Airy Video-game efforts to explore the human psyche have left the bitter tang of cynicism in my mouth while the rest of the world gushes over them. Could Gone Home be a turning point?
Whenever I hear of a game that’s widely described using over-hyphenated monikers like ‘narrative-based-semi-interactive-experiential-pompous-bloody-blah,’ it gets my back up. It makes me want to put on my troglodyte’s helmet (made of Sabretooth Tiger tooth), retreat from the games-as-art frontier, and go back to the wastelands of stabbing digital civvies, pointing out to my non-gaming flatmates “how realistically blood flows from the wounds of the people you kill” while they shoot concerned sideways glances at each other.
Yet even though the cynic in me wants to do that, I’m much more a gaming connoisseur than a troglodyte. I have a genuine desire to show to people just how diverse and beautiful games can be, even if my main motive is to somehow engage my game-alienated girlfriend in them. Sadly, several underwhelming experiences playing these apparently all-immersive games (which tend to somewhat vaguely be labelled as more ‘experiences’ than games) have left me sceptical when another such entity comes along.
Flower became a fiddly, motion-controlled mess after the early levels. Journey was immersive in so far as playing it felt like actually stumbling with no hands across an endless sea of sand-dunes, eating mouthfuls of grit while getting constantly tangled up in an oversized robe. And Braid? Braid was beautiful and challenging, but its earnest tacked-on narrative felt self-indulgent. With minor variations, you could’ve put any drippy narrative about loss in there and it wouldn’t have changed the essence of the game. And yet, it seems that using a video-game as an allegory for a broken relationship guarantees kowtowing from critics desperate to push games as a credible art-form.
But in this day and age of gaming as an accepted cultural form, surely the games industry doesn’t still need to prove that gaming isn’t just for chafing masturbators. Do we really need games like Braid and that twisted tower-climbing nightmare Catherine screaming “Look! Gamers have relationships too, and enjoy using the medium to explore relationship emotions like guilt, and jealousy, and obsessiveness”? If such themes are to be explored, then can they please be done with a little more subtlety?
So I approached Gone Home – a self-described ‘Story Exploration Video Game’ – with scepticism. The premise behind this latest ass-lickee of the critics is that you’re a young woman in 1995, who returns home from a year-long travelling trip to find her family’s mysteriously absent. As you explore the house, you quickly discover that the seemingly happy family whose portrait hangs in the foyer is filled with dark secrets, neuroses, and fears. Oh, and of course a key theme of the game is relationships.
Gone Home is a phenomenological entity, in that the simple picking up, touching, and wantonly chucking around of objects around a family home is your means of navigation through the storyline. I have to admit that I found the experience hypnotic, wanting to leave no drawer unopened lest I miss a piece of this family’s jigsaw. The experience reminded me of being home alone as a young kid, snooping around the parts of the house I wouldn’t usually have access to, feeling a giddy kind of dread as I walked past each darkened doorway. Like in real life, you get this feeling of excitement in Gone Home and, like in real life, the dark imaginings of your mind are (mostly) left unfounded.
Gone Home is aware of its horror potential. Little moments like a light cutting out as you pick up a crucifix owned by your creepy Uncle Oscar; or finding red splatters in the bathtub; or discovering a cobweb-filled secret corridor. All these thing tease you with fear beautifully, and yet ultimately it’s a heartwarming, honest tale of the fragility of relationships, and the ways in which we deal with them, for better or for worse.
Just as I was about to believe that maybe I’ve found a game that’s come good on its promises of delivering a fulfilling emotional experience, Gone Home ends. I snap back to my cynical reality, realising that I’ve just spent £14.99 on two hours of fucking gameplay (one of the biggest gripes among the naysayers).
Yet my initial gamer’s outrage receded, and further reflection on Gone Home made me realise that the game had affected me positively, making me want to discuss it – and digital entertainment – in a forward-thinking way. Where’s the line between a game and a kind of immersive digital theatre? If a game like Gone Home can stimulate the kind of discussion it has, surely that gives it more value than a few extra hours of gameplay would? Gone Home is a fascinating experience and an important artefact of gaming culture. As such, I’m happy to hand over my money for such a cause.