you with such information like a less skilled developer would probably have done, in fear of the player missing out on crucial bits of exposition they’d worked hard to create. Instead, the people at Fullbright have the faith in the player to be attentive and intelligent enough to pieces things together by themselves. This adds to the immersion because it’s more realistic that way as well. There is a very deliberately designed pathway laid out for the player, but it’s not forced upon the player and quite loose too, similar to how Valve did with the Half-Life games. Instead of pushing the player in one direction, it’s about providing visual cues and invitation.
I wonder if Gone Home is a one-off
With all that said, Gone Home could be heralded as a pioneering game to lead the way to a new land of fertile environmental-storytelling-soil. I have my doubts about that though. The game only really can function that way by not introducing NPC’s to have multiple choice dialog with (using some slapped on interface) or other gameplay facets that need a more crude level of abstraction. Gone Home and games of its ilk live by the high level of immersion and ludonarrative harmony. Unless a technological solution is found to allow players to directly talk to an AI acting out an NPC, for example, human to human interaction would be a bad fit. It’s impressive what Fullbright have achieved with Gone Home, but I believe that ultimately it will be an exception to the rule. Let this not be a turn off though, but rather an endorsement of the game. I think there won’t be many games of Gone Home’s ilk, and even less that will match its quality.