Gone Home and The Reality Effect

Gone Home.

Gone Home. This was The Fullbright Company’s famed “Story Exploration Video Game,”1 a game that I had been aching to witness, to dissect, and to analyse.

This, I already knew, were a Critic’s Kinda Game – one that would absolutely speak both to my ludological and narratological interests… only, the increasingly massive amount of criticism (reviews, articles, critiques, and commentaries) had begun to pile and fill up my Pocket feed, my RSS subs, and my Twitter timeline; first, to the point of my hesitation, then, to mild discomfort, and finally to a kind of destitution.

I really did feel, for a moment, ashamed of not having tackled the popular game on this website. We seemed like such a good match.

I guess you could say that I think we both owe it to each other.

Minor spoilers below.

Having now finally played the game, and in charting the field of critique, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that (in my mind, anyway) even the most easily-bypassed, best-hidden narrative thread of the game – its male characters – had been given adequate space, treated superlatively by writers like Alec Meer, in his article “A Tale of Two Dads,” and in ClockworkWorlds’s take on Oscar and Terry.

Both these articles succeed, above all, in underlining the wealth of content in this otherwise diminutive video game. There really is so much to say, from its ingenious “put back” feature, to the grungy 1990s, to the subversion of horror tropes, to questions of identity, sexuality, love, trauma, and family. The passion, the emotion, the feeling, generated by Gone Home, is almost startling: So many beautiful responses, reactions, illustrations, descriptions, and stories – above all, stories. Human-sized stories.

Gone Home 01As you’ve probably noticed, my own personal (hi)story of Gone Home is somewhat different, and is as much about a frozen video game critic as it is about the game’s critical reception (and my, well, pathetic hiding from it) in the video game market.

Perhaps now, some six months after the game’s release, I could also tell this one, and in doing so, take a somewhat different approach towards the game’s effects, and mechanics. As with my previous article on Actual Sunlight, this post attempts to look at narrative in video games in the context of game mechanics, without forgetting questions of player reception. I don’t think we’ve paid quite enough attention to the space between the context and the plot as they are presented in Gone Home.

I’d like to begin with the one major question that I exited the game with:

Could there be a Gone Home 2?

Play It Again, Sam

After uncovering the stories of Samantha and Lonnie, and Oscar, I ached to ask: Could this be redone, replicated? A different family, a different story, a different house? If so, how many times over? In some sense, The Fullbright Company’s Steve Gaynor actually answered that question for me:

[…] we’re not going to be doing Gone Home, but in a different house. I don’t think people would be interested in something that amounts to, ‘Oh, it’s just Gone Home, but different content.’2

In a later interview, Gaynor adds that

We’re going to continue exploring from Gone Home as a foundation and see how the next game can be not just more Gone Home in a different building or whatever, but to take that as a starting point and ask what’s the big interesting thing we can add or change to make the next game its own unique experience that also builds on what we’ve already made.3

Gone Home 07As you can see, Gaynor is already thinking about the next “interesting thing” that would carry their next game. But let’s not get too far ahead. Instead, we should first find out, what is it, exactly, that makes Gone Home Gone Home! After all, in a mechanical sense, all that players do in the game is walk around, in first-person, manipulating items, picking them up, rotating them, all in order to gain more insight into the game’s written narrative backdrop. Ian Bogost, in his essay, quite magnificently distils the game’s mechanisms into one single sentence:

[…] the exploration of space as a means for narrative progression, the use of recorded voiceovers activated by the discovery of specific items, a bleak moodiness that sets an overall tone, and a focus on environmental detail for world-building.4

The game establishes, with the player, a basic narrative contract (phrased on the developer’s website as follows):

Investigate the Greenbriar family’s house. Discover the story of what’s happened to them. Go home again.

Or:

Read & listen enough, and you shall learn, and understand.

This is an ubiquitous contract, one that a great many games engage their players with. Only, in my mind, Gone Home does its part so much better simply by virtue of doing only this one contract. As @danbruno has noted,

Here the game is the setting, and the player’s only goal is to explore it. […] Most importantly, Gone Home has an uncanny sense of real-world authenticity.5

That “Walking Simulator”

Gone Home 08Looking at Gone Home from certain angles can render its minimalism somewhat damning, even: With just one singular gameplay mechanism, its floor plan and progression constructed with such great artifice, with total, gated linearity, just how is it possible for the game to be so very infectious, and so very potent in its ability to produce feelings in its players, engendering so many different responses?

