Reading and Hypothesis

I see more and more games with no story, only “backstory”. The game consists of piecing together what has gone before, and possibly performing a few anticlimactic actions to round it all off. Reviewers even speak of “the backstory” as if it’s the most important aspect of any game, right up there with mazes and hunger puzzles. It’s an outrage.

Backstory, Stephen Bond

For authors of interactive stories, presenting most of your story as backstory is often convenient because you can tell what did happen in a place without having to code any NPCs or allow for any branching in the backstory narrative: the past is a part of the story your interactive reader can’t touch. It places those events beyond the reach of player agency. At its worst a backstory driven piece can seem soulless and lonely, as the player wanders desolate locations from which all the other humans have already fled.

But there’s also an argument to be made that the backstory mystery is one of the most natural possible shapes for interactive literature. When it sets up questions and allows the player to look for answers, it engages the reader directly with the substance of the story rather than with extraneous tasks and challenges. It encourages reading hypothetically, making guesses about what really happened that are then affirmed or disproven as one goes.

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For anyone who isn’t familiar with The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home, it’s an indie game about a girl who has just come back from a year-long trip in Europe, to a house that her family moved into after she left and that is unfamiliar to her. No one is there, so she needs to wander the house and try to work out what happened to them. The house is also big and dark and suffering occasional electrical faults, while a storm rages outside, so for a while the game plays genre tricks with whether it’s really going to be a horror story.

Many people have responded with strong approbation, or at least strong feelings of some sort: first because it’s a game that allows itself to be not-very-gamelike, to indulge purely in its fiction; second, because it’s a queer coming of age story and those aren’t exactly well represented in mainstream games.

It is also pure backstory. But before we get into how I read that, some backstory of my own. There will also be some spoilers for Gone Home.

*

A couple of months ago I went to a presentation at the British Library about digital narratives, and came home a bit ranty. Rob Sherman had spoken with energy and considerable insight about his Black Crown project, and demonstrated the suitcase of physical objects that had been his original implementation of the story concept. Joanne Shattock had been very interesting, if a little less relevant to my day-to-day work, by talking about a project in reading Dickens and then blogging about it with other readers across the world.

But I was galled intensely by the first speaker on the panel. He was articulate, appealing, and funny, so I immediately wanted to like him, and perhaps his speech annoyed me the more for that reason. He repeatedly committed the Roger Ebert Fallacy of supposing that reader choice means reader control over plot together with the erasure of the author’s artistic intent. He generalized about what cannot be done in interactive literature on the basis of his unfinished interactive project, without being familiar with the contradictory examples. He bemoaned the dependence of authors on “computer guys”, who had significant power to affect the project in ways the author couldn’t control, without acknowledging or perhaps even realizing that a) not all interactive writing requires the author to build their own system; b) not all writers are unable to code; c) not all people who code are guys. He wrapped up with a statement on video games that was as ignorant as it was contemptuous, and concluded, on the basis of one “game with orcs” apparently viewed over a relative’s shoulder, that no one involved with games is at all interested in telling a good story.

The more grounded portion of his talk concerned his work in progress, called Arcadia: a text layered out of numerous short vignettes which the reader could experience in any order. He explained he wanted to do this because his past work has involved retelling the same scene from different perspectives, except that the linear format of the book forces these pieces to be hundreds of pages apart, straining the reader’s memory and ability to compare. What he wants now is to be able to allow the reader to experience the connections between segments more naturally, and not only in a single-threaded way.

This sounds like a challenge in hypertext design, though he was also contemptuous of conventional hypertext fiction and claimed that what one mostly remembered of a hypertext work was the means of presentation rather than the content itself. He said that he wanted to make the interactivity itself as invisible as turning a page, and to receive reviews that addressed the content of his writing rather than the structure of it.

I understand why someone would say these things: some of the more visible interactive literature is so driven by gimmicks that the content itself recedes into the background. Device 6 may be a beautiful and ingenious piece of typographical design, but when one tries to look beyond the ingenuity for something of substance, there’s not much to find.

