Gone Home & The Rise of the Interactive Sketch

Gone Home as an Interactive Sketch

This past weekend, I finished Gone Home. It was interesting, to say the very least, and even months after its release and a wealth of reviews, I had still somehow managed to evade spoilers past “there’s something in the attic”. And even though I had been told there’s nothing to really worry about, I still found myself extremely tense throughout the whole game.

The ambiance was spectacular. The genre mechanics of horror movies and games may not get to a great many people anymore, but I’ve never been the best at handling those sorts of things. I found myself darting around each room to find the nearest light. By the time I was finished, I’m fairly sure I hit every single light in the house. Besides giving me the realization that I am most certainly afraid of the dark in unfamiliar territory, it added to my feeling of dread as I headed for the attic – the ominous red lights lining the entrance certainly didn’t help my disposition – making me fear the absolute worst.

Gone Home does an absolutely spectacular job of two things: portraying a setting and letting the player learn about the characters. Of course, there are a very many people who have complained that that’s all it does, that it should do more. And while one can argue such a thing as it relates to the price (I was disinclined to buy it until it was below $10), there are no such criticisms I have with the game. Gone Home marks my realization that games have treaded into a new territory of which we have expected, but not truly seen until now.

During the time between Gone Home’s release and the beginning of many publications’ game of the year reveals, I had been enveloped in my university’s American Literature course. As it happened, I was getting into the thick of a book known as The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett. As the class proceeded through the lone week we studied the story, I started to see more than a few connections between the discussion we were having in class and the completely unrelated discussions I saw online with Gone Home.

Allow me to quote a few things people have said about The Country of the Pointed Firs in negative reviews on Good Reads:

3/5: “Reading this book is kind of like watching paint dry.”
1/5: “Nothing happens, Jewett spends the entire book talking about what happens in a small Maine seaport. It was a very relaxing book to read before bed, but it was very dissatisfying to finish, because there was no real conclusion.”
3/5: “Though a narrative, the book veers from traditional plot structure and trope but does not fail outrightly.”
2/5: “I get it. Maine was awesome. Look at all the local colour.”
3/5: “It took a while to get into this book. There is next to no plot, and if I didn’t enjoy character-driven books I would not have liked this as much as I did.”

And as a personal favorite:

1/5: “The prose is elegant and it does have one truly beautiful line near the very end of the book that touched me. The description is all very good.

I found this book extremely boring. I could almost tell no difference in my comprehension and enjoyment between when I was falling asleep while reading and when I was wide awake while reading, and I can assure you that this book will make you fall asleep. Not much happens.

There are some very deep messages, if you can sift through the overlong prose, about loneliness, disconnect, communication, gossip, and mourning. These are nice, but the book still feels bloated.

I would not recommend this to anyone. If you have to read it for a class, as I did, prepare for a long haul.”

And now that we’re here, let’s look at some of the negative user reviews for Gone Home:

1/10: “All you do is walk around while listening to your lesbian sister whine about her first-world problems.”
3/10: “It has extremely simplistic gameplay and a narrative that is entirely forgettable because of the lack of any people to interact with. Who ever thought trying to experience someone else’s memories by rummaging through their stuff would be a good idea clearly doesn’t understand simple psychology, let alone what makes a good video game.”
1/10: “No game play mechanics besides walking around a house and digging through stuff, it’s less entertaining then a “search and find” adventure game and costs twice as much.”
3/10: “Visually very interesting looking, but just walking around reading gets boring really fast.”
1/10: “All you do in this game is explore a house and examine the notes, pictures, documents, and artifacts contained therein.”
3/10: “Gone Home isn’t really a game, but a rather interesting yet unorganized story.”
1/10: “Not much happens. In fact, nothing happens. It’s on the level of other “interactive stories” such as Dear Esther.”

The quoted words in that last review were one of the main gripes folks had about Gone Home– though I suppose if you’re reading this, you already knew that. “Gone Home isn’t a game, it is an ‘interactive story’!” There are more than a few things I could say about such a thought, but I’ll start out simply by saying that it’s wrong. Gone Home is a game. In fact, it’s the type of game that folks have been thinking about since anyone first thought about making a game with a story.

