Why ‘Gone Home’ Is a Game
Opinion & Special Features
Musings on the adventure genre, developer columns and other special features
Feb 14, 2013
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.
Introducing Player 2
"You can be playful within a set of rules, but I [also] think that it is important for a game to have two players," Gaynor went on. Traditionally games have two players, whether it’s two humans competing in chess or, in the case of a single-player video game, an automated system of rules that a human built at some point. The Fullbright Company didn’t try to read what the player was doing at runtime and react to the player’s input, but they wanted that feeling of a presence that’s acknowledging you and knows you’re present in the game. They achieved this by thinking about what the player might do and putting in moments that remind the player they’re not playing completely alone.
In Gone Home, one of the main things you do is turn lights on and off. The house starts out dark, so there are practical reasons to turn lights on, but the lights are also used to mark progress—turn on a light and you know you’ve been in the room, so you don’t have to go back and search it again. “But in a game that has the fiction of being in a family’s house, with a mom and dad and a couple of teenage daughters, what was happening was one of the teenage daughters was going around the house and leaving every damn light on, and do you know how much energy that’s wasting?” Gaynor joked. “We had this idea of maybe half an hour into the game, after we knew the player would have turned on all the lights downstairs, of putting this note on a bulletin board that says, ‘Sam, stop leaving every damn light on!’ We knew that 98% of players would leave the lights on, and this was a way of saying, ‘We know what you’re doing.’ You’re being acknowledged. We’re playing back with you, not by having AI dodge when you shoot a bullet, but by winking and nodding and exposing ourselves from behind the curtain.”
Another example of the game “playing back” occurs in the servant’s quarters in the basement, where Sam and her girlfriend would sneak away to be with each other. There’s a very personal note here, written by Sam but not voiced, that describes a sexual encounter between the two girls. It’s visible on-screen just long enough for the player to read the beginning, then closes abruptly—exactly the reaction an older sister would have upon stumbling across such an intimate account from her little sister. If you try to read it again, Katie (the character you’re playing as) won’t let you. “Up to this point you've been able to spend as much time with any note as you want,” Gaynor said. Closing the note automatically “breaks the rules of the game in one specific place, but for a reason: to characterize Katie systemically, and to make the player think about who they’re playing as aside from themselves, and to have that moment of, ‘What happened? Oh, I see, the game works this way now.’ A moment to break the surface and for the game and the designer to show their hand a bit, then fade back into the background. Having that second presence there, in any way you can, is important to the sense of this being a game.”
But WHY is Gone Home a game?
“Gone Home is a story exploration video game. In other words, it’s a story game,” 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?” He pointed out that this question applies to any non-prose fiction: Why is Pulp Fiction a movie? Why is Waiting for Godot a play? Why is Jimmy Corrigan a comic? In each case, the narrative was designed for the medium in which it takes place.
With Gone Home, The Fullbright Company didn’t decide to tell a certain story and then decide to make a game out of it. 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. Starting out, they were just three developers working together in a basement with the shared experience of working on BioShock games. To mitigate risk they wanted to make something they already knew how to do, but a BioShock-like game would have been too big for just the three of them. “We knew that there was something there that really inspired us. We wanted to [focus on] the exploration and the story part of those experiences,” Gaynor said. “So we could cut a lot of [BioShock features] and have only a few remaining features that we would need to be able to tell this story and make the story experience we wanted to, and add a couple of new features to expand that specific part of the game. We would be able to make a game entirely about exploration and story in a robust way. Those became our constraints.”
Why does Gone Home take place entirely inside a house? Because then they could build just one location, dense with information to find. Why is it set in the 1990s? They wanted a bunch of notes lying around that players would piece together, as opposed to a cell phone with a timeline of texts that told the whole story. If this story had been conceived for a medium other than a video game, the constraints would have been different and different narrative choices would have been made.
