My relationship with video games has changed over the years. When I was younger, every game was a wondrous journey into the land of entertainment and fun to me. But as I got older and experienced more games, both good and bad, my tastes have become more refined. I honestly don’t think you can call yourself an enthusiast of any entertainment domain or medium, if you don’t develop personal tastes, preferences which help you find the absolute gems in the sea of chaff. You can’t love or hate everything equally, unless you are only doing it at a very superficial level. I consider myself to be a bit of a video game connoisseur – which is basically a grandiose way of saying that I am no longer impressed or excited for the annual Call of Duty releases. Not that there is anything wrong with bland, repetitive military shooters – it’s just that I consider them to be the fast food equivalent of gaming. And by that I mean they can be really enjoyable at like 4am on a weekend, when you are too drunk to sleep, and you feel like p0wning some n00bz while watching Cowboy Bepop on Adult Swim. But they are not, and should not be part of your regular diet.
I want video games to be more than that just entertainment. I want them to be art. I think most gamers do, if only to see their favorite hobby legitimized in the eyes of the mainstream public. If you made a poll asking the citizens of the Internet whether or not games should be considered an art form, I think the answer would be almost unanimously “yes”. In fact, Roger Ebert have conducted an unofficial version of said poll when he stated he did not personally believe games could ever be considered an art form the way the movies are and gaming community collectively lost their shit. Roger, how about this one? we said. You haven’t played this one yet. This one is surely art! You MUST agree.
I honestly don’t know why we have cared so much what a guy who wasn’t really knowledgeable about games, and did not understand or care about the interactive storytelling thought about the medium. But we did. We dug our heels in, and stood our ground: games are not just entertainment. They are a storytelling medium. They are not just about shooting dudes, leveling up and rescuing princesses from the other fucking castle. They can be used to examine human condition. They can be used to tell compelling human interest stories: both grand in their scope as well as mundane and trivial. Games can make you laugh, cry and empathize with the characters and get invested in their story and care for it’s outcome even if it does not lead to better gun upgrades or unlock new vehicles or give you Steam achievements. Games can do all these things that make literature and cinema into art forms, and more.
But that was a long time ago, and we have forgotten. So we are back to doing that thing when members of the gaming community take it upon themselves to police the industry by judging which games are actually “true games”, as opposed to some bullshit casual crap that is so offensive their creators need to be doxxed and sent IRL death threats post haste. How dare one release a game without enemies or monsters in which you don’t even shoot anyone or level up. That’s not a game! That’s a walking simulator!
No, seriously: Steam recently rolled out a community driven tag system (guys, remember when folksonomy was a buzzword?) and Gone Home was promptly tagged as Not A Game and Walking Simulator. The Steam review section for this game is full of thumbs-down hate-posts and dire warnings how the game is not “worth the money” and not even a game at all. The community has decided that despite wanting more artful storytelling, more human elements, more character driven stuff, they didn’t want this. The choir of amateur reviewers is there in Steam review section, shrieking in unison: We didn’t ask for THIS! while pretending to wear Adam Jensen shades.
Silly gaming community, you may think to yourself, they probably don’t even know what art is. They have forgotten games were supposed to be art. They are on Steam, reviewing games like “products” and because this one has no achievements, skill trees, guns or even Amnesia/Slender style freak-out monster moments they have hypocritically judged it inferior. But that’s actually not why this game gets so much hate out there. Oh no!
You see, there is an older game on Steam which is also a “walking simulator”. It’s called The Stanley Parable and it is sort of an experimental video-game deconstruction. It doesn’t really have a plot or story, and there is no “win” condition. The object of the game is to either follow, or refuse to follow the instructions given by the narrator and explore the relationship between the player and the linear game narrative as such. It is well made, quite funny, really clever and very, very meta. It is the sort of thing that your average Call of Duty player would probably not appreciate because all you do is walk around. Was this game tagged as Walking Simulator? No, it wasn’t. It was tagged as Unique, Art and Must Buy.
For all intents and purposes, Stanley Parable is less of a game than Gone Home. It is actually shorter (most endings can be reached in less than 10 minutes, and there is about a dozen of them), less interactive and has less of a cohesive story (it’s more of a number of loosely related skits and variations on the theme). And yet the review section is full of praises and thumbs up. So it is not that the gaming community can’t appreciate a non-violent game without guns, enemies, kill streaks or upgrades. It is perfectly capable of enjoying a clever meta-deconstruction and satire of the medium dressed up in stripped down FPS mechanics.
So what happened here? How come so many people feel compelled to shit all over another game that tries to use similar mechanics to tell a different kind of story? Perhaps these reviewers are not objecting to the mechanics but rather to the content. Perhaps these reviews are simply an attempt to de-legitimize and marginalize a narrative their authors object to out of prejudice, internalized homophobia and/or sexism.
