What games could still learn from Gone Home
I keep thinking about how important Gone Home is to games as a storytelling medium.
It’s difficult to put in words because the way the game handles it is very matter-of-fact. There’s nothing special about the way Gone Home tells its story while you’re playing it, but when you step away and look at it in the context of the entire medium of games, it’s something worth recognizing. It’s not the first game to construct its narrative this way, it’s just the most notable and recent one. And looking back at its reviews, I don’t see a lot of people acknowledging why Gone Home felt so different and even strange to some people.
What Gone Home does is pretty simple but it has wider implications for how games tell stories. And I think that’s worth talking about.
First, you have to understand that games almost always tell stories about you. And by you I mean the player or the character that represents your actions in the game. Think Nathan Drake and Master Chief and Mario. Games construct narratives around these main characters, which are performed by you. This means that you are actively participating in the story and driving its events forward.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Characters that drive their stories is good storytelling. It gives the narrative logic and lets the storyteller use what the character does as a way to find some kind of truth about them. In games, this is especially important because you get to actually do the actions as if you were the character. In The Walking Dead, you grow a relationship with Clementine through your own choices and in-turn create a bond that feels unique to you. That bond is really just being able to empathize with Lee and how he reacts to the situations he’s in. You’re able to have that because you’re put in the same exact situations with all the tension and urgency Lee feels. Games let us understand characters on a deeper level than any other medium because we get to embody them.
Pretty rad right?
But Gone Home shows that there’s other ways to tell stories in games.
Gone Home is a rare game that’s not about you or the character you play as. Instead, you are simply a medium for its story to be told through. You explore the house and uncover pieces of the story, but are never actively involved in it. The story is really about Sam’s relationship with Lonnie. Sam is the main character, not you. She is the one that drives the story, the one you empathize with.
For a lot of people that was pretty weird for a game.
System Shock and Bioshock already did this before with their short voice diaries from the perspective of non-player characters. But those games used it as a way to give their worlds texture on the side of a traditional player-driven narrative. It wasn’t the focus of the entire game like it is for Gone Home.
And if you consider traditional player-driven narrative as the only way to do it, then Gone Home is pretty strange. The things you do don’t actually matter to its story, it’s just how you uncover what went on for yourself. So then you might ask why are you even there? And if you continue down that line of thinking then I’m sure it’s easy to struggle with Gone Home even being called a game in the first place. But that conclusion represents a very damaging concept that games must adhere to a checklist of things that legitimizes them. It’s a really bad and narrow way to look at things, especially for Gone Home since there is a reason you’re there.
Gone Home doesn’t have a story unless you tell it. There are big plot developments that happen when Sam literally talks about them in her journals, but there are other ones told through the objects you find that can only be interpreted by someone who is able to connect everything together into a logical narrative. In other words, a human! Stories are ingrained in our species. We turn everything into narratives. From our own life experiences to what other people do to, heck, even what our pets do! Gone Home relies on this. It needs you to connect the scattered parts of its narrative to make it whole.
And in that way, Gone Home can still be about you but at the same time have a story that’s not. You still get that intrinsic bond that games do well, except in two ways. One with Sam through traditional character-driven storytelling, and one with your own actions that reveal the story. Thus proving that game stories don’t need you to play as the main character. They can be just as strong and true to the medium with you in a more functional role. Gone Home isn’t an exception to a rule because there are no rules. Gone Home is an example of what games can do. And I think that’s always worth talking about.