(This post contains spoilers - if you’re planning to play probably don’t read? But you can if you want. I'm not your dad or anything.)
In Gone Home, only one thing really happens. You read letters, you put tapes into cassette players, gain access to parts of the house initially locked off, but there is only one action you take that causes the world to change irrevocably (and while effective, it’s a bit of a cheat really). I think this more than anything gives a feel for the kind of game this is, one based around reflective discovery rather than action. The world is interactive, but only really transforms in the sense that your understanding of it changes.
But let’s backtrack and set the scene: It’s a dark and stormy night in 1995, player character Katie has been travelling round Europe and has now returned home - only her family has moved and now the family house is a place she’s never been, a house where they never finished unpacking, where items from different eras and lives lie alongside each other. A house where no one’s home.
You make your way through the house, gradually turn on the lights and encounter the artifacts of your family’s life while you were away. As the game progresses, three different but interconnected stories become apparent:
- Young love blooming - the story of younger sister Sam falling in love and discovering her sexual identity - told explicitly at the player through voiceover.
- Marriage on the rocks - All has not been well for Katie’s parents while she’s been away, their professional lives are on different tracks and personally they’re drifting apart - learned through correspondence with third parties scattered through the house.
- Buried family history - Katie’s father Terrance was abused by his uncle Oscar in this house - discoverable only from inference from the artifacts around the house.
The first thread is arguably the main story, the game ‘finishes’ (credits roll but you can still return to the house) when this story reaches it’s end but what’s neat is it’s actually possible to get right through the game without getting much of the third story at all. It takes a lot of self-confidence to essentially hide so much of a story that feeds into it’s other threads - making discovery of that story an internal experience for the player - ‘show, don’t tell’ taken to an extreme.
The most prominent way the story is told is through the voice-over of extracts from Sam's journal - which in the initial entry we're told she is using as a substitute for her normal conversations with Katie and so is structured as a series of letters to the player character. The distinction between player and character in the game has been most looked at with the time the character puts down and won't pick up again a diary entry where Sam describes her first sexual experience with her girlfriend (Katie’s ‘voice’ in the story is otherwise only really ‘heard’ through the hover-over description she gives certain items) but to me the most important distinction is the player is hearing these voice-overs, contextualising objects with a history - Katie is not. Katie doesn't come into possession of the letters until the last second of the game - until that point the player has much more knowledge of what’s going on than she does.
This actually also throws the diary entry into a different light - without the voice-overs to guide us through the nascent relationship Katie has a very different set of information to the player. She is given a few visual hints that her sister is gay (a men's magazine in her locker earns a 'oh my' label) and that there's a interestingly prominent girl in her life, but this is I believe the first time Katie learns that the relationship is romantic/sexual. We also have no idea exactly what Katie's opinion of her sister's sexuality is. Katie is more 'conventional' than her sister - she actually answered the question on her sex ed paper unlike Sam's (amazing) short story on the subject. The player, eighteen years later on the far side of 'don't ask/don't tell' (which is a period detail now!) and primed by hearing the story of young love in Sam's own voice, might well be be feeling much more comfortable with this than Katie is in that moment. We simply don't know. The player character is going through an emotional journey at a very different rate to the player and there's an interesting possibility of dissonance there. Similarly in the final movement from cupboard under the stairs to the attic, the player has been primed by the voiceover to expect something very different to what Katie might be thinking - did you run? Would Katie have?
As the genre demands the house is riddled with secret passages and hidden doors (mostly justified, the passages all make sense as giving servants access to certain parts of the house without crossing the main spaces). As the story is essentially structured geographically, staggering access to these passages allows for something open plan (a house) to be re-funneled into a mostly linear story. This isn’t just used as a structure convenience, creeping around these poorly lit passages is used to put you in the world of the several different sets of characters have also used these passages - creeping behind the acceptable history and ideas of the family. Sam and her girlfriend use the passages for privacy, but there’s also the inference that the passage to the guest room is how uncle Oscar got his nephew from the second floor down to the recesses off the basement undetected (to reinforce this, an artifact of Oscar is found underneath the door frame at the top of the passage, while an artifact of Terrance is found in the cupboard at the end of the route in the basement- a path connected by objects out of place).
Much has been written about how Gone Home plays with and subverts horror tropes - there’s the light-bulb that coincidently breaks the moment the player examines a creepy object (the ‘one action’ I’m talking about in the first paragraph) but there’s also the the blood-stained bath with the... oh, hair dye bottle next to it. One particular way the game mixes mood and game design to create a storytelling moment is so simple it’s genius. Coming out of the basement there’s a staircase with a pipe running along the ceiling, as you move up the stairs the way a section of the pipe breaks against the light at the top of the stairs gives the illusion (as the shape of the section cutting off the light changes) of a figure moving at the top. So far, so creepy - but this staircase is along that path from guest bedroom to basement and once you've got the idea of a shadowy figure moving up those stairs your brain is engaged (even after you realise it’s just a pipe) and you might wonder why, if there was one, a shadowy figure might be taking that particular route - a clue to help you twig aspects of the Oscar story. Possible I'm over-reading into that, but the possibility of story-telling through optical illusion is a nifty thing.
