Thursday, 27 February 2014

Game Review: Gone Home

I'm still winging this reviewing business so it'll take me a while to find a format for this that I like. But I do like looking a game from a non-gaming point of view as well as a gaming one, in the hope of spreading the love to non-gamers.

With that being said, Gone Home is pretty much perfect as an entry level game, as it's far more of an interactive story than a skill-based game. (To the outsider, this definition is unimportant, but a lot of gamers get their knickers in twists about it; I'll discuss this at the end of the review.) The gameplay is easy, it's similar to the classic hidden-object style of game which was popular in the mid-Nineties, and there's nothing complicated or fast about the physical elements of gameplay. You don't even need a good sense of direction, because the map's really good.

The premise is simple: you are a 19 year old who has arrived home (to Salem, I think) from her year in Europe. The house is empty. You don't know it at all, as your family moved there when you were abroad, so you need to find out where your family are and what has happened to them. You find various different letters and the occasional object along the way. There's a lot of tape players around the place too, and you can use them to give yourself a Riot Grrl soundtrack if you want to (I actually didn't much, not being much of a fan, it wasn't part of my adolescence at all).

What makes this game stand out from any other hidden object/clue based game is the depth of the characterisation and the interweaving stories. There's not just one mystery, there are four, and I'm not sure that one of them has any kind of resolution - I certainly didn't find one. There are dark secrets which are hinted at but not resolved, and creepy areas to go through - it's very atmospheric, just the right side of scary for me to get an adrenaline response but not be too scared to continue (I am looking at you here Amnesia, I got five minutes in to that game and then stopped forever).

As the game progressed, I got more and more emotionally involved with the characters, and by the end my response was pretty much what it would be if I'd been in that situation in real life - it's hard to describe without spoiling the story, which I really don't want to do. I played through the whole thing in about four hours, maybe five, and while that's a short game, the experience was very intense.

I highly recommend this to pretty much everyone. This is an experience I will carry with me for a very long time, and I hope it marks a watershed moment in the industry, showing that you can make these stories, these pieces of art, and people will play them and love them. A lot of non-gamers don't appreciate that games can be art - a lot of gamers don't either to be fair - but if this game doesn't change your mind, then there's something wrong with the way you define art. Gone Home is beautiful and important, and that's what art is.

So, onto the scoring. I'll stick to the arbitrary system I used last time.
  • Plot: 5. Compelling and well told, the plot becomes more complicated the closer you look at it. There are a lot of laugh out loud moments to relieve the tension, but you never forget your purpose.
  • Sound and vision: 4. It would be 5 if I hadn't had to turn the graphics settings really low in order to get the movement as smooth as possible.
  • Gameplay: 5 for ease of use. Everything was well-documented in-game as well.
  • Representation: 3. Given that there were only six characters, three of whom aren't voiced, this is harder to judge, but basically, excellent gender and sexuality awareness and representation, poor race representation (one Hispanic character, the rest WASPs), questionable mental health representation.
As a point about the Representation category, I don't expect every game to be perfect at this - in fact, scoring any points at all is an achievement. I don't think that every game (or novel, comic, film, etc) necessarily needs to hit everything all of the time, and some stories will by necessity be more limited in their representation due to number of characters, actual historical details, or limitations of the genre. What is important to me is that both some kind of awareness is shown, and that stereotypes are avoided. Whereas everything else is judged on a 1-5 scale with 3 being "meets minimum expectations", Representation is judged much more fluidly, and I am happy to give negative points (down to -5), as my enjoyment of a game is genuinely impacted negatively by use of offensive stereotypes, images and language.

In total then, this gets 17 out of a possible 20 points. Play this game. You will not regret it.

Here follows a brief but connected discussion about interactive story and skill-based games.

From the earliest days of gaming, there has been conflict between the story of games and what I'll call the gameplay of games, the actual mechanics and skill of playing them. This reached quite an intense peak a couple of years ago when Jennifer Hepler, a writer for Bioware who did a lot of work on the Dragon Age series, voiced the opinion that it should be possible for people to play games with no fighting elements (gameplay, basically), and just get the story. She was hounded out of her job, and she and her family received death threats, because some people don't understand what "proportional response" means, or what "criminal behaviour" is. If you want to look up more about this, I suggest you do so carefully, and look at a variety of different sources before coming to any conclusion of your own.

