The Encounter With Dracula Is Terminated is a long running and sporadically deployed series of articles about the gaming universe by long time Mode 7 community person Alex ‘malakian’ Hayes. Follow him at www.twitter.com/inspectorvector
A chill wind blows, and I enter a house as the clock strikes twelve. No welcome greets me, as no one is there. I ascend quiet stairs and push open the door of a dark bedroom to find a message on the screen: “you need to play this game”. Well, I suppose as it is noon I should probably do something beyond topping up bird food and thinking about how the top of my smartphone looks a bit like a potato peeler…The bit around the speaker. So, without further ado, allow The Encounter With Dracula Is Terminated to thrust the beak of analysis into the caged peanut of gaming.
The peanut in question is Gone Home, the enigmatic first-person debut from the Fullbright company, who I believe are comprised largely of Bioshock 2 DLC devs who have gone rogue. It’s won a huge amount of critical praise for its touching story, convincing atmosphere, and piece-it-together-yourself narrative style. I’ll not be spoiling any specific plot details herein, though I will be sharing my opinions on the experience and my general thoughts on other coverage of the game. I believe you get the most from experiencing Gone Home with no preconceptions, so if you want no potential feeling compromised, I’d abandon ship here.
Still here? Ok, I suppose I’ll need to keep writing, as I can’t *completely* rule out the possibility you aren’t.
The premise is quite a simple one: You’re a girl named Katie who is freshly back from travelling in Europe, bags in tow. It’s quite late on a stormy night, and it is the first time you are going to your parents new mansion, which your family have moved in to while you were away. The problem is, the large and unfamiliar house seems deserted. Herein begins the game, and you’re basically going to have to find out what’s going on, and what’s happened. The house isn’t as populated with stuff as a real one, but it’s very believable. For instance, you’ll see a ring binder featuring an exorbitantly colourful scene composed around a puffin in a Hawaiian shirt. Home’s DO have gaudy objects like this that escape being thrown out due to long ownership, and Katie’s tooltip-only reaction tells us her sister, Sam, has indeed owned it since 4th grade. As well as its familiar setting, Gone Home’s fusing core siphons its fuel from your own youthful dreams of possibilities, nostalgia for the confusion and elation of new experiences and just caring for the wellbeing of others. Its unconventional storytelling – the plot itself is the puzzle – manages to take you far beyond the house it is set in while still gripping you with what is one of gaming’s most foreboding atmospheres. It does a lot with a little.
I come from what Tory thinktanks would refer to as a “broken home”, so seeing the intimate workings of a nuclear family is always quite fascinating for me, but in the way a zoo is. Gone Home presents evidence of a family flinging metaphorical banana peels at each other, all hoping their discharged pericarp will strike true, slapping into the other family members a newfound understanding of exactly what they are going through at the moment. Sam is in perpetual conflict with her parents over her liberties and behaviour, while the parents are doing a poor job, characteristically unable to realise how their attempts at putting her on the right track are stifling their intelligent daughter’s self-discovery. Katie’s mother is becoming jaded with her relationship. The father is engaging in insular naval-gazing after hitting a wall with his career. Well, we all know how depressing having to turn to freelance writing is, right? Right? Oh. Ahem…
Katie’s parents, while intriguing, never take shape in the player’s mind as Sam does. The psychologist Gordon Allport espoused that the thought and feelings of individuals are affected by not just the actual presence of others, but the implied or imagined presence, and that apparently even holds true when the people are an imaginary imagined presence. I found myself entering Sam’s room and taking a moment before opening her draws for fear of violating her privacy. A very interesting aspect of the game, and one that’s definitely a reason to play it, is the ability to see Sam’s personality materialise as you begin to see it from at least three distinct viewpoints. When you’re either commander Shepard in your favourite store on the citadel, or your boring real self in the high street shops, you can meet somebody and they’ll react to you. They might make small talk, they might open up to you, they might ask you to get out of their shopping trolley. Regardless, you’re engaging their psyche from a very particular angle. Humans, though predictable and usually quite dull, are multifaceted, and will present a different side of themselves to different people.
Gone Home does what a lot of games don’t/can’t, in that it shows you Sam’s interactions with her idolised Street Fighter 2-playing friend Lonnie, her documented clashes with preoccupied and misunderstanding parents, and her own personal thoughts in the form of her (audibly narrated) diary. You get to know Sam this way. The humour that fills Sam and Lonnie’s notes to each other is recognisably teenage: Sardonic, and brimming with a bravado that masks the phenomenal insecurity of being a teenager. Her answers to school assignments are subversive (in the 16 year old way that isn’t actually) and, again, nostalgic for the player. Everyone did this kind of thing. In fact, playing it made me realise how much “humour” teachers must have to put up with. It must be like being a catchphrase comedian and having to smile at the endless tap of people who think it would be funny to say your catchphrase at you. Suffice to say, I now feel more ashamed of my Religious Education exam paper than I already did. I’m still a bit dubious of a marking criteria that awards a drunken tale about the moons of Thundera a D rather than an outright fail, but they can’t take it away from me now.
