Why & How Gone Home is Certainly a Game [SPOILERS]

Don’t let the header confuse you – this isn’t a joke-article. It’s not a review on the game’s quality either, as you can find that here. This was sparked from an argument among friends about how games like Gone Home are somehow not games.

Screen Shot 2013-11-30 at 9.28.59 PM

Gone Home (2013) by The Fullbright Company is a video-game. There are some who disagree on that point, saying that its focus on story with limited gameplay makes it more like a virtual museum than a game. While I can understand why some people would think that, I have to say that they are objectively wrong. Gone Home is indeed a game, and not because I’m using the broadest definition of a game, but because there is one central mechanic that it uses to give players choice, a natural progression through its story, and all that jazzy ludo-narrative harmony that all the kids are smoking these days. That one game mechanic is paranoia.

Warning: Major Spoilers Below. Gone Home almost literally hinges on its story for it to be impactful. You have been warned.

First off, let’s spoil the game away and reveal two major narratives in the story. The first, the gay romance story of Kaitlin’s sister, Samantha, is the main plot-line of the game. It’s the only story in the game that is audibly told to the player. This is the thread of the narrative that will string you along until the game ultimately ends, and for most people who are too anxious to spend their time reading, this is the only story they’ll get.

It’s a good story, I’ll admit. Some people don’t like it for reasons such as it not being all that original or even campy. For me personally, I’m a complete sucker for love stories, especially ones about defying conventional social views. This plot seems to be the reason why most people dislike the game. If not for the minority of people who, unfortunately, dislike the homosexual themes, then the majority dislike it from a standpoint of the usual criticisms of narrative. That’s all fine. Every one has an opinion, and my personal opinion is just as wrong as everyone else.

Screen Shot 2013-11-30 at 9.46.51 PM

Then there’s the second plot that goes on through Gone Home (there are about twenty-six plots, more or less). This one is where the central mechanic takes place. It’s very unique in its implementation and its a one-time trick so if you haven’t beaten the game yet and the spoiler warning hasn’t scared you off, this is your last chance to play it before reading on.

The second narrative of Gone Home is a ghost story. The large, empty house you explore is one left to your family by your rich, deceased, and possibly criminally insane, uncle. It’s storming outside, there are strange noises inside, and every now and then you find letters, notes, and maps left behind by your sister and her girlfriend accounting  their hunts for the ghost of your dead, crazy uncle. There’s even a haunting scrap of paper next to a Ouija Board you find in a secret wall compartment that apparently has messages from your uncle’s ghost.

This is where the paranoia sets in. For anyone who has played a horror game, or even just watched a screaming idiot play games like Amnesia on YouTube, you’ll notice the telltale signs of a horror game. The atmosphere noted in the above paragraph does all that it can to stew paranoia fuel in the player. You’ll think you saw a ghastly form out of the corner of your vision when all it was was the shape of some curtains. Lightning fills your headphones as you enter especially quiet and dark rooms. It’s dreadful, and it all culminates in the one, single jumpscare throughout the whole game.

Screen Shot 2013-11-30 at 9.30.29 PM

You follow your sister’s map to a secret staircase connecting your parent’s room to the ground-level library. You step down the first flight and come across a ceiling lamp. Tugging the string and flashing the light on reveals a cramped, incognito hallway crammed with newspaper clippings. What did your uncle do? Was he a serial killer? Is he watching you right now?

On the wall, you spot a small, wooden crucifix with writing on it. When you pick it up to inspect it closer… POP! The light goes out.
I jumped. I was frozen, and soon later made my way back up the stairs (holding the cross with me for some strange sense of security). I didn’t turn around once until I was in the light.

So, what does this have to do with game mechanics?

I stated earlier that this game offered choice, one of the fundamental cores of what a game is. I believe that, without making any serious stretches in logic or definitions, Gone Home offers a very unique method of player choice: Whether or not to be paranoid, to be scared, or to progress the story yourself.

Screen Shot 2013-11-30 at 9.27.15 PM

The Fullbright Company ingeniously made a horror game without actually making a horror game. They led you to believe that at any moment the ghost of your psycho uncle would pop up behind you, screaming to let him back into the mortal world, or whatever it is that ghosts are into these days. They preyed on your paranoia, making you cautious, affecting the way you played.

If you did play Gone Home, did you, upon entering a dark room, make a beeline to the closest light source without looking around you, for fear of the dark? Were you hesitant about progressing along the story after that light bulb exploded? Did the game use its narrative and atmosphere in such a way that you would have played differently or made different, inconsequential decisions without your paranoia?

The game mechanic here is an invisible mechanic. It doesn’t work like a rule, like most mechanics do, but instead works like, well, a specter. Invisibly guiding the player; pushing her, alluring her, scaring her into making different decisions, or even to simply stop playing or watch a Let’s Play. Morals and ethics in games that don’t utilize morality mechanics work in a similar fashion, feeding on your emotions and stress to get you to play them in certain ways without any real consequences for doing otherwise.

Gone Home works as a video-game, a legitimate game, because it requires you, the player, to make both conscious and unconscious decisions as to whether or not the ghost-story themes will have an effect on you, and your willingness to push forward is what drives the story forward.

You can follow Frank on Twitter @Fuhjem and visit his website, Turtlecade.com. Also, check out his horrible youtube channel.


1 reply »

  1. “I believe that, without making any serious stretches in logic or definitions, Gone Home offers a very unique method of player choice: Whether or not to be paranoid, to be scared, or to progress the story yourself.”

    Actually, this seems like a serious stretch of logic or definitions to me. I could say something very similar about, for instance, Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep.

    Doctor Sleep offers a very unique method of player choice: Whether or not to be paranoid, to be scared, or to keep turning pages and reading.

    I could say something similar about a scary movie. You have a choice to be scared or to keep watching the movie. (You even have a third choice! You could do both!) When your definition is in danger of making a book like Doctor Sleep out to be a game or, when taken to its logical conclusion, implying that a scary movie could be a game, it might be stretched too far.

    You might claim that, “progress the story” has more choice involved than “turn the page” or “don’t look away from the movie screen,” but the difference is really more quantitative than qualitative at this point, isn’t it? You could also claim that the choice lies in the mechanic of moving your character around in 3D space. Which direction do I move? That’s a choice. But again, this kind of definition-stretching would threaten to make games out of virtual tours.

    For me, interesting choices need to be more than ancillary in order for entertainment to qualify as a game, and no amount of definition-stretching will make Gone Home’s choices in any way primary to the entertainment. Rather, I would say that Gone Home has pushed the boundaries of ergodic story-telling.


Leave a Reply as a Guest, or Log In

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s