The prevalent attitude in Western gaming is that interactive stories aren't "real" games and shouldn't be treated as such. It's mixed up in pretty basic (and ugly) misogyny and general snobbery. It's also bullshit, as telling stories has been a big part of gaming for a long time - that's all text-based adventures were, after all, and I'm glad they're enjoying a resurgence. But as the graphics capabilities of the machines got better, the skill-based elements started to take precedence. (I discussed this a bit in relation to the Mass Effect series here.)

As far as I'm aware though, this isn't a thing in Eastern gaming at all. Interactive novels are a big part of gaming culture, enjoyed by all genders, ages, and sexualities. They regularly revolve around relationships, and they're recognised as part of the milieu of gaming as much as sports games, FPS's or world-building games are.

If we take the view that no game should be solely about story and character, and that there should always be high levels of skill involved, we remove a huge chunk of the artistry of the game. It is, to me, as ridiculous as any other type of proscription about art. I might not personally appreciate most forms of contemporary art, preferring as I do Impressionism and Art Nouveau, but clearly, contemporary art still exists and is beautiful and important. And just because the current trend in the art world as a whole is Modernist, Abstract stuff, doesn't mean that every painter or sculptor is creating art in that style. Equally, just because Stephen Fry thinks that free-style poems with no rhythm or rhyme structures are a bunch of wank, it does not means that I need to agree with him; I am free to like all of Edwin Morgan's work, not just the stuff with a rigid and defined structure, and I'm free to value and enjoy him as a poet as much as I value and enjoy Shakespeare or Tennyson.

Having a basic understanding about this argument in specific is useful in context of computer gaming and current trends and hot topics within it, but I think it's more important to understand it within the wider historical context of movements in the art and literature worlds. I don't believe that there is nothing new under the sun, but I do believe that people have basic responses to things which are pretty hard-wired into us either at a genetic or a memetic (societal and linguistic) level, and there are a lot of clear parallels between the vitriol spouted about computer game genres now, and the vitriol spouted at the Impressionists 140 years ago, to take but one of many examples.

I also ultimately think it's irrelevant. Games are still a very new medium, all things considered, and the medium as a whole is still finding its feet. The things that I'm truly angered by in the gaming industry are the same things that anger me about the music and publishing industries: too many big companies chasing profits and forcing things to be the same, too little innovation and celebration of genius. That's a problem with capitalism, not with the basic products, and it's not going to stop unless money stops being the only valued end-product.


  1. I loved Gone Home, and despite not sharing the obvious characteristics of the main character, the demographic (or whatever) somehow drew me into her way more than I've ever felt a connection to the brash, gun-toting types I usually have to inhabit in games. Well, except for the Arkham games, maybe. I am Batman.

    My only complaint would be the more heavy-handed atmospheric touches. As someone completely averse to spooks and scares in games there were a good few sections that were doing their best to make me tense for, as it turned out, no particular reason. I came away with the impression that the designers wanted to make a scarier story than the writers had actually provided.

    1. On balance I think I disagree; I could definitely have lived happily without them, but keeping the tension up made everything seem more urgent. Also, if one came back to a big old house in the middle of the night with no-one home, one wouldd be jumping at shadows as well, especially in a few of the rooms and corridors. I felt the tension was reduced almost immediately after having been ramped up, with the only exception being that closet in the basement with the wooden horse. That creeped me out a lot. I still don't know what was going on with the uncle, and I don't think I want to know.

    2. Well exactly, alone in an unfamiliar house in the middle of the night I'd be plenty spooked without cheap tricks like hidden staircases, lights cutting out unexpectedly etc. It's a minor complaint by comparison but the slightest of scares can put me off a game and Gone Home came close enough that I had to stop playing a couple of times and I really don't think it served the story or experience well enough for that. To have missed out on an otherwise brilliant experience 'cause I'm a wimp would have been sad.