Exploration games are nothing new. They have existed as an esoteric sub category of point and click adventure games almost as long as the genre has existed, but recently several games have evolved the genre, eschewing puzzles in favour of experimental storytelling and pushing at and questioning the very limits of what we conceive of as a ‘game’ in the process.
Developed by The Fullbright Company – founded by Steve Gaynor who formerly worked for Irrational games – a studio itself ripe in the tradition of environmental storytelling, Gone Home is one such experiment and has, justifiably, sent critics into a seizure of hyperbolic praise. You play an American girl named Kaitlin, who, having returned after a year abroad to finds her family missing and a note from her sister telling you not to look for her. You must search for clues to what happened in your absence. Gone Home takes the format of the kind of documents and audio logs that gamers are familiar with stumbling across in games like Bioshock, and builds an entire experience around them, making them so much more than a simple distraction from the plot or an excuse for background colour. These pieces represent the flotsam of a family’s life, and although not all of them are relevant to your search, they build an incredible atmosphere. Each scrap of paper, official document or magazine cover is scanned in high resolution, giving a strong sense of verisimilitude.
Last year Dear Esther by The Chinese Room provided another critically acclaimed variation on the exploration genre. In it you roved around an atmospheric and beautifully rendered Hebridean island, making your way slowly towards a radio mast while on the way triggering snippets of audio narrated in clipped English and written in an enigmatic, highly poetic style. Whilst these logs merely appeared as you walked, triggering in much the same way an audio cue might alter the music in a game, the notes in Gone Home actually feel like a reward for poking around with the world – the game relying on the notorious curiosity (some might say nosiness) of gamers.
Whilst both works are fairly loose definitions of game (perhaps the term interactive fiction is better suited), Gone Home is the more fulfilling of the two as it plays around so cleverly with a well used game mechanic, and on top of that constantly subverts the traditions of the horror genre with its setting of a huge empty house in a storm (think Resident Evil without the zombies).
Fundamentally, Gone Home’s more varied and personal fragments offer a realistic window into several lives, whilst it’s hard to warm to the pompous, self pitying whining of the principle character in Dear Esther (it’s not even clear whether the ‘I’ of the narration is supposed to be you). Gone Home is shot through with subtly profound emotion and shares the uncanny ability of genuinely affecting artistic works of making you feel nostalgic for something you’ve never experienced, ending in you weeping over your keyboard at three in the morning because you had to see it through to the end. In Gone Home there is a genuine mystery to unpick (several, in fact), whilst in Dear Esther there isn’t really a motivation for you to be walking around the island, other than the fact it’s the only thing you appear to be able to do. A similar island set exploration game, Miasmata, tasks you with finding the cure to a plague you are suffering from, but even with that justification it amounts to much the same aimless wandering.
Gone Home seems to succeed where so many other pure exploration games old and new have floundered by offering a genuinely moving story that could only work in this medium, because it is pieced together by the player through their interaction with the environment. In a sense Gone Home is so much more than just an experiment – a stripped down pure take on an aspect of game play – as it offers a genuine direction for emergent, environmental storytelling that any game could learn from.