“Take recommendations from the comments section” isn’t generally good advice, but when you know it’s a good friend of yours commenting on something you wrote then seems like less of a bad idea. Today I will follow through on that recommendation, and play Gone Home. What I already knew about it before playing is that it is a “story exploration game” like Dear Esther, so it was going to be a “walk through the plot deal” rather than a “defeat the adversaries/environment” thing more typical of adventure games. So, I fired it up with the intention of seeing whether or not I fundamentally disagreed with the premise of the button on the start-up screen: “new game.” Will I be able to consider this thing a game?
Is it a game? Yeah, sort of, in the sense that old school point-and-click room escape rooms are games. There are details to notice and codes to find in order to move forward. Trying to walk through without interacting with any objects won’t get the player through the story. Like I do in those escape the room games, I spent a lot of time ransacking the place and clicking on everything to ensure I don’t miss that one little clue upon which the entire rest of the game hinges. I am rewarded for this behaviour on two occasions, one of which was necessary to advance the main plot, and the other part of revealing an optional side plot. Towards the end I found that I had missed one other optional clue and had to get on the Google to find out where to pick up that one scrap of paper I didn’t even notice on my own (which lead to the clues that I would not have completely understood without this spoilerific guidance). Most of the things I can pick up and examine are completely inconsequential, while others seem interesting but fixed in place. This is the sort of thing I find tedious and would have turned me off playing this game if it didn’t come highly recommended.
Sifting through some of the internet commentary on this I noticed that the sort of people who hate Feminist Frequency also hate this game. But they haven’t made any videos or blog posts talking about how this game is overflowing with awesome. Aside from this Tumblr post and a short blurb on the video games section of their recommended media page it doesn’t seem to get very many mentions. In the Tumblr post they call Gone Home “genuinely moving, meaningful and emotional” which I can completely agree with because it doesn’t say anything about excellent gameplay, or pushing any boundaries other than through the content of the narrative. I agree that it is moving, meaningful, and emotional; but it carries that experience forward with the gameplay as an afterthought. It’s not a great game, but it is an efficient narrative: I feel like I know the characters and the plot even though I am only given small snippets and expected to put the plot together myself. It works better than getting all the details laid out right before my eyes. I don’t care deeply about the characters, but cared enough to be interested in the whole family right up to the end. This is good fiction. It’s not good gameplay; if I was looking to play a game rather than experience a story I should look elsewhere.
I enjoyed Gone Home as a narrative experience. I really enjoyed discovering the characters and the twists and turns of the plot revealed through my own assumptions and expectations as much as through text and audio log. In some ways it is a well-written love letter to the riot grrl subculture of the 90’s that I was 5-10 years too young to interact with at a meaningful level. It makes sense to me as an homage to something that I couldn’t quite grasp at the time despite the fact it was happening during my lifetime. Perhaps a spiritual successor writing about the struggles of teenagers in the War on Terror era complete with a soundtrack featuring the Dixie Chicks and buckets of references to American Idiot and pre-TEA party, pre-Trump red state/blue state cultural anxiety could speak to me more directly than this or another version set in a 2010’s era of teenage Snapchat and Twitter (rather than my teenage MSN Messenger and Myspace). I am glad that Gone Home and interactive stories like it exist and that the themes presented in these narratives are pushing their way into the mainstream. I am starting to come to the opinion that narrative experiences on computers and consoles ought to be regarded as a distinct types of software rather than video games of a certain type, just as video games are not simply “software applications” indistinct from desktop publishing software. Perhaps that would mitigate the risk of something like Gone Home being misrepresented as a “fake game” because a bunch of gamerbros who volunteer to be “explorers” just aren’t the right audience for interactive novels about other people and other life experiences.
So, to circle back to my original question: no, it’s not a game. It’s a work of fiction. It’s a narrative experience that I think is well worth the time and money. Your mileage may vary.