But to dismiss the navigational elements of an interactive story ignores the fact that in interactive stories the structure itself is a thing to be read, part of the communication between author and reader, requiring its own kind of literacy. Take, say, Solarium, which brings the reader back repeatedly to a narrative hub, so that the same text may be reread in light of different memories and discoveries. Or look at The Reprover, a piece whose structure teaches the player about thematic and temporal connections between events too richly interconnected to play out in a single dimension. The content of The Reprover could not be fully communicated in linear form, because the links between vignettes are themselves information about the parallels and oppositions between characters.

In that sense even interactive literature that is written in prose has a poetic aspect.

*

After the British Library event I went home and ranted at length to my husband. I may have included a tangential speech to the effect that people who write straight fiction, even people who write it very well, should not necessarily be held up as experts on interactive fiction; that the same mistake would never be made in the other direction; that this goes to show the relative cultural weight assigned to these two fields; that video games and interactive fiction may not yet have earned cultural heavyweight status in the popular imagination, but that works of profound power in interactive fiction would not be achieved by listening to advice that isn’t pertinent to the medium.

“That sounds really irritating,” he said. “Who was this person?”

Iain Pears,” I said.

“…Oh.” He looked miffed, as though I’d said something tactless about a close friend.

“Oh?”

“You should read An Instance of the Fingerpost.”

*

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 3.49.31 PMI have now read An Instance of the Fingerpost and revised my views accordingly. It does not change the fact that Pears’ remarks on interactive literature were (in my view) misguided, but his book is striking and accomplished. What’s more, it’s extremely relevant to this issue of reading hypothetically, both as an example of the process and in the sense that it is about the ways we read, understand, and hypothesize.

The story is told in four parts. There is a death under mysterious circumstances, though it seriously undersells the plot to call this simply a murder mystery, since it also encompasses the politics, intellectual trends, and theological arguments of Restoration-era Oxford, and is at times also a spy thriller, a love story, and an account of spiritual transformation.

The first narrator describes what happened. The second narrator begins by saying he has received a copy of the first person’s manuscript, and wishes to correct the misinformation in it as well as presenting the events from his own perspective. The third and fourth narrators do the same, commenting not only on their own experiences but on the testimony of the others. By turns these characters lie, are deceived, are suffering from delusions, or simply don’t understand the meaning of what they’ve seen. The book provides a grand tour of the different forms of unreliable narration. Within the narrative, they also argue with one another about methods of scientific and theological proof, and about how it is possible to know what we know.

All this keeps the reader in a state of lively doubt, constantly reforming hypotheses not only about the identity of a killer, but about the truth value and motive of every event in the story. The elements of the plot are in constant motion, like an orrery.

This is enjoyable as an intellectual exercise, but for me it has a much greater value as a way of exploring the complexity of the characters and their beliefs. Different characters appear by turns villainous and saintly, fair-minded and petty, until enough perspectives have at last accumulated to suggest the actual contradictions of human experience.

*

For me Gone Home falls short because it doesn’t do these things. Despite its framing, despite the fact that it is using the mechanics of storytelling-via-accumulating-evidence, it did not satisfy me either as an experience of hypothesis-based reading or as a way of building a complex view of its characters.

First there’s the interaction style, which might be described as adventure game lite. You enter a room. You hunt around for items that stand out from the environments, especially the pale pixels of a note or message. You take the item and examine or read it. If you’re lucky, the note also triggers a bit of audio diary. Then you’re back to hunting for things again. There are a handful of vestigial puzzles about opening safes and unlocking doors, but they aren’t meant to be challenges, just gating mechanisms. Find the key to room Y in location X as a way to make sure you don’t see things out of order.

This is such standard stuff that, in one sense, it is beyond criticism. The Find a Diary Page trope is overused, but who among us is entirely free of that sin?

The problem I have with it in Gone Home is that this interaction style enforces the distance and lack of agency that is backstory’s chief defect, and it does so without offering much of value in exchange. The player’s task is purely ergodic, methodically working through every explorable space, even though this is a story about understanding and insight, not about effort and dedication. Some games use slow, hardworking linear interaction to build suspense, but this succeeds best over a short period of time with a steadily increasing sense of dread. At least for me, Gone Home doesn’t hit the right pacing for this either.