There is also that awful discussion to be had: What does Gone Home’s singular mechanism even make it, exactly? Is there a genre? FPS, without “shooter”? First-person exploration, or a “first-person walker”? How derogatory should we consider calling (or tagging, as it remains on Steam) the game a “walking simulator”, like Chmielarz laments?6

“And then there was the backlash. (Currently the most popular user-provided tags for the game on Steam are “Not a game,” “Walking simulator,” and “Bad.”) Gaynor said he knew some people simply wouldn’t be into Gone Home, but didn’t expect its detractors to be quite so vocal.”3

Gone Home does have its similarities to other games such as The Stanley Parable, Dream, and Dear Esther. In my mind, a comparison to Dear Esther is not a bad one (even if Dear Esther is more fragmentary, random, and esoteric), but let’s be honest: at this juncture, Gone Home is enigmatic, a skilfully rendered, singular piece of video game art that manages to redefine the often dissonant mechanics of “environmental information,” often present in the form of diaries, journal entries, audio logs, or radio transmissions – all those “hidden” secrets strewn about so overtly – in shooters like BioShock, Singularity, Dead Space, or well, any modern first-person game with a narrative impetus.

In fact, it is this very problem, the mechanics of the delivery of narrative content in games, that laid down the primary foundation for Gone Home, and drew Gaynor to exit 2K Games and form his own company:

A lot of the problems in big mainstream games [come from the sentiment], ‘Okay, on the one hand we’ve decided we’re going to make this shooter genre game, and I also want to tell a story about ‘this,’ so let’s cram those two together. And the mechanics are not about the story, because they were conceived in parallel.7

To return to the question of repeatability and replicability, once and for all, it need be said that Gone Home is largely a singular example, or exercise, of its kind. From the gated rooms, the ever-so convenient desk lamps, the meticulous ordering of the audio logs, to the physical absence of the narrator(s), to the the narrated, and that of the reader-listener-narratee-player, are all features that set incredible constraints on the design of the game. It is a tightly wound, complex package of interrelated features.

Gone Home simply has to be set in the 1990s. Katie has to have never visited her new home before; and the mere layout of the house has to be labyrinthine. Cellphones must not exist. However, the great artifice with which this singular work of art has been constructed also gives us a very real avenue towards an analysis of Gone Home as the sum of its parts.

Implausible Plausibility

What is it, exactly, that renders Gone Home’s implausible gameness ultimately so plausible, and palatable?

I would like to start from the outside in, offering two different answers to the question: 1) Player competency, and 2) verisimilitude. The game speaks very strongly to our competency as video game players, not only with its use of the first-person perspective, or its controls, but also with its playful hints towards horror tropes. Chris Tursten recently noted in his review of the new Thief, for instance, that

It stands for the idea that ‘first person’ doesn’t imply ‘shooter’: the original BioShock might be its great-grandchild, but Amnesia and Gone Home are Thief’s descendents too.8

I think Gone Home belongs to a ‘genre’ much more strongly than is usually noted. This is partially due to the fact, that, as Gaynor states,

[E]verything that happens is intentional on the part of the player, and with most of the story, you have to connect the dots yourself7

Yet highlighting intentionality on behalf of the player – as if at the expense of the game – seems quite bold on first fright; as if the player was left to his or her own devices! That sounds very much like the perfect “Thief,” or perfect “BioShock” to me! And indeed, the narrative does seem to unravel like a patchwork, or a quilt, wherein players personally construe the narrative of the game.

Yet, player agency in Gone Home is but a carefully constructed illusion. We only need to realize that the developers chose to give priority to Samantha and Lonnie’s narrative thread, given that only a specific set of notes need be read and inspected for the “completion” of the game, and these so happen to be all related to theirs. This decision alone reveals the presence of artifice; a player with lesser competency (I use this term in as much a non-derogatory sense as possible, i.e., a player with less patience, time, eyesight) could and would very well miss some of the secondary threads of narrative in the game.

This is okay. The question of competency, however, leads me to the Fullbright team’s background in Minerva’s Den, and at 2K Games, and to the review buzzword, “environmental” storytelling.

Environmental Storytelling – Or Textual?

Gone Home 04The concept of environmental storytelling does have some descriptive power.

For instance, the few used shot glasses and bottles (on the left) could very well be taken to signify Terrence’s ongoing battles with writer’s block, alcoholism, and/or depression. Similarly, Samantha’s possessions, strewn about the secret corridors of the mansion, could be seen as her rebelliously “taking over” the house, the “making” of her very own space, and as a kind of personal liberation; Katie’s unpacked boxes of stuff, similarly, could be taken to signify the lack of her presence, both physically and mentally, in the house.

