I have the same fundamental problem with Gone Home that I had with Assassin’s Creed III. In terms of their construction, these games could hardly be more dissimilar – ACIII is an expansive open world third-person game where the player spends almost every minute killing people, and Gone Home is a first-person adventure in uncovering the events of the past year in a single empty house. Yet these games are alike in that they give the player a good set of tools for solving their problems, which they seem unwilling to let em use freely.
The main story of Gone Home is told through diary entries from younger sister Sam, which are presented as audio logs that roll when the player, as older sister Katie, picks up relevant objects. A discarded bottle of hair dye, for instance, causes Sam to relate a story about coloring her friend Lonnie’s hair, which led to an emotional moment. These audio bits tend to be very direct – they’re pitched as Sam writing in her journal as if talking to her sister – and as a result come across as being almost completely declarative. Sam is telling Katie her story, and while the story was nice and had interesting characters I didn’t feel particularly involved in it.
That’s not entirely fair. I felt involved in the story at one particular moment, on finding one of the side materials. Strewn throughout the house are bits of a story Sam has been reimagining since she was a little girl. It’s a story about a pirate and her loyal first mate. In an early iteration of this story, found on the first floor, the captain is female and the first mate male (a very early version found later puts her childhood friend Danny as the first mate). In later versions, found upstairs, the first mate is female.
There is also a version of this story where the male first mate is transformed into a woman. This is a strong image in its own right, but it’s particularly powerful as a sign of Sam’s realizations about herself and her own happiness. I felt I learned more about her from this short passage than I did from the audio diaries about where she’s relating a somewhat edited version of her experiences for her sister.
This is not to say that the audio diaries are bad, really – they’re well-written and charmingly acted for the most part, and some of the narrative touches are really cute. However, I enjoyed Sam’s pirate story more because it allowed her realizations to take place in my head.
For this reason I preferred a lot of the peripheral storytelling in the Gone Home to its main narrative. By giving me the space to work out what happened for myself, the narrative felt richer to me even when it was not telling me explicitly how everyone felt about what was happening. Consider these two pieces of paper that can be found on the top level of the house:
I felt this was a great bit of storytelling. The left page shows the strained marriage between Jan and Terry as the couples activities get cancelled (I feel the game implies that Terry is doing the cancelling) and Jan’s out-of-the-house activities shrink down to just this cooking class. You can envision her getting really invested in this, and eagerly looking forward to showing off her new skills for her husband and daughter. And on the right, you can see how that moment she was looking forward to fell apart for her. Nobody meant ill, but the outcome was still cruel for Jan.
Maybe that’s not even the story that Fullbright intended to tell here – alternatively one could imagine that Jan (or Terry) forced Sam to come to dinner and her sulking turned the meal into a disaster. Or maybe she stayed and the dinner went okay but she resented her parents for it and so chose to lie to them about certain events later. The story I’ve imagined above, though, is a story that resonated with me – quite possibly more so than if a diary entry from Jan had played when I found the planner, describing how hurt she felt when Sam skipped out on that special dinner.
Gone Home seems a little too timid about letting the player construct things on eir own, however. I don’t say this just because the main story is carried by audio logs rather than found materials; the declarative nature of the audio logs is the primary culprit. They seem written primarily to recite a story, rather than to provide materials that allow a player to construct a story about what happened. One advantage of the latter approach is that the stories players create for themselves will likely be more individually resonant. Another is that it provides an avenue of engagement besides that of just walking around the house and picking things up.
The storytelling techniques used in Gone Home – audio logs and found materials – have previously appeared in immersive shooters where they are accompanied by fantastical environments and pulse-pounding action. One of the triumphs of this game is that it succeeds without those things. Still, I think its emphasis on telling a story directly misses that a lot of its best action happens inside the player’s head. The moments I valued most from Gone Home were the ones where I told myself a story using the things the game had showed me – even (especially) when the game proved me wrong. I hope Fullbright’s next game trends more towards this constructive storytelling, rather than the explicit dictation it employed here.