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The multiple meanings of the word "genre" are why I like to differentiate between the "form" of a game, meaning the art and/or entertainment medium that it uses, and the "genre", which means the category that its primary content (in the case of an exploration game, the world you're exploring) fits into.

With the exploration form, there's an annoying misconception that you need to be "playing as" someone. I've played games in the style of Myst which pretended I was playing as the main character in some sort of plot, and it always feels false to me. When I'm exploring a virtual area, I'm a fly on the wall, or a visitor in a museum. If the world is good, I'll want to see all of it, and understand how all the parts fit together and what might have happened there once and even what's going on there now. And in that process, which is the way such games are appreciated, I'll do things that would not make sense for any figure "inside the painting", so to speak. And that's okay. It doesn't need to make sense in a fictional context, it just needs to make sense in an architectural and "gamistic" context.

I played Gone Home for a few minutes at GDC, and I had the impression that it was paying too much attention to a story that the creators thought they were telling, at the expense of the experience that I would have enjoyed of exploring and getting to know an environment.

The world far too mundane to grab my interest, also. If something happened in this place, then show me the moment (frozen in time) when something happened. Don't just show me a house, randomly lock me off from places where I should reasonably be able to poke around, and expect my lack of initial mobility to be sufficient interest.

In general, I think people learn all the wrong lessons from exploration games, and fail to understand that just wandering around a cool place is enough.

One of the Miller brothers gave a talk about Myst at GDC, where he said that the point of the game was always to let people walk through a neat place, and that the puzzles they put in were very problematic. So I asked in the questions at the end, why do you need the puzzles at all? And he said, "oh, you don't."

~ Note: this response is going to contain game plot spoilers ~

Chris,

Interesting review; I enjoyed your thoughts on the difficulties that surrounds shoehorning contrived game mechanics such as adventure puzzle solving onto a narrative.

One thing I am slightly confused about is that it seems like you might be confusing the values and attitudes of the characters in the narrative with those of the developers. When I played the game, I got the impression I had stepped into a '90s time-warp to an era when plenty of teen girls were still rocking out to Riot Grrrl, experimenting with stuff like Wicca, watching My So Called Life on television, etc. It's true that many people still enjoy these cultural fixtures today (I routinely queue me up some Bikini Kill) but aside from what I see as the general lack of interest in subcultural events one tends to see in media with a broader appeal, I never really found myself pinning any specific values onto the storytellers themselves.

I'm also curious about your opinion on the "ideals of expressive individualism." It's been several months since I played the game, so my memory is fuzzy, but the most charitable way to interpret this is that you aren't talking about the fact that one of the characters is discovering their sexual identity in a circumstance that contradicts the cultural expectations of their parents. So what were you talking about: the fact that one of them wants to start a punk band? The fact that your 1st person personna in the game has a sister who is a teenager with a slightly-annoyingly self-centered teenage perception of reality? I think if you fleshed out your review on this you could clarify your position beyond "this guy said something about some ideology about individualism that is ostensibly tied to liberalism."

Cheers!

Mory:
Thanks for your commentary here! And I completely agree that there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the joys of exploration - specifically, a failure to recognise that the exploration itself is a joy! This is what I love about "Proteus" and I hope to see more games push this way.

I find it interesting that you explore some worlds without "stepping inside the painting". This position makes sense to me - and is obviously consistent with other artworks. But it runs in the face of the conventional perspective of games, of course. This is not (usually) my experience in a similar experience - but this only stresses what can never be stressed often enough, that every player's experience can be predicated on different aspects of play, and different aesthetic values.

As ever, I appreciate your thoughtful contemplation on such matters!

---
*This part of the comment is spoiler-heavy*

Michaelamie: thanks for challenging me on this. I don't believe the values of the characters are much in play in my critique, it is definitely the values of the developers that I mean to comment upon. I do not believe that these are neutrally absent from the narrative - I believe they are painted in very vivid strokes throughout the story, and the expectations they generate are counted upon for the player's enjoyment of the game, particularly its ending.

I am not talking about the fact that two (not one!) of the characters are exploring their sexuality - this isn't something I have any issue with, although again it doesn't really deal with this at the standard of observation that would be expected in a literary piece. However, the decision to tie the narrative to the politics of sexuality (both via the conflict with 'cultural expectations' AND via 'don't ask don't tell') makes this a didactic piece, and that's the problem, since literary fiction always strives to avoid falling into this kind of clunky 'lecturing' or flag waving that only shows one side of an issue.

This is going to get too complex to dig into at any length, so let me focus on the ending. One of the two lovers is going to leave to serve in the military, but chooses not to in order to be with her girlfriend. So she betrays the values she holds in terms of honourable military service... why? And why does the game paint this (musically and narratively) as a 'win', as something to be unequivocally celebrated? Presumably because the 'don't ask don't tell' aspect of the narrative is part of the didactic message of the game, which is that this policy was wrong (I don't disagree, and it was a stupid policy). But the betrayal of her values in respect of honourable military service is simply never dealt with; it's celebrated simply that she doesn't go into service 'out of love'. This is a shallow approach to a much more complex issue.