Yet, when we’re looking at these things, we’re not so much witnessing a “narrative,” or “story,” as per their common (narratological) definitions; what we’re witnessing, really, is details, or colour, or ambience – and forming our own interpretations based on these deliberate signs.

The usage of the buzzword, “environmental storytelling,” easily dismisses the fact that Gone Home’s story is in fact a very textual one. I am not so sure that the concept of “environment” can be applied to Gone Home’s primary narrative so freely, and so very generously as it has been.

I am equally displeased with the concept of exploratory storytelling, as it entirely confuses the concepts of narration with the narrated. It takes the focus off the constructed artifice, the role of the designer, as much as it does the player: In Gone Home, it’s really exploratory reading and interpreting that the player does; after all, without the narratee (the player), nothing ever happens in a video game.

Ian Bogost, too, noticed that something curious about Gone Home’s structure:

Everything fits together so well in Gone Home that the experience creaks and bends like the old house itself. Environmental storytelling is difficult because anything less than ontological fullness breaks the immersive promise of a lived-in world.4

Admittedly, I feel Bogost puts too much emphasis on what he calls “ontological fullness”; after all, immersion should never, ever be taken to be simply questions of the degree or quality of simulation, or realism. Yet undeniably, in Gone Home, the devil IS in the details; every piece of ‘narrative’ in Gone Home is a work of art unto itself: Every snippet, every clipping, every note, every page, every book in the game was made by someone, a person, with the sole intent of saying something:

[…] all the 2D art in the game was from Karla, and all the 3D models in the game will be from Kate with a rare exception9

Immersion

Again, superficially, Gone Home has been taken to be special due to its new types of protagonist, new themes, its subversions of video game types and genres. Despite all the touted realism, and emotion, the game still demands, for its entire duration, massive suspension of disbelief on behalf of the player.

How could it be otherwise? To have a house so littered with conveniently abandoned notes, scribbles, and personal letters? Implausible. To have a desk lamp illuminate these letters every time you need a light? Impossible. To have one tape deck per every tape in the house? Ludicrous. Pffft. The idea of rummaging around in a new house, and learning so much about your parents and sister over the course of an hour has absolutely nothing to do with reality.

This could never happen. And yet here we are, lauding the game for its realism. It goes without saying – the parameters are off here. This has to be wrong, wrong, wrong. As I said before, immersion should not be taken to mean simulative fidelity or realism. The point is this: How does the game make us feel normal, and make us agree to its contract?

Again, we come back to player competency: In one sense, we too are “Going Home,” after all. As players, we are as familiar with its gameplay mechanism, and we are familiar with its narrative contract. Both have been firmly established in games utilizing similar mechanics of narrative delivery.

Gone Home 05But where Gone Home goes further than ever before is in the degree of its faux-reality, or, verisimilitude. Take Oscar’s papers (example on the right), for instance, wherein old cursive handwriting on yellowed, damaged paper is as tough to read as it is to understand:

In this manner, when Ian Bogost expresses displeasure with the quality of writing in the game, noting that “[c]ompared to classic and contemporary works of literature on the challenges and implications of queer love […] Gone Home would seem amateurish, forced, heavy-handed”4, I would much rather ask, “How can Gone Home work so well despite these facts?”

Bogost is not wrong to compare Gone Home’s primary narrative to those of “classic and contemporary works”; the textual sides are fairly compatible, and as such, comparable. However, there’s a different side to the game that works entirely differently from these. In taking a look at the other side, Bogost’s qualitative question transforms at once from “Is it good?” to “How does it work?”, which in my mind – at this early juncture, of video game history – is the superior question.

Leftovers

Broadly speaking, Gone Home has two kinds of environmental art objects.

  1. Items that function as vessels for the narration of the story, and
  2. items that do not.

If we were to put together the game’s four primary stories10 systematically, as if flattened on a linear surface, with every piece of paper, every note put together in order, some objects present in the game are bound to be left out.

Chmielarz notes that

[…] the VHS tapes or the cassette tape player or any other 90s nostalgia-inducing items […] are nice and cute and fun, but [Gone Home] not about them.6

Gone Home 06Yet, it is truly with the leftover objects – the ones that have little narrative significance – where the game shines compared to almost any other video game in history. Take the call-bells in the basement, the stacks of newspapers; the bags of chips; the pens and notebooks; the socks in the drawers. They mean literally nothing as vessels for the narration of the story, but they still signify something:

Reality.

