OCTOBER 17, 2013
IN 1996, award-winning fantasy writer Geoff Ryman released 253, a hyperlink/interactive novel about a doomed London Underground train hurtling toward a fatal collision. There are 253 passengers on the train’s seven cars, starting with the driver—who is about to fall asleep at the wheel—through a medley of parents and photographers and criminals and children. All ordinary people, after a fashion, though some of them hiding extraordinary secrets. Each page is a 253-word description of a passenger (their outward appearance, their past, their thoughts that range from the mundane to the alarming) all repeating the same 7-minute stretch before the accident. The novel is set on January 11th, 1995—the day Geoff Ryman discovered his best friend was dying of AIDS.
A hyperlink novel, you could skip around as you pleased, eschewing order and using characters and characteristics that overlapped in each description to explore the invisible web that connected this particular set of commuters. But two years later, Flamingo, an imprint of Harper Collins, released a print version of the novel, and it became clear that the versions worked very differently from each other. (Ryman told Salon’s Wendy Grossman that “ with links is about what makes people the same… It’s about the subliminal ways we’re linked and alike. You just read [the print version] passenger by passenger, and it’s about how different we all are. The links change the meaning of the novel.”)
While you could use the hyperlinks within the online version of the novel to move diagonally between characters and cars, the print novel’s hypnotizing rhythm and incantatory nature pulls you through laterally. In the online version, you don’t have to read every page, but certain moments and revelations aren’t interesting without the context of the rest of the car. Arriving first or randomly at the novel’s finale, which walks you through each car at the moment of impact, does not elicit the same feeling as having arrived there after everything that preceded it chronologically.
Now it is 2013 and we have Gone Home, a video-game-cum-novel set only six months after the events of 253. You play protagonist Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 20-something returning to the family’s Pacific Northwest mansion that they inherited from a dead great-uncle while you were abroad. You have come looking for your family, but your family is not there. A note on the front door from your character’s younger (and only) sister Sam implores you not to come looking for her. What else is to do but move through the house, picking up objects and looking at photographs and reading crumpled letters and bills to figure out where everyone has gone?
Seasoned gamers are going to feel anxious as they move about, and for good reason—if there’s ever been a house that’s haunted, it’s this one. The place is looming and dark. You have to grope for light switches in every room. Passages are soaked in shadow. It’s past midnight, and it’s pouring outside. The writers for the game even toy with this expectation through misdirection. Sam leaves several notes for her sister with ominous overtones, there’s a chilling voicemail on the answering machine, and there’s also evidence that Sam has been trying to reach out to various spirits, including the dead Uncle Oscar. Thunder ripples and lights flicker as you explore the emptiness.
But the only thing that’s haunted in this game are the characters. As you progress through the house, you learn more about your sister Sam and your parents. What starts off as shuffling through the messy, just-moved belongings of a typical suburban family turns at every new detail—bittersweet, funny, sad. Like the thoroughly realized characters of any traditional novel, there is so much lurking under this veneer of the ordinary.
There’s your father, a frustrated writer with boxes of out-of-print copies of his obscure JFK assassination thriller, writing reviews of home theater systems with too much zest and narrative for his publisher’s liking, leaving empty whiskey bottles and glasses littered all over his workspace. There’s your mother, a park ranger with a distinguished career and a suspicious paper trail. Both of them are nursing their own secrets and pains, revealed to you inch by inch.
And then there’s Sam, the whip-smart backbone of the entire story. Periodically, picking up a certain object triggers an advancement in Sam’s story, a set of journal entries/letters written to you, Kaitlin. These bits of narration let you you know you’re on the right track. In a funny and almost disconcertingly ingenuous voice, you learn that Sam has been miserable since the move—tormented by her classmates for living in “The Psycho House”—but she’s found comfort in a new friend, a cocky, female ROTC classmate named Lonnie. I went into the game cold, not knowing any of the plot, and I cannot overstate the pleasure of accidentally falling into this sweet, queer first love story, depressingly rare even in this era of increasing acceptance.
