By Helen Zhou
Between games and narratives exists a decades-long debate about whether games constitute good narratives. Ludologists want to shift the focus of game study to game mechanics and regard narratives as a secondary aspect of games, while narratologists are interested in studying games as a form of storytelling medium. A long-standing binary of game and narratives are created out of the debate, which delineates their boundary using agency/interactivity. According to this binary, games and narratives are in direct conflict with each other because narratives need to remain under the author’s control, which calls for minimum agency/participation from the players. On the contrary, the agency of players offered by the game’s interactivity is the primary feature of the game as a medium. In addition, gaming satisfaction might be in opposition to narrative satisfaction, which adds to their incompatibility. E.g., when a losing ending of the game provides a better story, the player is pushed into a conflict of whether to seek the narrative satisfaction which requires losing the game, or to seek the gaming satisfaction, which is to win at the stake of losing a better story.
However, as people experiment more with game design and storytelling, the line is not as clear anymore and an in-between area of narrative games starts to be sketched. Gone Home, a 3D first-person exploration/adventure game released in the August of 2013 by the Fulbright company, lies in this middle ground. This blog post aims to provide an insight on how Gone Home, as a narrative game, opens a non-binary space between games and narratives and carefully combines the two sides of the binary through expanding player agency and breaking traditional gaming binaries (e.g., win vs. lose). These moves help align gaming satisfaction with narrative satisfaction and thus construct a coherent emotional experience for the players.
In Gone Home, the player plays as the big sister Katie of a 4-member household, who just returned home from her one-year overseas trip in 1995. It was 1 AM. She arrived at the new house in Oregon that her family had moved into, only to find out that the house was empty, and no one was there to greet her. The only information was a note from her sister Samantha stuck to the door, saying “don’t come looking for me, and don’t tell mom and dad what happened”. Clearly, something went wrong during her one year of absence. Thus, she set out to explore the house, entering every room and examining different objects, to find out the truth behind the emptiness and the history of her family.
With this premise in mind, we can start analyzing the game and how it combines game and narrative without undermining one with the other. As a videogame, Gone Home not only preserved but also well expanded the player agency by expanding the range of interactivity available in the gaming space. Through embedded narrative, a mode of game storytelling invented by Henry Jenkins, the interactivity got tied to the process of progressing in the narrative, making the agency serve the narrative purpose well without undermining it. To start with, the extent to which objects were interactable in Gone Home is amazing. While a lot of games, due to design budget limit and intention to give players instructions, usually only design interactivity for objects that are “useful” for the gameplay, e.g., you are likely to be able to interact with coins or weapons, instead of a random rock that serves as part of the background. However, in Gone Home, pretty much all objects were interactable. You could open any drawer or cabinet, whether they would be useful for making progress in the game, and in fact, a lot of them were empty and were NOT related to the narrative. You could also pick any object up and examine them, such as toilet paper rolls, film tickets, etc., which were not necessarily relevant to the story but were there to increase the player’s range of choice. This amazing range of interactivity greatly expanded the sense of agency players felt, as there were more choices lying ahead and more actions one could take to investigate the house, along with different sequences of exploration and your own way of interpreting each object. However, this immense freedom of exploration did not go outside of control and went against the narrative. It was rather tamed well through embedded narrative, which allowed the game to “become a kind of information space, a memory palace, embedded within the mise-en-scene awaiting discovery,” according to Henry Jenkins. The bits and pieces of information were stored in the objects and the layout of the house, making the scene saturated with narrative, waiting to be explored and discovered. Thus, the freedom of exploration of the space is harnessed to make progress in narratives, instead of creating different goals that distract the storytelling.
(Someone moved all the items from Gone Home into one room; from Reddit)
On the other side, the narrative was protected well under the author’s control, stored in individual audio journals narrated by Samantha’s voice, which was a story vastly unrelated to the protagonist’s action/choice. The gloomy space of the house that provided the potential of evocative narrative also turned out to be unrelated to the actual story of the game, further protecting the narrative’s own emotional flow. The house, other than providing a free range of interactivity and embedded narrative, also appeared to be an evocative narrative, which are spaces “built upon stories or genre traditions already well-known to visitors”, according to Henry Jenkins. Staged in a big abandoned empty mansion with dim lights and disappearing family members on a stormy night, Gone Home was for sure evoking the players’ previous knowledge of the classic setting of horror films and games. The carefully constructed gloomy vibe provided a very natural ground for imagining a suspense and mystery story behind the missing family. However, the story itself turned out to be nowhere close to a horror/suspense story. Told through Samantha’s audio journals, the narrative was about Samantha’s new high school life, specifically the story of her and a girl named “Lonnie”, who she later fell in love with. The themes were centered around LGBTQ identity discovery and exploration, along with subsequent confusion and denial from the family, which stirred emotions that were far from being scared and afraid as in usual horror games. The content delivered was also completely independent of the player’s action as it’s predetermined and narrated through Samantha’s monologue. What the player’s action did affect were just the sequence that the journals were unlocked, or how many times that they got replayed. In this way, the narratives remained intact as an encouragement for the player’s exploration, while players gained their agency through their unique way of exploring the space and unlocking the narratives.
(When you unlock a new journal in Gone Home)
In addition, Gone Home also pushed the boundary between games and narratives by breaking certain traditional gaming binaries, such as win vs. lose and reward vs. punishment, and making room for more compelling and coherent storytelling. Unlike most games, there was not a clear winning or losing state in Gone Home. Although the space construction was reminiscent of the horror genre, there was neither monster chasing you nor a character death of anyone. In fact, you would never die or lose in the game, as it was just you walking around in an empty house, exploring in whatever way you like. What to interpret from all the individual objects that might or might not be tied to the narrative and what to do with them was left to players and they could freely do whatever they want, e.g., throwing it, hiding it, putting it away, carrying it, etc., without having to bear any consequence. Similarly, there were neither punishments nor material rewards. No matter how much stuff you threw away or how messy you made the house be, there would not be any punishment on you, which is unlike a lot of games that use punishment/reward to instruct players to learn an intended way of playing or the way to successfully navigate the game. You would also not get any reward more than your sister’s voice in the air narrating her high school story, no matter how hard you try. Thus the only thing close to any kind of reward in this game became the narrative itself. In this way, the game resorted its gaming satisfaction to narrative satisfaction, as the gaming satisfaction was aligned with completing the narrative, without extra goals of winning the game or leveling up.
In conclusion, Gone Home serves as an excellent example of a narrative game that breaks the binary between games and narratives alienated by agency and satisfaction dissonance. It strived to expand player agency in a way that aligned with the purpose of providing a compelling narrative, while the narrative remained intact and preserved its original form, unsusceptible to the player’s action or choices. It also further blurred the dividing line by breaking certain traditional boundaries that a game would have, for example, distinguishing a clear win or lose state. Gone Home illustrates that it’s possible to present compelling narratives through video games, and it’s plausible to provide players with the agency to complete the story exploration.