A few years ago, I became very intrigued by a type of game called “text adventures” or “interactive fiction” (IF). Text-based games were popular before computers could support a graphical interface. The game gives you a paragraph or two of text, and you type in what you want to do, like “examine the fish” or “hang the bathrobe on the hook”, and the game gives you some more text. For a while, companies like Infocom made a fair number of text games, and they sold well. You might expect that this sort of game would have completely disappeared once computers gained enough processing power to create decent images. But IF has not vanished at all. It has a smallish, but still devoted following. Not only are there people interested in playing the old games, but new games are constantly being produced. IF provides a good introduction to game design – instead of requiring a team of programmers and a game engine and a number of graphic artists, a single author can have a crack at creating a game and bringing their own interactive ideas to life.
I’ve been dabbling in fiction writing all my life, and back when I was involved in playing IF, I thought I would give writing my own a shot. I worked on it for a good while, and wound up submitting it to the annual IF Competition. I’m not going to link to my game, because it wound up kind of broken*. However, I found writing the game to be very interesting. Not only were there they usual challenges of storycrafting and the brand-new intellectual challenge of getting the code to do what I wanted it to do, but I ran across a problem that was originally unanticipated. The problem of setting, in an interactive environment, is vastly different than the problem of setting on the page. Often times, when you play certain IF games, the descriptions of place are sparse, even bare bones, with every apparently empty room occupied only by the items that you need. It can be frustrating, not to mention boring, to read over and over that “That isn’t important,” when you want to look more closely at the bookshelves. Worse yet, when standing in a kitchen, it is maddening to be told that “There is no stove here” or “You don’t see any refrigerator”. What sort of kitchen is this? This barrenness can be avoided by creating more stylistic text or by causing the narrator/player character to have an altered perception – the surreal alternate world and the drunk or bitchy main character are popular. But if you have a sober and clear-sighted narrator navigating through a familiar world, trying to make that world seem fully realized can require every object to be described, or at least accounted for. My temptation as a player is to look at every little object, in the hopes of an interesting description, and my response as a writer was to try to code the main character’s house as thoroughly as possible. To give him not only a couch in the living room and a sink in the bathroom, but to also populate the house with all the little objects that people have that reflect their personalities and their lives – the magazines and photographs, the mundane things and the meaningful items, all jumbled together. The problem for me was that creating a fully immersive environment was not condusive to creating a plot that moves forward with decent pacing.
Enter “Gone Home,” the remarkable new indie game from the Fullbright Company. In “Gone Home,” you play Kaitlin Greenbriar, a young woman returning home after a year abroad. While you were away, your parents and younger sister, Sam, moved to a large house in the country they inherited from your father’s uncle. You arrive in the middle of the night to an empty house, and the rest of the game consists of nosing around through your families drawers and bookshelves. Every detail of the house is lovingly created, from the pens and cups scattered about, to boxes of your father’s unsold book cluttering the closets. But unlike my attempt at characterizing a person by detailing the contents of his house, this game truly works. The story, and “Gone Home” has a clear and relatively linearly presented story, is compelling, even gripping. Kaitlin’s parents, Sam, and Sam’s friend Lonnie, have left traces of themselves that map out their psyches in everyday objects. Notes, letters, photographs, and cassette tapes make up the bulk of the narrative. From time to time, you trigger an audio recording – Sam’s audio diary that more explicitly details her inner state and the exact timeline of the narrative. But even without the audio narrative, the story is clear and compelling. There are few real puzzles in this game, mostly involving remembering a combination to a lock for the thirty seconds it takes to go open it. But putting together the Greenbriar’s interlocking stories from the pieces of themselves they have left scattered about is an intellectually satisfying and emotionally engaging experience.
“Gone Home” is a game that is strongly rooted in a particular time and place. The game takes place on one night in June 1995. The nineties have a powerful nostalgic pull for both young developers and for their intended audience. I was eight in 1995, and although I remember the cultural touchstones of the era, I was a little young for some of the more important ones in the game. The Riot Grrrl movement was not something I was really aware of, for example, and I never listened to much punk rock then or now. However, one important part of the game that I realized rang very true for me is not so much the particular cultural touchstones, but the format of the ephemera of teenagerdom. Many of the most important parts of the story, the insights into Sam and Lonnie’s relationship, come in the form of torn scraps of notepaper, written on by one or both girls. For years, I haven’t thought about it, but my middle- and high-school friendships were in large part defined by these back and forth paper conversations. There were the short notes, passed under the desk. There were the hours spent relieving boredom by co-engaging with a single sheet of notepaper – hangman, the dots-and-squares game, cowritten fiction, the origami fortune teller. And there were the longer missives, when your young emotions were surging and you needed a friend to understand where you were coming from when you cried in the hallway, or when they made you so angry joking about that thing, or you needed to explain why something was so important to you, and you couldn’t trust yourself not to stumble or stutter or cry, so you wrote it all down and handed it off. I wonder if this game is set in the 90s not only because of the emotional draw of that era, but because for the modern teenager, this ephemera no longer takes physical form. Instead of scraps of paper filling our desks and backpacks and pockets, we have texts and emails and facebook games.
Small scale indie game projects have been gaining traction in the last few years. It is heartening that it is now not so difficult to create a graphical game of the detail and depth of “Gone Home” that small companies cannot do it. I hope these small games continue to gain the support they need to allow games to continue to evolve as a means of personal expression.
* They tell you and tell you to beta test as much as possible, but even though I knew it would be a problem, and I knew I had school-related conflicts at the time of the deadline, I still didn’t have enough time to polish it.