This is where The Country of Pointed Firs really comes in. Jewett spends the majority of her time simply presenting a world the narrator is experiencing. There is no real plot; the events that occur in the story are disconnected and are meant only to present the characters involved and let the reader learn about them. It’s called boring, criticized for not having much of a conclusion, but also respected for its descriptions of the world and its focus on building a detailed setting and ambience. When one goes into the book, it’s not altogether uncommon to assume the story will take a turn for the worst with some twist murder occurring. All of these criticisms and praises, and even the bare descriptions, could most certainly also be attributed to a game like Gone Home.

But to call Gone Home an interactive story would be disingenuous to what it’s really doing. The first thing my American Literature professor told the class when he began the first lecture on The Country of Pointed Firs was not to think of it as a novel, not as something whose main goal is to tell a story. His argument was that instead of being a novel, The Country of Pointed Firs is what’s known as a “sketch”.

 Wikipedia: “A sketch is mainly descriptive, either of places (travel sketch) or of people (character sketch). Writers of sketches like Washington Irving clearly used the artist as a model. A sketch story is a hybrid form. It may contain little or no plot, instead describing impressions of people or places, and is often informal in tone.”
*Please excuse me, all teachers who are dissatisfied with my use of Wikipedia as a reference.

Gone Home, I would argue, is not an interactive ‘story’ like what many who talk about the game criticize it for being, but an ‘interactive sketch’. Gone Home is mainly descriptive in both its setting, and, for the most part, actual written description. The purpose of Gone Home is simply to experience the world and learn about the people in it.

It contains little plot; the greatest story thread in the game being the following of Sam’s relationship with Lonnie, and even keeping that in mind, it is only a small part of the story overall. While the backstory behind the parents in the game does provide relevance to what happens in the game, there are other parts that certainly don’t, but are gone into in greater reverence than that central storyline would require such as the father’s writing career and the mother’s good work in the forest service. However, an argument could be made about how much of the backstory was presented through letters, as not taking the advantage of passing information through audio and visual capabilities made the letters a little repetitive and led many of the user reviewers to declare the game better served for something in written form. (Which isn’t true in the slightest.)

Many games these days try to do what this game has. Grand Theft Auto V, for example, tries to present a world satirical in nature and allow the player to explore and learn about its intricacies. GTA V doesn’t do this, however, as it’s too far focused on a story it deems must be told, leading to not only a below average story, but a world that seems more empty than it should and satire whose teeth must have been pulled out in development. The negative user reviews dislike Gone Home for the same reasons that GTA V doesn’t create an interesting world: they both believe the same thing about what games must be.

At this point, however, Gone Home should not be unexpected. Ever since the possibility of creating realistic 3D environments came into being, many have realized the possibility of creating what I’m calling an ‘interactive sketch’. Presenting a world and letting the player explore it and learn about those who live in it without any objective or interwoven storyline is something I’m sure many who read this have thought about at one point or another, even if you didn’t realize it. The epitome of an open-world game would most certainly be the point where interactive stories gain their full respect. Perhaps, at some point, it will even be possible to create The Country of Pointed Firs in interactive form.

Journey title Screen Large

The Problem With the Interactive Sketch

I do have one gripe with those who would call Gone Home revolutionary. In fact, I’m not even sure if I truly believe this game to be great. (Although much of the game was notified to me prior to playing it, such as the lesbian relationship and dark setting without having any action) This isn’t the first game I would consider calling an interactive sketch. Dear Esther is a game Gone Home is commonly compared to (although I have not played it, so don’t take my word for it). If there’s any game I would point to for doing something along the lines of what Gone Home has done, though, I wouldn’t even need look past last year; Journey is a spectacular example.

