Gone Home: Remembering the 90s

The NBA 2K14 servers have been down. Or at least I think that’s what is going on. 2K Sports learned all the wrong lessons from Diablo 3 and Sim City and decided to launch a game that required a persistent internet connection to access single-player modes. It was dumb in those games and it’s dumb here and thanks to this brave terrible new world I couldn’t play any games or capture any screens this weekend. I still hope to update next Saturday, but it’s a long shot and I’ll probably be pushing into next week. The good news is that this all pushed me to spend more time on some other games, including one that is about as far from NBA 2K14 as possible: Gone Home.

I avoided Gone Home for a long time, for bad reasons that are probably still better than the reasons of most people who actively avoided Gone Home. As I’ve noted before, I don’t typically play a lot of PC-only games, with the exception of complex strategy/sim titles that can only work with a mouse and keyboard.  And I’ve never been a fan of adventure games. Not even the classics: Myst, King’s Quest, Monkey Island, The Longest Journey… They just aren’t my thing.  The only adventure games I’ve enjoyed are  999 and Virtue’s Last Reward, and those are really just visual novels with puzzles scattered about. I couldn’t tell you exactly what my problem is with the genre. Maybe I just spend too much of my real life wondering where to go and what to do with all these seemingly useless items in my inventory.

But what does this have to do with Gone Home? Gone Home isn’t an adventure game. Not in the traditional sense. There aren’t puzzles, the items in your inventory are keys and locker combinations, and there’s never any uncertainty about where to go “next”. You start the game in a house. You never leave the house. You go to every room and search every crevice because the story is hidden there–not the next item you need to advance. Still, the entire game was environmental exploration and that simply didn’t interest me. Not at first.

I picked up Gone Home because of the controversy. For a long time I admired Gone Home from afar because, while I had no interest in it, I think any work that pushes the borders of what a game is, and what a game can be about, is inherently worthwhile.  I just didn’t feel like playing it myself. But enough critics loved it, and there was a big enough backlash against it, that I figured I couldn’t ignore it anymore.

Here at the tail end of 2013, I was completely spoiled on the plot details of Gone Home before I even started. I knew what was coming. I knew this wasn’t a ghost story, at least not in any traditional sense, and I knew that the focal point would be teenage love rather than typical video game fare. That was fine by me.  I wouldn’t have given Gone Home a second thought otherwise, so I feel okay spoiling the hell out of it. There’s a new indie spooky first person adventure up on Steam or Desura approximately every twelve minutes so anyone who wants an indie spooky first person adventure can get plenty of them, and anyone who doesn’t should know that Gone Home is totally different and better for it.

Back to the controversy. Some people fucking loved Gone Home. Review scores are generally meaningless, but they prove a point here: The two biggest sites, Gamespot and IGN gave it a 9.5/10. Polygon awarded it 10/10, Giant Bomb 5/5. Their praise was effusive and remarkable for a story-based two hour adventure game. Naturally, as there is for any critically acclaimed media (especially video games) there was backlash. So-called “real gamers” were absolutely puzzled how anyone could love Gone Home so much, and a few latched onto the most backwards possible explanation:  a cabal of games journalists and feminists were using it to push an agenda, because the game featured female main characters, a non-violent storyline, and was ultimately a lesbian love tale. Or something like that. I honestly have no fucking clue what these people really think because you can never believe anything on the internet.

So I was curious.  Despite spoiling myself on most of the game, I was puzzled as to how Gone Home could evoke either absolute adoration or bitter hatred.  Could a game really tell a down-to-earth story well enough to be one of the best games of the year without any meaningful gameplay? And what about a simple romance between two teenage girls could possibly piss off so many people?  Maybe I’m just optimistic but I kinda thought we were at a point as a culture where “outcast girls fall in love” isn’t even a particularly subversive concept. So with all this in mind I played through Gone Home in one sitting, start to finish.

A decent amount of the praise given to Gone Home is based on its methods of storytelling, which may be the least interesting part of the game.  There are two ways in which pieces of the story are imparted to the player.  The first is through narration.  Sam, the sister of player-character Katie, reads various entries of her diary aloud as Katie explores the house.  It’s impossible to hear one of these segments start up without thinking of Bioshock’s audio logs, and that’s no accident.  Gone Home is the product of former Irrational Games developers, and Irrational spawned an entire generation of audio logs with Bioshock.  These segments are well acted and evocative, but the format’s been run so far into the ground that most audio logs now originate from China.

The rest of the story comes from scattered books, crumpled papers, notes, a handful of physical objects to pick up, and the environment itself.  While Gone Home is devoted to this brand of storytelling, it’s not new or unique.  Recall Myst, where the true nature of the brothers Sirrus and Achenar were revealed through their brand of interior decoration.  There were a number of areas in Bioshock that tried for a similar feel.  Or for a more recent example, there are a number of rooms in The Last of Us that manage to tell a simple story with nothing more than the placement of a few objects around the environment.

What about the story being told?  Well, that’s not particularly revolutionary either, at least not on its face.  A father deals with his PTSD through his writing. A mother considers infidelity. And a teenage girl finds love in her best friend.  If it were a book or movie, it might even be rote, though sincere and sweet.  On television, it’s a decent episode of My So Called Life.  In a game, though? There is nothing like it.