I’ll be blunt, again: Much of the game’s narrative – the writings, the clippings, the manuscripts – these are not environmental storytelling. They are largely, chiefly, mostly textual objects positioned in the environs. Together, they are the objects that would be changed and switched up for the potential Gone Home 2. Some parts, though seemingly interchangeable, however, are the ones that aren’t: The parts that denote nothing except reality.

In a way, Steve Gaynor actually makes this distinction, between environmental and textual storytelling, in calling the reading process of his earlier games

[…] discovering the story in the environment […] where you discover the story yourself and piece it together from clues in the environment.11

Let’s keep that in mind as we proceed.

My point is this: In order to truly appreciate Gone Home, we must understand the methods that it uses to create an illusion of what Bogost called “ontological fullness”4 before.

The Reality Effect

There is a better word for this.

Vraisemblance.

In narratology, vraisemblance, or “versimilitude,” – the semblance of something to truth, or reality, or to agreed-upon rules – was first used in this meaning by Gérard Genette, and Tzvetan Todorov, in the same special no. of Communications in 1968 (and later adapted for her own purposes as doxa by Tel Aviv School member Ruth Amossy).

For Genette, vraisemblance meant the aspects of a story that answered to “[…] a body of maxims accepted as true by the public to which the narrative is addressed; but these maxims, due to the very fact that they are accepted, most often remain implicit”12 – in other words, the parts of the story that need no explanation, in good and bad.

The self-explanatory nature of details is crucial to Gone Home’s inner workings. Roland Barthes’ famous interpretation of Flaubert’s short story, “Un cœur simple”, or, “A Simple Heart,” bears mention here. In his essay, “L’Effet du Reel”, or, “The Reality Effect”, Barthes claims that a structural analysis of a narrative believes details “[…] constitute some index of character or atmosphere13.

We can instantly see what Barthes’ claim means for many of Gone Home’s objects – again, like Terry’s shot glasses above. Barthes goes on to state, however, that for an analysis to be exhaustive, it must also account for details that “no function […] can justify”14. In Barthes’ mind, every Western-world narrative contains a number of useless detail, or, “insignificant notation”14. These details, then, have importance in the narrative as enhancing our illusion of reality. Barthes asks,

Is everything in narrative significant, and if not, […] what is ultimately, so to speak, the significance of this insignificance?15.

What is the significance of this insignificance? All it denotes is that

[…] we are the real; it is the category of ‘the real’ […] which is then signified; in other words, the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent alone, becomes the very signifier of realism: the reality effect is produced, the basis of that unavowed verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the standard works of modernity16.

Make sense? Probably not. Bear with me for one more moment still.

Barthes’ core thought, applied to Gone Home, is as follows: The insignificant signifiers, such as the bags of chips in the game, seem to refer directly to their referent. A bag of chips is, well, a bag of chips. In other words, these inconsequential details seem, at first, simply denote reality directly. But since the significance of the signifier is insignificant, it actually doesn’t!Instead, according to Barthes, the signified escapes, with a generic sense of “reality” replacing it. The bag of chips doesn’t actually mean what it means, it simply speaks to us of a kind of “reality”.

Effects and Environs

Gone Home 03Let us look again at Gone Home’s so-called “environmental storytelling.” Carefully observing those bags of chips (yes, those on the left, with the very same plastic clipper holding them closed), reveals to us a curiously detailed, photorealistic list of ingredients on the back: “Select Potatoes, Vegetable Oil (Contains one or more of the following: Canola, Peanut, and/or Sunflower Oil), Salt”. It’s even as though the title case of the words seems to draw attention to itself!

What meaning does this particular text have as a detail of the narrative, or as a function in the process of narration? Surely this is too much detail. This list of ingredients doesn’t have to be there – and yet it is. I simply can not recall other games with this level of fidelity. Ergo: A reality effect.

What of the objects in the game, then, that appear potentially both inconsequential and consequential for the narrative? Say, the Super Nintendo cassettes? Surely, they denote the time period. “This is the ‘90s”. It could also denote “geek”. But for the game’s actual narrative – in its textual sense – they really have little other function.

As Gaynor points out:

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.17

This is very much what Chmielarz refers to when he feels that Gone Home isn’t about video tapes, but

[…] about you.

It’s about you going back to the time when everything felt like it’s a question of life and death, when your friends always had time for you and when you got your heart broken for the first time.6

This seems like a fitting point to mention a common – and ultimately, a damning – critique of Barthes’ “reality effect”, that one reader’s overt is another’s covert; not every reader will put the same weight on a detail as the other, and as such, their interpretations can vary, and its “reality effects” do, too.

