I recently played through a game called Gone Home. Gone Home is described by its creators, The Fullbright Company, as ‘A Story Exploration Video Game’. While I wouldn’t expect this classification to bring scores of players hustling to download the title, my preoccupation with stories and interactive narrative had me immediately interested.
I played through the game in one sitting. After toying with it for fifteen minutes or so on two separate occasions, the third time I loaded the game I was able to complete the experience in around three hours. At the end of the gameplay I felt a curious emptiness. My reaction was not one of satisfaction or elation, despite the fact that I would say I enjoyed the game overall. I was puzzled at my own reaction. I played through the entire game; It had maintained my attention for three hours straight, but at the end of it I felt underwhelmed by the depth of the story. To clarify, the story was executed well, maybe even brilliantly. It was an expert use of the toolset and effectively communicated three of the Greenbrier family’s narrative threads in parallel (Sam Greenbrier, your character’s younger sister is the focus of the story). But, although the story was executed well both from a narrative and interactive toolset perspective, there was an element of depth missing. The characters were never quite developed enough or distinguished from their formative tropes (struggling writer, unfaithful spouse) to stay with me at the game’s close.
I was left with the question, “What about this game held my interest so tightly for it’s duration?” The obvious and complex answer is the execution; obvious because it is clear and easy to say the game was done well but complex in that the game’s execution is comprised of many elements and some help elevate the immersion more than others. Regardless, this explanation felt incomplete to me.
I was also left with an inclination to compare Gone Home with Photopia, a similarly well executed stand out in Interactive Fiction by Adam Cadre , the genre that feels like the progenitor for Gone Home’s gameplay.
I think the reason I made this comparison and the answer to my question stem from the same source: elements shared between the two pieces that helped each convey their story.
In Gone Home, the entire story takes is conveyed (trickiness of time flow aside since the story is technically taking place in retrospect) within an eerie mansion at night. The lighting in the game sucks you in, shadows accent the structure and changes in the light of the areas is really apparent. Essentially, there is a strong visual element in the game that really drives home the game’s mood. This mood borders on suspense or being ominous at times, thanks to the game’s hints at the mansion being known as “the murder house” and of its former resident going mad.
Similarly, Photopia gained notice in part because of a strong visual element. Since IF is a text based genre, this could be surprising to someone who hadn’t played it. Photopia manages its effect by simply coloring text and the display’s frame at pointed times throughout the narrative. However, it does drive these shifts home with strong moments of transition. These moments are usually tied to specific events in the narrative which correspond to the color.
A second notable similarity can be attributed to the interactions both games allow. This is tied to the IF genre. Photopia, created within this genre and it’s culture has the customary text inputted actions (i.e. “Look”, “Walk” , “Get”) For the most part you are observing the story rather then playing, however there are some really vivid moments in which the game calls you to interact and it feels impactful. For example, at one point the character you are currently playing is called on to give his daughter CPR. Typing “breath into Allie’s mouth,” struck me with this mental image of performing the action, and felt like a moment of immersion rarely achieved even by games using the most modern technology. I would like to look into the psychology of this further, but for now I assume the thought process to type the word “breathe” results in more associations with performing the actual action, then say, pressing a single button.
Gone Home also limits your actions to investigating and interacting with the environment, although the number and variety of items to interact with in Gone Home outweighs that of Photopia. These interactions also provide more immediate and varied feedback to the player then is present in Photopia (or any IF I have played for that matter). However, this superiority in variety and immediacy ultimately has a price in the amount of space the game can allow. The user’s actions can affect most of the objects in the game world, but as such he needs to be controlled and kept to a certain area where that reactivity can be fully supported in order to maintain immersion.
Finally, both narrative chose to handle multiple character’s stories in parallel and use non-linear timelines to communicate these stories.
Both stories are executed well and have strong moments. Gone Home creates an excellent tone through it’s use of lighting and sound, which, when combined with the investigative act of uncovering the plot, does a good job of keeping the player engaged. However, Photopia’s narrative left me with a more lasting impression thanks to its depth and subtle characterization along with the feeling of unity between it’s visual moments and the story.