Flash Sociological Reviews: Gone Home (part 1: the media)

Like the diaries, the flash sociological reviews are tools intended for exploring the social landscape of video games and all the actors that traverse it. The reviews are sociological because they're not about the video game itself, if it's good or bad, but about the wider social experience of the video game. The reviews are flash because they are quick, brief and made of sudden emotional impacts with some pieces of rational thought. And also because they like showing off. Expect some minor spoilers. Maybe huge ones. Nonetheless, I'll try to keep it quiet. You've been warned.

The structure of the reviews is as follows: 
  • first, a biased summary of how the game has been represented on the media (mainly online magazines and developers' diaries), including previews, reviews and what their developers say about it; 
  • second, my own experience with the game, a very brief, even more biased, description of what I think was more relevant to me (most of the time I will be making random associations between the game, me and my perception of society);
  • third, again, a biased and non-representative overview of what other gamers say about their encounters with the game (forums, users reviews, comments).
In order to ease the process, for me and the readers, I will post the reviews divided into three different entries (each one corresponding with one of the aforementioned points: media, own experience, gamers).

The opening flash sociological review will be on Gone Home the video game developed by The Fullbright Company and released on 15th August 2013. This is going to be a larger, deeper and messier review than I expected since it's the first one. The ones that are to come after it will be more concise, organized and briefer (I'll limit the number of sources from where I dig information for the first and third sections). 

One of the most interesting things about Gone Home, and other games like it, is to observe how its status as a video game is questioned. At least as a conventional one, if that can be said of a video game. Is not the unconventional part of video games conventions? Anyway, this is not necessarily read as something negative, it is sometimes even praised...
With no violence, no action, no threat, no way to die or be hurt, Gone Home still managed to captivate its audience, receiving accolades and nominations for game of the year (...). But for some, one odd question remains: Is Gone Home a video game? (...) Gone Home is a game of exploration and narration, an effective vehicle for story telling. But its lack of puzzles and combat, and the inability to lose or even change the outcome, have some questioning its gaming legitimacy. (Brian Crecente, Polygon, 31-03-2014)
...but the critique is always there:
I do agree with the consensus that Gone Home is a great game, but I do wish it was more of a “game.” Often times I barely felt like I needed to be in control of my character at all, and they could have just had someone walk around collecting notes as I watched through their eyes. With very few problems to solve, it demands almost no interactivity from its audience (...). To barely use that ability feels like a waste. (Paul Tassi, Forbes, 22-08-2013).
These debates directly aim at the very essence of what a video game means, exposing the inner structure of its definition. They force us to explicitly address the notion of what a video game is. It seems that Gone Home's developers encourage the discussion...
Steve Gaynor, writer and designer at Gone Home developer Fullbright Studio, agreed (...) that these missing elements set it apart from what he called "modern mainstream video games" (Brian Crecente, Polygon, 31-03-2014).
...although they prefer to align themselves with the notion of video game: 
...still has very much in common with game experiences. Three key things that make Gone Home a video game, he said, is its central focus on player agency, the game's inherent spirit of playfulness and the variability of player experience (Brian Crecente, Polygon, 31-03-2014).

Player agency, the inherent spirit of playfulness and the variability of player experience. Those are the key elements that, according to their creators, makes Gone Home a video game. Two on the player (agency and variability of experience) and one on the game (spirit of playfulness). I tend to distrust anything that is defined as inherent; even more if there are spirits around. I don't think the playfulness of the game is inherent. I don't believe that only the player has agency either. Both video games and players are agents. Depending on how they intersect, we have as outcomes the spirit of playfulness (or boredom) and the variability (or monotony) of player experience. But I'm starting to step in too much, let's get back to (other) social actors:
Gone Home is a story about people. It’s about life, living, and how regular little changes in and around a sleepy old house can be the most frightening, difficult things in the world. There is no element of videogame “challenge” to Gone Home, but that’s kind of the point: real life isn’t a videogame. (Nathan Grayson, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, 23-12-2014)
The last quote could be read as being supportive of the magic circle theory (have a look at this and this entries): real life is not a video game; a video game is, therefore, something experienced as being separated from real life. Their reality seem to be different: one is real while the other, we can only assume here, is some sort of simulated/fantastic/alternative life. On the one hand, there is what is real; on the other hand, there is an exception to what is real. However, if we have a closer look at it, we'll see how Gone Home is invested with the mundane reality of every day life: it's about people, life, living, regular little changes. As though Gone Home were the real life itself.

