Last week, I discussed the final episode of True Detective, specifically the fact that creator Nic Pizzolatto hadn’t made a show that was trying to outsmart the viewer. From start to finish, True Detective follows a logical progression and who followed it from week to week would get to the end and never feel like they had been tricked. And in that way, Gone Home feels like the True Detective of video games. It’s not trying to trick anybody. It’s just a simple story about why a girl who goes home and finds that her family has disappeared and/or left her alone. The narrative path that leads the player from beginning to end is much more linear than I expected (though not in a bad way), and the ultimate answer to the driving question (where is her sister, Samantha?) can be answered within half an hour of booting the game up, even though it takes four or five times as long to actually see it through.
And in a way, I found that somewhat disappointing. As the actual reveal appears, the game fades to black, and I was shocked that it was over. It seemed so sudden, but the reason it seemed sudden was because I had been expecting it the whole time. For the narrative that’s being told, it was the only way to end. It’s not like the family was going to come home and suddenly it’s something else. It’s a game about solitude and loneliness. (That being said, Gone Home is canon with the Bioshock franchise, and if Booker DeWitt time-warped and destroyed the house or something, that would have been kind of amazing.)
Here is a narrative that had won awards. Several of them, in fact (although as we discussed a few weeks ago, narrative awards don’t always go to the best candidates). I mean, Polygon’s Game of the Year award went to Gone Home for the story it told (there isn’t much else to celebrate, especially if you consider atmosphere to be part of the storytelling, which it absolutely is in this case)! That means something. What it actually means is up for debate, but it probably means that the narrative is important or significant in some way. So here I am, some dumb guy who is honestly kind of terrible at figuring out where stories are going to go before they get there, and I had figured out the big reveal from the get-go.
But despite the fact that I knew where the narrative would take me, I didn’t really know quite how it would get me there, and that is the draw of a story like this one. Gone Home’s linear narrative is told through voice-overs that will play at key moments, explaining bits and pieces of your sister’s life; the expanded narrative is told incidentally. Notes, letters, copies of old books, tickets: these things all create a family who isn’t there. Your parents are never seen and their voices are never heard, but their characters are every bit as real as Samantha’s, because they clearly have aspirations and emotions and all of those things that make not-real people feel real.
(Sure, there is something to be said against the fact that these people are so blunt in their letters/notes/whatever that you can easily paint a picture of their character, and the very idea that you can even conjure up a legitimate image of a person solely through notes and the like is kind of questionable... but thinking about that makes me sad, because then we’re thinking about why Gone Home’s story is not good instead of why it is good. And that makes me sad, because Gone Home’s story is good.)
What makes everything work in this particular narrative-driven adventure is the writing. The aforementioned atmosphere is undeniably excellent and gives the whole thing an eerie, almost supernatural sort of feel (just like True Detective!), but it’s the consistency of the writing that makes Gone Home so worth playing. The notes around the house, even when they are a bit too expository for their own good, definitely feel natural. And Samantha’s voiceovers, which give the entire game their driving force, are all fantastic. And yeah, they’d have to be, because the game would fail without them, but more than a few developers have made games that rely on writing and then totally botched the execution. So The Fullbright Company’s work is to be commended.
But let’s get back to this question of surprise, and whether or not twists and turns are important to a narrative. I’ve always thought that a straightforward story was kind of boring. While I’ve seen my fair share of narrative-ruining last-minute twists, I still felt like a great narrative requires something like that, that alters a perception of a world in some substantial way.
Nothing about Gone Home altered my view of the world in a substantial way. Once I had acclimated myself to this one house that I would be spending the game in, and once I learned the limitations of the actual controls, I was in essentially the same place from start to finish. But I don’t hold that against Gone Home... at least, not in retrospect. A twist would have cheapened the narrative. Being so straightforward and simple (in broad strokes, the details are slightly more complicated) isn’t actually a problem here, despite the fact that the narrative is the game’s main/only draw.
So what is surprising about Gone Home, then, is how it undermines the very concept of surprise. Because this narrative, which took me a little more than two hours to complete (done in two sittings over one evening), is never surprising. Literally never. But even so, I felt compelled to see things to the end. Not to see whether or not I was right, because there was no way the game would have been so well received if I had been wrong, but there were still pieces of the puzzle missing.
As each one was found, it fit both with the narrative as presented and with my preconceived notion of what it would be (based only on playing the game; I knew nothing about Gone Home going into it other than the accolades it had received). But there’s a confidence in that. Many writers hide behind twists and turns to mask their own imperfections, but Gone Home doesn’t do that. It doesn’t need to. And that makes it all the more impressive.