At the moment, I picture the games industry as an awkward young adult. Though it's gotten past its teenaged years, it still has some very serious problems where self-expression is concerned. Even though it's started to think about deeper, more meaningful topics, that slightly juvenile tinge of murder and mayhem still persists. Likelier than not, it's never really going to go away - it's too much fun. As a result, we get insightful narrative themes couched in action, philosophical debates drenched in blood and thoughtful concepts set to a backdrop of extreme action.
It may well be that there's some insecurity here. The prevailing line of thought seems to be in many cases that gamers, unless kept amused and occupied by action and explosions, won't really care about the storyline. Is that necessarily true?
If the success of the Fullbright Company's Gone Home is any indicator, no.
Gone Home puts players into the shoes of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21-year-old college student who's returned to her family's home in Portland, Oregon after a year abroad in Europe. Arriving in the middle of the night on June 7, 1995; she's shocked to find the house completely devoid of life. No one lives there - no one has lived there for some time, it seems. The only clue she has regarding anyone's wherabouts is a note taped to the door by her younger sister Sam.
From there, players are set loose in the empty house, tasked with searching for some clue as to what's happened to Kaitlin's family. The backbone of the game is a simple love story between Sam - a high school senior - and another girl by the name of Lonnie. Scattered throughout the house are crumpled love notes, old mix tapes, and a host of photographs.
Though Sam and Lonnie take center stage, theirs isn't the only story. Kaitlin's parents, too, have their own narrative to uncover. Her father Terry, for example, is a novelist who's been reduced to the regrettable station of reviewing equipment for a HiFi magazine. Her great uncle Oscar, too, has bits and pieces of his life lying around the house, evidence of what once was.
There are no characters save Kaitlin. There are no cut-scenes, no quick-time events, no action sequences; no boss battles. All there is to keep players going is simple, raw curiosity. And it works. Through the use of theatrical techniques such as stating and blocking, creative set design, and silhouetting and spotlighting, the attention of players is drawn towards (or away from) particular set-pieces - though they're never forced towards any particular object. They're given complete freedom regarding where they search.
"Anything the player voluntarily engages with is going to make a much bigger impression than something they have no choice but to look at," explained Gaynor during a lecture at GDC 2013.
The games industry has entered into an awkward phase somewhere between its teenaged years and adulthood. Although it's started addressing deeper themes, it still seems uncomfortable bringing these themes to light without an air of action or violence surrounding them. Gone Home shirks that trend entirely, and demonstrates that games don't need guns to be of literary value.
Those of you interested in picking up the game for yourself can check the website.