As they started to develop Gone Home and figured out who the characters were and what the story was about, it dawned on Gaynor that he was going to be writing from the perspective of a teenage lesbian: “That’s something that is not my own experience. It’s something that sounded hard and risky. We could have said, ‘We should probably figure out something else for this to be about,’ not just because it’s something I knew was going to be a high hurdle to get over, but [for] a gaming audience, it’s not [a story] that people who buy games on Steam are naturally going to gravitate to.” But Gaynor knew it was important to fight through this doubt and commit to the story, to do the research to understand the experience he wanted to depict and try to present it in an authentic way, to make it compelling enough that players would be drawn in. The Fullbright Company recognized that their audience would include many hardcore gamers actively looking for experiences to play on their computer, but others would come to Gone Home solely because of its premise.
Knowing this, they chose to make a game that isn’t about challenge and doesn’t mechanically block you from continuing, but rather a game about normal, relatable people who are not viewed through an abstract or fantastical lens. When non-gamers took that leap and said, ‘I don’t play video games, but this one sounds interesting and I’m going to try,’ requiring them to download Steam and arrive on the intimidating Steam landing page, they risked losing this new audience before the game even loaded. “Being a gamer has a stigma to it, and it’s not easy if you’ve never downloaded a game and launched it on your PC to get through all those loops. But they’re trusting us to say, ‘It’s worth figuring out to have this experience,’ and once they’ve come that far we have this opportunity to meet them halfway and welcome them in and not push them away. We’re not going to say, ‘Thank you for taking this risk and downloading our game—you died, try to be better at this thing you’ve never done before.’ We can say, ‘You are welcome into this experience, you’re invited in, and the rules that we’ve set up allow you to ... have an experience that’s valuable, without being pushed away.’”
Gaynor is proud of the response Gone Home has had from people who said it’s relevant to their lives. Game developers have the potential give people the feeling of being triumphant, of getting better at something over time and mastering it, of discovering incredible worlds, of winning. “But I also think we that have this opportunity to talk about stuff that is outside of that frame and that allows you to concentrate completely on interactively getting closer to these characters, to other people, understanding them as individuals and building human empathy in a way that we as game developers have unique access to,” Gaynor said. “Any entertainment—any art worth a damn—allows you to understand other people better, and I think that the unique tools of interactivity allow [game developers] to do this in ways that no one else can.”
He closed out his talk with a quote from PC Gamer, who awarded Gone Home Best Narrative Game of the Year:
It’s been said that Gone Home subverts our expectations of what a game experience should be in order to tell a different kind of story – but what I like most about it is that it’s not about throwing away what games are good at. Games are a form of communication that demands mutual participation. Good games expect your critical engagement, and treat you like someone capable of interpreting situations and environments intelligently without the need for hand-holding. There’s something positive and hopeful about entertainment that wants you to be active, not passive.
Gone Home is… a game about making choices. Not which soldier to turn into a robot, but where to go, what to look for, what to choose to attribute meaning to. It’s about following lines of potential through to the point where you discover what is, a drama that celebrates the things your brain is doing when you’re switched on and engaged with the world.
Of course, Gaynor concluded, not every game needs to be like Gone Home. “What’s beautiful about games is that they are all so different from one another, and they all give us amazing experiences. But I hope that Gone Home gives us one example of how ... we can draw in new, different audiences and show them why [games matter] so much to us. I think that’s worth fighting for.”
This article is excerpted from Steve Gaynor’s talk at the 2014 Game Developers Conference. The full talk can be viewed here. Read on for a Q&A with Steve about Gone Home’s unexpected success and what’s next from The Fullbright Company.
Emily Morganti: Were you surprised by the widespread response to Gone Home? Did you feel like you had that kind of game on your hands?
Steve Gaynor: We were banking on the fact that if this game was going to be a success, it was only going to be able to do it based on a lot of word of mouth, on people talking about it and it staying in the discussion. So, we wanted to make a game that people would be bringing up and coming back to. We knew what kind of game we were making: a single player, standalone, small, self-contained thing. You can’t rely on, ‘Okay, everybody’s going to be playing a half hour of this every day and keep coming back to it, and that’s how it stays in the consciousness.’ So there’s nothing we could really do to specifically encourage that kind of response, except try to make the best version of the thing that we were making as possible. We’re really grateful for the fact that people did think that it was worth talking about. Seeing it in USA Today is crazy; we were never like, ‘We’re going to do that!’, you know? But when you see that, it’s really encouraging. It means there are a lot of different kinds of audiences that are excited about this kind of thing.