Every storyline in Gone Home is treated tenderly and with the utmost care, asking questions and answering them and deepening the context at every turn. Why is the father so obsessed with JFK? Why does he scrawl “YOU CAN DO BETTER” over his workspace? What’s happening between the mother and the man she just promoted? What secrets was Uncle Oscar hiding in those dark and lonely rooms as the town began to refer to it as the Psycho House? And where is everyone?
You, Kaitlin, are a bit of a blank slate. Since the family moved to the house when you were away, you have no bedroom rich with narrative like the other characters. Who you are—overachiever and academic success, a contrast to the rebellious Sam is relegated to a few boxes in the basement. This is interesting, but in the end, the most realistic: after all, had your character been familiar with the house, you wouldn’t be feeling astonishment at some of these developments. Instead, the surprises of the house and its inhabitants are revelatory to both you, the player, and you, Kaitlin.
What’s especially interesting—and so real—is how you, as Kaitlin, are able to see your family’s story in a way that reflects the clarity of growing older and seeing your family members as distinct, flawed people. A cavalier note exchange between Sam and Lonnie joke about how weird the father was acting around Thanksgiving, and careful exploration of the house reveals the exact and heartbreaking reason why, which is unknown to Sam. The theme of necessary empathy repeats over and over. It’s enough to make you want to call your parents and siblings to hear their voices and tell them how much you love them.
The end of Gone Home is inevitable. As inevitable as 253’s train crash, as inevitable as the end of any novel that you yourself are not writing. What you choose to do or not to do does not affect the end, but you are affected, nonetheless.
Gone Home is not a game, exactly. There are no puzzles per se, rather very mild obstacles—just enough that you have to explore parts of the house in a certain rough order, necessary for the progression of the narrative. Like the print version of 253, this enforced order permits the story to build and build, so that the ending is not just a surprise or the completion of an acquisition of information, but a roiling emotional catharsis.
There’s also no combat. And unlike no-combat horror “survival” games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, no running, either. Nothing is chasing you. Instinct will tell that zombies to about to come shambling out of the closets. Or maybe it’ll be phantoms, or vampires, or your family dead and pinned to the wall with a note scrawled above them in blood and the lunatic killer lurking behind you. Something bad, you are certain, is going to happen. But it won’t. I mean, bad things have happened in this house, but your character is safe from everything except the truth.
So what is it, then? The word “game” seems insufficient to describe the experience of Gone Home. The late Roger Ebert famously claimed that video games “could never be art,” but it seems as if he would argue that Gone Home, with its lack of rules and winning, is not a video game at all:
“One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. [Game designer] Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”
It’s art then, right? It has fully-realized characters with emotional arcs and deep backstories, resonant themes, tenderness and pathos. How is it not (postmodern) art? But you’re moving through a digital space, too. You have to manipulate the environment, shake the story loose from the images on the screen. Your understanding of these stories depends on how hard you look. How is it not a (kind of) game?
People have been heralding Gone Home as a quantum leap in video gaming, a kind of evolution, but it’s more of a throwback to the days to another story/game hybrid: interactive fiction. These text-based narratives, popular in the 80s and 90s, used your commands, as well as puzzles and challenges, to portray stories of varying complexity and heft. Gone Home has the complicated house structure of Curses, the emotional punch of Photopia. It’s less openly poetic than Judy Malloy’s stunning l0v0ne, but just as beautiful.
It does have a one-up on these stories, however, in terms of environment. The gameplay is similar, but the graphics and audio clues of Gone Home really round out the experience. You can play several audiocassettes and hear actual 90s punk and riot grrl bands play as you continue exploring. The era in which this story is set is excellent for atmosphere (delightfully analog) and nostalgia, but is also a necessity: we never have to dig through character’s cell phones or computers.
I only understood you as far as wanting to look.
You jump on the spot, fruitlessly.
You pace up and down, Holmes-fashion.
I only understood you as far as wanting to look.
You close the trapdoor, surprised to see that something shiny was obscured by it.
And so on. Here, the gameplay is instinctive. You learn early on how to touch and manipulate objects, and that’s all you need in terms of exploring the environment. And while text-based IF requires explicit delineation of something you need to notice (much like a traditional print novel), Gone Home is more cinematic in that something can catch your eye in your visual plane without being explicitly pointed out to you.
