In 2006, a man named Steve Gaynor began his career in game design as a tester for Sony and Perpetual Entertainment. In his spare time, he made amateur levels for the 2005 first-person, survival-horror shooter, F.E.A.R. Using this experience as a springboard, he began to work as a designer for TimeGate Studios wherein he worked on Perseus Mandate, a standalone expansion for F.E.A.R. He then joined 2K Marin where he worked on various levels for BioShock 2, the follow-up to Ken Levine’s thought-provoking first-person shooter. After the game was released in 2010, he then served as the writer and lead designer to Minerva’s Den, an official expansion pack. Both the base game and the extra content generally met a warm reception, though not quite on the same level of its predecessor.
In the late 2000s, the independent game scene began gaining traction. Thanks to pioneering efforts such as Cave Story and Braid, artists began operating outside of the AAA industry’s influence in an attempt to push the boundaries of the medium. Mr. Gaynor saw potential in this movement, and along with two of his colleagues, Karla Zimonja and Johnnemann Nordhagen, they left 2K Marin to form The Fullbright Company in 2012. Joined by environmental artist Kate Craig later that year, they began to work on their first project. In order to reduce costs, the team moved into a house together in Portland, Oregon, setting up an office in the basement. Taking into account their skillset and financial situation, they decided on a game with no other characters to interact with – just “[the player] in a single environment.”
Placing an emphasis on storytelling, their first product, Gone Home, was released in 2013. The game quickly became a firm favorite with critics, receiving nearly universal praise from numerous big-name publications. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) called Gone Home the best debut of 2013 while it was christened Game of the Year by Polygon. To put this in context, 2013 is considered one of the strongest years in gaming with BioShock: Infinite and The Last of Us being touted as storytelling masterpieces and fitting swansongs for the seventh console generation. Somehow, in the face of this tough competition, the humble Gone Home managed to match, and in some circles, exceed, the critical acclaim of these big-budget titles. How was this team able to accomplish the seemingly impossible?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: The remainder of this review will contain major, unmarked spoilers.
It is June 7, 1995, and a 21-year old woman named Katie Greenbriar has returned from an expedition overseas in Europe to her family’s abode. Her family consists of her father, Terry, a failed writer making money inanely reviewing home electronics, her mother, Janice, a wildlife conservationist who was recently promoted to director, and her sister, 18-year-old Samantha. As Katie reaches the front porch, she discovers a note written by her younger sibling dissuading her from investigating what happened. Picking up the spare house key, Katie enters the building to piece together why Sam would pen such a message.
Gone Home is a game played from the first-person perspective. Whether you use the keys “W,” “A,” “S,” and “D” on the keyboard or the control stick, you can move Katie in any direction on the ground as you see fit. You cannot jump, but you can crouch, allowing you to get a better view of the ground and reach the items which lie upon it. By clicking the left mouse stick, you can open doors, drawers, and cabinets while the right allows you to zoom in as though you’re operating a camera.
There is a menu you can bring up that details your inventory, a map of the house, and journal entries from Sam’s personal account. With that, I have described absolutely everything there is to know about the gameplay. Even someone unfamiliar with the medium could play through this game with no problems at all.
This isn’t a design oversight, for Gone Home is classified as an environmental narrative game. Rather than aiming to entertain, this experimental genre of gaming sought to use the medium to convey a plot incapable of being replicated anywhere else. Part of this could have been spurred by highly regarded film critic Roger Ebert’s infamous claim in 2010 that video games could never be art. Whether directly setting out to prove him and his ilk wrong or not, artists over the following years became more ambitious with their storytelling. Some attempted to turn games into cinematic experiences while others used the set pieces themselves to convey a plot. The environmental narrative game is the latter taken to its logical extreme. You’re thrown upon the steps of the Greenbriar domicile, and you’re left to explore it until you grasp the full scope of what transpired recently. There are no NPCs to interact with, nor are there any higher goals. You cannot even lose other than by neglecting to see the credits roll.
