The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 23
Hello? Is anyone here? Hello? Where is everyone? Where have they all gone? Maybe they're under all these ring binders?
It's Gone Home!
Alec: Confession time: I sincerely doubt I'd be naming Gone Home as one of my games of the year if I wasn't a games critic (particularly a PC games critic). If I wasn't a games critic, it's extremely doubtful I'd have played as many games I have, and as a result I'd likely feel a little less fatigued by shooting and stabbing-based games than I sometimes do. I'd perhaps have looked at GTA as the cathartic cartoon power trip it is for many, as opposed to the often obnoxious, frequently incoherent testosterone explosion it seemed as just another brick in my wall of virtual death-dealing. Hell, I'd probably even have taken COD Ghosts or Battlefield 4 as a noisy, cheerful indulgence rather than a symptom of the games industry's sickness.
I'm too immersed in all of this, in a slightly unnatural way - I know that just as much as I know that such games are indeed problematic in many ways. So I often need a holiday from what to anyone else would be a holiday; I need to play games that make different parts of my brain light up, that give me new experiences and new things to say. That the games of 2013 I most praise (this, Spelunky, Proteus, AC4 Black Flag and one that must remain TBC for now) are primarily indie and offbeat has nothing to do with arch pretension or arty-fartiness: it's simply that they've made more of an impression on me after having played so many hundreds of more action-focused games. If a man eats only Tikka Masala for a long time, finding a burrito on his plate is going to be a delightful change. Doesn't mean he doesn't still love Tikka Masala, of course.
This is not to undermine my praise and admiration for Gone Home. I'd have taken a lot from this well-paced, detail-filled gaze at metaphorical ghosts regardless, as it pokes a knowing finger at quite a few nerves, but perhaps it wouldn't have achieved quite the same stature as it does to this me. It's two hours that I haven't ever replayed and never will, but that time stayed with me. I can close my eyes and be back in that house, and feel again how that house made me feel. I've never been in a house anything like that, let alone lived in one, but it's the house of my youth.
I've already written about perhaps the foremost reason why Gone Home affected me particularly, and don't intend to spill any more blood from these dry veins of mine, which leaves me trying to tackle the more nebulous praise of 'atmosphere' and 'tone.' Some of it's the lights being off, and wondering what the darkness hides; some of it's the sound of the rain outside and the static of television inside, and the spectral soundtrack; some of it's the dawning, unprompted realisation that two pieces of information found far apart are related; some of it's the sounds and imagery of what can only be the mid 1990s.
Much as there were moments of jubilation (some, admittedly, a little too earnest) in the main this was a game in which nothing happens and no-one ever appears that managed to keep me on edge throughout, so fearful for what I might discover. It wasn't fear for myself, which is a rare and powerful thing for a videogame. It was fear for people I'd never met, never would and didn't exist. They mattered to me.
Despite nominally being in the unseen shoes of a female, US college student, as opposed to an exhausted 34-year-old male Brit, I played as myself in Gone Home. I played with my sympathies and prejudices and wounds at the fore, raw and exposed and affected by what I read and heard and intuited and imagined about these people. Their house told me their story, far better than Sam's spoken diaries did.
I close my eyes and I'm there. Egregious excess of ringbinders and all.
John: Gone Home hasn't stuck with me as I thought it would. It was tremendous, and I so thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing it, while being chilled by that which was chilling. I'd deliberately avoided finding out about the game before I reviewed it, and I genuinely had no idea in which genre it was eventually going to end up. Was this quasi-horror stuff going somewhere? What twist should I expect? Not knowing those answers made it all the more fun.
So enormous amounts have been written about much of what makes the game great, but I want to celebrate what was most banal about it. I think the game was at its weakest when the house felt unusual. Secret passages, peculiar notes in hidden stairways - that's fun and all, but it detracted from what I appreciated most about Gone Home: the ordinariness. It was a house. Not a spaceship. It's so strange quite how unusual that is in our silly medium. There are huge amounts to raise eyebrows at in the design, from the peculiarity of leaving unpacked boxes in the hallway of a house that's been lived in for months, to the public displays of private, incriminating correspondence in chronological order on every desk and table in the place. But these contrivances forgiven, it was the a-house-like-I-live-in-a-house-ness of it that gripped me most. Not that I live in a house anything like that bloody great mansion, obviously. But it was familiarly home.
I think the game's best conceit was that your character is experiencing the place for the first time too. It could have been a game about a person going about a house with which they were familiar, and you'd be slightly farther separated from the event. By it being strange and alien to her, while at the same time filled with the familiar and the familial, it so perfectly aligned her experience with your own. Unknown yet very recognisable. I loved those bland details, the trinkets of a family, the everyday objects of necessity, the utterly astonishing numbers of highlighter pens. Okay, perhaps not that.
