Friday, January 31, 2014

Games Review: Gone Home

Two of the longest running - and possibly most tedious - arguments in gaming are the "what is a game anyway?" argument, and the "are games art?" argument. Both run and run for similar reasons; they come down to purely subjective value judgement with often hair-splitting results; defining "art" or "game" sounds easy but as soon as you start down the path you quickly find things on the wrong the side of the line, and when it comes to a young medium like videogames, there isn't a lot of history to help you back up any argument you care to make. And now you can throw in a game like Gone Home, which almost cannot avoid being pulled into both of these arguments.

As the game starts, you stand on the porch of a house in Oregon, as the rain howls outside. It's 1995 and you've just returned from a long tour of Europe, during which your parents have inherited this sprawling house on the outskirts of town. There is a not pinned to the door from your younger sister, apologising for not being there to meet you, and begging you not to come looking for her. You'll spend the next couple of hours wandering the house, interacting with pretty much everything, and gradually uncover it's - and it's occupants - secrets.

 There has been some reaction to Gone Home that it "isn't really a game"; after all, nothing leaps and tries to kill you, you don't have a finely detailed gun sticking out of the bottom right of the screen, and there are no levels, exp, loot or any of the other trappings gamers are taught to expect. You can't fail, there are no real puzzles to solve. But your characters agency is your own; you decide which order to explore the house in, you decide how carefully you search. What you get out of the game in terms of it's emotional impact - more on that in a moment - is dictated by how much effort you spend in digging around in the house's corners and crannies. It's very interactivity is key.

What Gone Home is doing is presenting you a story in a way that is pretty unique to games. As you read notes and listen to messages, you gradually build up a picture of the lives that intersect within the house's walls; your parents lives and marriage, and the story of your sister and her first great love, and the sad echoes of the man who lived here before. There is a cunning narrative structure built into the very design of the building, and that ingenious in it's own right. And the atmosphere is fantastic, with the house dark and still (hunting for lightswitches being its own game) coupled with the weather and general "haunted house" vibe makes it an engrossing place to spend time.

And its this immersion - again, possibly unique to the form - that brings the games emotional payload through. I started to care about these people, especially the sister, and then went to genuine concern as the game went on. It's that emotional response, that investment, that meant I walked towards the games final moments with my heart genuinely in my mouth, fearful of what I might find. And the lift when I didn't...well that was fantastic. Most definitions of art talk about the intent of the artist forcing an emotive response in the viewer, and Gone Home has that in spades.

As I said at the top of the page, the "games as art" and "definition of games" arguments are both pretty tedious, and by now, circular. But if Gone Home isn't a game, and isn't art, then I think the definitions of either must be wrong.