As Katie traverses the house, she pieces together her family’s activities during her absence. They had been willed a sizable mansion from a wealthy relative. After moving in, Sam initially had difficulties adjusting to her new high school. This changed when she met another girl named Yolanda DeSoto, or Lonnie as she more commonly goes by. She is a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) cadet, and Sam bonded with her through playing Street Fighter II at the local convenience store after school and listening to music spawned from the contemporary punk rock, grunge, and riot grrrl movements.
One day, the two of them snuck out to see a concert. It was then that the two young women became romantically involved. Sam’s parents were less than receptive to this development. They forbade Sam from closing her bedroom doors whenever Lonnie visited, and they were in denial of their daughter’s sexual orientation, dismissing it as a phase she was going through. Lonnie was eventually slated to ship out to begin her service. Distraught at the prospect of never being able to see Sam again, Lonnie called Sam from a payphone in Salem, wishing to for them to be together. In Sam’s final journal entry, she explains to Katie that she took her car along with many of her parents’ electronics to find Lonnie so they may start a new life outside of Oregon.
This is the development that gave Gone Home its identity in the public eye. In the mid-2010s, campaigns for equal rights for the LBGT community were in full swing in the United States. Artists in various mediums were in full support of this movement, and many films and books were lauded for their sympathetic portrayal of alternative lifestyles. Game creators took note of these changing social tides, and began to follow suit, leading to the conception of homosexual romantic subplots in big-name, AAA titles such as Mass Effect and The Last of Us.
One field in which Gone Home stands out over those two games is how it goes about depicting the relationship. You could go an entire playthrough of Mass Effect and never choose to pursue such a romance, and though The Last of Us depicts its deuteragonist as bisexual, said scenes were delegated to downloadable content, and not hinted towards in the base game, meaning many players at the time never caught on. Gone Home, on the other hand, opts for a more direct approach. The homosexual romance is off-screen, but it’s presented in a frank, matter-of-fact manner, making it more powerful than how The Last of Us handled it.
Unfortunately, though what he and his team created was beloved by critics, fans showed nowhere near the same level of enthusiasm. The most common complaint was that there is no gameplay; what I described in the preceding paragraphs encapsulates the whole experience. You can search the house to piece together other characters’ arcs. For example, by rummaging through the family’s belongings, you learn that Janice is possibly having an affair with a male subordinate and Terry was sexually abused by his uncle at age 12, and it’s implied the latter willed his estate to the former to atone for his reprehensible act. While these revelations are insightful, by failing to provide the player with meaningful gameplay, the context required to care about any of this becomes difficult to establish.
Indeed, the rift between critics and fans caused by Gone Home was truly unprecedented. Up until this point, there had been instances of those two factions failing to see eye-to-eye, but it was usually in the context of aggregate review scores being just a little above or below the general public consensus. This is mainly because video games up until this point tended to be comparatively black-and-white compared to other mediums. For example, the reason you tend not to see any negative reviews of Super Mario World isn’t because of its large fanbase. Playing it reveals that, among other things, the controls are excellent, and it’s difficult to declare it bad when you’ve been confronted with irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Gone Home doesn’t have this going for it; like every other game in the genre, subjectivity rules the day, and because of that, its appeal is far from universal.
Having established why there was such a severe divide between fans and critics, some reading this might be wondering if it’s actually worthy of the praise heaped upon it. I will say that the Fullbright team’s heart was in the right place, but despite wearing their storytelling as a badge of honor, I feel it’s not as good as the critics made it out to be. To give credit where it’s due, I commend Mr. Gaynor and his team for attempting to raise LBGT awareness in a tasteful fashion, which is to say, they didn’t end the romance in tragedy as was invariably the case with other works touching upon the matter from around this time.
Having said that, I question if the route they chose was a healthy alternative. Despite its warm reception, a select group of critics lambasted the story, claiming that it would have been dismissed as a generic teenage romance story had it depicted a heterosexual relationship. It’s difficult to contest this, as Sam ended up stealing many of her family’s belongings, a lot of which was on loan for her father’s job, and abandoning her literary scholarship all for the sake of pursuing her relationship with Lonnie. Exacerbating matters is that Lonnie’s initial attempts at flirting with Sam made the latter uncomfortable – though it is ultimately requited. Even in the face of this information, the narrative presents the relationship as uplifting when it could just as easily be construed as an impulsive, illegal decision made by teenagers who don’t fully grasp what they’re doing.
