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Neuromythology for Game Design

Gone Home and the Constraint of Genre

This critique might contain game-ruining spoilers for Gone Home. Do not read unless you have played it already, or doubt you ever will.

Gone HomeShould Gone Home be thought of as a genre work or a literary game? What happens when we take the division asserted for novels and apply it to games?

I recently played The Fullbright Company's Gone Home, an interesting but rather expensive addition to the growing ranks of artgames. Frankly, I did not enjoy finishing it at all, and begged for it to be over as soon as possible. Once it was completed, however, I relaxed and played it again several more times, which I found rather more pleasant, although seeing how the game had been put together left me feeling it was less than it could have been. I began to query my experiences in order to disentangle the strange contradiction of a company making the kind of game that I dearly want to be made, but that I could not enjoy in its intended form. I wanted to know what made my first experience of it so unpleasant, and why it never quite worked for me as a narrative. This investigation turned out to shed light on some wider issues of interest.

Upon reflection, this problem appears to be tied to the question of genre fiction, which is not at all the question of game genre. In literature, it has long been customary to draw a line between what is termed literary fiction – which concerns what is sometimes called ‘the human condition’ – and genre fiction, which concerns specific narrative traditions. The bucket of genre fiction is vast and contains (among so many other things) crime thrillers, bodice rippers, historical fiction, murder mysteries, sword and sorcery, science fiction, romance, military fiction, horror, gay fiction, and urban supernatural. Each of the genres that constitute genre fiction as a whole is defined by clear rules establishing the content of the fictional worlds being written, rules that publishers use to promote the genres to the audiences that buy them, but also rules that the readers tacitly expect to be upheld. If the hero of your bodice ripper suddenly grows fangs and starts draining the blood of the other characters, there has been a genre fiction transgression – a vampire has invaded where it is not welcome.

My problem with Gone Home is related to the literary versus genre divide, except in games we must deal with both functional genres (FPS, adventure, RPG) as well as fictional genre. This is an artgame that wants to be taken seriously as a literary fictional world, but it is weighed down by the baggage of its functional genre – the puzzles of adventure games, and the narrative vehicles of the ‘corpse looter’, for which System Shock is the progenitor. In the case of this latter element of Gone Home's design, I have great respect – it does a brilliant job of using the narrative model pioneered by Looking Glass’ game to let the player investigate the story (or stories) in their own ways. (Since Gone Home is set in 1995, I half expected to find a copy of 1994's System Shock somewhere inside!). It’s not the search-the-written-materials that troubles me about Gone Home, it’s just the puzzles that create issues.

In genre fiction (and indeed, genre movies) the rules dictating the constraints of genre aren’t just the recipe for enjoyment for those who like the genre in particular, they are also barriers to their enjoyment by those that do not. If you do not like gore, certain kinds of horror film or book are off the menu. If you don't enjoy theatrical songs, musicals are out of the question. In this way the constraint of genre has a double meaning: it defines a fence within which a certain kind of entertainment can be found, but the same fence also constrains who is willing or able to cross the fence and garner that enjoyment. In fact, in this specific sense, even literary fiction can be understood as a genre. For games, there are two such fences – the fiction fence, and the function fence, each reducing the number of possible players by excluding those unwilling or unable to play in the requisite fashion.

In reviews of Gone Home, I noticed a trend to say that there were ‘few’ puzzles. Indeed, the spine of the game entails just three puzzles, the first of which is trivial and the last of which can be ‘solved’ just be blundering around aimlessly. Solely the middle puzzle – the central puzzle, in effect – creates the impasse, but herein lies the nub of this matter; the reason why Gone Home's genre constraints – inherited from adventure games, with their contrived object puzzles – clash with its literary intentions. This is a game of genre because it has puzzles, puzzles that are as arguably out of place in a literary game as a musical number is in military fiction. Because I no longer enjoy puzzle-solving (which I loved when I was younger), the constraints of genre prevented me as an individual from enjoying my first play of Gone Home. Only when these irritations were behind me could I relax and enjoy the beautiful house the game is set in. Indeed, my most pleasant experience of this game was a speed run (something I've never shown interest in before!) in which I left all the lights in the house off and simply enjoyed navigating the corridors in the dark, just as I do in my own home. This was impossible in the role of the ideal player of this game – I had to be transgressive, as Espen Aarseth says, to find my place in this world.

This issue of genre aside, Gone Home is still a flawed experience from a literary perspective. I don't know how old the developers are, but I'm guessing early twenties. It's not exactly a sophomoric narrative, but it's far from mature and I did not believe in the central elements of the conclusion with any conviction. I enjoyed the ending like I would enjoy any crappy rom-com (a genre I adore in spite of – perhaps because of – it’s flaws), but it fell short of the benchmarks of literary fiction by quite a wide margin. Gone Home is also weighed down by a very conventional liberal rhetoric that is far too clichéd for my tastes, and not very convincing either. If you haven’t already absorbed the ideals of expressive individualism, this isn’t going to convert you. Indeed, it is by waving the flag for this ideal that the game tries to convince you it has something challenging to say about its moral precepts, which alas it doesn’t since it never seriously engages with its ‘opposition’. The game (knowingly?) relies upon you sharing its values for its narrative appeal – which would be what you’d expect in most genre fiction. It’s a long way from what is expected in literary fiction, though.

Frankly, I feel like a heel having to take such a scolding line on something that is trying to be the kind of game I’d love to find more often. After all, I didn't give Dear Esther such a hard time. But the big difference between Gone Home and The Chinese Room's game is that the latter knows it’s genre fiction – it’s a ghost story through and through. Gone Home's trouble isn’t that it happens to be genre fiction, it’s that it seems to believe that it’s literary fiction, and it rings slightly hollow because of it. That said, I would not waste my time on a critique of something I did not want to draw attention to for positive reasons, and there is much to love about what the team have done with this house and its stories. I would hate for what I wrote here to stop people trying this experience for themselves, because the issues I have with puzzles will have no bearing on many other people’s enjoyment of this game. Gone Home is a flawed gem but it is still a gem, and it establishes the Fullbright Company as developers to watch. This game doesn’t quite hit the high notes, but I can imagine critiquing a future work by this team and saying “it's incredible how far they’ve come since Gone Home.” And that, in all honesty, is a future I dearly want to inhabit.

This is a critique of Gone Home, not a review. My review is: 'if you don't mind puzzles and like artgames, you should buy and play this game’.


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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 ~


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."


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:
[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,


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:

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,


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