Metal Gear Solid 5. Grand Theft Auto 5. The Witcher 3. Every Assassin’s Creed since the beginning of time. The video game industry is increasingly shifting its focus towards the “open-world” genre. “Open-world” is a buzz phrase stamped onto every marketing campaign to denote a game’s flexible, expansive scope, and maximalist vision where “more is more.” Most of the time this brings the latest visual enhancements: higher-resolution textures, anisotropic filtering, and the invaluable ambient occlusion that PC gamers value so much. The pressure is on to render the largest, busiest, prettiest gaming worlds out there, because in an industry so saturated with “open-world” games, it is clear that the pragmatic consumer values the quantity of content in a game. Less clear is whether they ought to value such quantity. Here enters Gone Home, a first-person experience (‘FPX’) game released in 2013. Gone Home occupies a smaller space in both your hard drive and the gaming industry than most “open-world” games today. In spite of these constraints, it demonstrates that dense, rich worlds can be formed without the excessive quantity of content that bogs down the modern open-world game.
Gone Home is set on a dark and stormy night in 1995, the year that saw the majestic entrance of yours truly into this world, as well as Kaitlin Greenbriar’s return to her home in the Pacific Northwest after some time abroad. Upon the realization that no member of her family is present, Kaitlyn must explore this home in order to discover the mystery behind their absence. The player controls Kaitlyn, with inputs limited to movement and examining objects in the environment. The world in which the player may explore is contained within this home, which covers approximately 3000 square feet when judged from the inaccurate, naked eye.
When was the last time a video game did not ask you to kill or destroy anything in order to proceed? In Gone Home, the player does not hit, stomp, kill, or engage in any violence whatsoever, which separates it from the majority of first-person games today. This first-person experience is a refreshing return to the old-fashioned sensibilities of classic puzzle games such as Myst. The DNA of Gone Home borrows from a lineage of interactive adventure games such as Grim Fandango and, a childhood favorite of mine, “Spy Fox in Dry Cereal”. The game gives the player only one single open-ended goal, and that is to find out exactly what happened. It is a vague objective that molds itself into the player’s own subjective goals. Technically, the main goal is to reach the attic, which can only be reached after solving pseudo-puzzles in order to obtain the key to its door’s lock. The game’s challenges are not presented in the form of distinct levers and machinery to manipulate (e.g., Zelda dungeons, Riddler challenges, and Resident Evil mansion tomfoolery). Rather, developer Fullbright designed its challenges to be narratively consistent, in that finding a key to a lock should not be hidden behind 3 trap doors and a boss.
The game can be finished in a mere half-hour. It was not surprising to see that, in spite of its critical acclaim, Gone Home was maligned by many gamers for its “simplicity”, clichéd story, and a lack of clear direction (clearly in reference to its foreign, confusing mechanic of giving the player a choice of more than one direction to walk in). Some refused to even acknowledge its label as a video game, and preferred to call it a “walking simulator.” From the standpoint of the consumer, it is reasonable to feel angry, somewhat cheated by a $15, 30-minute experience. I will concede that Gone Home is not for everyone. Yet, for the gamer afflicted by the obsession of thoroughly exhausting every codex and dialogue option, Gone Home may be one of the most dense, detailed, and rewarding emergent narratives of this generation.
At first impression, the game’s presentation resembles that of a horror game. The cover art itself features a gnarled, foreboding house engulfed by the silhouettes of pine trees and, most likely, an Indian burial ground. The game’s prevalent darkness, in combination with the eternal pitter-patter of the rain outside, transports the player back to a time when being home alone was frightening, barring the goofy cat burglars. Ignorant of my obnoxious ecological footprint and the consequences it would have on their electric bill, I found myself rushing to turn on every light and TV in the Greenbriar household during my first playthrough. The aesthetic is composed of stark contrasts, pitch darkness with warm interiors and eery silence with white noise. Gone Home is composed of the framework of the typical haunted-house game, but that framework was both reinforced and undermined throughout my thorough three-hour playthrough. That the game merely suggests the presence of the supernatural made these suspicions of the supernatural all the more unstable. Fearing for the worst, the player develops a psychological fear of losing a grip on reality as well as Kaitlyn’s family. Thankfully, there are no ghouls or monsters lurking behind the closet–only the father’s porn stash. While Kaitlin is ostensibly familiar with the home, the player is not. Returning to a home changed by the passage of time would no doubt disarm anyone. For the player, the environment is alienating to encounter for the first time; for Kaitlyn, the environment is alienating to re-experience after such a long period away. In other words, the game’s horror stems not from pop-scares, but rather the discomfort of exploring an extremely private and unfamiliar environment. For instance, there was a moment when I discovered red stains on one of the bathtubs. Of course, I immediately suspected bloodshed, even though it only turned out to be hair dye. The player and Kaitlyn feel a mutual sense of alienation and fear in response to the game’s aesthetic. This empathy is remarkably achieved without a single explicit prompt, cinematic cutscene, or obtuse game mechanic. (Please refer to Call of Duty Advanced Warfare’s quick-time event of “Hold X to pay respects.”) The aesthetic alone speaks to the power of suggestion, evoking a deep emotional reaction through merely existing in its quiet, inert world.