Gone Home is the first upmarket fiction game. In literature, “upmarket fiction” is a neologism used primarily in the publishing industry to describe a novel that does not fall into any particular genre–romance, science fiction, horror–but has mass-market appeal. Depending on how snobby you are, and how legitimate you think the term “literary fiction” is, upmarket fiction could be considered accessible literary fiction.  Think Jodi Picoult, Nick Hornby.

I honestly don’t know if I mean any of this as a compliment or an insult. Personally, I’m not a fan of most upmarket fiction.  But I am aware that it is incredibly popular.  It reaches across demographics and finds an audience with groups that aren’t interest in high art or genre storytelling.  There’s a place for endearing characters, personal drama, and emotional (if sometimes clunky) storytelling. And if games can do that, great. Despite what Gone Home‘s haters might think, upmarket fiction games aren’t going to suddenly flood the market, making all the sci-fi and horror titles disappear. And shouldn’t people prefer for games to reach a larger market with a first person adventure rather than facebook titles, Candy Crush, and Angry Birds?

Gone Home is an achievement. Along with other recent titles like Papers, Please, it breaks the shackles of genre on mainstream gaming.  That being said, I have mixed feelings about my time with Gone Home. 

It’s not easy for a game to tell a small, personal, character-driven story in the real world.  Interactivity is a big part of games, and there’s just not that much to do in a such a story. Either you shoe-horn in some awkward gameplay mechanic, or you write a visual novel, or you do what Gone Home did, and essentially make a game out of reading the story.  Requiring some kind of gameplay will inevitably hurt the narrative, unless the player’s active nature in the gameplay is part of the story, which I credit Papers, Please for capturing quite well.  And the narrative will limit the gameplay.

So as much as I admire what Gone Home has done, as a viewer I was left wondering whether I would have preferred to watch Show Me Love followed with playing a few rounds of Battlefield 4. That sounds crude, but both the gameplay and narrative experiences would have been superior.  There’s just one thing that kept me from taking such a reductive approach, and it’s where Gone Home shines the brightest.

Despite all the criticism I just laid out, I get it. I get why people love Gone Home. I particularly get why a ton of video game critics love Gone Home and it has nothing to do with The Homosexual Agenda, unless The Homosexual Agenda is kept in a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper (which it probably is). It’s about nostalgia. Gone Home does something literally no game has ever done, and that is successfully tap into the deep, powerful sense of longing to return to a time and place we have a left behind.

Sure, games play with nostalgia all the time–nostalgia for other games. Just load up Super Mario World 3d and look at the eight bit Mario on the loading screen, or pop in Pokemon X and stare at a fully rendered Pikachu or something until you can vividly remember hiding under the covers with your flashlight and a Gameboy. Grand Theft Auto leaned into nostalgia for certain times and places with Vice City and San Andreas: 80s Miami and 90s California respectively. But those games didn’t represent those times and places as they really were, but as they were portrayed in film. Vice City didn’t actually evoke Florida in the wane of the Reagan years. It evoked Scarface and Miami Vice.

Gone Home captures a time–both a year (1995) and an age (late high school)–a place, an attitude, and a snapshot of culture that absolutely resonates with anyone who experienced it. For a white, middle class, budding intellectual from the west coast who was a teenager and fell in love in the mid-90s, Gone Home hits so many notes it practically turns into a symphony.  Some of them are very specific to the time–Street Fighter II at the arcades, X-Files on the television, excitement about THE CHUNNEL, VHS tapes and composite cables everywhere–but others simply evoke an older time that anyone before a certain year can appreciate. Cassette mix tapes, notes passed in lockers, crudely printed ‘zines and the uncertainty of an empty house before everyone carried a cell phone.

I don’t hit all the check boxes for Gone Home’s demographic–I was born a few years too late, in the Midwest, and I never had any appreciation for real punk music, riot grrrl or otherwise–but I was close enough that I could feel it.  I was absorbed in the world the characters used to inhabit.  And in this way, Gone Home did finally manage to do something with its upmarket fiction story that no other medium could manage.  By allowing me to explore the environments, rather than watch the story unfold as a passive observer, I was brought back to the 90s.  Sure, I didn’t go and put on parachute pants, but I was primed to experience the awkwardness and discovery of a teenage romance.  I know why certain people would fall in love with this game.

I guess I also understand why some people wouldn’t like it at all. I can imagine someone considerably younger than me being alienated by parts of the setting. Hell, even the central conceit of an empty house with no explanation and no way to contact your family might limit the receptive audience.  But unlike the braindead backlash to the critical acclaim, I’m fine with that.  I enjoyed my time with Gone Home.  Sure, some of the highest praise doesn’t fall in line with how I feel about it, but Gone Home wasn’t made for me–someone who semi-unironically thinks that Metal Gear Solid 2 had a good video game story.  More video games should appeal to a smaller audience. It’s one thing to complain that you didn’t “get” Gone Home after playing it, or simply that you didn’t like it. But people saying that it shouldn’t exist, or that there shouldn’t be other games like this, or that critics’ enjoyment of it is somehow illegitimate need to understand that not all media is made for everyone.  

So that’s basically 2000 words to say that Gone Home is pretty cool.  I’m probably not the target audience, but that’s okay.  The story’s nothing special, except that no other video game tries to tell a story that’s even similar. That elevates it to something that should be experienced.  And it will make you want to listen to the Smashing Pumpkins again.

Oh, and anyone who dislikes this game for having gay characters, or thinks that’s the only reason anyone cares about it, needs to get out.

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