There was one post on the Steam community page for this game that caught my eye. Some poor soul posted a question: I really liked this game. Are there any other games like this out there? hoping to get some recommendations. It got only one reply: “kill yourself”. So you know, not really helpful. But it really made me think, because honestly, there aren’t any other games like Gone Home. I have over a hundred games in my Steam library, and only two titles in there have similar focus on non-violent, exploration-based storytelling: The Path and Dear Esther. While they are both wonderful in their own ways, I must say that neither one is as accessible and engaging to the player. The Path is triply, abstract and riddled with dense metaphors and symbolism to the point of being cryptic and requires the player to make a conscious effort to unravel its mysteries. It is more of a performance piece than a story – one you experience, reflect upon and discuss with other people. Dear Esther is contemplative and beautiful, but it has a very slow pace and somber mood. It’s like walking through a sad poem. Gone Home on the other hand is incredibly interactive. It offers you a wonderfully immerse playground to explore, and fiddle with. The mechanics draw you in, and the story then goes about delivering what the Internet refers to as “feels” in an easily accessible, bite sized pieces. It is direct and engaging in the way the aforementioned games simply aren’t.
But Luke, says random gamebro from the back row, if this game was not about lesbians, no one wouldn’t even pay attention to it.
This is probably true. If the game did not broach the thorny subject of homosexuality, it probably wouldn’t gain so much exposure. Much like The Path, Dear Esther and Stanley Parable it would just be an artsy, alternative game mostly talked about by video game connoisseurs, enthusiasts and critics but mostly off-the-radar as far as the mainstream audience is concerned. The fact that it does contain this one specific theme, did give it a lot of notoriety and exposure. Now, ask yourself why is that? Why out of all subjects, this one makes people notice it? The answer is: representation.
Look at your game library: how many titles you own feature a named character who happens to be gay? Out of these titles, how many don’t use their gay character as a joke, comic relief sidekick or a token and instead make him or her integral part of the “main” story? How many of those characters have a non-trivial romance plot? How many of those characters are women? How many of them are women gamers? Your tally should probably be 0 unless you own Gone Home in which case you should be at 1. That’s really the long and short of it: video games don’t pass the Bechdel test and don’t even involve women in roles other than damsels to be rescued or upgrade vendors. Games tell very few stories about women, and even less about gay women.
It should not be notable that Gone Home features a lesbian love story. It is a big deal, mostly because no one else is interested in telling stories like that. It’s sad but true. To be an art form, games can’t limit themselves to just exploring the heroes journey theme over and over again. Especially heroes journey of a white, heterosexual, brown haired male protagonist. They need to explore all kinds of other stories: especially the ones that are mundane, unremarkable but very, very human.
Gone Home is exactly that: a story about two teenage girls who bond over their love for Street Fighter, become BFF’s while playing Nintendo and watching X-Files and then fall head over heals in love with each other. There is nothing particularly remarkable about it other than the fact it is cute and relatable. It is just a slice of life – an exploration human condition presented to you in the form of an interactive experience.
In my review of Shelter I griped about the disconnection between the mechanics and the story. The game play in that game simply didn’t do a really good job of conveying the story it was trying to tell. I think that this is a really important point to stress: even when you are making a contemplative game which does not feature shooting dudes in the face, or jumping on their heads to obtain coins, the mechanics are still important. The actual game play is how you communicate with the player, and deliver the story and if it doesn’t work, the story suffers. It breaks the immersion and takes the player out of the experience.
For example Dear Esther had these breath-taking vistas, and these thoughtful narration pieces, but to get from one of them to the other you had to suffer through like 5 minutes of slow walking through a grass field, with nothing but ambient wind sounds to entertain you. Gone Home however nails the game play aspect. It uses the familiar FPS format, and populates the game space with hundreds of little objects you can pick up, and interact with. There are doors, cupboards, cups, utensils, scraps of paper, documents, folders, notebooks, lockers and etc. Pretty much everything you see can be interacted with, picked up or fiddled with. In fact, this is the core game play mechanic: here is a room full of random shit, now go full on Cole Phelps on every single little thing.
But unlike LA Noire objects which are either considered a clue, or random bullshit garbage, just about everything in Gone Home has some meaning. Some items unlock audio-journal entries which convey the “main” story, which is the adorkable relationship between Sam (the de-facto narrator, shy, introverted bookworm who loves video games, science fiction and pirate stories) and Lonie (a punk rocker chick with Ramona Flowers style ever changing hair, pro-level Street Fighter moves, who wants to tear down the patriarchy and join the army – though not necessarily in that order). These two are very different people, but their relationship works.
They not only like the same weird shit (which as you know from that one movie is not necessarily a basis for a relationship), but also understand each other. Lonnie brings Sam out of her shell and teaches her to be more social and confident. She introduces her to feminism and takes her to rock concerts, but at the same is totally on board drawing pictures for Sam’s dorky fan-ficiton or trying to hunt down the ghost of her dead uncle. Sam on the other hand grounds Lonie, and helps to balance out her wild side and keep her out of trouble. At the same time she is fiercely supportive – even though she doesn’t understand Lonnie’s obsession with the army, she admires her determination. Their relationship is sweet, heartwarming and at times sad. The game takes you through all the paces: the awkward first kiss, the initial infatuation, love, making plans for the future, heart breaking goodbyes, etc..
