Missed opportunities: Gone Home
Whenever a new genre emerges, be it games, literature, movies or any other form of entertainment, it takes a while before interested parties accept certain ideas that go against general conventions. With games, this can be particularly hard, as the experience itself depends on a very unique interaction of medium and consumer to create its immersion. This interaction combined with an audience, whose collective attention span seems to be growing shorter every year, sometimes makes for a very tough sell, when it comes to different ideas.
Now, to an industry that puts games into games so people can game while they game, comes a new type of experience: the walking simulator. Within, players walk around for a bit, look at a few pretty scenes and objects and build a story upon what they have seen. And both gamers and developers alike have no idea how to tackle this new experience. Projects like Dear Esther, Neverending Nightmares or Proteus have the community split in regards to opinions, preferences and monetary appraisal. The same can be said about Gone Home, one of last years most notable entries into the genre. Critics and gamers lauded it and hated it, cried with it and couldn't care less about it. Though where lies the cause of this massive split? Did the game promise something it didn't deliver? Or is it simply that the genre of the walking simulator is still not properly understood? Let's add another opinion to the flood of answers to these questions.
To better understand the game, we'll have a closer look at the main story. We won't be covering the side stories this time around, so there's plenty left to explore, but still, henceforth: spoiler alert.
Gone Home markets itself as a mystery. You arrive at the new home of your family after being gone for a year, but nobody's there. You set out to unravel why this is so. For most gamers, this might sound like finding out deep dark secrets behind a terrible tragedy. But this isn't exactly the case... for most plot threads at least. The secrets you unravel are more of the deliciously forbidden nature. Like the stuff you share with you best friend under a blanket or over a huge tube of ice cream. … Basically, for the most part, this is a romance story. That doesn't make the story bad in anyway, it however does make the choices used to market and describe the game rather unfortunate (1 troll).
The story itself is told in two ways. One is through meticulously places clues around the house, the other is a narration that triggers when you ogle certain objects. The first lets you connect all the dots, fill out the blanks on your own to create a slice of life story about characters with varying personalities, motivation and struggles. The less visible the hints, the more interesting it becomes to hunt for them, the bigger the reward and the more satisfying it feels to have found out something you really have no business sticking your nose into... mostly because it's damn rude. Yes. The game rewards you for basically being an inquisitive little creeper and the worst part is, you've made an informed choice to play exactly for that reason. Yes, we kind of are terrible people in that regard.
The narration by your sister serves as the main story and is spoon-fed to the player throughout the game. It's a weird contrast to the exploration itself, but as a character choice does makes sense. Your sister wanted to confide in you. In a way kept confiding in you even as you were gone and the disembodied voice was her way to catch up on all moments lost. The whole idea however again puts into question the whole hook of the game – the initial note waiting for the player, when they arrive at the home, asking them not to go snooping around. It feels very out of character for both the relationship the game portraits the two sisters having as well as the situation in which it was created. So once again, in order to get the player invested, it feels like the game sets up something that doesn't really address the story properly (2 trolls).
And what is the main story? A shy girl, who has trouble making friends in a new environment falls for someone unconventional, who's multi-talented, beautiful, badass and also somehow mysterious in their own way. They start dating, but the parents and society would of course never understand, so they try to hide it. But then, the shy girl's crush has to leave for somewhere far away for who knows how long. So they say their good byes, but just when the shy girl is left alone, she gets a call from her one true love. They want to be with the shy girl so much they bailed on their trip. So the shy girl runs away to meet them. The end. Oh and both protagonists of the story are girls by the way.
So technically this is a very archetypical love story. And while a good portion of the praise the game got came from the main character being homosexual, the sexual orientation plays little to no role in the narrative... Which is absolutely perfect. I'll be the first to admit I'm no authority on the subject, sure, but if nothing else, I love the idea of cheesy romantic fictions being available in all pairings. Everyone deserves a chance to dream of a cheesy kind of love, a bit of escapism from reality that caters to their preferences. Not all stories have to break ground and challenge all our perspectives on sexuality. Sometimes it's just nice to have a story about two girls being in lesbians with each other that have the same struggles as any other couple.
Gone Home takes a lot of risks. It sports mechanics that the majority of gamers isn't used to, a narrative that requires a lot of effort on the side of the player to find and a type of story that isn't usually high up in the preference list of what is unfortunately still a very male centric community. The backlash the game experienced is to be expected from the very start as a knee-jerk reaction. That is not to say, that all criticism is misplaced. The game has its flaws ranging from sometimes very gamy story item placements and restrictions, weird choices by some characters and a rather steep initial price of what essentially is one fairly small location game wise.
On the other hand, for what it set out to do, Gone Home is expertly crafted. When it hits the right audience, it can produce a deep experience. For me personally, the story was a bit off a hit and miss. I can appreciate what it's trying to do more than I can appreciate the product itself. Though that comes from a guy who only finished Pride and Prejudice once they introduced a zombie mod. Beyond a few head scratching choices in terms of hooking people in, I can't really fault Gone Home on what it does.
End result: Trollol.
Lessons learned: Should the human race suddenly up an disappear as a whole, our history will be told in passive-aggressive post-it notes.