There is no conventional narrative depicted here through passive cinematic cutscenes. This is a story that can only be uncovered through player input, through the deconstruction and reconstruction of the parts that compose the house. I recall dragging my gadgets in Spy Fox and testing them on every object in the environment to see if they produced a useful effect; I similarly found myself performing such experiments in Gone Home. In order to navigate through the house’s labyrinth of corridors, locked doors, and secret passageways, the player, in Zelda-nian fashion, must solve puzzles. These puzzles, however, do not require pulling an arbitrary number of levers and pushing an arbitrary number of buttons, like the puzzles of Resident Evil infamy. In the context of this world, the player solves puzzles organically by investigating notes, cabinets, and paraphernalia littered throughout the house. Explicitly, the player’s goal is to reach the end of this “dungeon,” which can take a matter of minutes. Yet the player may, hopefully, implicitly develop the goal of discovering and caring about these characters without actually meeting them at all. In the game’s understated and suggestive fashion, the objects left behind by these characters tell a collective emergent narrative.
To clarify, we are defining ‘emergent narratives’ as ‘non-linear narratives without a pre-planned structure’–a key ambition of open-world games such as those mentioned earlier. In the case of Gone Home, developer Fullbright constructs an intentional emergence of story, in contrast to unintentional emergence through funny glitches (please refer to Youtube for more of those).
In Gone Home, Kaitlyn’s mother, father, and sister have left behind a plethora of characterizing objects that the player must interpret in order to understand these people. The only technically explicit narrative device is Samantha’s (the sister) diary notes, which are told through her voiceover. The player will only later realize that Sam is the key figure to the narrative. Even if it appears to be against Fullbright’s own rules, explicitly spelling out Sam’s story is reasonable because she is the central figure to this story. Her conflict and motivations are the mystery tying the explicit narrative together. Further information in the form of diary entries is revealed to the player as explicit rewards for exploration, and are indicators of the “main story” progression. Otherwise, the player may end up truly lost, not quite sure where exactly in the house to go next.
Aside from the diary notes, players are left to extrapolate meaning from character’s objects on their own accord. For instance, upon scrutinizing one of Samantha’s soccer trophies, I wondered whether or not she actually liked soccer. Initially, I imagined her as being a sort of jock…until I discovered her mix tape of grunge music in her deeply private, secretive room, suggesting she was a recluse. She was now the angsty girl who rebelled against her parents’ image of her as a conformist extrovert. That the trophy was displayed in the living room, rather than kept in her room with her most treasured objects, is a testament to the level of care Fullbright took in designing this world. Players use not only objects, but also their placement, condition, color, etc. to dynamically mold their interpretations of these characters and their story. Every unchecked corner and quick glance is a missed opportunity, another hole in this home that feels inhabited by real people. One of my favorite details, which spoke to my inner 90’s kid, was discovering a television room with VHS recordings labeled “X-Files.” The couch cushions are fashioned into a fort, where we assume young Sam and company were staying up past their bedtime to indulge in Mulder and Scully’s sci-fi escapades. It is rare to see a world crafted with such care in every inch of its body. Personally, the two hours spent interacting with this world were more intellectually and emotionally rewarding to me than most 80+ hour open-world experiences available today.
Fullbright designed a fleshed-out world in this entity of a house, but its surface-level narrative – uncovering the reason behind the family’s absence – has been one of the game’s more contentious elements. It is difficult, and perhaps beside the point, to criticize a story such as this, especially when so much is contingent upon what the player has and has not seen in this world. Even more difficult is guiding the player to important plot points. Whether that point be a characterizing object in Gone Home or an important quest in Fallout 4, the player has free reign as to whether or not to engage it at all. This lack of narrative direction is an issue present in open-world games at large. For, mechanically, they are designed to empower the player with freedom to pursue the story however and whenever they feel. There will be stories that are not experienced at all. The larger a game becomes, as is the industry trend, the more difficult it is to actually tell emergent narratives in the vein of Gone Home, let alone a traditional, explicit narrative. In the case of Gone Home, I suspect its purely hands-off philosophy of not guiding the player in the “right” direction (lack of tutorial, objective markers, etc.) resulted in misunderstood and incomplete playthroughs. It is easy to think of these characters as shallow and the story as contrived if the player did not come across the clues that contextualized Sam’s frustrations, and her turbulent relationship with her parents. The way I see it, Fullbright either overestimated a number of gamers, or knowingly created a difficult, ambiguous world that resists full player comprehension. Perhaps Fullbright deliberately avoided explication and cinematic cutscenes in the attempt to make the story and these characters themselves the puzzles to solve. For instance, the Greenbriar parents are initially characterized as the broad archetypes of clueless father and the worrywart mother. Their belongings act as clues that suggest troubled psyches and marital strife. Yet, their motivations are only implied, and frustratingly not explicitly confirmed. Therefore, this minimalist emergent narrative leaves many unanswered questions and mysteries about the Greenbriar family to perplex players for some time.
At their core, games present to players a goal to achieve. There are often obstacles, such as Nazis to kill and blocks to break, in order to reach that goal. On an emotional level, we implement narratives in mediums such as film and video games to provoke rewards via empathy with characters and their conflicts. Fullbright had the audacity to blend the more obscure variants of both the physiological and emotional – the puzzle/adventure game and the emergent narrative – to craft Gone Home. Creating an open-world game should not necessarily mean rendering a large plot of land and an obscene amount of side quests to run through. Player immersion need not be dependent upon graphical fidelity. Gone Home showcases its story and characters by not showing or rendering much at all. It instead suggests. The game is a shining example of how minimalist gameplay can complement storytelling, proposing new possibilities in our beloved medium. All without ambient occlusion.