Here on Adventure Gamers, our community often engages in lively debate about whether games that stray from the formula established by the Sierra and LucasArts quests of decades past can (or should) qualify as adventure games. If a game involves twitchy action or platforming, does it have a place in the adventure genre? How about a game that’s all story, no puzzles? With its singular focus on exploring the Greenbriar family’s empty house and rarely a puzzle in sight, Gone Home certainly didn’t escape this scrutiny—but this time we weren’t the only ones debating.
Its unconventional protagonist, realistic 1990s setting, and touching coming-of-age storyline earned Gone Home loads of good reviews (including 4.5 stars from us) and a number of Game of the Year honors. At the same time, given its utter lack of quick action, leveling up, high scores, guns, zombies, or other elements usually found to some degree in video games, Gone Home had many players asking if it’s a game at all. This trailer, shown at the beginning of writer/designer Steve Gaynor’s GDC talk “Why is Gone Home a game?”, illustrates the debate beautifully:
When the M rating flashed on the screen, laughter rolled through the audience. “This time, it’s personal”—full-on applause.
“So that’s not what Gone Home is like, and that’s basically why I’m doing this talk,” Gaynor said, cutting the video. Having worked on story-infused shooters BioShock Infinite, BioShock 2 and its DLC Minerva’s Den, Gaynor was accustomed to working on Games (with a capital G) that incorporate the sort of exploration and environmental storytelling at Gone Home’s core, so he wasn’t entirely prepared for the polarizing reaction when Gone Home released last August. “How is Gone Home not a game and also game of the year? What does the reaction say, why did it happen?” Gaynor wondered. “Frankly, as one of the people who worked on this thing, you can’t help but think about what this means.”
A sampling of Gone Home’s critical reception. “‘This game sucks and is a conspiracy’ is a good box quote,” Gaynor joked.
When people argue that Gone Home isn’t a game, Gaynor explained, they tend to point to its lack of combat/puzzles, the lack of story branching or player customization, players’ inability to fail, and its short runtime. These are elements that players have come to expect in a mainstream video game (just as, on a more granular level, many fans expect to find puzzles, inventory, and a point-and-click interface in an adventure game). But these are not properties of all games in general, and Gaynor pointed out that Gone Home does rely deeply on properties that are characteristic of games and lacking from passive media like TV or books, such as:
-Variability of player experience (no two playthroughs are exactly the same)
-A central focus on player agency driving what happens
-A spirit of playfulness within the game’s theme and rules
Give Us Something to Play With…
When we play, we approach sets of rules within a framework we enter, and agree to play within those rules to express ourselves and make meaning out of them, Gaynor explained. In video games specifically, we interact with an autonomous agent—we can observe what’s on the screen and make a judgment about it, decide how to react and see what happens, and ultimately establish a dialogue with the game itself. Playing a video game is “a mediated discussion where the designer who established the rules of how this thing works is expressing the possibilities of what you can do, and your inputs are changing that conversation at runtime, every session that you play.” This leads to the variability that results in no two players having the same experience.
This “mediated discussion” can take many different forms. A game like The Walking Dead is all about playing through the story to build context for your decisions, making binary decisions along the way—whether someone eats or goes hungry; whether someone lives or dies—that change the content you encounter.
In a game like Minecraft, you play by creating and destroying blocks, but through this play you materially alter the structure of the game world. You decide to build a cathedral, your friend decides to build an island temple, and what you see on screen is completely different depending on what you’ve done.
To illuminate Gone Home’s “mediated discussion” between player and game/designer, Gaynor described an entirely different medium: an ongoing New York City theater experience named Sleep No More. Unlike a typical play, with actors on stage and audience members watching from a distance, Sleep No More takes place in four floors of a converted hotel. The audience is set loose in the space, wearing white masks and told not to speak. You can move through the space at will and piece through the story on your own while unmasked performers are also moving through the space, playing out scenes. The audience can get very close to the performers and examine them, but performers treat them like ghosts, as if they’re not there.
As a Sleep No More audience member, you can’t change what happens, but you can define your own experience. If you follow one actor through the space, you’ll get a unique thread of what that character did and understand their role in a way you chose to engage with and saw the potential for. Changing your behavior changes how you personally experience the structure of the narrative, and even though you can’t change what’s “on screen,” your “playthrough” will be different from everyone else’s.
Likewise, in Gone Home the content never changes—notes always appear in the same place, audio diaries are always attached to the same objects. The game is about entering a space and imbuing these objects with meaning by deciding to engage with them, seeing the potential for how the objects relate, discovering how characters’ stories are threaded through the environment, and deciding what to follow. At the end, the structure of your experience and your understanding of it is unique to you, even if you don’t get to decide whether or not Mrs. Greenbriar has an affair. Your activity makes the shape of what you see and the meaning you get out of it unique.
…And We Will Play
“Talking about the variability of the high-level structure of the game is important, but it’s not where the act of play takes place,” Gaynor continued. “Play happens not in the shape of the grand cathedral but with the building blocks [in Minecraft]—it’s what you do second to second, it’s where you make the decisions that end up leading to the structures that get built. Basically, it’s the way the game asks you to play with it and then what you do with that.”
A lot of games actively require you to “play back” with them. In a shooter, for example, a very active AI throws something at you and you have to improvise—to hide behind a certain pillar; to use a specific weapon. Those decisions are unique to your playthrough, and the game is saying to you, ‘If you don’t react appropriately, you’re going to die.’ In other games, Gaynor suggested, the player is invited to play back and improvise through potential and implication. In the RPG Skyrim you encounter a lot of cheese wheels. They have mechanical purposes: you can eat them to regain health or sell them to gain money. The player also understands that they have certain properties: you can put a cheese wheel in your inventory, walk around with it, throw it on the ground. And cheese is funny, so why not find every cheese wheel in Skyrim and fill a house with it? The game doesn’t tell you to do that, but the general properties of the world imply that you could fill a house with cheese wheels and essentially invite you to play within those rules.
Similarly, in Gone Home there’s no reason you need to be able to pick up Kleenex boxes or pens or 3-ring binders. The game allows you to pick up important things and unimportant things in equal measure. Nothing about the physics in Gone Home says you should find everything you can and fill the front hall with junk—but players did anyway. Skyrim and Gone Home may not be challenging you to do these things, but as players internalize the rules they recognize the opportunity to do something just for fun and take it.
When a game invites you to connect with the story and characters, this type of freedom can deepen your connection. “The thing that is incredible about giving players expressive low-level verbs that ... allow players to make decisions like this, is that they can connect the high-level structure—in the case of Gone Home, the story—with these low-level expressive verbs to do not just things that are silly, but that ... allow them to express the empathy they’ve built for characters,” Gaynor said, displaying this shrine one Gone Home player built to Sam’s girlfriend using objects found around the Greenbriar house.
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