Why ‘Gone Home’ Is a Game

Why Gone Home is a Game
Why Gone Home is a Game

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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Jul 11, 2014

My contention isnt whether its a game. But whether its a good game. And whether its a good game simply because its “different”. And that being different excuses it from its short falls in substance of content. The storytelling method is an interesting one, but the story it tells is bad. Its nice that they have a bajillion layers of flavor text and detail to create a driving atmosphere, but it doesnt have the story to back it up, and the story it does have isnt even terribly logical by the end for sam to have left things around the house the way she did. I agree its a game. But it should also be held up to the same standards as other games.

Jul 11, 2014

“Gaynor said. “If the point of the game is to experience this story, why does it have to be a game? Why isn’t it just the text?””

It doesn’t have to be a game. It just *isn’t* a game, that’s all.

Lambonius Lambonius
Jul 11, 2014

That’s not a spade; it’s a dirt exploration tool.  Wink

Loh_Land Loh_Land
Jul 11, 2014

“It doesn’t have to be a game. It just *isn’t* a game, that’s all.”

Except that it *is* a game. Any actual meaningful rebuttals of the article on your part? To me it’s definitely more of a game than the latest Call of Duties or Medal of Honor: Warfighter which are just theme park rides running in a straight path where you have zero agency when it comes to anything.

Jim Purcell Jim Purcell
Jul 12, 2014

Gone Home is a ‘game’, because it is interactive.

The End.

Zifnab Zifnab
Jul 12, 2014

Jim - Indeed, some of my favorite games include such treasures as Wikipedia, Microsoft Encarta 95 and “Guide to North America’s Tourist Railways & Museums Interactive CD-Rom”.

I really think the article makes things unnecessarily complex. The video was all that was needed - people who say games like Gone Home aren’t games do so because there isn’t enough “action”. They have no argument, so there is no response needed.

Kazmajik Kazmajik
Jul 12, 2014

Is it a “game” that anyone will ever “play” more than once? Here’s a “game:” unravel a ball of yarn throughout your house, and tie a candy bar to one end, and hand the other end to someone and say “have fun.”

Jim Purcell Jim Purcell
Jul 12, 2014

Gone Home is as replayable as any other Adventure Game.

Zifnab, you can actually use Wikipedia as a game. Such as the ‘Getting to Philosophy’ game.

Jul 12, 2014

“Gone Home is as replayable as any other Adventure Game.”

as or more replayable than any game with any kind of choice making at all? or quest for glory style games?  or games longer than 2 hours?

Loh_Land Loh_Land
Jul 12, 2014

“as or more replayable than any game with any kind of choice making at all? or quest for glory style games?  or games longer than 2 hours?

Oh ffs, you know perfectly well what he means. Is it not true that the vast majority of adventure games, both highly lauded/popular and not, are little more than linear paths blocked usually by a one-solution puzzle of some sort? Games that provide zero incentive to play a second time unless you really like the graphics, story, characters, humor or something else not related to the actual game?

Quest for Glory-style games are an anomaly. In fact the only other game I can think of like them is, oh what a surprise, the recent;y released Quest for Infamy.

Adventure games that allow for choice-making are also generally rare. Yeah Telltale Games has been trying to push this aspect heavily though as far as I know the end outcome is the same in all of their games no matter what choices you make. And the meaningful end choices for the games that allow it tend to be saved for the actual ending itself, like, say, a text box asking whose side you’ll take and that’s it.

So yes Gone Home perfectly fits the mold of an adventure game, just with free motion instead of static pointing-and-clicking, little in the way of taxing puzzles (there are locker combos and keys to find, not very difficult but it’s still something) and a shorter running time than most. But short adventure games, acclaimed or not, is hardly a new thing. The Shivah for instance is takes as long to finish as this, if not even shorter, even on a first playthrough. It’s slightly more challenging with a more interesting story but at the same time it’s less interactive with less things to do or mess around with.

Jul 12, 2014

I like this quote:

“What they had—resources, their own skills as developers, ideas for what they wanted to make—came first, and Gone Home’s narrative was designed within these constraints.” Sounds about right to me. Let’s see…resources - not much. Skills - eh. Ideas - anyone got any?

