In our first guest feature, Jess talks about why Gone Home and other story-heavy games like it prove that there are experiences only games can create.
“Game feel” is a term I learnt not long ago but have become attached to when talking about my favourite games. It’s generally used as a term to mean the physical feeling you get when playing a video game. As Brendon Keogh explains in his reader on game feel: “the reason we really play a videogame is because it feels real good within our soft meaty body. Video games are a carnal pleasure”. This physical manifestation of the intangible world of a video game is important to our experience of the stories within them. The medium gives us an extra layer of bodily experience inside of the base textual aspects of any narrative. This marriage of a bodily experience and traditional storytelling is what makes video games a very effective avenue for rich and layered stories to be told in interesting and new ways.
In Gone Home you play as the sister and daughter to an absent family – you arrive home from a year abroad to an empty house. Your first task is to find the spare key to let yourself in. During your exploration of the house, which is narratively guided by locked doors and a labyrinthine layout, you gradually pick up diary entries from your younger sister containing small slices of explanation as to why the house is seemingly abandoned. Each diary entry you find is read aloud as you wander the newly opened kitchen or attic space or stairwell. Each entry is read with diegetic background noise of stormy weather, rain beating against the windows as you glance around your younger sister’s messy bedroom. Perhaps you rifle through the bathroom cabinet, or you pick up books from the shelves in the library.
The problem with viewing Gone Home in particular as primarily a channel through which to receive a story is that it ignores the main function of this (and most other) video games: the act of experience. The benefits of Gone Home being a video game over a different method of storytelling isn’t in receiving the story as the most pure version of itself – it’s receiving the story in relation to your physical and digital manifestations. It’s the where and the how of it.
The bare bones story in this game, of a young queer teen navigating her feelings and her parents, is a story that could be told in a myriad of ways. The difference is not how it exists as a text but how it transitions from that core text into a piece of media and then how it is received by the reader. A novel, for example, exists as a text: it is read by a person and that person processes it. A game is similar but the text, as received by the player, is more amorphous – it doesn’t have an exact shape until it is grasped by the player and formed by them and their actions. The space between yourself and the story is necessarily changed by the medium it is filtered through. The function of a novel is usually about the basic text. One reader might experience a book differently to another but the text necessarily stays the same and both readers are being given the same bits of information. Video games are about the person processing it, who is different every time. Even linear-story games will be played at different speeds, with different consoles/configurations. The experience is different. The space between you (the reader or player) and the text (a novel or a game) is changed, even if the basic components of the story are similar or identical.
As an example, when playing Gone Home you get to decide which drawers to open, which books to pull off the shelves, which light switches to flick on and off. This creates an atmosphere of exploration and agency. You can go back to areas you want to spend more time in, you can stop to take a closer look at extra details that aren’t necessarily hugely important to the essential story but that create the atmosphere. The agency of the player changes game to game via mechanics and scope but it is an important part of most games (if it is missing, that lack of agency may also be important).
Gone Home is also a game that puts you in the semi-anonymous character of the sister. Your character doesn’t speak and the camera is never turned on her. All you know about the character you inhabit is what you learn from the environment and what you, as the player, do. This silence creates a space in which the player can view the world unfiltered. Even a novel written in third-person creates a worldview, it tells you where the focus is. In Gone Home, the focus is wherever you want it to be. It is open, and quiet, and this means that you must fill that gap with yourself. The intentions, motivations, thoughts and feelings are experienced by you and the character at the same time. This is enhanced by the sense of nostalgia the game is trying to evoke in the player through music, posters and other objects throughout the house. The age range the developers are aiming for are a generation who are sometimes thought to be obsessed with this nostalgic view of the world of their childhoods. The fact that the game literally opens with you arriving home after being away for a long time is an instant call for you to view this house as a scene of your childhood, much like the nineties is for many of the players.
Games with main characters who are seen and heard have a different challenge – how do we turn this character’s motivations into the player’s motivations? How do we create a person so believable that the player will want to be the invisible puppet guiding them to their goals? The first example I think of here is The Last Of Us (fair warning: spoilers for the ending ahead). You spend the main bulk of the game fighting off the disfigured, infected population who have brought civilisation to its knees. You are protecting the girl who is potentially the key to fixing the world. As a player who is sat at home, who can willingly put this down and pick it back up, there is a potential for emotional distance and “big picture” thinking. But every single person I know who has played this game says they didn’t even hesitate when saving Ellie in the end. The narrative is so strongly crafted and you emotionally inhabit Joel so totally that even if there was another option, you would not take it.
I played Gone Home in one sitting, which clocked in at around 4 hours. I would not want to watch a film with this story that was 4 hours long, and I cannot imagine this story any shorter. The way the story slowly unravels around you whilst you discover new areas of the house, doors to secret staircases and scraps of paper in bottom drawers, wouldn’t elicit the same feeling, the same emotions inside the player, or viewer, if that story had taken 90 minutes rather than 4 hours. It would also be really boring. Watching someone open a drawer and read a diary entry isn’t the same as deciding for yourself to interact with the world around you, and being rewarded with a new clue or insight.
Agency, or lack thereof, is such an important component of a game. A key element of lots of modern horror games is removing the power from you: you are trapped here and you cannot kill the monster. Horror as a genre across all media types is often about agency and power, but horror games put you in the driving seat. It’s you that is going into the dark basement, it’s you wandering in the woods after dark. I asked someone to tell me if there were any jump scares in Gone Home before I played it as it displays, initially, many indie horror elements. It’s set at night time, a storm rages outside and you can’t pick up any objects (i.e. weapons) usefully. The parameters of agency in games are different, these things did not impede my journey in Gone Home (which was intentional) but they add to the experience of a slow and steady journey through the house. The fear drives you forward but keeps you from simply ripping the house apart top to toe. I opened doors slowly, I crept round corners and down dark staircases. Even after I was told there were no jump scares, I was still vibrating with anticipation and it made the one small jump scare even more effective.
This atmospheric, gentle discovery-type storytelling does not befit all or even most video games. Games like Gone Home and others like it (for example, Journey) seem to simply evoke their stories rather than outright telling them. The story bleeds through the edges rather than being laid out in front of you, a narrative method that video games have an affinity for. The creation of atmosphere, time and place is so integral to the medium, it seems misguided to waste that on simple mechanics and systems.