One can almost think of the second-person-narration as a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure novel, except that the choices in those books lead you to different, and occasionally grisly, ends. In Gone Home, missing certain texts or clues will not lead you to a different end, but can affect your understanding of the depth of the story. For example, I felt like the mother’s storyline was slightly less developed than some of the other characters, but I’m also open to the fact that I might have overlooked salient details that would have giving her a little more shape. There are some important nuances of the father’s storyline that could easily by overlooked by a less than diligent player/reader. The very richest path of the game would be to see every facet, every detail—but except for that particular kind of playthrough, you experience is likely to be unique – or, at least, rare. It’s also worth considering that some of the unanswered questions of the story—whether you as player missed them, or they simply don’t exist—are due to the fact that not everything is meant to be understood. In reality, detail-gathering can only give you so much.
In the end, the symphonic structure of these clues, each a tiny story in their own right, suggests an Oulipo-like constraint; comparable to, say, Harry Mathews’ Singular Pleasures. How much can you tell without telling it? How many seemingly insignificant details can add up to an understanding, a feeling, a mood—a story?
The way that detail is used in Gone Home is utterly masterful. Even dyed-in-the-wool book-based writers and readers can learn and be enriched by the way that each new piece of information recasts the story again and again. There’s little place for straight exposition — nowhere except the occasional note from the sister to keep you on track. You are almost entirely required to read the story in the spaces between the details. This is not an experience for an unsubtle or impatient gamer/reader. Every movement brings about a new revelation of character, of story, of atmosphere. At times, truth intersects above the characters’ heads: unseen to them, but not to you. The found artifacts feel and look real. You struggle to read the ancient, spidery handwriting of Uncle Oscar, you laugh out loud at the irreverent wit of Sam and Lonnie. The notes between them don’t feel like an adult’s conception of teenage girls swapping notes—they feel like an actual teenage exchange you’ve stumbled across by accident, evidence of their spark and smarts and pain. The story plucks emotional triplines, carefully takes your heart apart brick by brick.
Occasionally, the game playfully reminds you that you’re not reading a traditional book. As you walk around the house, you have turn on a lot of lights, and most people – certainly I did this – leave them on. I was skeptical that something wasn’t going to jump out at me, and I wanted as much illumination as possible. Later in the story, you stumble upon an irate note from the mother to Sam. “Stop leaving all the lights on,” she admonishes. “You’re as bad as your sister!”
I laughed out loud with delight at this clever touch – an anticipation of the player’s actions, a moment where the metanarrative of the game intervenes. Later, you can pick up a lascivious diary entry from Sam that Kaitlin puts down after a scandalized moment and refuses to re-read. But for the most part, the game does not intrude. It simply scatters the evidence of these people’s lives about and encourages you to look, and look.
It seems almost vulgar to talk about the cost of Gone Home—why is this always a question for video games, but not novels or movies?—but there has been complaints that the $20 price point is too steep for what amounts to two to four hours of gameplay. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I encourage you think about the kind of pleasure derived—artistic, rather than utilitarian. An enrichment, rather than a distraction. An experience like this one, as satisfying as any hardcover you pick up the day of release because you can’t wait for the paperback, is worth the cost, even if only to encourage the Fullbright Company to make more narrative-based interactive games like this one.
I played this game after returning to live with my parents for the first time in a decade. In their house, which is both familiar and alien to me, I also find a story—bits of paper, letters from health insurance companies, notes-to-self, medicine bottles, unopened packages, phone numbers for people I don’t recognize, a calendar in which I am not a character. My presence is on the periphery, in the way that your old home feels like when you’ve been away for a long time and no one enshrined your childhood bedroom. For a generation of recession-era Millennials boomeranged home by economic necessity, Gone Home is particularly poignant and timely.
In the introduction to her 1996 anthology Selected Stories, Alice Munro said of the stories she hoped to write:
A story is not like a road to follow… it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.
The best video game of the past summer is Gone Home. The best story of the past summer is Gone Home. Consider it the newest addition to the canon of narratives that achieve Munro’s vision—even if it came in a shape no one was expecting.