The protagonist is meant to be coming home to a house where she expects to find her whole family, but no one is there, and there are some hints that something bad has happened. If we were at all invested in the protagonist’s story, in what is happening in the present of Gone Home, I’d expect the player’s reaction to involve such things as standing in the foyer and yelling, racing around the hallways and banging on doors, or looking for a phone to call friends or neighbors to find out what’s going on. Not, in any event, a methodical exploration of the desk drawers in the study.

*

‘And is there any way of finding out whether I am correct except by testing it against result? That is surely the basis of experimental philosophy?’

‘That is Monsieur Descartes’s basis,’ he said, ‘if I understand him correctly. To frame a hypothesis, then amass evidence to see if it is correct. The alternative, proposed by my Lord Bacon, is to amass evidence, and then to frame an explanation which takes into account all that is known.’

— An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears

Hypothetical reading is most interesting if the reader is likely at first to form incorrect hypotheses.

Gone Home misguides the player initially, but it does so in a way that is completely orthogonal to the actual substance of its story.

Early indications suggest a family in which the teenage daughter is distanced and unhappy and the parents are at odds with one another. Then Lonnie is introduced as a character, and unproblematically evolves into Sam’s girlfriend. The possibility that the mother is interested in someone other than her husband arises, and is then confirmed. New pieces of evidence supply greater specificity and sometimes answer the question “and then what happened?”, but for the most part they do not reverse expectations, or make the reader struggle at constructing a meaning that would take into account all that is known.

Instead the game’s horror tropes tease us with a different kind of false guess, a “what kind of game am I playing?” hypothesis. Is this a slice of life game in which people are living ordinary lives, or is it a horror game in which some of the characters might have been stabbed by a serial killer who is still somewhere in the house?

However, the possibility that it’s a game of the second type is not very well supported. The lights may flicker occasionally, and there may be one or two suggestions that the house has a reputation as being haunted or creepy, but since the tension doesn’t ramp up the way it would in a horror game, this hypothesis rapidly recedes into the background during play, taking with it most of the sense of urgency.

Nor does Gone Home let the reader take an active role in guessing and testing the guesses. One may form hypotheses about the relationships between the people in the house, why they are absent now, and where they have gone. But there is nothing the player can do that can either ask additional questions about these issues or hazard a guess at the answer. The exploration can’t be directed by the player in such a way that it elicits more information of the kind the player is most interested in; it can only be performed systematically and with a greater or lesser degree of thoroughness. Where in the house would you go to express, or investigate, the suspicion that the mother is having an affair?

The house, I felt, was a distraction, the 3D exploration a red herring. I moved through it more slowly and ponderously than I wanted to, and squinted at dim images on my screen, and sometimes missed objects that other people have mentioned finding. Since most of the story was being told via a series of documents, I wished I could do away with the house and just have the documents already.

What would a game look like if it were designed to encourage a process of reader engagement that consists of coming up with a narrative hypothesis and then testing it? If the discovery of layers of meaning and personhood were achieved through play?

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One good candidate is the game of research: a game that allows the player to think of a perspective on the situation or a piece of evidence that might shed more light, and then seek out that evidence. Christine Love’s work is strong on this, especially Analogue: A Hate Story. Analogue does what I wish Gone Home had done: it gives us direct access to the documents and databases and lets us sort through them for ourselves, though still in a directed way. It suggests productive keywords and useful lines of inquiry. It gives us characters described from multiple angles. It is itself rather extreme, almost cartoonish, in the facts of what it describes, but it allows for different voices to be heard.

Analogue also gives the player a stake in what happens, because in the present, the protagonist needs to make some decisions about taking sides. The protagonist of Gone Home has nothing to do. She is only a witness, and when she has witnessed the story, the game ends.

*

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Evidential storytelling presents an opportunity to tell the story of characters who have multiple sides, to invite the reader to hypothesize about who people are and then to complicate their view of those people. Heavy use of text allows us to sketch in the interior lives of the characters.

IF has often done both. Ian Finley’s Exhibition implements an art gallery containing a dozen paintings, and four people viewing those paintings: the wife of the recently deceased artist; a critic; the sex worker the artist had been involved with near the end of his life; and a bored student who doesn’t really want to be there at all. Each has a distinct explanation of each painting, and some have thoughts about one another as well. While the player is likely ultimately to read through all the painting descriptions and all the possible viewpoints, the course of that exploration is likely to be guided to some degree by the player’s own desire to find things out: for instance, the sex worker’s description of a particular painting mentions a difficult meeting with the wife, suggesting that it might be productive to look at the same painting next from her point of view.

