In his article about why games aren’t art, Roger Ebert observed that you don’t win art. Games are something you compete in, solve, or win, and art is something you let happen to you, that transports you.
A few days ago, I played Gone Home, a game that you don’t win. Maybe, as such, it isn’t accurate to call it a game—maybe “interactive narrative experience” or something like that. Vocabulary aside, it felt like the way forward for a community of storytellers trying to figure out the most effective way to use new technical affordances to tell engaging stories.
Rather than presenting a “multitude of drastic things” in a branching narrative, “Choose Your Own Adventure” style, Gone Home has only one story. Your control as the player is over the plotting: the order and pace at which you find and piece together the story information. You do this by wandering around a house in the character of a young woman coming home after a long trip to find her parents and sister missing, and trying to figure out from letters, voicemail messages, ticket stubs, and other detritus of daily living what happened to them. At first, your goal is simply to orient yourself, then to figure out what happened to your family in the immediate past, then finally to figure out what happened to them years ago, even before you were born.
(You could argue that your wandering around the house is part of the story, and thus you have some small measure of control over story as well as plotting. Let’s not split hairs.)
Having only one story, situated in the past where the player can’t change it, meant that the creators of the game were able to imbue it with a subtly I haven’t seen in other games. I thought I had pretty well seen what there was to see after I finished the game in just short of two hours. I caught not just the main thread of the story about the sister, which you can’t miss, but also pieced together backstories of secondary characters like the mother and father and even the father’s relationship with the grandfather, each thread reflecting on and strengthening the others like in a good novel.
Twenty minutes after I finished the game, though, I remembered: What was the deal with the uncle? What was in the locked office cabinet? I hadn’t read closely enough. Indeed, when I cheated and looked up the equivalent of Cliff’s Notes online, I found I missed an entire layer of the story.
The idea that a game could be subtle enough to reward close reading or multiple readings, the fact that in completing it you don’t “win” it but feel a sense of closure, the fact that that closure is not a feeling a triumph but one of catharsis and only qualified relief (love wins out, but it isn’t simply happily ever after) — all this is evidence of a promising avenue for people interested in using software to tell stories.
There are some roadblocks to get past: Part of the fun of the game is in subverting the expectation that something will jump out and say “Boo,” and you’ll have to fight it, or that you will have to solve puzzles, and as the influence of Gone Home spreads that expectation will fade. It’s hard to see how this could be done with the story in anything but the past tense. And while Gone Home cleverly gives you limited control over the plotting (e.g. not allowing you to uncover the story climax until the end) through the use of locked doors and a series of keys, that mechanic could feel stale after a while.
Of course, a lot of novels and movies feel stale too — it’s on the creator to avoid cliché.
I don’t have a conclusion here, only a sense of excitement and a suspicion that the argument over whether games are art is a distraction that is slowing the development of a better vocabulary to describe experiences like Gone Home, which will be remembered as a milestone in the emergence of software-enabled narrative.