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