But as I began, as I look back it hasn't stuck with me. And I really thought it would. I know that for others there was a far greater and more affecting resonance, but for me it was of its moment. There for then, but not for now. And that's just fine.
Graham: This year has been defined for me not by scripted, linear experience, but by a series of systemic games. Games where you create the stories yourself by tinkering with the mechanics, like Spelunky, Teleglitch, Europa Universalis, and so on.
Gone Home is one of two exceptions that I enjoyed this year, and I think it's because it's still a story you make for yourself. As you explore the mansion, picking up old cassette tapes, reading letters and private diaries, you construct the story in your mind. It doesn't exist without you being there, deducing it.
That makes the story more powerful, relatable and rich than if it was just written down as a short story. It needs your participation. You need to play it.
Jim: I don't want to say anything much about Gone Home, because I don't think anything that would come from my observations would really do service to its importance, or articulate what it has meant to people. Its themes interested me, but distantly. Its significances and interests were not my own, and I am aware that my admiration is something colder and more technical than it is for others. During its development I played several builds, and it was fascinating to watch the Fullbright team craft something so meticulous. At one point project lead Steve Gaynor described it to me as a "Fabergé egg", which is simultaneously utterly inappropriate - the Fabergé works of unmitigated ostentation have nothing in common with Fullbright's careful and humble normality - and perfectly apt: the game is a fastidiously constructed, self-contained thing that is beautiful in its completeness, and brought to life by lavish use of intricate detail. It is this - the sheer achievement of the creation of that home, and the systems required to respectfully investigate it, that filled me with so much awe. Few games manage to identify a theme and then execute it so expertly, and for that alone, it has my deepest respect.
Nathan: Gone Home is one of the few games I plan to show my extended family when I, er, go home for the holidays. It's a game I'd argue you don't really have to like (or even really understand) traditional game-y games to enjoy, and that's fine. Great, even. In that respect, it's a truly universal work.
Gone Home's perfect attention to mundane detail results in a locale you can practically touch and taste. The musty, stale air stirs with secrets and mystery (and also a faint hint of pine). An old pizza box on the table, a TV that nobody bothered to turn off, self-help books, newspapers, X-Files videotapes, one of gaming's finest bathrooms. Fuck water temples and hyper-detailed, totally walled-off corridors. This is how you make a place.
But that's only part of its beauty. The rest is in your head, a swirling rainstorm torrent of suspicion and speculation. Picking over the abandoned house reminded me of a more detailed version of my favorite bits of Bethesda's Fallout games. Sleuthing, turning things over and over both physically and in my head - that's Gone Home's principle interaction. Some of its individual elements could easily be executed by other mediums, but the sum of its parts - the irresistible mystery of its mundanity - would fall apart if we couldn't inhabit its world.
Its story exists in a similarly kaleidoscopic bubble: no matter what angle you view it from, no matter who you are, there's something powerfully resonant to take away from it. Space marines, devil-may-care action heroes, tuft-bearded wizards - all that craziness - takes a very specific headspace to truly identify with. But we were all, at one point, kids growing up and trying to figure ourselves out. We were scared, we were confused, and we were certain that there was no one else dealing with the same stuff as us. Gone Home is a story about people. It's about life, living, and how regular little changes in and around a sleepy old house can be the most frightening, difficult things in the world. There is no element of videogame "challenge" to Gone Home, but that's kind of the point: real life isn't a videogame.
But while Gone Home's characters are undeniably human, they're the sorts that rarely take center stage in media. And that's part of the reason I want to show Gone Home to my family. I do not think the story is perfect, nor do I think that the means of its telling (a frankly preposterous number of correspondences just kind of lying about) is ideal, but these characters' belongings and stories paint a powerfully authentic picture. Once again, the sum of the game's parts makes it much easier to ignore some of its structural deficiencies. My family, meanwhile, largely lives in northern Texas. They're not necessarily prejudiced or bigoted, but it's much easier for them to treat people unlike themselves - outside the sphere of their day-to-day experiences - as abstract concepts. Ideas and demands without faces or names. Much of my family is from a different generation, and it's a walled garden effect.
But that's one of great fiction's most important powers: it allows us to embody mindsets and lifestyles we might otherwise never seek out. We can temporarily slip into someone else's skin. We can understand. I don't think Gone Home will blow my family's mind or change their lives fundamentally, but it's a simple yet affecting reminder that everyone's human. In this day and age, it's incredibly easy to lose sight of that. To tear down and dehumanize. To me, there are few more laudable goals than creating something that blots away that toxicity, even if you have to do it drop by drop.