Storytelling Re-DefinedImagine that you’ve just returned from a fantastic trip abroad. But then your mansion is all dark and deserted. There’s no sign of your parents and there’s a thunderstorm raging outside. The only clue is a strange note from your younger sister, taped to the door.
Welcome to the world of Gone Home, a first-person adventure video game that is more of an interactive art experience. Unlike conventional games, there are no monsters to slay, bonus points to uncover or high score records to set. Instead, what follows is relatively simple: you play the twenty-one year old college student Kaitlin Greenbriar, and explore a lavishly-furnished manor; in the process, you discover a story of a haunted past, fractured family drama and an illicit relationship between Kaitlin’s sister, Sam, and her school BFF, Lonnie, piecing together a riveting narrative all derived from the various household objects strewn around the place.
Then there’s the whole nostalgia. The game is set somewhere in the 90s and abounds in pop culture references. From cassette tapes that play girly punk rock when you insert them into the tape, to retro-styled clothes in the closet, corded telephones or the posters and magazines in Sam’s room, the game boasts of top-notch art direction and graphics.
Moreover, entering certain rooms or uncovering certain objects, triggers the recitation of pages from Sam’s journal. You get a first-hand account of a kid caught in an evolving lesbian relationship, lying to her parents to go to a rock show, experimenting with hair dyes and watching Pulp Fiction for the first time. And though you never get to meet Sam or Lonnie, the hidden class-notes, crumpled-up home-work assignments, a cigarette pack and an adult magazine carefully stashed in the locker will reveal details about their personalities: a way no other story-telling device can.
There is a peculiar kind of delight and anticipation that comes from exploring each room, checking the cupboards and the drawers, crouching under the bed, examining the oil paintings or the stray Styrofoam can. There’s a certain trepidation when you enter a new room and fumble for the light switch, a certain excitement when you peer into the waste bin or open the washroom cabinet and sift through the items. And then there’s the element of fear when you get lost in the spider-webbed festooned dusty basement. And the game reawakens the detective in you, when you struggle to work out the correct combination to open the safes or Sam’s locker or find the key to the attic where the big secret is stored. There are puzzles within puzzles here, just as there are stories within stories.
There’s the whole mystery of the house being haunted — the reason why Sam was branded as the Psycho House girl at her brand-new school and Kaitlin’s father’s erratic writing career with castaway type-written drafts and plot maps. And all the while you can hear her soft music and the sound of thunder that tells you that this game is far from over, yet you just don’t want the game to be over.
Ever had the feeling of rifling through someone’s diary, that titillation and guilt that comes from intruding into someone’s privacy? The makers of Gone Home play with your emotions and craft a masterpiece that almost challenges the very notions of storytelling. While there may be some LGBT rights and feminist implications, the game with its innovative narrative strategy, engrosses the player with scenes from a parallel life that will in some way affect you, once the end credits start to roll.
(Gone Home is a first person interactive story adventure game from Fullbright)
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(Previously published in The Quail Bell Magazine)