This brings me to the depiction of Gone Home as an expression of the mundane an the ordinary. Represented as being so far from most of the core mechanics that define video games, Gone Home seems to radically embrace the quotidian texture of every day life, which is sometimes disappointing...
A recurring theme in the Gone Home is that it’s constantly masquerading as a horror game. (...) Eventually, after enough of these, you learn to stop being scared, as nothing is going to ever jump out at you. And nothing does. Rather, the story Gone Home wants to tell is more ordinary than you might initially believe. (...) Without any actual puzzles to solve save one, the game becomes a lot of walking and note finding. Not to say that the tales being told aren’t good ones, but I feel like there was a better way to integrate gameplay into the events of the game than what we see here. (Paul Tassi, Forbes, 22-08-2013).
...and other times is celebrated:
Their house told me their story, far better than Sam’s spoken diaries did. (...) I think the game was at its weakest when the house felt unusual. Secret passages, peculiar notes in hidden stairways – that’s fun and all, but it detracted from what I appreciated most about Gone Home: the ordinariness. It was a house. Not a spaceship. It’s so strange quite how unusual that is in our silly medium. (...) I loved those bland details, the trinkets of a family, the everyday objects of necessity, the utterly astonishing numbers of highlighter pens. (...) Sleuthing, turning things over and over both physically and in my head – that’s Gone Home’s principle interaction. Some of its individual elements could easily be executed by other mediums, but the sum of its parts – the irresistible mystery of its mundanity – would fall apart if we couldn’t inhabit its world (Nathan Grayson, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, 23-12-2014).
The smallest details were the ones that resonated most. A movie ticket stub for Pulp Fiction. Glow-in-the-dark stars on the bedroom ceiling. Neutral color pallets and stacks of coupons. (...) This atmosphere proffers a definition of what differentiates a home from a house: it is mundane in the best way possible. (Lyndsey Edelman, Kill Screen, 16-08-2013)

Thus, the discussion that revolves around the game-like nature of Gone Home (or its absence) has its roots in the layers of mundanity in which is wrapped. Gone Home reveals what happens to video games when they are infused with the fragrance of ordinariness as their main mechanic. But again, is this normality detaching Fullbright's work from being labelled as a game?:
...there is no big reveal, no big twist when it comes to 'what happened.' You will wait for it the entire game, because that's how games are, that's what games like to do. To a certain extent Gone Home plays into those expectations, even though it's entirely a game about ordinary lives. I've walked away stunned at how hard most games work to tell us touching stories while placing us in epic situations with unrealistic struggles (zombies! dragons!) when the reality is that our everyday lives can hold more nuanced difficulties and drama than a thousand BioShocks ever could. Isn't that why we need things like games to escape to, after all? (Patricia Hernandez, Kotaku, 15-08-2013)
In this case, Gone Home is described as being the expectation of a video game. Probably one of the most interesting definitions of the game (or no-game). And yet, setting a video game in our everyday lives gives more opportunities to developers to enhance the difficulties and the drama in their work, beyond the far-fetched worlds of futuristic or fantastic stories full of unrealistic creatures and situations. So Gone Home is mundane but also special. It's in both sides of the magic circle and between them:
It’s remarkable how little can be said of what this entails, despite its relative mundanity. But it’s the mundanity that makes Gone Home so damned special. It’s ordinary, recognisable, relatable. It’s a house, and we’ve been in those. It’s not a spaceship or government headquarters or battle-strewn desert. It’s a home. But it’s a home that’s simultaneously peculiar, unknown, and distant. You’ve never been there before, and nor indeed has Katie.  (John Walker, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, 15-08-2013)
If Gone Home enters the universe of video games, it does it through this particular via: it's simultaneously mundane and extraordinary. And it's special because it's mundane; and it's mundane thanks to its peculiarity. And I don't know if that makes sense any more... but you get my point, don't you?