Gone Home’s Specialty

In a narrative, details lose and gain weight due to the manner, style, and emphasis, of their being narrated. I believe we could go much, much deeper in our analysis of the reality effects in Gone Home. For instance, we could absolutely take a look at the various types of paper present in the game, or the different kinds of handwriting, and their contributions to the player’s experience and understanding of the game.

Ultimately, what makes Gone Home so potent is that its insignificant items can be so strongly imbued with meaning in addition to its primary, textual, narrative. So many writers and critics have touched on the 1990s in their Gone Home posts. They’ve found parallels to their own experiences, their youth, their childhood, their pasts, and presents, too.

Gone Home may be artificial, linear, gated, and scripted, but it also has massive, massive amounts of space in the form of all these unnecessary details.

More Is Not Less

To wrap up, I feel as though Gone Home’s strengths (and weaknesses) have been ever-so slightly misunderstood. The game’s obvious manipulations of the player, for instance, have been largely bypassed by criticism simply because of the game’s new thematic frontiers. It has led, among others, the esteemed Leigh Alexander to claim that “less is more”; She’s not wrong, obviously, but she’s not right either.

In this article, it has been my wish to illustrate that in fact, when we play Gone Home, what we witness is MORE, not LESS, of what we’re used to in video games. More reality effects, more verisimilitude, more space for interpretation, more space period. It is not an accident that the game’s original prototype was made in the engine that (re)introduced the physical inspection and rotation of game world objects. Its feature set – including the “put back” command, were made specifically for the sake of these effects.

I understand the absolute necessity of highlighting the fact that The Fullbright Company comprises only of four persons; that Gone Home was made on a shoestring budget; that it has a very finely tuned, short length and scope; that it focuses on the mundane, the everyday, the banal. This all couldn’t be more true; in a major way, the “limited” scope, and focus, are what makes Gone Home so splendid. Making indie games often looks, from the outside in, to me like an art of limitation and imitation.

Yet, it bears mention, it took the team 1½ years to fill up the house with realistic detail. We can say that Gone Home is great because of the things it “doesn’t do.” But we can also look at all the effects and say that it’s great because of the things it does: The bags of chips, the condom in the drawer, the bottles strewn about.

Ultimately, we must also stop pretending that Gone Home is “realistic”. It’s not. It could never happen, not with this convenience, speed, or ease. It probably cannot be replicated. Despite these facts, Gone Home speaks to a human interest, and to us, as readers, and players, and daughters, and fathers.

This has been my story of Gone Home – a story of player-reader competence, and narrative mechanics, in the year 2013, rather than a story about a dysfunctional family in the 1990s.

Gone Home is available now, on PC,  Mac and Linux, from Steam or GoneHomeGame.com.

A review copy of the game was provided for this article.

  1. http://thefullbrightcompany.com/gonehome/ []
  2. http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2013/10/10/fullbright-on-what-lies-beyond-gone-home/ []
  3. http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2014-02-14-gaynor-on-gone-home-reception-and-steam-sales [] []
  4. http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/perpetual-adolescence-the-fullbright-companys-gone-home [] [] [] []
  5. http://danbruno.net/2013/08/gone-home/ []
  6. http://www.theastronauts.com/2014/02/one-thing-pisses-gone-home-critics/ [] [] []
  7. http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/203119/The_story_behind_Gone_Home_and_what_makes_a_great_game.php [] []
  8. http://www.pcgamer.com/review/thief-pc-review/ []
  9. http://www.savecontinue.com/2013/08/gone-home-a-single-gear-whirring-futilely/ []
  10. a) Sam & Lonnie, b) Jan & Terry, c) Katie, and d) Oscar []
  11. http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2013/05/13/steve-gaynor-on-the-weirdness-of-gone-home/ []
  12. p242 in Genette, Gérard 2001/1969: “Vraisemblance and Motivation.” David Gorman (Trans.). Narrative (3), 239–258 []
  13. p141 in Barthes, Roland 1986: “The Reality Effect.” The Rustle of Language. Richard Howard (Trans.). Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. 141-148. []
  14. p142 in Barthes, Roland 1986: “The Reality Effect.” The Rustle of Language. Richard Howard (Trans.). Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. 141-148. [] []
  15. p143 in Barthes, Roland 1986: “The Reality Effect.” The Rustle of Language. Richard Howard (Trans.). Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. 141-148. []
  16. p148 in Barthes, Roland 1986: “The Reality Effect.” The Rustle of Language. Richard Howard (Trans.). Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. 141-148. []
  17. http://killscreendaily.com/articles/interviews/gone-homes-steve-gaynor-how-the-internet-ruined-adventure-games/ []

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