One of the essay topics I have been picking apart for a few months now is the idea of linearity in video games. Why is it that the most interesting games tend to take the idea of linear gameplay and twist a single thread into a cat’s cradle? Bioshock reveals the essential determinism of the idea, while the fun in The Path depends entirely on the player ignoring the concept altogether. Braid starts at the end of the story, and lets the player work his way backwards in order to discover how their monomania is a twisted representation of the real story. Why, I kept asking, is it that the most interesting games are dependent upon a conscious manipulation of their own mechanics? Are we so subsumed by modernism’s and postmodernism’s enjoyment of metacommentary and self-deconstruction? Can we not have something that plays it straight?
And then I played Gone Home, and saw that we could have a beautiful game that delights in its simplicity.
But I should back up. When I am talking about the idea of linearity, I am merely referring to the process of experiencing any kind of media. We start on page one of a book, and continue to the end; we start at the opening credits of a film, and go on until the ending credits. We are introduced to the characters, we watch their narrative arcs as they intersect with the plot’s momentum, then we reach the climax, the dénouement, and then the end credits appear. I’m over-simplifying, of course, but the idea I’m trying to get at is that much of our media follows certain patterns, certain conventions. What marks Bioshock, The Path, and Braid as different from this style is the fact that the linearity of these games is disrupted: Jack learns that he is essentially an automaton guided by a particular phrase, just as the player simultaneously becomes aware of the deterministic setting in which he is placed. Braid is turned on its head as the time-travel mechanic, at the end, reveals the player’s warped perspective on the whole story – the game is about saving the princess, but it turns out Tim is the monster the princess needed saving from. The player comes to this understanding by starting at the end of the story, and working their way backwards. The Path presents linear play – it presents the option to literally go down a single path to get to the end of the level – but the point of the game is to ignore that option and simply go a-wandering.
Simply put, what we have are games that comment on the artificiality, or the constructed nature, of the experience of playing them – which, given that it is the interactivity of games that mark them as special in many people’s minds, makes a certain kind of sense: it is the primary experience of the medium, and hence the primary toy for mischievously thoughtful developers. And yet the frequency of this kind of examination is starting to be a bit worrisome. That’s not to say that we should be resistant to or dismissive of games that consciously reflect their own experience (e.g., “another navel-gazing exploration of the medium? How passé.”) as each version brings its own specific details and associations to the concept. Rather, my worry lies in the frequency of these kinds of games in comparison with their less-complicated kin. What does it say about a medium where a great deal of meaningful commentary is focused on the experience of the medium itself? Where the focus is on the player’s exploration of their own relationship to the experience? In the absence of other strains of thought, the prevalence of metacommentary and self-deconstruction strikes me as a little narcissistic: the player watching himself play and commenting on it ad infinitum.
But, again, there’s nothing wrong with this kind of examination. David Foster Wallace’s “Octet” (a small collection of troubling vignettes, the cohesion of which quickly collapses into a direct address to the reader regarding the place of sincerity in writing) has a place with Alice Monroe’s “Silence” (a heartbreaking story about a mother whose daughter simply disappears). Gone Home has a place with The Path. Between the shallow waters of vapid power fantasies and the depths of their thematically complex kin, there needs to be a space for straightforward fiction – a Glass Menagerie for every Waiting for Godot. I recognize that these demarcations are artificial and really won’t stand up under close scrutiny, and I recognize that it is within the nature of commentary to go beyond the insular text at hand. But the point of these provisions, along with all the references to plays and prose, is to invoke by comparison and contrast the way that Gone Home is beautiful in a conventional way.
As many have remarked, Gone Home is a novelistic experience – but there’s a caveat there that needs exploring. In a conventional novel, the reader is irrelevant to the work’s interiority. You turn the page, but the events of the page are not dependent upon your presence. The reader, most of the time, is merely an observer; so too with Gone Home, where the player’s dissociation becomes indistinguishable from Kaitlin’s lack of familiarity towards her family. The primary narrative is that of Sam’s first love, though even this is buttressed by that of her father’s failed literary career, her mother’s romantic solitude, and the dark hints of Uncle Oscar’s past. It is this emotional core that sustains the game’s realism and not mundane details like, say, the presence or absence of shoes in the parent’s walk-in closet. But all of this occurs outside of your own interactions, as Kaitlin has been absent for the past year, and so all you have are discarded details (like the letters and ticket stubs that lie about the house) to piece together a situation from which the player is alienated.
And it’s a relatively simple tale: family inherits a house, family moves, the youngest daughter has trouble making friends at school, finally makes one really good friend, and then they fall in love with each other. Both partners, they meet resistance from school and from home, and then the reality of their dreams pulls them apart – until, at the last, bitter moment, it doesn’t. It’s a conventional tale of growth, love, and maturity. But it’s all told from a distance: we arrive on the scene after the fact, and remain distant both chronologically and emotionally.
Indeed, the alienation of Kaitlin from the family is neatly mirrored by the player’s unfamiliarity with the rules and layout of this particular game: the player has about as much an idea of just what has happened over the past year as Kaitlin does. The mystery of the first few minutes – the cryptic letter on the door, the first two messages on the phone, the fact that no one’s home in the “psycho house,” and that everything is shrouded in darkness – set the tone for a horror game, and the accompanying dread makes the experience of navigating the unfamiliar house an almost oppressive one. This trepidation never quite goes away, as the trips to the basement and the eastern wing of the house serve to erode away your sense of familiarity with what has happened: here’s a new area to explore, and here the story might take a very different turn. Simply put, we are never truly at home in the game.
Yet the game is not strictly about the inability to ever return home – we only ever learn of Sam’s story, the very real details of first kiss and last call – because Sam has written this journal just for you. She has kept and preserved these details, with all their emotional weight and glory, just for you. Certainly, Kaitlin’s “home is gone,” but the emotive, empathetic connection that the idea of home signifies is present in the scraps of letters and ticket stubs hidden under beds and in the couch, in the journal entries being written by your sister. Again, her home is gone, but the love that sustains the very idea of a home is very real.
It is difficult to write about families or love without coming across as maudlin, mawkish, or so saccharine that it makes ones teeth hurt. It is even harder to show these things without doing the same, or without relying on clichés or thin truisms. But even as Gone Home presents a disjointed family, complete with their own personal demons, and manages to demonstrate the beauty of the particular (the tragic significance of a wedding invitation, the bitter chiding of a father’s letter, the tenderness of a first love) they do so in an atmosphere of alienation and distance. Of loneliness, even. But even then, there’s the triumph of one small thread of love between sisters.
We can find beauty in complex design as well as in elegant simplicity. Whenever I come to the conclusion that the core of a game is something as maudlin as “family” or “love” and remain unbothered by the triteness of the thought, generally it’s because of the essential concept’s presentation. For example, in Bioshock, the ethical centre of the game is reliant upon its celebrated undermining of choice in linear gameplay. But in Gone Home, it is the play between distance and love that holds my admiration: the way in which Sam’s own rescue from rote, adolescent alienation is made by her love for Lonnie, and the way in which this structure plays out again in Kaitlin’s exploration of her sister’s story. Again, it’s a simple story, but it’s simply beautiful.