In any case, this approach to video games relies on certain assumption of video gamers: who they are and how they're going to handle the product, to make use of their agency. Gone Home developers claim to deeply trust players:
We didn't decide to tell a story and figure out a gamer to make around it. The game came first and the narrative was designed for that. (...) There is a deep trust in the player to explore of their own volition and not to be told what to do (Steve Gaynor in Brian Crecente, Polygon, 31-03-2014).
I just always try to think of what I would want if I were the player. And personally I want a game that allows me to inhabit it without getting all up in my face. I like to just be in a world and experience it and interact with it as I might if I were really there, which doesn’t involve sitting back and watching a cutscene. I think the more that the player can discover through their interaction with the world, the more invested they are in what they find. Being hands-off with the player and trusting them to discover what’s interesting about the gameworld on their own yields the best results in my opinion (Steve Gaynor interviewed by Lachlan Williams, OnlySP, 23-07-2013).

At least formally, these developers have made the effort to recognise the player as a competent agent who doesn't need to be patronised about what to do, and how, in the game. They're highlighting, to a certain extent, the particular interactivity of the medium, trying to project an image of their game as an product to be necessarily experienced by the player, who would be an essential piece to foster the emergence of the meanings and experiences that the game can deliver. 

If we consider that both the video game and the gamer are social agents, their interactions will provide unexpected outcomes, always within the limits they impose on each other. For instance, these kinds of restrictions:
The dialogue, especially in the early game, isn't particularly graceful. It tends toward info-dumping to the extent that there's actually a note on the front door of the house at the beginning of the game that says “please, please don't go digging around trying to find out where I am.” Compared to the subtlety of the rest of the game, this felt like the game's designers reaching through the screen to shove the player in the right direction (Andrew Groen, The Penny Arcade Report, 15-08-2013).
One can only assume that the developers don't always trust gamers as they'd like to (or as the say they do). Nevertheless, despite these intrusions on the gamers' volition, and other deceits and tricks like the locked doors and the diaries, the hegemonic discourse in the media is that Gone Home trusts its players. But what are the implications for of all that trusting vibe for us, the players? Readiness, focus, attention... in sum, responsibility:
...requiring the player to care about its characters' personal lives, Gone Home takes some big risks in a medium that famously struggles with this kind of nuanced story. (...) There's no combat to distract you, and only a couple of simple puzzles to suss out. But that doesn't mean you can go on autopilot and let Gone Home happen to you. Solving the mysteries of the Greenbriar family requires careful observation and at least a rudimentary sense of how to put the pieces together (Danielle Riendeau, Polygon, 15-08-2013)
Hence, the player is explicitly identified as a fundamental agent responsible for making the narrative possible. The story of Gone Home is enacted thanks to its players. The developers are impelling video gamers to get involved in the main mechanic of the video game, which consists in putting different pieces - material and intangible - together:
You piece the story together yourself by finding these little bits of voice and writing and objects (...). What we want you to do is explore throughout the whole house and find bits and pieces scattered around [that fill out the story]" (Steve Gaynor interviewed by Adam Rosenberg, Digital Trends, 03-04-2013).
The thing that I hope is meaningful about Gone Home is that you’re discovering content. It’s a content delivery mechanism. But all of the method for doing that is through systemic interactive tools. (...). It’s story-based, but I still think of it as a game where a rich set of mechanics is integral to how it means anything.  (Steve Gaynor interviewed by Nathan Grayson, Rock, Paper, Shotgun20-02-2014).
But as important as placing the player in a position of accountability in relation to the game are the contrivances to produce this feeling of personal concern, such as setting the game in a certain period of time, the mid 90s...
For us it was a very practical decision, as far as how it started, with us saying, ‘How recent can it be without having the digital communication problem?’ 1995. Maybe this family doesn’t have AOL yet. People would still actually write each other letters and leave notes on the kitchen table saying ‘I’m going to be late tonight.’ You can find all of that tangible, handwritten evidence scattered throughout the house.” (Steve Gaynor interviewed by Adam Rosenberg, Digital Trends, 03-04-2013).

