Don’t let the header confuse you – this isn’t a joke-article. It’s not a review on the game’s quality either, as you can find that here. This was sparked from an argument among friends about how games like Gone Home are somehow not games.
Gone Home (2013) by The Fullbright Company is a video-game. There are some who disagree on that point, saying that its focus on story with limited gameplay makes it more like a virtual museum than a game. While I can understand why some people would think that, I have to say that they are objectively wrong. Gone Home is indeed a game, and not because I’m using the broadest definition of a game, but because there is one central mechanic that it uses to give players choice, a natural progression through its story, and all that jazzy ludo-narrative harmony that all the kids are smoking these days. That one game mechanic is paranoia.
Warning: Major Spoilers Below. Gone Home almost literally hinges on its story for it to be impactful. You have been warned.
First off, let’s spoil the game away and reveal two major narratives in the story. The first, the gay romance story of Kaitlin’s sister, Samantha, is the main plot-line of the game. It’s the only story in the game that is audibly told to the player. This is the thread of the narrative that will string you along until the game ultimately ends, and for most people who are too anxious to spend their time reading, this is the only story they’ll get.
It’s a good story, I’ll admit. Some people don’t like it for reasons such as it not being all that original or even campy. For me personally, I’m a complete sucker for love stories, especially ones about defying conventional social views. This plot seems to be the reason why most people dislike the game. If not for the minority of people who, unfortunately, dislike the homosexual themes, then the majority dislike it from a standpoint of the usual criticisms of narrative. That’s all fine. Every one has an opinion, and my personal opinion is just as wrong as everyone else.
Then there’s the second plot that goes on through Gone Home (there are about twenty-six plots, more or less). This one is where the central mechanic takes place. It’s very unique in its implementation and its a one-time trick so if you haven’t beaten the game yet and the spoiler warning hasn’t scared you off, this is your last chance to play it before reading on.
The second narrative of Gone Home is a ghost story. The large, empty house you explore is one left to your family by your rich, deceased, and possibly criminally insane, uncle. It’s storming outside, there are strange noises inside, and every now and then you find letters, notes, and maps left behind by your sister and her girlfriend accounting their hunts for the ghost of your dead, crazy uncle. There’s even a haunting scrap of paper next to a Ouija Board you find in a secret wall compartment that apparently has messages from your uncle’s ghost.
This is where the paranoia sets in. For anyone who has played a horror game, or even just watched a screaming idiot play games like Amnesia on YouTube, you’ll notice the telltale signs of a horror game. The atmosphere noted in the above paragraph does all that it can to stew paranoia fuel in the player. You’ll think you saw a ghastly form out of the corner of your vision when all it was was the shape of some curtains. Lightning fills your headphones as you enter especially quiet and dark rooms. It’s dreadful, and it all culminates in the one, single jumpscare throughout the whole game.
You follow your sister’s map to a secret staircase connecting your parent’s room to the ground-level library. You step down the first flight and come across a ceiling lamp. Tugging the string and flashing the light on reveals a cramped, incognito hallway crammed with newspaper clippings. What did your uncle do? Was he a serial killer? Is he watching you right now?
On the wall, you spot a small, wooden crucifix with writing on it. When you pick it up to inspect it closer… POP! The light goes out.
I jumped. I was frozen, and soon later made my way back up the stairs (holding the cross with me for some strange sense of security). I didn’t turn around once until I was in the light.
So, what does this have to do with game mechanics?
I stated earlier that this game offered choice, one of the fundamental cores of what a game is. I believe that, without making any serious stretches in logic or definitions, Gone Home offers a very unique method of player choice: Whether or not to be paranoid, to be scared, or to progress the story yourself.
The Fullbright Company ingeniously made a horror game without actually making a horror game. They led you to believe that at any moment the ghost of your psycho uncle would pop up behind you, screaming to let him back into the mortal world, or whatever it is that ghosts are into these days. They preyed on your paranoia, making you cautious, affecting the way you played.
If you did play Gone Home, did you, upon entering a dark room, make a beeline to the closest light source without looking around you, for fear of the dark? Were you hesitant about progressing along the story after that light bulb exploded? Did the game use its narrative and atmosphere in such a way that you would have played differently or made different, inconsequential decisions without your paranoia?
The game mechanic here is an invisible mechanic. It doesn’t work like a rule, like most mechanics do, but instead works like, well, a specter. Invisibly guiding the player; pushing her, alluring her, scaring her into making different decisions, or even to simply stop playing or watch a Let’s Play. Morals and ethics in games that don’t utilize morality mechanics work in a similar fashion, feeding on your emotions and stress to get you to play them in certain ways without any real consequences for doing otherwise.
Gone Home works as a video-game, a legitimate game, because it requires you, the player, to make both conscious and unconscious decisions as to whether or not the ghost-story themes will have an effect on you, and your willingness to push forward is what drives the story forward.