Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Gaming Reflections: Gone Home

Hey, everyone! It’s been ages since I’ve actually bothered to write anything, huh?

Anyway, I’m here to talk about a game I played called “Gone Home.” I first heard about it in my narrative design class and it looked vaguely creepy but with a feel-good 90’s vibe, and I heard a few recommendations that were pretty much just “play this,” so I was looking forward to playing it.
When I actually played it, I was actually less than impressed.

Gone Home focuses on a girl named Katie who has gone home (I get it!) after visiting Europe. However, she arrives home sooner than her family expects, and she returns to an empty house. From there, the goal is to explore the empty house to figure out where her family has gone and why. Players discover who the family is through Katie’s interactions with the environment of the house.

That’s what the game is about in theory. In reality, it’s a bit different.

Let’s start with what I liked about the game. First of all, it did well at telling a story through the environment, and at building a realistic environment. It feels like a real house, and while several bits of matching furniture personally make me raise an eyebrow, the family is implied to be fairly well-off. If they want to get identical ornate cabinets, they probably could. The game manages to maintain a sense of non-linearity while simultaneously guiding the player through linear sections. In that sense, it did what it was supposed to and worked. The atmosphere was also decent, and while the music didn’t leave much of a lasting impression, it worked well enough and gave the game a particular flavor that helped counteract the whole “creepy empty house” thing.

In addition, there are a lot of things to love about the storytelling. I liked how I was left to put the pieces together from notes and the environment. Learning of the father’s struggles with writing through letters from his publishers and boxes of empty books was good. The unspoken implications in the communications between the mother and her coworker say volumes about the state of their marriage. The personalities of Katie, Sam, and Lonnie come through really well through the things they’ve written. There are a few things that made me smile just because the comedic interactions felt so real and true. They were friends/family joking around with each other, and you got a good sense of that.

So that’s what Gone Home did right. Now let’s talk about what it did wrong and why it left me unimpressed.

One issue I had with Gone Home was the whole “pick anything up” thing. It’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s nice to be able to look at a few personal items more closely and to be able to move things around. On the other hand, there is absolutely no point to being able to pick up pencils or packs of toilet paper. A lot of things that can be examined are completely arbitrary, and I don’t like being given the option to muck around with things that aren’t important. If you give me the option to take all the food out of the freezer and chuck it all over the kitchen, I’m going to want to do so. Also, give me the achievement for finishing the game while holding a banana.

But that’s nitpicking. I could also nitpick the fact that there was pretty much no gameplay, which is why the “pick stuff up” mechanic seemed so prominent, but nitpicking that isn’t really the point since Gone Home is really more of an interactive story than a game. The real issue with the game is in the story. I mentioned earlier how I liked piecing the little scraps of story together. The game initially seemed to be an exercise in the principle of “show, don’t tell” when applied to stories in games. While there is definite value to telling when utilized properly, I really respected that Gone Home was trying to tell a story with as little text as possible. And then it completely destroyed that principle it had set up.

There is one story that is pushed to the forefront of Gone Home, and it is Sam’s character arc. Certain notes will trigger narration from Sam, elaborating on the story. This makes it clear that Sam’s arc and Sam’s arc alone is the one that matters. The father’s writing aspirations and the mother’s marital struggles are treated as unimportant. Instead, the important story is Sam coming to terms with her sexuality and her relationship with Lonnie.

While Sam and Lonnie are certainly interesting characters, their story is not particularly good. It’s stock “rebellious teen” stuff, and the ending (in which Lonnie goes AWOL from the military and Sam abandons her potential college career so the two can run off together, stealing a lot of valuables from the family in the process) is played as a heartwarming romance. However, past the surface level, it is the story of two young adults potentially ruining their lives because they think with their hearts instead of their heads. This is presumably supposed to be sweet solely because the relationship is a same-sex one. Make it a heterosexual relationship, and the characters’ youthful stupidity become much more noticeable. Are we really supposed to be cheering for these shortsighted and self-centered characters, just because of their star-crossed relationship?

Gone Home seems to have confused “hot-button issue” for “good writing.” I’ll admit that, as someone who comes from a conservative background and holds a lot of moderate political views, my opinions may be a bit biased, but I felt that much of Gone Home was just a heavy-handed political statement (as an aside, if my stance on such things truly matters to how seriously you take my opinions on the game’s writing, you can find my in-depth opinions here). But anyway, that brief digression aside, Gone Home got pretty blatant about things, sometimes at the expense of actual writing. The initial “abandoned house” set-up is a clear bait-and-switch that can feel a bit manipulative to some, the arcs of characters other than Sam and Lonnie are—as I’ve already mentioned—brushed aside as “not important enough,” and even some elements of the story itself get heavy-handed. I can forgive some things that seem like stock LGBT issues just because I’m sure those are stock issues for a reason, but the bit of Sam’s writing where her character’s love interest is given a magical sex change in an obvious metaphor for her coming to terms with her sexuality? This sort of transparent self-insertion is the sort of writing I’m legitimately expected to believe is coming from someone who wants to go into creative writing?

So overall, I found Gone Home to be a decent exercise in environmental storytelling and character development, but little more. On those two counts, it was incredibly strong. The soundtrack was fitting enough but unmemorable, the lack of actual game mechanics made issues with existing mechanics more noticeable. The “show, don’t tell” storytelling was wonderfully done, but putting emphasis on a single story over the others did more harm than good, especially since the story it chose to focus on did not have a particularly strong narrative. It was ultimately a very stock romantic story with a “but they’re lesbians” tacked on, and I think it detracted from what was otherwise a great experiment in storytelling. Personally, I don’t get the praise. I think that the praise is, again, largely because of the tendency of people to mistake topical statements for quality. It’s artistic, but “artistic” does not mean “inherently good.” I think from an objective standpoint, Gone Home is above mediocre at best, with its strong aspects dragged down by its weaker ones. In addition, it is incredibly short (2 hours long at best, 2 minutes long at worst), and is in no way worth the $20 dollar price tag--meaning that, unless you're able to get it on sale, there's really no good reason to buy it.

I guess it just goes to say, anything can get called a masterpiece as long as it’s about gay cowboys eating pudding.

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