For most of my generation, the 1990’s were a decade of innocence. It was a decade when we were just kids, unknowing of the world and the harsh, real problems older people had to deal with every single day. All we really worried about was getting our homework done (well, most of us anyways) and when we were going to hang out with friends again. We didn’t need to care about anything else. It was a peaceful time, a time to grow. A time to relax and play. A time to be a kid.
But time eventually passes, and we all have to grow up. I sit here writing this post as a twenty-four year old adult who has to pay rent and student loans. I work an early morning job at a TV station, and write fiction in my spare time. I deal with groceries, the electric bill, and keeping things clean. I have so many more worries now than I did as a kid. It’s a part of growing up. To get away from these stresses of life, I turn to different things. But most of all, I turn to video games.
I’ve lately been drawn to the more experiential and exploration based games, due to my past affiliation with games like Myst, and my occasional desire to just relax rather than run through a hail of gunfire with a shotgun, getting close to anyone I see and blowing their brains out. I love these types of games because they focus much more on atmosphere and telling a story. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting my first person shooter on or whatever, but sometimes I like a simpler, more soothing experience.
Gone Home is a game that came out in August of 2013. It features a story set in the middle of a June rainstorm in 1995. You play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a college student who just returned home from a year abroad to find that her family’s new home is empty and a note from her sister begging Kaitlin not to look for her. Of course, Kaitlin doesn’t follow the note, and you begin wandering through the house to discover why.
Insert clichéd phrase about going home here.
When Gone Home came out the summer before last, it had a polarizing effect on the gaming community. It was a “love it or hate it” kind of situation I guess. People either praised it for being a terrific example of a exploration-based video game, or decried it for being boring and overpriced. Some even went so far as to call the game “complete garbage” or even deny that it was a game. Honestly, arguing about whether something is or isn’t a “game” is a pretension that’s not even worth debating if you ask me. Imagine the arrogance of the man who claims that he alone can define what a game is. We live in a world with constantly shifting forms of media. The definitions of games, movies, and books are being re-written as we speak. E-readers, Netflix, digital downloads, and so much more have cropped up just in the last ten years of so, rapidly changing how we enjoy our favorite mediums. When I was a kid, to get a game you’d have to drive all the way out to a video store somewhere and buy it, and that was back when they were cartridges. Now you can just hop on Steam, Xbox, or Playstation, and be downloading your game within minutes.
So despite your opinions on the game, Gone Home is definitely a product its time. It exists because of all these advances, this streamlining and interconnecting of our lives and our media. Ten years ago, Gone Home would have never been made. Even today, the developers made the game with their own savings. It was quite the passion project for them, a game that they themselves wanted to make rather than a game shaped by market forces and trends. I wonder if people would hate on them so much if they understood just how much they put into the game. I’m willing to bet some people would change their tune.
But on to the main point. Gone Home, as I said earlier, is an exploration game first and foremost. The entirety of the two-hour game (and yes, it is only two hours or so) consists of you wandering around this big house, looking at random objects until you find important ones that trigger a voice-over of the character’s sister. In these voice-overs, Kaitlin’s sister Sam talks about going to school in a new place and trying to fit in with people. In this way, it’s probably one of the most down to earth video game stories ever told. It stands as a testament to the breadth of story types that a game can tell, from over the top stories of one man army space captains all the way down to a slice of life tale about a girl trying to find her own unique identity.
Now I feel I have to address this next part, as this seems to be something gamers begrudge the critics for. Yes, the game does deal with themes of homosexuality. It seems like most gamers who hate Gone Home have this conception that the only reason it scored so high was because of the fact that Sam was a lesbian. It is a big part of the story, considering she falls in love with another girl at school. But I feel that most of those types of people didn’t fully read the reviews, because if they did they’d realize that while the lesbian part did factor in (because as far as games go, homosexuality is rarely ever dealt with), the various aspects of the other game in tandem elevated the game to its status as an indie darling. It’s an exploration based game in a sea of games that involve shooting, explosions, and gruff voiced or wise cracking characters. It sticks out as something different, especially since it’s coming from a team of people who have worked on triple-A blockbuster games before.
But again, I digress. This post isn’t really about why a lot of the gaming community hated the game. I mean they’re wrong but that’s not the point (by the way, sarcasm…just thought I should make that clear).
Gone Home is important not because it features a lesbian character. It’s not important because it’s indie. It’s not even important because it’s artsy. It’s important because it exists. It shows us the potential and breadth that games have. Common culture has this preconceived notion that all games have to involve shooting and killing and general mayhem. But that’s not true, and Gone Home stands as proof to that end. I’ve talked about how I became re-acquainted with point and click adventure games in the last few years. I was surprised that these games still existed in some form, because I had assumed they died out a long time ago, considering how Myst was initially released in ’93, two decades ago.
When someone from the outside looks at video games, they probably see things like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto first and foremost. While I love the latter franchise, it is true that games have a reputation for violence and mayhem. But I would argue that Hollywood movies are the same way, showing off big spectacles and explosions for the pleasures of their audiences. It’s just that games haven’t been around as long, and are therefore looked at more skeptically.
This is where Gone Home comes in. It proves that games can be more than just interactive explosion simulators. But it’s not the only one. Look at Papa & Yo. Look at Journey. Look at Papers Please. All of these games are unique in their presentations and in their meanings, but they all prove the same thing: video games have power as a medium. They can evoke feelings in ways that books and movies only dream of. I’ve trumpeted this tune before, but only because I firmly believe it.
Whatever your personal feelings are on the game, you can hopefully at least agree that Gone Home is something unique, a bit of fresh air in a market that has become over-saturated with multiplayer shooter games. It certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s okay. The point here is that game developers shouldn’t be focusing on a game that appeals to everybody. That’s how we got to where we are right now. Some of those shooters got immensely popular, and everyone else began scrambling to copy them and outdo them at their own game (pun not intended). Instead, game designers should be making games that they truly care about, games that they put their heart and soul into. It’s not always easy in a world where money is the bottom line, but to find true happiness, one has to take a risk every once in a while. And besides, as long as you make something worth playing, it will be played. It might not achieve the success of the Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, or other big blockbuster franchises, but somewhere out there, someone is waiting to play that dream game. All that remains is for you to make it.
And that’s all I’ve got for this week. Next week’s post will feature gratuitous nudity and explosions. Until then, have a great week everybody.