The missives to her parents present a different Sam, one that is full of reasoned, rebellious indignation at their iron-fist method of parenting, clearly driven by thoughts that she’ll snap out of it rather than any consideration. The third angle on Sam, her diary that was intended for Katie, shows a vulnerable, naive and often helpless girl. The intensity of feelings displayed throughout her story, written with more nous than you might expect, does lead you to at several points imagine the possible outcomes, both happy and dreadful. This is great, and I found myself guessing until the end.
A lot of reviewers have expressed the identical desire for Gone Home to reach a non-gaming audience. I’d agree that this would probably go some way to portraying gaming in a positive light to uninitiated liberals, as it’s definitely a thought provoking story that’s very well written, relatively speaking. The problem, at least in my experience, is that when a true non-gamer plays even a simple game, they get stuck in ways that are just implausible to gamers, who have game logic hardwired into their grey matter. And getting stuck will ruin Gone Home. Despite its unique slant on the experience, Gone Home’s gameplay is “find this key/find that clue to proceed”, as many point and click adventure games are. This is a criticism that will only apply for people who actually miss something – if you progress as intended without missing anything vital, the well-designed flow of the experience is exquisite. But getting stuck in Gone Home completely shatters the immersion, leaving you feeling like the glassy-smooth pacing of the experience has been dropped and the largest shards hurriedly reassembled with blu-tac. You’re shoved right back into the objective based contrition of gaming. All of a sudden, the fixed walking speed that allows you to breathe in the atmosphere of the house becomes frustratingly sluggish as you retread your steps looking for that small trigger to let you progress to where you’ve already worked out you need to be going. In this situation you’d just grab something heavy and open the damn lock, so if you are searching for any length of time it begins to feel ridiculous.
I’ve been playing borderlands 2 quite a bit recently, and something players of this game will have spent hours doing is looking slightly downwards, angling yourself correctly in front of the container, pressing the open key, holding the pick up key and then moving on to the next adjacent box in the long queue. You are driven to engage in this Pavlovian monotony, as your gaming brain knows this is where exciting new items come from…Occasionally. The reason I’m so off-piste here is that you do spend a lot of time in Gone Home doing effectively the same thing, albeit for richer occasional reward. When you approach a table or cabinet and slightly adjust the angle of the pointer to carefully hover over each thing, pressing the same button on each to see if it triggers something readable or audible, you’re reminded of how it’s still shackled to gaming’s usual one-to-the-next progression. This type of interaction is not ideal in an experience like this, for me at least. Although you can argue that searching a real cabinet would be similarly repetitive, it doesn’t feel like it. I do believe this is something the future could improve, though.
As ever, technology continues to stumble blindfolded, vellicating clumsily in the hope that an outstretched digit will manage to probe through a hitherto unknown aperture upon the bolus of gaming, prodding immersion to a new level. Gamers will, of course, perpetually roll their eyes at the flurry of new gimmicks, accidentally changing the channel with the eye roll command. It is indeed true that the Oculus rift and new Kinect hold little promise for integration with traditional emotionally resonant gaming genres like RPGs or non-fps point and click adventures, and likewise fail to offer much of any artistic merit in the fields within which their predecessors were financially successful (ducks, launching various orbs, flailing/wobbling). Experiences like this game, and the ability to design them, could really benefit. Switching between the usual two vertically-fixed viewpoints of stood and crouched is ideal in a fast paced FPS where the limitation is usefully predictable, but being able to lean down precisely towards the piece of paper at the back of a cupboard as you would in reality could give a game like this quite a bit more impact. Using your hands would also speed up and enhance the experience of sorting through a paper-strewn desk. It’s not a deal breaker here – I’m not letting my musings on the future affect my review, and it probably wouldn’t make a huge difference to how you look back on your time with the game, but it’s something I hope the future’s silly technologies will inspire beyond the usual swing-your-arm games like Duck Lapidation Station. Ok, I made that up… also I would play it.
Something that is putting people off, quite reasonably, is the price point. Really, £9.99 would be a fairer launch tag considering the content here. It is short and sweet. But really short. At four hours cover to cover, there’s a temptation to think there is more to say about Gone Home than there is, or see it as smarter than it is. It is smart, certainly, but the industry is still incredibly intellectually barren. It emerged bouncing over holes and shooting full stops at geometry, and has spent most of its ascent in the IQ nadir that film is currently in, where the big hitters revolve around a man who needs to level up to eventually hit the other man, who is definitely bad, and hopefully explode him. I won’t disparage it because of the industry’s low bar, though. It is a simple, thoughtful tale, and what makes it excellent is its ability to draw feelings and memories from you. While it’s essentially your own nostalgia, compassion and emotions filling the gaps after the credits roll, you’ll be thinking about it long beyond its time.
Gone Home is a touching experience, and an encouraging one. It is a reminder that indie games are where some of the best experiences can be found, and that’s comforting. I will award four out of five Kim Coates’ heads to Gone Home.