We just wanted to make a game about exploring and discovery. We wanted to have a lot of little pieces of information scattered all over the house for you to reconstruct. If we set it in 2013, you’d find someone’s iPhone and read all the text messages. The whole story is in that one artifact. (Steve Gaynor interviewed by Jason Johnson, Kill Screen, 21-08-2013)
...or other atmospheric tricks like the stormy night setup: 
The basic idea squared away easily enough, but some narrative conceits were still necessary in order to make Gone Home‘s story really make sense. The “dark and stormy night” setup is undeniably trite, but it exists in service to the story here. The phones are out. The airport shuttle bus is gone and the weather outside is too nasty to walk to the nearest police precinct. The narrative contrivance is justified within the fiction of the game (Steve Gaynor interviewed by Adam Rosenberg, Digital Trends, 03-04-2013).
All of them are mediations that, aligned, chisel the notion of responsibility into the gamer because there is no other way Gone Home's narrative can be delivered: the deus ex machina resource won't come to our rescue. We, equipped with our ability to turn things around and collect scattered notes (a couple of simple but fascinatingly effective mechanics), are the ones who will figure everything out.

What is one of the most relevant consequences of this game, including its contrivances, given the fact we are encouraged to be active actors in this performance? Empathy:
Gone Home is emotionally honest and beautifully, subtly written. The core storyline feels real, like the product of an intense, lived experience, and represents the first time I've personally related to video game characters. (...) But I never expected to see myself — or such a strong reflection of myself and my own life — in a video game (Danielle Riendeau, Polygon, 15-08-2013).

Her story is utterly gorgeous, so wonderfully allowing you to not only nostalgically reflect on that time in your own life, but crucially, empathise rather than patronise. (...) Gone Home is a game that knows that feelings are real as they are experienced, and does not diminish them (John Walker, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, 15-08-2013).
According to these writers, the game allows you to empathise rather than patronise, to feel the core storyline as real and part of an intense lived experience. Here, Gone Home is assigned a crucial active role in this emphatic awareness: it's honest and emotional, it knows how it feels to be a teenager, it's capable of reflecting you. It's driving you to see yourself reflected on the video game (or is it reflecting the video game on you, maybe?). It compels you to worry about the characters (or is it yourself?); it matters to you:
It wasn’t fear for myself, which is a rare and powerful thing for a videogame. It was fear for people I’d never met, never would and didn’t exist. They mattered to me. Despite nominally being in the unseen shoes of a female, US college student, as opposed to an exhausted 34-year-old male Brit, I played as myself in Gone Home. I played with my sympathies and prejudices and wounds at the fore, raw and exposed and affected by what I read and heard and intuited and imagined about these people (Alec Meer, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, 23-12-2014).
It seems that Gone Home can affect you in many ways, but this is possible due to particular mediations that summon the player to feel this empathy. For instance, the developers force the player to know the video game's characters through the traces they left behind:
You start by only seeing the evidence of these people, the impression they left behind. You don’t have direct access to the internal state. You’re projecting how these people feel. There’s no way of knowing it directly (Steve Gaynor interviewed by Jason Johnson, Kill Screen, 21-08-2013). 
If we just ignore things like Sam's diary or some of those letters that fall for the trick of manufacturing a well-prepared discourse of the characters, they seem to be fairly right. It's all about projecting our feelings on the game's characters, which produces empathy as a result. What's more, the developers, who insist in being hands off (even though it's obvious their fingerprints are all around the game), try to shorten the distance between the player and the player's character (Katie) by telling as less as possible about her:
We wanted to be hands off, because there is this dissonance between the player and the player’s character. If we tell you too much about Katie and who she is, it gets into this weird space where it’s like, “I’m playing as her, but I’m discovering stuff about her that she already knows.” (Steve Gaynor interviewed by Jason Johnson, Kill Screen, 21-08-2013).
It's basically true and works fine most of the time but when you discover those postcards you sent to your family while you were in Europe and in that moment she refuses to keep reading her sister's first sexual experience. You can be easily detached from your character since you're not the one who is making the decision of reading or not that fragment of text.