At some point I found this, which was so incredibly dorky but sweet at the same tike that it made me smile. Lonnie actually drew costume designs based on Sam’s silly pirate fiction, then they actually made them, and were planning to totally LARP it up on Haloween. If agreeing to dress up as the first mate to your girlfriend’s Marry Sue fan-fiction character isn’t a sign of true love, then I don’t know what is.
Sam’s journal entries just give you the big picture, and the detail is filled out with incredible environmental storytelling. For example, when in school both girls communicate via hand-written notes they put in each others lockers so you get to read their dorky jokes, opinions about Pulp Fiction or how 90210 is terrible, but has to be watched (for science). Sam obsessively hoards ticket stubs and fliers from the concerts they go to, scribbles on the margins of her notebooks. Lonie makes mix tapes and draws cats on motorcycles and other silly stuff.
The game takes place in the 90’s so the environments are jam-packed with visual nostalgia. You can for example go through Sam’s VHS tape collection to see what movies she likes, what books she reads and etc.
Oh, and yeah – Sam is obsessed with X-Files. There is so much X-Files shit throughout the game that it is not even funny. Then again, I kinda remember being really into that show back then too. I think we all were. I didn’t have the internet when the series was at the peek of it’s popularity so I missed the invention of shipping and slash-fics by a few years. In fact, few people had the internet back then, which is in part why the game is set in the mid 90’s. Because it was probably the last decade in which human communication was still mostly analog, and left paper trail. If Gone Home was set today, then the game would probably just involve reading Sam’s timeline on Facebook and raiding people’s laptops for clues. Which probably sounds more interesting that it would be gameplay wise.
But Sam and Lonie are not the only characters you learn about. By exploring the house you actually learn a lot about Sam’s entire family. For example, the parents are extremely well fleshed out characters even though neither one of them is voiced or described in the audio journals. Same isn’t really that much interested in her parents private lives, but as part of your investigation into Sam’s disappearance you learn all about their careers, their hopes, dreams, fears and troubles. You even get to see what books and movies they like, and what music they listen to. You never really see them, but they seem so real. You really don’t get that sort of attention given to side-characters in video games.
I especially liked the father’s sub-story and his struggle as a washed out pulp fiction writer fallen on hard times. Just by snooping around his study you get to learn how dissatisfied he is with his day job and how desperate he is to catch another big wave and redeem himself with another book. You get to see the tenuous relationship and resentment between him and his own father – a successful fiction writer and literary scholar – to whom he is a great disappointment. You can also almost feel his fear for Sam who is eagerly following in his footsteps considering pursuing a creative writing major at a university. There are also clues that point to the fact that he might have been abused by his uncle, the previous owner of the large house the family moved into, as a child. Terry Greenbriar is basically a mess, and he is barely holding it together, and he is hitting the bottle a bit too much than he perhaps should…
The mother has her own thing going, though she seems in a much better place: she seems to enjoy her job very much, is successful at it, receives a big promotion and enjoys affection of a younger, attractive coworker. While Terry’s story is about pulling out of his nose dive, and overcoming his mid-life crisis, hers seems to be more about figuring out what she wants to do with her life. She is torn between staying faithful to her husband and accepting said promotion that will move her to a new location, or staying at her current post to be close to the man she kinda fancies.
These two are so layered and complex it is actually kinda hard to hate them when they (predictably) have a little meltdown upon discovering their daughter is dating a girl, and decide the best course of action is to ground her (because that will surely work). They are not really the stereotypical gay hating parents: they are just people who don’t even seem to have a a good grasp on what homosexuality is, and have their worldview a bit skewed by religious dogma (there are sooooo many bibles in that house – there is like one in every room). They make some bad decisions which result in Sam and Lonie making a few bad decisions of their own, resulting in the empty house when your avatar, Kaitlin arrives.
It’s amazing how the game manages to flesh out these people who you never meet or see. Sam’s parents are actually much more well rounded and developed characters than all of Lara Croft’s sidekicks in the new Tomb Rider combined.
Personally, I really enjoyed this game. It had a good, relatable story, interesting characters and mechanics which were both engaging, and conductive to the narrative. You don’t save the world or fight any monsters in it, but I think that’s actually a good thing. We definitely need more games that tell these kind of small, low-key human stories. That aim to tug on your heart strings rather than fulfilling your empowerment fantasies. We need more games with female protagonists, and more representation for members LGBTA community.
If you are interested in games as a storytelling medium, or if you are a game developer who wants to become better at visual and environmental storytelling, I highly recommend playing this game. That said, it is important to acknowledge the fact that we all play video games for different reasons. There is no such thing as a monolithic “real gamer” template. Some people play for the stories, other for the thrill of overcoming challenges, others do it as an empowerment fantasy or escapism. We all get different things from different titles, but dismissing some of them as Not A Game is pointless and benefits no one. It is a way to maintain status quo and preventing this medium from branching out and trying new things. If we as a community punish every game developer for trying to think out of the box with banishment and exclusion, then how can we ever expect gaming to evolve?