Gone Home and Spatial Storytelling

Group project summary, by leader Guadalupe Godinez

Gone Home is a first-person exploration video game, or interactive exploration simulator as described on Steam, developed and published by The Fullbright Company. The game opens up to you standing in front of the doorway of your house, having just arrived from a trip abroad to a dark and empty home on a rainy night. The beginning of the game introduces exploration and looking for clues as its main mechanics to enter the house and progress further into it and figure out where everyone has gone. As the character, you can interact with objects, pick them up and inspect them, walk around, basically everything you should be allowed to do in your own home. The main story in the game is you should look around the house and figure out where your family has gone. Meanwhile, the atmosphere stays uneasy with tension throughout your journey.

Initially, Gone Home feels like a scary horror game. Anyone who is familiar with horror would recognize the elements included. The house is dark and empty, the character doesn’t know what happened to her family, and there are mysterious sounds and flickering lights sometimes. However, the game isn’t a scary horror game, which we find out as we continue playing and find no danger to the player. The immediate narrative of the game is you are a young girl who is trying to find her missing sister and parents through clues in a house you’ve never even been in before. The game makes you become a detective where you find clues to figure out the mystery of your missing family, your presumed goal. The horror narrative trick is possible because Gone Home uses spatial storytelling in its narrative and design. Spatial, or environmental, storytelling is storytelling done through spatial elements that describe and shape the narrative. Gone Home is a game that effectively uses spatial storytelling and it is used by other popular video games as well. Elements in Gone Home that enable its spatial storytelling include the use of the home, the exploration mechanic, the scattering of information throughout the house, and the feeling of non-linear progression.

The environment of the home as its overarching narrative architecture is exclusively used in Gone Home. The entirety of the game takes place in it. The home is mostly free to explore. There isn’t just one linear story to be told. There are various stories told throughout the game. There’s Terry’s story about his book publishing career crashing. There’s the story of the ghost in the house. There’s Sam’s love story with Lonnie. There’s the story of Janice and Terry’s marriage falling apart. There are many more stories told in the walls of the house and the belongings of the family. These can only be found within the personal space of the family home set in the game.

The elements contained in the environment are important to the narrative and its structure. There are various objects throughout each room in the house, such as journals, letters, and other typical household items. Every object contains some piece of information that is personal to the main character or her family. Every piece is important to consider in this situation the game is framed in. After picking up certain objects, a voiceover by Sam from her journal is automatically triggered where it appears she is talking directly to Katie. Only by picking up these pieces of information and understanding them can the narrative begin to unravel and be told to the player. Every piece of narrative is spatially separate but it is up to the player to bring them together and find connections.

A question that arose for me while thinking about Gone Home and its use of spatial storytelling is if it can really be considered non-linear. Throughout the game, you have to explore the house and find clues left behind by your family. Since it is open exploration and you can pick up almost any item in any order or not pick up some items, it seems like the narrative is told in a non-linear way. You can reach the end of the game by inspecting every area of the house or by only grabbing key items. However, the ending of the game is always the same, with you going up into the attic and finding out Sam ran away from home with Lonnie. There are non-linear elements but they lead to a linear framework of one story and ending. It is interesting that it is possible to have both elements work together and that can change based on the players’ actions. For example, the more the player explores the house, the more non-linear the narrative becomes. The design of the house relates to this because, as shown in the picture in my presentation, there are parts of the spatial design that don’t make complete sense such as empty spaces that are not explorable or don’t even exist and long and linear hallways. The level design doesn’t match the architecture of an actual house as we know it. But, the design corresponds with the narrative architecture and how the creators of the game want the spatial elements to be shown to the player. This specific level design actually favors an attempt at presenting the narrative in a linear fashion that makes the most sense, such as exploring the house from floor to floor and room to room. It also uses our previous knowledge of a house and its general structure where people usually go from the first floor to the second floor and other areas such as the basement and attic after the other floors.

In Henry Jenkins’ article, Game Design as Narrative Architecture, he lays out the different types of narrative experiences that are created by spatial storytelling. These should be found in media that use spatial storytelling. He also brings up many examples of video games that exhibit these narrative experiences. He states that:

“environmental storytelling creates the preconditions for an immersive narrative experience in at least one of four ways: spatial stories can evoke pre-existing narrative associations; they can provide a staging ground where narrative events are enacted; they may embed narrative information within their mise-en-scene; or they provide resources for emergent narratives” (123).

Evocative spaces are spaces that have familiar and pre-existing narrative associations that add on to the immersive experience. Since the player is familiar with the concept of the space and what it is commonly known to be associated with, these elements are added to the current narrative and make the space more evocative. In Gone Home, the evocative space of the home and what it represents in terms of familiar memories and family matters adds to the narrative. Spatial storytelling enacts stories by setting up the stage for the narrative for the player to act on it. This is done by facilitating the movement of the player through the space and guiding them. This is seen in Gone Home through its stage of a home and motivating the player to explore the house and look around for answers.

Embedded narratives are created by the game’s mise-en-scene that has pieces of information included through it to add to the narrative. The detective story is a common thing used in embedded narratives because it creates clues to add to the narrative architecture that can spread out and be found. Gone Home uses the detective story and has plenty of embedded narratives like salient objects and voice recordings, creating a sort of memory palace. Another video game that comes to mind that uses embedded narratives is Bioshock. In fact, the co-founder of the Fullbright Company worked on Bioshock 2 before making this game. Maybe that is why I found similarities between the two games and environments. Both games contain video recordings throughout the game and take place in one main location where the main character stumbles upon an empty and creepy place. There is a difference in genre, so spatial storytelling can be found across genres.

Emergent narratives are narratives that emerge from a video game that are not pre-programmed into the game to occur. The best way to understand this is through the example of The Sims, which is perfect for this. There is major freedom in designing narratives for your Sims and different possibilities emerge for the player to discover meaning in how they use the game’s mechanics for their playing. Sandbox or simulator games are known for giving the player freedom and allowing them to usually come up with their own imaginative narratives using the resources given to them by the game. I’m not entirely sure if I see emergent narratives in Gone Home that aren’t pre-structured but want to hear what others think. So, the most obvious spatial storytelling seen in the game is with evocative spaces and embedded narratives. Gone Home is one of the most obvious examples of spatial storytelling in video games that went mainstream and caused a shift in exploration games as a result. I think it succeeded in this endeavor and told a story about a family and their home.

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