Living la video loca

Ariel Castro-Martinez tells us about the links between stories and gameplay in video games


It’s difficult to talk about Gone Home without giving away spoilers or key moments. Thankfully though, it’s been out for a few weeks and lasts a mere three hours to complete at a measured pace, so if you were thinking of playing it, I urge you to purchase it (for about $20) and play it in a single sitting. This analysis will have spoilers.

Ludonarrative dissonance, to those uninitiated into the masturbatory circles of video game appraisal, is the jarring disconnect between gameplay and story in a video game.

It’s the ‘Press X to cut off leg’ in a first-person shooter that shunts the player along the campaign, unflinching in its blatant reduction of the traumatic procedure of amputation to a mere button press. Though it cannot be escaped, it can be thoughtfully addressed.

In Ico, a game that has the player escort with the titular character an ethereal girl named Yorda around a castle, the game has you grip the controller by holding the right trigger button, tenderly evoking the feeling of holding her hand. Movement becomes a critical consideration as you must account for Yorda’s safety and your own when she is pursued by shadowy creatures. This simple mechanic makes the feeling of helping someone in a video game tangible. Just as you are restricted by needing to hold the trigger buttons down to hold Yorda’s hand, so is Ico as he sacrifices his greater mobility for Yorda’s.

Gone Home is a subversive game that achieves what many games cannot, but almost at the expense of eschewing its greater gameplay responsibilities. Almost, I say, because there is no dictum or industry standard for gameplay, especially not for an indie studio that made the game with, ostensibly, four people. But there are gamer expectations to sate, and Gone Home certainly does not exist in a vacuum divorced from the wider context of its industry. It is with this in mind that the game has its disappointing downfalls, but also its subversive strengths.

It’s devilishly subversive because it plays mercilessly on expectations and pulls the rug from under the player on multiple occasions. Gone Home throws away setups most other games would dream to fulfill. Setups like a slightly ajar bathroom door in a dark hallway revealing a bathtub stained red with… hair dye. In any other world, it would be too tempting for that bathtub to be stained with blood. But it isn’t. It’s the red hair dye of a teenage girl going through self-questioning times.

Gone Home tells the story of a young girl, the older of two sisters, coming home from an extended trip abroad to the new house her family has only recently moved into. The atmosphere in this game is absolutely terrifying. The echoing thunder, the creaky, dimly lit hallways, the unpacked boxes in the corner, all convey immediately a feeling of rushed abandonment as you’re tasked to turn the lights on and piece together the last moments of a barely occupied space. But noticeably, something’s happened.

As it turns out, that something is the touching, sexual awakening of a young adolescent little sister whose memoirs of tough times have conveniently been left to you to discover by way of audio messages triggered by inspecting clues strewn about the house. Disappointingly, the main mechanics in this game are walking and reading, and the occasional 4-number combination to a safe for you to inspect, find out there are papers inside, and then read them. That’s all you’ll do in this game; explore, pick up, read, and repeat. The lives of your family will unfold in admirable detail with the most effective use of ambient storytelling in any game I’ve played, but there is scarcely anything to do that would not be possible in another medium.

Gone Home was critically lauded for its story, representing a brave maturation of the medium, but it’s frustrating to have a game deliver so much here and fall short in gameplay. The medium is set apart by interactivity. Maturation would entail innovation in bridging ludonarrative dissonance, not widening it by abandoning its most fundamental aspect. In terms of its disregard for gameplay, Gone Home is a little too subversive, and a little far from home.