Last weekend I finally got the chance to play The Fullbright Company’s 2013 critical darling Gone Home. Yes, I realize the game came out way back in August last year, but I simply did not get around to playing it until now. I have already came out and stated that I have not done a sufficient job at playing independent PC titles (you can read my article on the matter here), and my choosing to play this game is certainly in the vein of correcting said issue.
Gone Home came out to great critical appreciation upon its release last Summer. When it came to the end-of-year best game discussions that overwhelm gaming pundits in the months of December and January, numerous gaming outlets and editorialists hailed the title as one of, if not the best title of 2013. Adam Sessler of Revision 3 Games listed it as his favourite game of the year, much to the chagrin of mainstream gamers who felt the need to label him as a pompous hipster in response.
Oh, the Internet…
Having played the game this past weekend, I can say with great affinity for the title that it deserves the praise it has received. The narrative experience of playing this game, a puzzle of disjointed letters and fragments of an almost alien life (not in the Mork and Mindy sense, but more in that the game has you voyeuristically staring into a world that is so unknown to you) is a tremendous achievement in game design. For what could be a rather benign story about a daughter returning home from travelling abroad, the people at Fullbright propel you forward, almost convincing you that something sinister or nefarious has happend and have you playing detective as you tie it all back together. It is quite genius. I had read up on the game prior, without spoiling its events, and the one thing I was constantly being told is “This is not a horror game”, and yet I was constantly feeling uncomfortable as I opened doors, walked down hidden passages and trampled in areas I felt were meant to be kept from me. Like children breaking into an abandoned home, I could not help but feel like something was constantly watching me, leading me on to some dark passageway from which I would never return. But this is not the case. There are no monster closets here. There are no jump scares. But as you proceed through the games narratives, the hairs on the back of your neck will stay rigid, your breathing and pulse will remain heightened, and you will continue to expect the worse.
*** SPOILERS AHEAD***
I am going to get into spoiler territory here so I urge you to by-pass this section if you wish to experience this game unfettered by any pre-existing knowledge of its plot and where the story takes you. As I said in the previous paragraph, this game is not a horror game as much as its atmosphere would lead you to believe that it is. Instead this is a game about one girl (your sister Samantha)’s journey to sexual discovery through friendship to love, and then to loss. This story is pieced together through a series of letters and journal entries written in your sisters voice, and directed to you as she tries to explain why she cannot be there to greet you as you enter the home. Yet this theme of sexual discovery is not quickly ascertained by the player. No, it is actually a somewhat slow, methodical grind to reach a full understanding of the story and where it plans on taking you. And even as you begin to think you understand what has happened, the story still manages to throw you curve balls and misdirects that lead you to false assumptions and misguided conclusions.
From the moment you reach the upstairs of the house, you see the blinking red lights of the locked attic entrance, and right from that initial moment of observation, there is a sense of foreboding and dread that keeps you from wanting to enter that room. At first, you are convinced that what lies above you is something almost supernatural. The room is locked so you need to find the key for entry. Along the way, you begin to learn from all of the segmented pieces and letters that Samantha and her best friend and lover Lonnie are in the difficult position of having to break up due to Lonnie’s enlistment with the military. Samantha’s writes of her despair and at the coming loss, stating “I can’t live without her”. All of a sudden, my fear of what lied in the attic became much more tangible and real. I began to fear a more wholly terrifying scenario where what was waiting for me in that attic was not anything ghostly, but the loss of my sister.
We are living in an age where we are finally beginning to comprehend how complicated the lives of the young truly are; the stresses they undergo, and the difficult emotional journeys that lead to some of our most heartbreaking scenarios. Teen suicide is nothing new, but our willingness to try to find the reasons for it remains somewhat obscured by a lack of true insight into the issues that lead a young person in that direction. It is strange that the issue is so difficult to comprehend when so many of us have gone through harrowing emotional experiences at young ages.
I was convinced therefore that this was the direction the people at Fullbright were taking me. Perhaps I am alone on this one, perhaps not. The signals were certainly there, however, and I had no longing to go up into the attic to see such a horrifying image. Thankfully, as I built up the strength to move forward and enter the room, I learned quite quickly that this was not the case, and that the reason for Samantha’s absence was that she had left to meet Lonnie as the two had agreed to run away together, seeing no future without each other. The sense of relief I felt was palpable. It was incredibly cathartic as I had this emotional weight that had been building up inside of me, finally being let go by one letter of pure unadulterated optimism. This was one incredibly gripping roller coaster of emotion that completely subverted almost every trope in gaming and in the end gave me one of the happiest endings I have ever experienced in the medium.
*** END OF SPOILERS***
But here in lies the predicament I find myself in. How does one equate a value to an experience like this? Certainly the experience of playing through Gone Home’s narrative was as fulfilling of an experience as I have ever had playing video games. In this, the games 20 dollar value far surpasses the value of many a AAA blockbuster with a 60 dollar price tag. I think of games like Assassin’s Creed 3 where the narrative in the game was so dry and bland that I felt little enjoyment completing its monotonous tasks. Or how about a game like Medal of Honor: Warfighter, possibly one of the most joyless video games ever created. Gone Home is 40 dollars cheaper than these titles and delivered so much more emotional payoff than either of these titles could have ever hoped to have delivered.
But then, this title can never be experienced again with the same level of enjoyment due to the simple fact that I have experienced its twists and turns and have resolved its puzzles, learning its mysteries and reaching its conclusions, all in its 3 hour package. Removing this sense of discovery, can this game ever be what it was that first time that it is played? Like a film or a piece of literature, once the story has been told, it cannot be untold. You know its truths. You know how it ends. With its short length, Gone Home is almost at home with cinema instead of games. Yes it is interactive, but its story can only be experienced one way, and once experienced there is little value in replaying the game other than to marvel at its design.
The difference between games and that of books and film, however, or at least Gone Home in particular, is that a good film or book can be passed on to a friend. Gone Home on the other hand, a digital download locked to your computer, cannot. You can express how beautifully crafted the game is and how it should be experienced by all, but you cannot transfer the game to someone else. You cannot lend it to a friend. It is yours, stuck to a hard drive, likely never to be played again. It therefore becomes a one time use for 20 dollars. It is a difficult feeling to reconcile.
In the end, this is where I find myself, lost in a circle of thoughts as we move toward a digital future. Had Gone Home been a disk based game, I could easily spread the wealth and enrich the lives of others with something I feel is monumental in the evolution of storytelling in our medium. That it is not presents me with the difficult position of accepting that three hours of entertainment just cost me 20 dollars. Don’t get me wrong. I am happy to pay for good art, and that is what Gone Home is, but the issue exists beyond the game. In a digital future, how much are we going to be willing to spend for short experiences with zero replayability. I will never feel the way I felt playing Gone Home in any subsequent playthroughs. And yet, without a strong pricing model, developers may not feel rewarded for their efforts in creating new and innovative forms of interactive entertainment. I can provide no answers here. I can say, however, that I am so happy that I played Gone Home. It is like nothing else I have ever played. And for that, I am glad I spent the money I did.