In any case, and conceived as as a major conceit, the fact of  your character experiencing the house for the first time like you is what makes the paradoxical approach possible: unknown and recognisable.
I think the game’s best conceit was that your character is experiencing the place for the first time too. It could have been a game about a person going about a house with which they were familiar, and you’d be slightly farther separated from the event. By it being strange and alien to her, while at the same time filled with the familiar and the familial, it so perfectly aligned her experience with your own. Unknown yet very recognisable(Nathan Grayson, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, 23-12-2014).
The game finds more ways to enhance the experience of us - the players - becoming her - the character - using, yet again, the absence of certain elements:
Curiously, there are also no mirrors: if we are not allowed to establish the character within the game’s context as separate from ourselves, then we as players are more inclined to become the character. I found myself more suspended in this world, where the foreign (the house) and the familiar (my memories) so seamlessly played off one another (Lyndsey Edelman, Kill Screen, 16-08-2013).
Without a mirror that reflects our own image - neither the character's one nor yours, you and the player's character are more inclined to blend into the same figure. Therefore, those who focus in the house, another - maybe the most - crucial character-actor-actant in the video game, depict it as a blank canvas on which we project our own fears:
Gone Home plays the player's brain like a fiddle. It's an exceptional work of psychological terror, and a triumph of video game storytelling. While its character's are rich and detailed, the mansion is not, and it becomes a blank canvas onto which you can superimpose your own fears (Andrew Groen, The Penny Arcade Report, 15-08-2013).
I might disagree with the author on the richness and detail of the mansion, but it's somehow interesting how players are dragged by the game and its absences and ellipses to actively put themselves in other's shoes. People who don't necessarily share anything in common to what happens in the story (or is it maybe everything set to be experienced as something which you would inevitably relate to?), feel compelled to sympathise with their characters.

But what about those who can easily identify with what Gone Home offers? A sense of extreme, almost literal, visceral empathy emerges:
The personal ache I felt is partially due to the knowledge that I've been waiting so long for a game to feature someone like Sam—a game that was about someone that's similar to me in a non-abstract way. Me! (...) It feels embarrassing to say, but I could cry—did cry—with the relief of knowing a game like this even exists (...) Part of the ache I felt while playing also came from being an older sister myself. Sometimes, what I felt was pride or amusement at her antics; she's a swell kid. And sometimes, I couldn't help but feel a little helpless thinking that I should have been there for Sam, or to worry endlessly about what actually happened to your missing sister in the game. (Patricia Hernandez, Kotaku, 15-08-2013)
The personal and social likeness of some of the writers, who describe themselves as female and queer, to the main character (is Sam the main character? or is it Katie? the house? the family?) make them feel strong and vivid emotions: 
I sobbed because the closing beat of the narrative moved me to tears but also because I finally felt my own queer womanhood reflected back at me within the context of a fully realized game world. Queer women are so often rendered invisible or consigned to the margins of representation. But Gone Home put a queer woman front and center and allowed me to breathe in the lush details of her story for an entire evening (Samantha Allen, Polygon, 02-04-2014).

The game doesn’t sacrifice its queer storyline in a bid for mainstream appeal. Gone Home closes the gap between the queer and the mainstream. (...) Gone Home addresses the difficulty of growing up queer in a heteronormative family but it’s not a manifesto. The game simply centers queer experience instead of making it invisible. For queer gamers, that’s novel enough. Straight gamers have been seeing their own experiences and fantasies reflected in games for forty years. We just want the same privilege for ourselves. Gone Home is beautiful because it’s just a story, a story about a queer girl named Samantha. I can relate to that (Samantha Allen, Polygon, 02-04-2014).
Along with the mundane and, at the same time, special nature of Gone Home, we find that it's a powerful catalyst for emotions and feelings of empathy, particularly for those who have been largely under-represented in video games. We'll see that homosexuality and queerness are major subjects discussed among the people who played or spoke about the game. But that's for the third part.


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