It’s been months since we’ve read too much into a video game together, so let’s take the recent indie marvel/Hipster-game Gone Home and change that, shall we? This includes the ending, so be warned.
Fullbright Studio’s first-person exploration adventure release has garnered the kind of game snob buzz usually reserved for genre throwbacks like Braid and Fez, and a few minutes with the game is enough to see why. Even if slow-paced, atmospheric romps aren’t your bag, it’s readily apparent that Gone Home is telling us an intimate story in ways only a handful of games have attempted before.
Said story begins as Kaitlin Greenbriar returns to an empty, creepy new homestead after a continent-hopping year abroad. As the process of finding keys, flicking light switches and opening drawers becomes second nature, two things begin to shift majorly. First, the initial feeling of anxiety dwindles to one of unease, then curiosity. Then, as we learn more about our younger sister Samantha Greenbriar, the player-controlled Kaitlin becomes a second-fiddle delivery mechanism for Sam’s story: which just so happens to be the most completely realized tale of coming out to be explored interactively.
It all comes down to that magical, often misunderstood phrase: Environmental Storytelling. The control and movement unique to video games requires a more three-dimensional eye for design than most other media. Gamers have to be guided towards objectives, but not so blatantly as to rob them of the feeling of control over their environment.
Designers have long since adapted to the use of subtle clues and inferences within 3D space to help point players in the right direction. This can be as simple as having an in-world lamp shining a spotlight over the one open door in a room, or having a miniature version of an up-coming puzzle play out its mechanics just before gamers reach the chamber to perform the puzzle itself. Valve has mastered this technique more than Madden’s claimed to have mastered football.
More so than the super-diegetic “notes” from Sam that appear as progress markers throughout the game, the placement of interactive objects and the spatial lighting within the environment reinforce the simple tale of Sam’s high school relationship with Lonnie on a deeply personal level.
If Gone Home was played from start to finish in a speed run, the basics of Sam’s tale would still come across, just in a less nuanced fashion. A younger sister finds solace in her inability to relate to other girls by befriending a fellow rebel at school, who then introduces her to local punk bands and aggressive feminism. Sleepovers become beginner lessons in kissing, and soon Lonnie is being suspended for protecting Sam in fits of romantic possessiveness. Sam’s parents, frustrated by factors in their professional lives, don’t understand and forbid further contact. Lonnie’s stint in the ROTC is set to translate to actual deployment, but she gets cold feet on the bus and calls for Sam to come and elope with her. It’s all textbook young/misunderstood love (and potential desertion charges), but still a level of narrative sophistication for a medium still rescuing princesses thirty years in. Three out of five stars.
But the designers intended Gone Home to be a slower burn, with the only interactions given to the player – and the layout of the single location environment – meant to encourage exploration. This isn’t just a matter of reading every single crumpled piece of notebook paper inside each trash bin. You can learn all about father Terry Greenbriar’s publishing failures leading him to slum it writing reviews for typewriters, or the mother Janice Greenbriar’s career escalation as a conservationist at the Forestry Service leading to an affair after the marriage begins idling. Character motivations fall into place, and a simple story becomes somewhat more detailed. But all of that has been better told in book form decades ago.
What makes Gone Home potentially deserving of its near universal praise is how the most engaging portions of this story are told without words. The initial tension the player feels on the front porch of this new house – the Greenbriar’s having moved during Kaitlin’s worldly tenure – is made bluntly obvious by the lightning crashes and thundering rain outside, and the lights selectively flickering across the house. Audio notes describe this notion of the “psycho house”, but nowhere near to the degree that a slow movement pace and creaking floorboards accomplish.
As the tension begins the fade, discovering mountains of home-recorded VHS tapes and empty liquor bottles telling a story more about familial distance than disemboweling, Sam’s own story begins to pick up the pace. Sam is a creature of curious maturity level, still feeling residual guilt over using a childhood neighbor for his Nintendo, just not enough to stop her from still making pillow forts in the TV room. Like many her age, she is both stupid and filled with unfocused creativity, her room cluttered with mixed pop culture paraphernalia.
The younger sister must feel she is always unfavorably compared to you (as Kaitlin), if the passive aggressive notes on room cleanliness from the parents and the placement of your trophies in the main hallway are any indication. She feels so mistrusted by her parental units that she stuffs notes beneath pillows or the ultra-feminine trapper keeper (likely given to her to color her gender identity back in 4th grade) in her closet, even keeping a locker in the middle of her room in an act of heady defiance.
It’s after unlocking the locker (decorated with pictures of – among others – Jodi Foster, nudge nudge) that the environment itself becomes a character in the family. The “psycho house” opens up for you in the same way it did for Sam, your in-game map updated with secret compartments long ago discovered during the “ghost hunting parties” of her and Lonnie. Finding loose wall panels and secret passageways becomes a metaphorical act of parsing through Sam’s mind and finding her id, represented by all of the intimately worded notes and romantic declarations of affection the parents would lately shirk as childish fads. All of the previous identifiers we’ve had for Sam begin to adopt a more sexually intrigued and maturing voice. Her self-insertion pirate fantasy stories transform a formerly male character into a direct analogue of Lonnie, for example.
Placing the more involved narrative bits in these “secret” areas does more than just play to traditional game progression; it infers a sequence of events. The dissatisfied and paranoid Sam begins using these Prohibition-Era hidey holes as havens for her and Lonnie. Away from prying, parental eyes, these areas became a place of freedom, to explore her sexuality and attraction.
A feeling of safety is here represented by the increased presence of notes from Lonnie herself, not just those passed back and forth between the two teenage girls. This is where we find Lonnie flaunting her ROTC achievements, and where their homemade, mega-feminist literature is shown in progress. These crawl spaces are a base of operations, and at least for Sam, the space in which the most time is spent figuring out who she is.
None of this sentiment is explicitly stated in the audio notes or written down on collectible binder paper. But it’s present enough to be picked up on, even if the player doesn’t recognize that they have. In the same way the designers kept only one piece of furniture on the front porch to keep confusion at a minimum before the player’s found the Christmas duck, the specific placement of interactive elements carry with them an inherent meaning that supplements and enhances the overt narrative.
To return once again to the idea of the game’s changing mood, the first time you see the entrance to the attic comes with a hint of danger. The color red has long symbolized the immediate or impending presence of conflict for us in the West, and here the single entranceway to the most isolated part of the house is framed by a string of red bulbs, a note at the back wall validating our fears by demanding that we don’t to come up the ladder when the light is on.
The return to the attic at the end of the game, equipped with almost all the knowledge of Sam’s emotional journey, is one of closure and finality. While nothing has changed structurally with the red lights, knowledge gained through the course of the game has colored our perception; the red somehow now more closely resembles the pink ink used in the early notes exchanged between Lonnie and Sam. While there may still be a sense of danger for some; the final note does plant the idea for a potential suicide discovery;, the return to one of the only uses of colored light in the game is an inference to how the game’s mood and tone has changed over the course of our time in the house.
Environmental storytelling is cropping up more and more in games as the desire for stronger narrative is finally being matched by the technical abilities to deliver it. The potential has always been there, with most games only content to have a humorous poster adorn a wall when the same space could have been used as world-building flavor, but games like Gone Home act as an example for the technique done correctly. In the end, we have a couple light rigs and a few smart prop placements to thank for the strongest coming out narrative video games have yet seen.