Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Gone Home: A Fantastic Half-Measure

When I was in college, I wrote a found-text story as a final for a creative writing class. Sixteen assorted documents "to be read in a random, non-repeating order of the reader's devising." It was...OK. Ask me about it and maybe I'll let you see it.

So, when I found out about Gone Home, I got a little angry. Envious. "That was my idea! I'd been planning on turning it into a game! I was getting around to it! I just...haven't yet!"

Once I started playing, that envy fell away in light of how that game is like really fucking good. But the further I get out from the experience though, the more I'm realizing that it wasn't really fucking good because of its found-text form; it was really fucking good in spite of its lack of commitment to that conceit.

Please, allow me to pontificate.


Gone Home has an emotionally affecting, well-paced story, and that--to my mind--is the game's biggest asset and the reason behind its biggest flaw. The whole idea is to place the player in a house full of clues that may or may not be uncovered, and may or may not be uncovered in any particular order, right? It starts of that way by placing you in a foyer, at which point you can go upstairs, or to the left. Then, from there, it guides you through the (great!) narrative basically holding your hand the entire way.

Lemme sidetrack for a second: So the cohesiveness of a story is generally conversely proportional to the amount of agency the player has. The more choices you (the player/reader) can make, the more ways the story can play out, the more variables there are to account for, the less comprehensive and satisfying each possible outcome can be because of limited resources. It's a numbers game. That's not to say that every narrative with a single outcome is necessarily better than a narrative with multiple outcomes or anything. That's just generally how it goes, and there's little way around it other than brute force and a fucking army of writers.

Except when there is! If you don't want to give a player agency in affecting the outcome of the narrative, there's still the option of giving them agency in putting it together. Where your Mass Effects or Walking Deads tend form a narrative line that branches and funnels back in on itself, Gone Home is a straight line with no branches this is also chopped into pieces with some assembly required. Hell, you don't even need all the pieces to fit it together.

So, theoretically, we've got this perfect storm, right? A high level of player agency, but still a singular narrative that doesn't suffer from having to account for multiple outcomes.

But a narrative is more than the sum of its parts; it's a series of pieces to be put together, but also the way in which they are put together. The glue that you use to assemble the puzzle, to use a mixed metaphor. You know, pacing, juxtaposition, context, etc.

Gone Home comes with this glue included and Gone Home's glue is good. What makes the story of Sam so effective is the way your uncovering of Sam's story mirrors her learning about who she is, the way her relationship with Lonnie slowly matures from friendship to girlfriendship, and the way Lonnie's inevitable departure hangs over the whole thing, blah blah blah. You know, the parts of the story that are necessarily related to it having an order.

I loved those parts--like bolting to the attic thinking "oh fuck no she didn't hang herself she couldn't have hung herself," for instance. Those were some of the best parts.

But man fuck those parts; they undermined the whole free-form found-text thing I was really excited about. The whole free-form found-text thing that could be an excitingly fresh shake-up of video game story-telling if delivered in a pure, uncut dose.

What I mean is that Gone Home is full of little cheats that help it get its (admittedly wonderful) ducks in a row. And when you see these cheats, it really undermines that freedom and agency the game does a pretty good job of faking.

Mentally backtrack from the attic, for example, and it's easy to see that content (the purposeful "end" content) that lives up there isn't behind just one arbitrarily locked door. It's behind a door locked by a key behind a hidden panel behind another locked door on the far side of a basement which is behind ANOTHER locked door, and so on. That's a pre-scripted order you've got right there. Fully assembled narrative with its beats baked right in.  All the "choices" you really have an opportunity to make boil down to micro-decisions that are significantly less meaningful in context of the larger set of arcs that are pre-ordered for you.

Admittedly, most people probably don't care about COMPLETE FREEDOM!! as much as I do, but the lack of COMPLETE FREEDOM!! also manifests in some dumb fridge moments. Like how different wings of the house are basically chopped up into different months, and how Dad had writer's block in his office, but moves out to the porch with a second typewriter and finds success, for some reason. These floorplan/time parallels don't make much sense, because they're just in service of funneling you through things in the right order. There is a right order.

Now you could just race to the end, and ingest it all backwards, but that's super counter-intuitive. And maybe there are more variations to order that i'm just missing because it turns out the game really is that good. But I'm pretty sure there's just not quite as much freedom as the premise sort of suggests there would be. And no matter how good the game was (excellent!) that's still a fucking bummer.

Now I can't understate exactly how much I enjoyed this game. I liked it a lot. I just wish it was a slightly ballsier narrative experiment. It might not have been as emotionally resonant that way, but it would have been more exciting I think. At least to a dweeb like me.

When you're dealing with branching story-lines to create player agency, each branch necessitates the creation of more content. So you end up either having to make an impossibly large amount of endings, or having to artificially funnel the options back down to a handful of results. It's sort of an impossibility vs. a cheat.

When you're creating agency through assembly of the narrative though, all you have to do is just actually present all the material with no semblance of order, and give up control of narrative experience. That's scary for an author, because it means sacrificing the ability to slap an good imposed order on top of the story, and giving the player the freedom to put it together randomly. It means creating the best puzzle pieces you can and just trusting the player to figure it out. There's a real unique fun to be had with that approach, and the game dabbles in that sort of freedom with Mom and Dad's story arcs--specifically Dad's stuff in the study, library, TV room. But unfortunately Gone Home seems to value the Sam/Lonnie thread too much to set it free.

And that's OK, because either course is a valid choice, and in this case that imposed structure was well-considered, well-executed, and added value to the experience. But I guess I'm still waiting for a game that really throws the whole box of puzzle pieces at me, and walks away while I put all of them together entirely by myself. Maybe it's not too late for me to finish that project after all.