Gone Home: Materiality & the Enchantment of the Mundane

I didn’t expect to spend several hours this weekend playing a video game, but the buzz around Gone Home was too much to ignore. The premise is incredibly simple yet breathtakingly elegant: during a dark and stormy night in the mid-1990s you arrive home from a trip overseas to an empty house. You aren’t sure what happened, but everyone is gone.

The rest of this post will give spoilers for the game. Download it. Play it. Come back when you are finished.
http://www.gonehomegame.com/

Amidst the growing clamor around the treatment of women online and the (still!) incessant hounding of Anita Sarkeesian by trolls for daring to turn a critical gaze onto video games, Fulbright Games has dropped a subtle, wonderful video game with fully developed (though absent) female characters. There are three (arguably 3.5) storylines that you explore as you move through exploring the contents and structure of the very large (!) house that your parents moved into while you were overseas.

There are already several reviews that describe how intimate the storyline is and the “ludonarrative harmony” that Gone Home uses to “exploit gamic expectations, gamic tropes.” Beyond the fantastic storyline (setting the game in the mid-90s, featuring riot grrl music and zines left me nearly immobile with nostalgia), the way the game uses found objects, assemblages, and a domestic structure to connect the player with missing people deserves some attention from archaeologists and others who are interested in digital materiality.

The setting of Gone Home is, from the perspective of a western gamer used to deep space and fantasy realms, hopelessly mundane. The house, while incredibly large, is not unfamiliar to anyone who has been to suburban America. Its contents are a little jumbled, as your parents have just moved in, but it is completely full of glasses, tissue boxes, coasters, televisions, and empty pizza boxes. Yet these contents are not randomly scattered through the house. In time, through your exploration and increased understanding of the family members, you associate these objects with individuals and can “see” which rooms each of them frequented.

x-files

Personal letters, tickets, receipts, calendars and photos help the narrative along, and you assemble this detritus into an intricately detailed picture of what happened in the house while you were overseas. Gone Home is deeply about context–did your mother cheat or not? What was the relationship between your father and his uncle? Even some of the “meaningless” objects, the objects that do not directly advance a storyline, help build both the context and add depth to the characterizations.

There is also a measure of respect for these objects–unlike most video games, you do not have to smash everything you see so that you can look inside. You are invited to put cassette tapes into players and put things back in the right place after you examine them. I admit that I took a certain amount of joy in throwing tampons all over the bathroom, but this may mean I’m just a little more Sam than Katie. In an interview with the Fullbright Company,  Steve Gaynor explicitly cites haikyo, or urban exploration, finding a story “through voyeurism and exploration” as one of the main sources of inspiration for the game.

The objects fill us with a sense of unease–as a family member, you (as Katie) are, in theory, allowed to go through the house, even though your sister asks you not to try to find out where she is. Yet you feel a voyeurism as you sort through the domestic detritus, and find out uncomfortable details of your family’s life. This ambiguity is intriguing–the only way to finish the game is to use the objects to learn, yet the objects do not always tell a comfortable story. The mundane details of life in Gone Home are hopelessly enchanting.

As an archaeologist, I am thrilled to see a game that tells such an intimate narrative about a household through objects. How much of our story is in what we leave behind? How can we convey meaning through objects without a didactic label? Can we ever hope to make a story about the (more distant) past as vibrant as Gone Home? Mostly importantly, am I so hopelessly old that it breaks my heart that Sam did not end up going to Reed for creative writing?

My Game Biography

Greg Niemeyer guest-lectured in my Interactive Narrative class last Wednesday, giving us a fast but thorough grounding in Alternate Reality games and game research in general. It was one of those interdisciplinary moments that I really appreciate, wherein I encounter a scholar who is utterly fluent in his arena and am able to draw him out into discussion about archaeological theory and finds, gaining no small amount of enlightenment and a new perspective on my research.

He was very approachable and open, and I got the sense that was a true gift when it came to designing games. I also don’t think he was used to people pushing back a bit–he has an interesting perspective on the placement and utility of games within society that I don’t entirely agree with, but I don’t entirely disagree as well.While this is a simplified summary, he feels that games help us deal with larger societal issues and specifically referenced World of Warcraft as an arena where people can come together into teams to solve large problems, mirroring our growing need to solve international issues such as global warming. I kept thinking of some of the finds that I’ve come across over the years, specifically the large assemblage of “game pieces” that Michael House excavated at Catalhoyuk with sheep knuckle dice and black and white stones. Niemeyer asked me if I knew the rules to the game and I hadn’t actually considered the possible rules to go along with the assemblage and what these rules might tell us about the Neolithic. I also chatted with him about mancala and the prevalence of the game along trade routes, but I’ll save my thoughts about that for another post.

Anyway, my notes from the lecture are extremely useful and it was one of the more worthwhile discussions I’ve had at Berkeley. I had known about his work through Jane McGonigal and the larger Berkeley Center for New Media sphere, but hadn’t specifically checked out his papers or classes. Like a good grad student, I looked up his CV before he came to class and discovered his Game Biography, “based on the notion that we learn everything we know from playing games.” Seeing as how I’m always “game,” I thought I’d write one myself.

1984 – Hide and Seek in cornfields in Oklahoma; Soccer
1985 – Oregon Trail, still the best educational game ever
1986 – Super Mario Bros/Pitfall/Duck Hunt/Marble Madness!
1987 – Zork, Moonmist, Nord & Bert Couldn’t Make a Head or a Tail of It, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy–Interactive Fiction was the best.
1988 – Scrabble – endless games with my folks
1991 – Super Mario Bros. 3 – my mom would sometimes rent a SNES from the video store
1994 – Stickmud, where I talked to people from Sweden and Finland
1996 – Ludune, the failed mud that me and my Seattle roomates tried to design
1997 – Final Fantasy 7
1998 – Final Fantasy Tactics
1999 – Civilization II
2000 – Final Fantasy 9
2001 – Dance Dance Revolution
2002 – Suikoden 3
2005 – Katamari Damacy
2006 – Neverwinter Nights
2007 – Cruel 2 B Kind
2008 – Dragon Age, Backgammon
2009 – Dragon Age – Awakening
2010 – Kingdom of Loathing

The dates aren’t necessarily all correct or all-inclusive, but these are the games that I most remember–primarily console/PC games, it turns out!  I often remark that I’m sad that I don’t have more time for games, as there are so many really incredible immersive worlds and narratives out there. I feel like I’ve missed a large cultural moment by never playing World of Warcraft, but my academic career would have surely suffered. Or at least that’s what I tell myself–maybe I would have been better suited for solving large, international problems if I would have played!