A more subtle problem I have with the story concerns its setting; namely, the fact that it takes place in the nineties. In the interest in fairness, the atmosphere does capture the spirit of the era rather well; looking around the house, you can examine a fictitious SNES game cartridge and listen to Sam’s music.
There was a practical reason for this choice; the staff considered 1995 the most recent year in which technology hadn’t made communication predominately digital in nature. Had it been set later, the story could not have panned out the way that it does. Among other things, the isolated feeling one gets playing the game would have been shattered knowing of the internet’s presence and Sam having no easy method of communicating with Lonnie when the latter was to ship out drives the central conflict.
At the time of its release, the nineties were something of a sacred cow in the eyes of gaming enthusiasts. Among other reasons, they believed it to be the era in which the greatest games ever made were issued and that nothing released since then could hold a candle to these achievements. This was especially true among the independent critics who were part of the first generation which adopted the medium as a hobby, as many of them came to age during that decade. It then stands to reason that a number of them revered Gone Home purely for its nostalgia value. However, this game doesn’t take place in the nineties; it takes place in a heavily romanticized amalgamation made up of nineties pop culture. While this could technically be true of any period piece, the most masterfully written ones usually aren’t this blatant about it.
More than anything, I believe this experience’s primary failing is that it feels like an isolated section of a larger game. A sequence that provides an excellent illustration for my point resides within the classic PC game Deus Ex. It’s similar to the Gone Home experience in that you’re exploring a mansion owned by an important character. There is no combat in this section, yet many players have cited it as one of their favorite levels for expounding upon this character’s backstory through gameplay rather than an elaborate cutscene. It’s far more effective than Gone Home because by that point, the full scope of the game’s conflict has been revealed to you, and although you met the character mere moments ago, the overall context makes it easier to care about her. This doesn’t work for Gone Home; we’re given only the bare basics of a backstory about characters with whom we haven’t been provided a compelling reason to identify. Regardless of how much importance you place on the narrative of your game, engagement is vital in a medium defined by its interactivity, and the complete lack thereof in Gone Home doesn’t make for what I would call a landmark in video game storytelling.
Drawing a Conclusion
It’s difficult to parse the reception of Gone Home without delving into the climate of video game criticism in the 2010s. At the time, big-name outlets had a terrible habit of overhyping new games. It was likely the inevitable result getting consumers excited for the next big AAA project or out-of-the-box indie title. Independent critics didn’t fare much better. Forerunners lent a decidedly acerbic, unprofessional tone to their work, and their overall viewpoints resembled the zeitgeist of music journalism at the end of the twentieth century wherein new, interesting movements regularly got shunned in favor of reminding the younger generations how perfect things were in the good old days again and again. In between those distinct philosophies was an overlap. Whether they reached the conclusion that even “perfect” wasn’t good enough anymore or they had a burning desire to lambast the medium’s supposed downward spiral, they made increasingly grandiose statements no matter how reductive they were in practice just to retain their audience’s attention. The year 2013 alone saw innumerable hyperbolic proclamations such as “[The Last of Us is] gaming’s Citizen Kane moment – a masterpiece,” “Gone Home is a quiet triumph in storytelling,” and “…[Ride to Hell: Retribution] is not a game; it’s congealed failure”.
Taking those first two statements and many similar ones at face value, one could get the impression 2013 was a phenomenal year in gaming when the reality doesn’t quite support that thesis. On one hand, it was the year in which Fire Emblem: Awakening, one of the best games of the decade, saw its Western release. It also marked a turning point for the indie scene; when Papers, Please was released, it proved once and for all that amusement can enhance an artistic statement rather than hinder it. On the flip side, 2013 was the year in which the AAA industry effected a review embargo to move over one million copies of the tepid Aliens: Colonial Marines, Call of Duty: Ghosts dashed what little remaining dignity the franchise possessed, turning it into an unintentional self-parody, and the aforementioned disaster known as Ride to Hell: Retribution saw its release. Keeping all of this in mind, it would be disingenuous to declare 2013 the industry’s proudest moment.