The Fullbright Company at work
Emily: When you came up with this story, were you intentionally trying to appeal to a specific audience?
Steve: We knew that because we weren’t going to put in traditional adventure game puzzles, because we weren’t going to put in combat, there’s nothing about the game mechanically that meant we couldn’t just talk about normal people and their own lives. That gave us the opportunity to talk about a cast of characters and sequence of events that is closer to what your average player has actually lived through. It could be someone in their own life or someone who lives down the street from them, you don’t have to abstract it through the lens of, ‘Well, they’re real people, but also they have to kill all these zombies! And in between that, they’re really believable.’ No, it’s just about a family. So we saw the opportunity with the mechanics we had to strip off all the additional layers. And we hoped that, if we did it right, people could identify.
Emily: Were you surprised by the reactions from people who say it’s too short?
Steve: It’s a short game, and we made it twenty bucks. We made those decisions because we believed that the point of the game wasn’t volume, the point was quality in everything that was in it, every detail, and making it feel like a valuable experience every minute that you were playing. There wasn’t any filler. There’s a room, it’s filled with stuff, there’s nothing in between that’s just there to pad out the game, you know? And for people that are really excited about that type of experience, I hope it feels like, ‘Okay, I paid for this short, self-contained experience that I found really valuable, and it was worth the money.’
And for a lot of people… you know in this current market that most of your sales are not going to be at full price. Most people wait, they’ll say, ‘I heard that game was good, I don’t really want to spend the money on it, so I’ll wait until it’s ten bucks, or five bucks.’ So we also were thinking about the fact that if this isn’t the type of experience that’s worth it to you to pay a premium price for, you’re going to have your chance, there will be the 50% off sale, and you can check it out then. And a lot of people have.
I wouldn’t do anything differently next time, as far as this stuff goes. I think it was right for the game, and you can’t please everybody.
Emily: The reaction made me think about what I and other reviewers were getting out of this game, that the people who were complaining weren’t. Of course, paying for it is completely taken out of the equation when press get review copies.
Steve: Definitely, that’s true. But I think if you connect with Gone Home, it can be a very deep connection. It’s short, but it’s very dense, and we wanted to make something where if you cared at all, you could care deeply. And if you played through it, and you got it, you could go back in and look for more details, and by exploring the house again could put together concepts that you hadn’t made connections with before, and so forth. For people who wanted to dig in, there would be a lot of depth to that, and we have been grateful to see that there are people who did exactly that. It’s the kind of game where we trust the player to say [to them], you’re going to get out as much as you put in.
Emily: For your next game, do you want to keep making this type of experience with different stories? Or will you try something completely different?
Steve: It’s about finding a middle ground. We don’t want to go completely off in a crazy unknown direction that we’ve never done before. We made Gone Home because of the experience we’d had in AAA, reducing that down and focusing it. So we want to make games going forward using Gone Home as a base, and expand from there and figure out how we add a new thing to the experience with a different aspect of what you do. It won’t just be Gone Home in a different location, but we’ll use that as a base and say, ‘What’s the next step that makes the whole experience stand on its own?’ So it doesn’t feel like you’ve done this before, but it isn’t like, ‘Let’s find out if we can make a space MMO!’ Because when you spend the time building up expertise in how to design a certain kind of thing, it’s really valuable to continue to build on that.
For us, it’s going to be a process of saying: what is the thing we add, the change we make, the next step that we take, that makes it interesting for us to work on? I think when we find that, hopefully it’ll mean that we’ve also found something that will make it interesting for people to want to play, that does feel new. We’re excited about it. We’re looking forward to figuring out what that is.
Emily: Is story still what you want to focus on? Do you see yourselves going back to shooters?
Steve: No, I don’t think that’s the approach. I think it’s more about how do you make this active story exploration experience—this experience of being an active observer and participant—differently interesting, as opposed to bringing action stuff back in. It’s a question of how to evolve what we have as opposed to going far afield from that, but hopefully entering some new territory.
Gone Home will make the jump to consoles later this year (specific platforms haven’t been announced yet). A special edition retail version for PC, Mac, and Linux, with packaging reminiscent of Sam and Lonnie’s beloved SNES games, was released earlier this month.