I agree with the first comment made by Zane. In the spirit of compromise, I am willing to concede that Gone Home is in fact a game, if we can all agree that it is a lousy game. Smile

That being said, I still just ordered a retail copy, since i am a glutton for punishment. Thanks GB for tipping me off to that. Of course I wish I could have applied what I paid to the download version toward the price of the retail version, but I guess life isn’t fair.

Jim Purcell Jim Purcell
Jul 13, 2014

I can beat Myst in 30 seconds. Clearly it’s not a game.

Jul 13, 2014

Hey Jim, I think you’re hurting your case there by comparing it to Myst. Smile Just kidding (sort of). Smile

Peter254 Peter254
Jul 13, 2014

As someone who has played short adventure games (Adventure Game Studio!), as well as “casual” ones, I’m shocked at the reception Gone Home has gotten by the AG community. It’s a point-and-click adventure disguised in first-person perspective.

As for whether or not it’s a good game, we can go on all day about subjectivity, but I’m of the camp that loved the story. It’s a bit out of line for people to insist that I’m either lying or delusional. There’s a lot of subtle world-building in Gone Home. I’d argue that it’s like a Chantal Akerman film, in which most will walk out convinced it’s the dumbest thing ever put to film. But those who stick with it will see how it works by slowly reinforcing a different mode of thought.

I’ve played it twice. On the second playthrough I uncovered more artifacts and information that I hadn’t before. I’ve never cared for replayability (it depends on the game, not the medium as a whole), but Gone Home isn’t any less replayable than Grim Fandango or Myst; by and large another playthrough will yield nearly the same results.

Jul 13, 2014

Technically I would agree it’s an adventure game.

I think one of the reasons that I (and perhaps others) had such a visceral negative reaction toward this game is that it was hyped up in the press as something special and when I played it, it was so much less than what was advertised. Very short - and the interview implies that they knew it wasn’t worth the price being charged but figured many people would pick it up on sale. No puzzles to speak of. No characters to interact with. A story that was somewhat interesting but felt inauthentic to me - like the interview says, they were writing something they didn’t know. At the end of the day, I wasn’t left with much of anything of substance.

Jul 16, 2014

Gone Home lacks features that are iconic to most Adventure Games such as inventory and puzzles. Perhaps it’s best described as a subgenre of the adventure game that’s becoming increasingly popular. Some have called them walking simulators but maybe it’s best to call them minimalistic narrative-driven adventures.

“I can beat Myst in 30 seconds. Clearly it’s not a game.”

Except that you can’t.

“Gone Home is as replayable as any other Adventure Game.”

True except most adventure games will last 6-8 hours, so you’d have to play Gone Home four times over to equal one playthrough of an average adventure game.  It’s length is a problem. Games that are “too short” are often criticized for being so, I don’t see why we should spare this one.

Jim Purcell Jim Purcell
Jul 16, 2014

Inventory, Puzzles, and Play Time are not required to be ‘a game’. You might not care for the lack of these things, but that doesn’t redefine a thing’s media designation.

You could say Gone Home is a type of Visual Novel. But its STILL A GAME.

And you can beat Myst very quickly if you know the combination for the final page and the fireplace door. You don’t need to do anything else in the game to get the ‘correct’ ending to trigger it.

Aug 14, 2014

I’m sorry, but things like “interactivity”, “playfulness”, and “different people having a different experience” are not the elements usually cited as the defining features of a game. Instead, you’re looking for things like rules, limitations/obstacles, feedback, and a defined goal. And while you could probably twist various elements of Gone Home into those shapes (“The goal is exploration!”), it just doesn’t fit.

We call Gone Home a video game because there isn’t a set alternative genre for it. It’s a virtual experience, a visual novel, a ‘walking simulator’—whatever. It’s not a game, though it certainly pays homage to traditional adventure game elements. And that isn’t some kind of moral judgement. The fact that it isn’t a game does not somehow make it inferior. I found it to be interesting and engaging, if flawed.

We should be excited about all the different kinds of experiences possible thanks to interactive digital media. Trying to pigeonhole each and every one of them as a ‘video game’ is doing them a disservice.

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