The game presents itself as a cycle, so there’s certainly the veil of a plot put in the game, but it never concerns itself with focusing on it. Journey is all about the world you’re journeying through and the people you meet along the way. It presents the player with a beautiful world to explore and looks into the actions of players as they attempt to interact with each other – whether they’d like to or not. Gone Home may have presented a much different type of story, presenting its own opinions on the characters involved as they aren’t in control of the player, I wouldn’t quite say that it’s revolutionary by any means.

But while both Journey and Gone Home have had great critical praise, the prior’s user Metacritic score stands at 8.7 while the latter sits solemnly at 5.4. I don’t attest to being all that scientific about it, but allow me to propose why that is. While the Metacritic scores are vastly different (as game reviews go) the comments from those that think negatively of the game are very in line with what those who speak about Gone Home say.

4/10: “There is no challenge, nothing to interact with, no humor and the game generally is all about the graphics.”
4/10: “In truth journey is a fairly linear and boring, and my initial perception was altered by what I had heard of the game. Twenty minutes into the game this wore off and I began to see what Journey really was; a obsessed with it’s own self importance that it can’t be bothered to tell a coherent story but instead uses pseudoistic imagery to cover up for the non-existent story.”
3/10: “There is nothing in this journey that is memorable and before you know the journey ends… I really wish this game had more to offer but just like the desert landscapes you will find very little content, what you see is what you get. Nothing more. I applaud your effort to create something new but next time don’t rush to deliver an unfinished product and really focus on the game play.”
3/10: “This does not even classify as a game. What we have here is a 90-minute stroll through a barren desert. The gameplay is near non existent and only involve holding your thumb stick forward and watching the pretty image on screen move.”
0/10: “Now I know this as loads of acclaim and stuff but it’s way overrated with some awards for multiplayer and STORY. First there’s no story just a random cloaked faceless thing that walks across a desert for a bit then you get to the top of the mountain and a pointless ending”

In general, Journey, received the same type of criticisms from the user base as Gone Home did. While the critique of it being very linear may have some credibility, (I would have really liked if they’d created a world to explore that spreads itself 360 degrees around the mountain) Journey was decried as boring, having an incoherent story, and best of all, “not a game”. So if Journey is garnering the same negative opinions as Gone Home has, why were the user ratings so much worse?

The date of release could be attributed to that. If you look on Metacritic, many of the reviews of Journey came out a week or more before the game’s release. On the other hand, Gone Home was released with little to no reviews given prior to that date. Players were given the game at the same time or prior to the reviews of the game were out. They did not work with a perception of the game through the lense of a review they had previously read. In this sense, you could say that Gone Home provides a more realistic view of the communities’ opinions on a game like Gone Home or Journey. The lone negative critical review for Journey on Metacritic has a wide assortment of comments on it essentially calling it out for disagreeing with the majority of other professional reviews – something that similarly happened on a recent review for Grand Theft Auto V.

While this is, perhaps, a showing of the game community’s true opinion on ‘interactive sketch’ type games like these, I wouldn’t say that this means that in reality, Journey or even Gone Home are less of games. Even though I believe we’ll get far better games that explore the same genre in the following decade or further into the future, I still very much enjoyed both games– although at this point, I would stack Journey much farther ahead of The Fullbright Company’s child. What I think it does say a lot about is how the community at large views the medium it wants to experience.

Similar to Journey, The Country of Pointed Firs’s Good Reads page has it pegged at an average score of around 3.66/5, which isn’t all that bad in comparison. Like Journey, Jewett’s work was likely presented to many readers as a classic and a very good book. However, in this case, the response to such negative reviews was far from spiteful, and the comments within the reviews themselves weren’t confused as to why people think the book is good. Perhaps that says a little something about the community these sketches are viewed in. From Good Reads:

5/5: “I read some other comments, and generally this one seems to appeal more to those who are a bit on the experienced side. It makes me realize how favorite books fit one’s age. When I was 18, I was forced to read Pride and Prejudice. Hated it. At 23 in grad school. Hated it. At 35, a friend said: “You really should give it a try.” Loved it. So, since the book didn’t change, that means I did.”

Perhaps, when it comes to this type of game, we as a game community are just not ready yet.

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