This narrative only makes sense if you're buying into a very strong form of expressive individualism whereby being 'an individual' (no matter what) is something to be celebrated as intrinsically more valuable than individually supporting other values - other values, that need not be focussed on the individual, such as honorable military service. If you talk to gay people who served in the military under 'don't ask don't tell', they objected to the policy but it didn't change their desire to serve. Why should it? The game cops out here in a rather drastic way.

Parallel to this is a failure to explore the religiously-motivated resistance to the sexuality the game implies but never explores. This is part of what I mean by never seriously engaging with it's 'opposition'. The 'bad guys' are 'bad' here because it is taken as read by the developers (and almost all of the players, I suspect) that identifying as gay is morally acceptable and therefore all opposing camps are morally unacceptable. I agree with the first conclusion, but the second does not necessarily follow from the first and - more importantly - drawing the second conclusion blocks the dialogue required to bring the changes mandated by the first.

If all you do is say 'yay, being gay is okay' you aren't exploring the issue with any sense of justice or insight, you're just waving the flag of expressive individuality, under which the gay community has (thankfully!) come to be accepted. Like any pep rally, that's fine as far as it goes but it's not what literary fiction does with complex issues like this one.

And that's part of the problem - there is no recognition of the complexity of this issue, because the developers almost certainly *don't* see this as complex. That failure to engage with the issue, to treat it instead as a simple flag waving exercise, is the root of my complaint in this regard. It's a real problem with both sides of this political divide in the US - and the reason that it so frequently hits a disappointing standstill.

I hope this clarifies. If not, I suggest looking at this piece, "Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage" from 2011:
http://onlyagame.typepad.com/only_a_game/2011/04/twilight-saga-and-gay-marriage.html
[Warning: contains discussion of religious traditions]
This piece explains why I am critical of attempts to pursue the political agendas in respect of sexuality as a battle *against* religion, since this approach is deeply counter-productive.

If you want to discuss this latter thread, comments to the above piece would be a better place than here. If you want to discuss the critique of "Gone Home" further, I'm happy to do so here.

Once again, I appreciate the chance to expand upon this - I didn't addresses all these issues directly in the critique since it was too much of a diversion from the more interesting part of the discussion.

All the best,

Chris.

A good review of Gone Home, and I think you do a good job of drawing your distinctions. I think however there is a problem here. Namely the constantly upheld distinction between literature and genre.

I think there is a good argument that "literary" writing is just another genre. You even allude to that a little, and yet seem to still think the two are somehow fundamentally different. I do not think that genre is nearly as limited as you seem to think.

Why not have a musical number in a piece of military fiction? (Isn't this what the play South Pacific was?) Or why not have a vampire enter into a bodice ripper? (truly a bizarre example on your part considering how huge vampire romance novels are these days!) But it's more than that I'm arguing for. It's not merely that cross genre examples abound but that literary fiction is itself a genre with it's own tropes and it crosses over plenty. Magical Realism as a genre is really just literary fiction crossed with fantasy. What about the works of filmmakers like David Lynch, who have worked in surrealistic abstraction (eraserhead), crime/noir/surrealism (Blue Velvet), sitcom/police procedural/horror (twin peaks), biopic (The Elephant Man) and sci-fi (Dune). And mediating on the human condition is hardly exclusive to works recognized as "literary". As much as Vonnegut hated it, it's hard to argue that "Slaughterhouse 5" a story about a man encountering time-traveling aliens, isn't an example of sci-fi. And it's equally hard to argue that works by famed science fiction author Philip K Dick aren't squarely focused mediation on the human condition (Besides the obvious philosophical questions that "Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?" raises over replicant/human distinction, there is many more ruminations on "what it means to be human" as shown through the autistic character J.R. Isidore, or the VR fueled hallicunatinatory sermons of Mercer on the subject of God and Man and the nature of suffering).

Really I though this kind of genre snobbery had pretty much died out. When oh when will people get that the "divide" is really just an illusory consequence of culture? While there certainly can be conflicts between functional and fictional genres, I think drawing that line at the difference between "literature" and "genre" to be fundamentally wrongheaded.

One final thing: Michael Chabon's article on The Pleasure Principle: http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/27/books/bk-chabon27

Hi Thedonquixotic,
Thanks for you thoughtful comment! I agree with almost everything you say here, except your dismissal of the 'divide' as an illusory consequence of culture.

For me, this is a weird conclusion since all the boundaries of all the genre conceptions (including literary fiction) are 'illusory' in this sense. You mean to incapacitate genre by calling it 'an illusion'? Compared to what? There is no absolute frame of reference for fiction! Thus, this indictment falls flat.

Genre conventions are objective in so much as they are the boundaries of a practice participated in by both authors and readers. Those practices are the frame of reference - and these are not something that can simply be dismissed, no matter how vague their boundaries might be.

It's true that genre work can achieve the 'standards' expected in literary fiction - and (equivalently) that genres intersect, cross-polinate, and weave within one another (including 'genre fiction', intersecting with the 'literary fiction' genre - Vonnegut is a good point of reference for this). But none of this brings "Gone Home" up to the genre requirements of the practices of literary fiction. And that, really, as my point here. :)

All the best,

Chris.

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