Videogames as Literature

My Choice: Gone Home

Videogames as Literature

Videogames have the ability to create a setting, build up characters, and share deeply emotional stories. The only difference between a novel and a video game is that the video game is more interactive.

Instead of envisioning a setting, the player can move around in it. The map in Gone Home becomes more detailed the more you explore the house. The spatial element of this video game is impressive and it also syncs up with the storyline. How could the main character possibly know every detail of a house she’s never been in? Well, she doesn’t and it’s up to the player to fill in the gaps. The player literally builds the environment around her, which is something we’ve explored when talking about Portal. In Portal, the narrative architecture allows the player to become totally immersed in the experience by building a believable environment. Similarly, Gone Home creates a believable and incredibly detailed environment. The house is filled with 90s memorabilia, and each room had a distinct personality that allowed you to recognise it instantly. For example, Sam’s bedroom was obviously hers because she had posters and homework assignments left everywhere! The house is the only space the player can explore, but it is filled more enough information than the player needs.

Exploration is encouraged and the player can examine old cassettes, photographs, books, and letters that don’t have anything to do with the main storyline. These are used to build up the separate characters themselves and to develop the characters without anyone else having to be in the house. The letters are the most important pieces to understanding Sam and why she chose to leave, but there are plenty of other clues and story lines going on as well. For example, the mother and father are having difficulties with their marriage. The mother was possibly having an affair with another man, although nothing is truly proven. The parents left the house – the player later discovers – because they are on a marriage retreat. Besides that, the mother’s personality is shown through her letters, letters addressed to her by friends, and the various wildlife/wildfire knickknacks lying around the house. The player’s character is shown through the different trophies and various homework assignments scattered throughout the house, which all serve to highlight the difference between her and her sister. The father’s character is developed through the use of his books, letters written to him, and evidences of an early childhood in the house. Even the gift Lonnie sent Sam is kept in a closet, which makes Lonnie feel like a real person. All of these things may seem superfluous if this was just a game, but it’s not. This is a story about the lives of several different people. It’s the story about a family and the trials they face separately in their own hells and together as a family.

Final Journal Entry Transcript:

“Katie… I’m so sorry. That I can’t be there to see you in person. That I can’t tell you all this myself. But I hope, as you read this journal, and you think back… that you’ll understand why I had to do what I did. And that you won’t be sad, and you won’t hate me, and you’ll just know… that I am where I need to be.

I love you so much, Katie. I’ll see you again. Someday.

Love, Sam.”

This ending moved me to tears… the moment where it all comes together – when you realize why no one is home, who the voice on the phone was (Lonnie!), and why it’s called Gone Home.

Home is a place where you belong. For Sam, that was with Lonnie. For the parents, that was in each other, which is why they were trying so hard to save their marriage and confront their issues. For Katie (the main character), that’s literally going home and feeling at peace with what happened.

 

It’s all about the little things

Portal is heavily invested in the little things. Although the storyline is relatively simple, the attention to detail is unbelievable. The gameplay almost depends more on the details of the game design than on the actual storyline. Sure, the storyline drives it all forward, but what makes it all worthwhile are the little things. Let’s use the final level as an example.

I didn’t notice all of the details that went into GladOs’ personality until Alec activated the subtitles. I recognised when her voice changed when I played the level before, but I didn’t realize that it was an intentional part of game design for her voice to sound a specific way at a particular moment. For example, when you destroy the (incredibly adorable) first orb GladOs’ voice becomes “seductive” since she is trying to lure you in and kill you. Her voice immediately changes after the incineration of the first orb, which she claims held together her sanity, from the normal robotic voice to a confident voice convinced your death is near. That was pretty freaky! The orbs themselves were each given distinct aspects of GladOs’ personality since they make up GladOs. I was somewhat amazed when the subtitles were activated and the blue orb was citing a cake recipe! Why do they promise cake? What’s Chell’s backstory? Who knows, but hey at least they commit to the cake theme. In fact, the line, “the cake is a lie,” most likely exploded on the internet due to the player constantly running across the line throughout the game. This recurring theme is one of the most memorable aspects of the game – yes, it has to do with the storyline, but honestly just seeing it written EVERYWHERE is enough to make the player remember it. The emphasis on building the narrative into the game rather than neatly handing it to the player as a storyline allows players to piece his or her own storyline together. We never receive a clear storyline or backstory for any character nor the facility, but that didn’t really matter in the end. What mattered was the fact that you recognised that the cake was a lie and escaped the Aperture Testing facility.

The little things – the writing on the walls, the easter egg rooms, the ending cut scene – these all add to the gaming experience. The storyline is present, but it’s the little things – the attention to details -that make Portal memorable.