As a result of the critics’ sensational writing, it’s not terribly surprising in hindsight that many of these highly regarded games faced backlashes. Granted, works capable of appealing to every single person are far and few in between, so even the most heralded ones are going to have a group for whom it doesn’t resonate no matter how hard they try. However, the adverse reaction Gone Home found itself facing shortly after its release was like none other. It went beyond simply bombarding the game with negative reviews in protest on Steam and Metacritic; people sought connections between The Fullbright Company staff and certain high-profile gaming outlets in an attempt to prove possible conflicts of interest.
At the risk of sounding insensitive, I have to say the makers of Gone Home brought part of that backlash upon themselves. Promotional materials and even the first few minutes of the experience proper misled many an enthusiast into believing that it was a horror title. In a world where the internet exists, you can’t afford to be dishonest with your marketing tactics. You can hide certain details from your audience for the sake of setting up a plot twist, but you have to play fair. Knowing the difference between obfuscation and deception is a crucial skill to have.
It’s also worth mentioning that Gone Home was originally released with a price point of twenty dollars. It may not seem like much money, but considering enthusiasts could get full-fledged games for similar or even lower prices, many of them felt they had wasted their money. This is a completely defensible point; had it cost five dollars to download, the backlash could have been mostly avoided. Instead, many unsuspecting enthusiasts read the unanimous, glowing reviews, and were subsequently angry that they had spent the equivalent of two movie tickets on a three-hour non-game with no replay value. Because it was not available in a physical format, they couldn’t even recoup their loss by selling it online afterwards. From that alone, a lot of the resentment was justifiable. I myself can’t accept any argument that insinuates a game where you do nothing but walk around in a house for two to three hours is on the same level as BioShock: Infinite or The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.
However, as legitimate as those complaints were, there was a very ugly undercurrent to the backlash. Such a big deal was made about the game’s central, homosexual relationship to the point where it’s the only thing many people know about it. It’s evident from the sheer aggression and malice displayed by these detractors that they didn’t merely feel cheated out of twenty dollars. In fact, many of them freely admitted to never playing the game for themselves. Needless to say, this is the part of the backlash for which I have zero sympathy, as it was doubtlessly fueled by genuine bigotry.
Meanwhile, several defenders of Gone Home were quick to dismiss the reasonable detractors, claiming they wouldn’t accept a game that doesn’t involve mindless killing. Considering how many fans value gameplay over everything else, this may seem like a fair, if condescending, assessment, but there’s one major flaw with it. Specifically, it wouldn’t explain why visual novels, a genre that similarly boasts a story-over-gameplay ethos, never met a backlash on this level. It’s true some people don’t like them, but if one garners praise or a strong following, you’re usually not going to see anyone trying to prove collusion. After thinking it over, I came up with my own theory as to why there’s such a widespread aversion to Gone Home and the environmental narrative game as a whole; it tangentially has to do with Masahiro Mori’s Uncanny Valley theory.
Visual novels fully embrace the fact that they may not have any gameplay – some don’t even have choices to make. Therefore, the average player will go into them with different expectations than they would reserve for experiences such as Tetris or SimCity, which have no stories at all. I speculate that, on an unconscious level, environmental narratives occupy the lowest spot on the parabola because even if there are no puzzles to solve or enemies to fight, what players are made to do is usually just enough to make them feel as though they’re playing a game without any of the gratification typically associated with it.
At the end of the day, the extremist detractors have to learn people exist outside of their anomalously narrow definition of normalcy while ardent defenders need to accept that a majority of the people who dislike Gone Home are not misogynistic homophobes. With too little content to justify its initial price point, I personally cannot recommend it at all. It would be alright if it were a college student’s art project, but as a commercial release, it falls flat. My problem with the environmental narrative as a genre is that the creators understand the importance of writing in a way which complements the medium, but they’re unwilling or unable to see it through to its logical destination by providing an experience where the gameplay and story actively build on and enhance each other. If you’re at all interested in Gone Home, the most practical choice you could make would be to obtain it for free as part of a package deal or watch a complete playthrough on a video-sharing site. While supporters may see it as a forward-looking, avant-garde work that challenges the status quo, the misguided attempt to elevate the medium by discarding its very identity securely establishes itself in my mind as a product of its time.
Final Score: 3.5/10