There’s an interesting little meta-commentary about the game’s use of horror game conventions in the change in Terrance’s novels over time. In the basement there’s a note from Terrance’s father, an english lit scholar commending him on publication of his sci-fi novel but commenting harshly that the book is bound by cliché and genre conventions - a phrase from this letter "You can do better" is recreated on big sheets of paper in the office (you discover these in the opposite order, transforming the faintly pathetic mantra into a deeply depressing one as you find the source).
By the end of the story Terrance’s confidence has been revitalised and he has after twenty years completed another novel in his time-travel series- described as more introspective (where the hero doesn't save the President's life but his own!) - trying to finally live up to his dad's instruction to complete himself as an artist by turning inward, but in a way that rejects the idea that it is the genre conventions that were holding him back. I see this as a comment on ‘Gone Home’ itself and the idea that video games can only become ‘art’ if they ditch the conventions of their more populist output. The game does neat things in part because the world it creates is so aware of genre expectations and sees their inclusion (and subversion) as a way to deepen the experience it creates. An introspective novel with a time machine.
I've been a fan of Telltale since the Sam & Max games and in recent games started to notice a trend towards games that had some consideration of ethical issues. In their Jurassic Park game characters have a lengthy debate about the morality of the lysine contingency, and in their Back to the Future game a version of Emmett Brown pointedly asks what gives you (Marty) the right to use time travel to decide which people should and shouldn't be living happy lives in 1985. While I ended up being disappointed by the game ending in both cases, I was impressed at how Telltale had found ways to mine the world of the franchises they're playing in and ask interesting ethical questions about them. While the show version of The Walking Dead has issues, I was interested to see what Telltale would do with a world that was essentially always about making difficult ethical choices.
The Walking Dead game exists in roughly the same world as the comics and TV show (not aware if it's considered in the same canon as either, although there is some character overlap) where the world is overrun by a zombie apocalypse and the driving narrative force is dealing with how people exist with uncomfortable decisions and the end of civilisation. Gameplay is relatively simple, the majority of the game is spent going between cut-scenes and dialogue options, where your choices of dialogue will affect your relationship with other characters, affecting future dialogue. There are also scenes where there is freedom to roam and accomplish traditional point-and-click game tasks, or action sequences with Quick Time events.
At the start of each episode the game tells you: 'This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play.' However what becomes apparent quite quickly is that your ability to make choices that drastically affect the story is quite limited but what I found especially interesting after playing the first few episodes was how this made the game better at being an 'ethics game' than an endlessly branching story might be.
To take a typical choice, there's a situation where you can choose to act morally, but this will cause you to have less time to gather supplies. However aside from some dialogue about this the supplies themselves mean nothing, this isn't a game with health bars and you are physically able to carry out the same tasks no matter how much your character has eaten. Similarly a decision whether or not to take supplies from a possible abandoned car doesn't matter, your group will survive and be alive and well in the next episode anyway.
To an extent this is making lives easier for the developers who don't have to track and script every possible divergent fork. Unlike some text adventure games it won't severely punish you hours down the line from a decision made early on (and most decisions that cause divergent paths collapse to the same outcome, if through slightly different means), all death events are caused by insufficient button mashing and there are very few places where you can through dialogue choices lead to a 'game over'. However, practical considerations aren't the only ones here and I think the general inflexibility of the game world goes some way towards making this an interestingly ethics-based game.
In trying to work out how to account for ethical choices in a game like this I was reminded of a season two episode of Angel - 'Epiphany'. In this episode Angel, who had seen himself as a pivotal player in the battle between good and evil, realises what a small player he really is and decides that if the big ends are unchangeable then how he chooses to act is the only thing that matters - "If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do".
This is a credo that carries over well to The Walking Dead. Your character simply does not have the power to influence the world around him to huge degrees. We, as players, know that the world is on rails and certain events are inevitable regardless of our choices but the reactions of other characters are flexible enough to our choices that there is a sense of immersion and weight to choices we make. The key question here is if your character is powerless to prevent or control his fate, does it make choosing to behave ethically more or less meaningful?
My thinking is that this lack of control takes away a lot of traditional gaming thinking from the player. If it was possible to prevent every death, there'd be incentive for people to see each death as a failure and constantly reload in search of that '100% complete' achievement (à la Heavy Rain). By keeping choices about choosing sides (and aligning yourself with various other characters), the game sidesteps the problem of creating right and wrong answers to puzzles - there are simply choices you make. And if these choices have no effect on 'game score' - then there is no disincentive to role play.
How do you decide which four out of ten people will get food? You can play it by who you want to keep 'on side' but as established that doesn't matter-matter - by taking away practical gaming considerations the game makes you consider what you would do in those circumstances. When the game offered me a choice of keeping the last piece of food for myself, I was stuck on that decision for a minute or so - without in-game consequences our own sense of ethics can be fully engaged.
However, the flip side is the question of can a game that doesn't make you suffer for picking morally better but practically disadvantageous decisions really be asking you to make meaningful decisions? To which I'd answer that meaningful in the game and meaningful to the player are quite different things. By turning off gamer logic, the game changes the basis you make decisions on. You're not choosing which version of the game you want to be playing an hour down the line but are forced to make decisions based on personal considerations.
So while The Walking Dead may in some senses be far more linear than it's described as, the linear plot creates room for an interesting kind of sandbox ethics game. Even if most choices don't matter to the story, they do matter to you.
(Interesting but unrelated: article on experiments with ethical thinking in online MMOs)