Common gamer wisdom says that in order to achieve maturity, realism, and thematic complexity in video games, developers have to add cutting-edge technology: vivid graphics, plausibly animated characters, advanced systems of artificial intelligence. So the notion that a sophisticated story experience is best attained not by marching forward technologically but through restraint and good design is somewhat radical.
Yet that’s exactly what the four-person Fullbright Company set out to prove with Gone Home, a new PC release that’s being widely lauded as one of the best storytelling games in some time. It does a few remarkable, even brave things, thematically—like exploring the relationship of two teenage girls in love, and focusing only on a troubled family. But what makes Gone Home a special achievement among games, though, is all the things it doesn’t do. Many developers have longed to incorporate literary storytelling elements into video games for a while now—but they often stick to the formulas of commercial action thrillers anyway. Gone Home represents a necessary shift in focus, and it does so in a no-frills way that other video-game developers would be wise to take note of.
Gone Home takes place in an empty house in the Pacific Northwest, dauntingly large and littered with fresh artifacts of its inhabitants’ lives. The main character is Katie Greenbriar, who’s recently returned from a year abroad and has just arrived at the sprawling old inherited home where her family’s been moving in. But there, she discovers that everyone is missing—and an ominous note on the front door from her teenage sister, Samantha, warns her not to go searching. The delicate little story that emerges as Katie explores the house, reading notes and examining objects left behind, is much like the design itself in that it relies on conventions only to subvert them. It’s so delicate, in fact, that to say too much about it spoils the game.
But what can be said is this: It’s about a troubled middle-class family; their nonconformist and witty teenage daughter (Katie’s sister Sam); and Sam's first love, a girl from her school named Lonnie. Their story unfolds through letters, photographs, Super Nintendo cartridges, and music tapes, peppered with the Riot Grrrl spirit of the early 1990s (the music of Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, and The Youngins has been licensed for the soundtrack, alongside Chris Remo’s original score). The '90s are the perfect time frame tonally, but there’s a functional purpose for setting the story there, too. Without all the implements of the modern digital age, there's more for the player to look at and do; today, one could probably find out all Sam's secrets just by getting hold of her phone.
The game’s reception from the traditional gamer community has been fascinating—and revealing. To many of these players, a game whose only action consists of examination and exploration is no game at all. “I went from start to end in one minute, 10 seconds, and 40 milliseconds,” one forum commenter on a Steam community page complained to fellow gamers. “This is not a game.” Much of the criticism is so fervent you’d think the army of 18- to 24-year-old males who make up the bulk of gaming’s old-guard audience were deeply afraid the nature and purpose of playing digital games might change.
But Gone Home has received universally strong reviews from the gaming press, and perhaps even more telling is the outpouring of personal essays from players. For fans who have been waiting to see whether games can express their own experience, Gone Home feels like a long-awaited gift: “I’m not sure how else to say it, but it made my heart hurt in the best way,” independent game creator Zoe Quinn wrote on her Tumblr. “All of the little details in their relationship reminded me so closely of some of my own experiences, even the stuff that wasn’t uncannily similar.”
Gone Home also feels a bit like an experiment. It's a new, effective attack on the convention that in order to be plausible and poignant, game stories necessarily need more complicated systems, higher-resolution graphics, the participation of real-world actors, and heaps of choices and rewards. The game runs counter to the philosophy governing, say, the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo, a lavish annual showcase of the commercial gaming industry’s freshest offerings tells fans, the press, and retailers alike what they ought to want to buy, alongside throbbing speakers and bright lights. At this summer’s event, French studio Quantic Dream tried to dazzle audiences with a fully-rendered digital human head so lifelike that its eyes seemed to penetrate onlookers, and some Next Great Military Game—one of the many—pointed to the forearm hair detail of its virtual soldiers as evidence that the future is here.
Steve Gaynor, founder of Gone Home developer The Fullbright Company, got his start in this world of big budgets and blistering combat. He and his colleagues did several years of work on 2K Games’ key BioShock franchise, which aims to combine first-person combat with politically charged locales. Gaynor earned acclaim from the gaming press in 2010 when he led design on Minerva’s Den, a self-contained downloadable adjunct to the BioShock 2 universe.