Wednesday, 13 August 2014

My Personal Games of 2013: Gone Home

Sometimes it is easy for me to forget what a young medium video games are. That what will still define many of the best games of this generation will not be how they push the boundary of what is possible, but how smartly they work within its constraints.

I initially bounced off Gone Home, perhaps because I went in with expectations that it would be the former rather than the latter. Games still struggle to provide worlds which feel inhabited, a issue Gone Home handily sidesteps by creating a contriving a setting conveniently empty of both humans and the most of the clutter we bring with us.

What Gone Home chooses to do with that empty space plays with many of the strange expectation and tropes that have grown up around the idea of being alone in old house, it's become weirdly normal when in this situation to assume everything possess some sort of ominous connotation. We don't consider that it is far more likely that lights are left on by a lazy teenager than some paranormal force, that it's red hair dye and not blood on the floor in the bathroom, and that the sound and fury of the storm outside truly signify nothing.

That's not to say this is a house without any ghosts, they just take a more metaphorical form. As I explored I kept encountering the after images of a family spread out across space and time. The outlines of their personality into focus one moment, and then blurring again as a new piece of information makes me doubt my judgement again. Gone Home gives just the right amount of information to encourage speculation, without making its conclusions seem contrived. Rarely has a game done so much with so little.

Of course it wouldn't matter how cleverly put together, or smartly constructed Gone Home was if it didn't tell a story that was interesting or affecting. Thankfully (for me at least) it delivers here, getting across much of the nervousness and uncertainty needed to convincingly tell a tale of teenage love and angst.
It does all this while pulling off a difficult balancing act, achieving both the sense of inhabiting a very specific place in space and time, and addressing core themes that relate to very universal experiences.

One of the unique things about Gone Home is that the glimpses we get of the relationship between Lonnie and Sam as we explore the house reveal not a fully formed relationship, but those nervous moments from before one begins, where we are all at our most vulnerable, unsure of our own feeling and unsure if they will be reciprocated.

Over the years video games have often treated us like some irresistible lothario, and after playing gone home can't help but I wonder if the template of romance the perpetuates within gaming culture is not just one that is deceptive, omitting the loss of control, rejection, and self-doubt that comes part and parcel of any real relationship, but also actively harmful to it's players.
Bioware's Dragon Age and Mass Effect have both always offered what seem to be a tightly constrain vision of the whirlwind of emotions that surround love and relationships, never exposing players to a moment where their heart sinks in their chest, or risking saying anything they cannot take back
It feels like it took a very brave choice by the staff of Fullbright to build the finale of Gone Home the way they did, letting people unused to doubt to fear the worst, pacing itself so the player had time to worry and let their anxieties build. In fact it's pulled off so professionally that in when (spoilers!) those fears proved to be unfounded, it doesn't feel contrived and instead provides a fleeting glance of a moment of cathartic hope and acceptance between two characters which by then I had come to be very fond of.

I've seen many people say Gone Home isn't a game for everyone, and in some ways they may be right in its unconventional pacing and narrative style could be tough and off putting to people who have come to expect mastery to be the central driving force of any gaming experience. Its also a demonstration of the limits of w
hat can be achieved today even by the most careful and thoughtful of creators in video game. Still feeling closer to a piece of installation art, than to a convincing facsimile of the real world.

However in some ways none of that matters, Gone Home offers one of the most universal narrative anyone has attempted to deliver in this medium. Perhaps the best way I can sum up my feelings on the game is to say that I think everyone will have a moment in their lives where they would connect with the sort of emotions that lie at the heart of Gone Home. That there is a great value in knowing others have experienced the same doubts, anxieties, and vulnerability that come with allowing yourself to open up to another person.

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