The Play’s The Thing: Gone Home
The first in a series on gaming and immersive entertainment.
I’ll be honest: going into this first deep dive into the mix of the gaming world and the theatrical, it only made sense for me to first focus on Gone Home. 3 years ago, I booted up my MacBook, got a cup of coffee and clicked into Gone Home for the first time. To call it a life changing experience would be overdoing it a bit — but it was pretty darn close.
It made me realize the narrative and artistic approaches in games could be far more engrossing, far more emotional than what I was used to. Gaming, in its essence, is interactive. That is what distinguishes it from any other medium — film, theatre, prose, poetry or otherwise. For the most part, up until then, games had squandered their artistic and narrative potential for giant stories of worlds ending, wars, diseases, and other musings of huge masculine imaginations.
Gone Home taught me that gaming could transcend the Call of Duties of the world and tell an intimate, delicate story. One that’s personal, real, and most importantly emotional. This game quite literally changed my career path, before that I was on the road to be a traditional filmmaker and I’ve spent the last 3 years of my life studying game design and virtual reality storytelling.
At about the same time, I noticed a very similar interactive storytelling mode emerge: immersive theatre — and I instantly saw a striking similarity between these two mediums.
Games, like immersive theatre, ask viewers to suspend disbelief and enter into a completely fabricated fictional world in order to teach and thrill. As each form begins to write their own respective tropes, I’m convinced that we can learn more from these two mediums together than to see them as two completely separate forms.
In this series , I want to take a deep dive into a few of these concepts — how immersive theatre can learn from Zelda, Firewatch, Bioshock, Telltale, A Bird’s Story and Mario. These games are more than pixels on a screen.
So let’s start with Gone Home.
Gone Home places you into the eyes and ears of Katie — a girl who has just returned home from a class trip away in Europe. During this year away, however, her family decided to pick up and move to an entirely new place. When you arrive home, instead of being greeted with the open arms of a loving family you’re greeted with a harsh rainstorm, a dark, mysterious locked house and a note on the window, which tells you that your sister has disappeared and that you shouldn’t go looking for her.
Well darn it — now you have to look for her.
The stage is set. From this point forward, the house becomes the narrative set piece that not only expresses mood, fear, and wonder — but also becomes the primary communicator of information and story. A story that is driven entirely by place and your own curiosity.
While there are so many concepts in this game that are worth visiting, there is one big idea I’d like to break down.
Gone Home created a modern twist on level based designs in order to break a seemingly open world game into smaller, more digestible (and more satisfying) chunks.
The experience is entirely focused on telling a great story. There are no puzzles, no twitch based skills to master. To ask players to play for 90 minutes to completion and to come away with an emotionally satisfying experience, the designers had to ensure that each player encountered a strong linear narrative within an interactive playing field.
To achieve this, the designers used locked doors. Locked doors force a player into a bottleneck of narrative design. While the designers do let you roam the house freely, the strategically placed doors force you into their intended path.
Fans of open world games could scoff at this design choice, but Gone Home’s primary goal was not to provide an open experience, but rather imitate an open experience in order to provide a level of believability and world building as a backdrop for their emotional story.
The idea of sectioning off parts of games is not a new idea. Heck, Zelda and Metroid have been using designs schemes like this for over 30 years. But in those instances, designers used this technique to create longer experiences with the limited memory they had on their game cartridges.
Gone Home, in comparison, used this technique to create a linearity to their story that gave users a strong three act structure and drive them, beyond anything else, to complete the game to finish the story.
What does this have to do with immersive theatre, you ask? Well, I mentioned world building, storytelling, three act structure — all these design concepts that are so easily applicable to the immersive genre.
An experience like Sleep No More, for example, is a completely open world. It does so much of these concepts right — but where it fails is its storytelling.
When entering the experience you’re given absolutely no direction and are forced to walk through the experience metaphorically blind folded and asked to make sense of the world around you.
Mind you, I loved the experience. But that didn’t help me from feeling an immense sense of FOMO (fear of missing out, for those who don’t speak Twitter) as I made any choice whatsoever. Each choice had an immense opportunity cost since, by making a choice, I relinquished the chance to see any number of experiences that are happening simultaneously.
While this may be by design (it makes you want to see it more than once to get the full experience) it offers the audience an immense sense of anxiety and not much of a narrative story for those who aren’t familiar with the source material, as every choice gives you pieces of different plots but never one in its entirety.
Alternatively, let’s look at The Nest, which, by its design, was very similar to something like Gone Home. In the NoPro podcast (for those who haven’t heard, go listen to their fascinating episode. Shameless plug over.) The Nest creators talked about overcoming audience FOMO and anxiety by locking certain parts of their experience in a linear order.
In this way, just like Gone Home, participants are able to get the sense that they are in a realistic, completely open world environment without having to feel like every choice causes them to miss other experiences. Moreover, designers are able to better craft the narrative into a far more emotional structure — complete with an inciting incident, building and falling action, and even a climax.
In this way, the narrative experience becomes far deeper and more engrossing.
Gone Home entices the player with a fantastic world and sends them down a beautifully crafted narrative path while (secretly) holding their hand the entire way. It doesn’t do any of this explicitly — but moments of organic discovery are by far my favorite moments in any immersive experience.
In the end, an open world is the perfect mimic of our natural life. It places us in a universe and asks us to make choices to craft our own unique narrative.
I don’t know about you, but I consume stories to escape — to encounter a more perfect and romanticized version of our own reality in order to learn something new about the human experience. You could say then that curation — the elimination of life’s white noise in favor of its more exciting parts — is the building block of digestible story.
Gone Home just mimicked it with some cleverly placed locked doors.
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