Last year, Dear Esther challenged the way that stories are told in an interactive medium: it asked what is left if the gameplay part is taken away from a game. The result was atmospheric and beautiful, absolutely empty of things to do, and hugely divisive in terms of whether you love it or hate it. A bit later, The Walking Dead came along and surprised everyone with how well a game can evoke the feelings of worry, loss, anxiety and friendship in the face of hardship. It was also significantly more game-like than Dear Esther, which gave it wider appeal and helped it to reach commercial success.
This fall, there's been another pair of games (or non-games) breaking new ground in the interactive arts: Gone Home and the standalone version of The Stanley Parable. They have curiously almost identical interaction between the player and the environment: in both games (I'll just call them that for the sake of convenience) you can walk around in a 3D world, crouch, press switches in the environment, and the environment responds by opening up new passageways and with disembodied voiceovers. Yet they deliver two messages that couldn't be more different from each other.
The Stanley Parable is a playful meta-narrative, which folds up over itself so many times that it's easy to lose track. Fourth wall is not only broken, it's more like they forgot to build a wall in the first place. It deconstructs everything that's wrong or right about video games, and how that relates to free will and the meaning of human existence in modern society. It is hilariously funny, and it has a point. It is one of the very few games which suggests you to quit playing and go outside. Or maybe it's just trying to beat you by making you quit? Maybe the only way to win is not to start playing in the first place?
Okay, so now there's this crazy experiment that deconstructs what a video game is. What next? How about actually using the medium to communicate something meaningful and personal - you know, like a good old-fashioned piece of art. That's exactly what Gone Home sets out to do, and it makes itself a textbook example of doing it.
What I like the most about Gone Home is how honest and unashamed of itself it is. There's an abundance of cliches both on the storytelling side and in terms of interaction design, yet everything is there for a reason. Everything takes place on a dark and stormy night - oh-so-conveniently making it undesirable to go outside and limiting the play area to the inside of a house. Also, it's the house which the protagonist's parents have just moved into, so the unfamiliarity that the player feels is the same as the protagonist's experience. The protagonist Katie is returning home from a year abroad, so her personal life is tucked away in boxes and bags, out of sight to leave space for the player to completely take over the character.
Gone Home introduces its mechanisms of interaction with similar ease - in the beginning, you're stuck in the limited area of the vestibule, and need to find the front door key in order to open up the larger play area for exploration. Everything fits together so naturally, that it's almost hard to appreciate how much trouble arriving to all of these design decisions must have been. There's also meticulous attention to detail, which is made possible by the limited size of the play area. For example, even the best-before date of a milk bottle in the fridge carries some meaning. As in any house, there's lots of stuff that doesn't really factor into the story, but everything making sense definitely helps the immersion.
It is easier to appreciate all this when presented with a counterexample, and 2012's similarly named Home can serve as such. Just as Gone Home, it has great ambitions as an experiment in interactive narrative, largely letting the player piece together a story based on free exploration, but falls flat on its face in terms of focus. All the ingredients it serves are plucked straight from genre fiction, making any potential story unoriginal and lacking any personal meaning, and it fills the time by making the player pull switches and press buttons in order to progress, which only serves to distract from what the game desperately tries to achieve. It's almost as if it is too insecure to really stand apart and build things up from first principles, instead of sticking with the usual video game mold in all the wrong places. It manages to scrape together an okay atmosphere considering its 2D pixel art graphics, but that's pretty much all this non-game has to offer.
Either way, it's a great time to be a fan of these sorts of artsy experiments, which are popping up more frequently than ever. I have not even had time to play Papers, Please yet, and Jonathan Blow's The Witness is right around the corner. Hopefully next year someone will come up with something even more surprising in this still largely unexplored medium. The Stanley Parable might have successfully deconstructed what we know of these sorts of interactive experiences today, but I believe that's just helping to open up the playing field for taking things to the next level.