More recently 18 Cadence uses the life of a house to structure vignettes about many characters, sometimes hinting at what they are thinking, and allowing the player to assemble different pieces of evidence in order to create different understandings about the people within.

The story of Gone Home uses these techniques less richly. It is more straightforward about its characters in ways I found not-so-credible.

The backstory goes like this: Sam, the sister of our protagonist, meets Lonnie, a girl with dyed red hair and a punk aesthetic and her own band. Sam and Lonnie hang out. They look for ghosts in Sam’s weird oversized old house. They don’t find ghosts, but they fall in love, have sex, go to shows, and work on a zine together. Sam’s parents don’t understand and don’t want to take Sam’s lesbianism seriously, and they try to discourage Sam and Lonnie from spending time together, though ineffectually. Lonnie is planning to join the army, and that looks like breaking her and Sam up; except, at the last minute, she gets cold feet about enlisting and calls Sam up, whereupon Sam runs away with her. Cue credits.

Sam and Lonnie don’t have many problems with one another, only with the figures of authority in their lives. There are hints that Lonnie might come from a poorer family than Sam, but that doesn’t seem to create the kinds of friction and dissonance it can create in real life.

There are also some pieces of (less thoroughly explored, less mandatory to the main experience) history about Sam’s mother (in love with a coworker) and her father (blocked in his writing career, tormented by trauma due to childhood abuse). Narratively, these characters are avatars of their problems — the dissatisfied wife, the unsuccessful writer. There’s relatively little here presented in their own voices, and that seems a shame because it could have illuminated so much, and made the story so much more human. What would their perspectives on Sam and Lonnie have been, if told in more detail in their own words? Their perspectives on each other?

From Sam’s own perspective she is a misunderstood heroine, but she could have been shown to be more complex than this, and that doing so would have made her more sympathetic rather than less.

*

For readers of contemporary fiction or even viewers of serious television, it’s hard for me to imagine that Gone Home would elicit much of any reaction, let alone the reports of full-bore weeping and breathless panegyrics this game has enjoyed.

Perpetual Adolescence, Ian Bogost

I cried at the end of Gone Home.

Sam does something brave, but also dangerous and stupid. She has run away from home with someone who has no resources. So far as we know, neither of them have money, a place to stay, a plan about where to go or any connections to get them a job. Lonnie hasn’t gone to college and Sam hasn’t even finished high school. What begins as a romantic road trip may lead very quickly to homelessness and vulnerability to any creep who comes along. They need to have their decisions respected and their love taken seriously, but that doesn’t mean they have the means to fight all their own battles.

Katie is the one family member Sam trusts enough to tell the truth, but she wasn’t there when Sam needed her. By the time she gets home, it’s too late for her to do anything.

The most concentrated misery I have experienced in my life was knowing a sibling was alone and in trouble, fearing for their safety, but being unable to reach them or do anything about it. The end of Gone Home stuck me back there, just a little, just enough to set me off. Sometimes that happens.

I did not cry at any point in reading An Instance of the Fingerpost. Nonetheless I think An Instance of the Fingerpost is a considerably more successful piece of art than Gone Home, displaying greater mastery of craft, more complex ideas, and more human characters.

It might be the lede to an interesting essay about an individual’s response to a piece, but I wish we could stop treating cried-during-game as some kind of litmus test of art.

At the same time I am grateful to the people who have written their individual responses, particularly addressing how it felt to play a game with a queer protagonist, and how the game did or did not speak to their own experiences. These I found as valuable to have read as the game itself. Whatever quibbles I may have had with the piece, the experience I’ve had around and because of Gone Home has been powerful and instructive.

43 thoughts on “Reading and Hypothesis

  1. When I played, I didn’t see any big improvements that could have been made. You’ve since convinced me that there is much more that could be done. I think parallel streams of views from other characters, especially the parents, would have been fascinating.

    What I appreciated about the 3D environment is how it emphasized the intrusiveness of what you were doing. It’s one thing to turn to a page or click a link labelled, “Sam’s Diary, page 7″ as opposed to actually snooping in her room, going through her drawers. I became directly responsible, even if my actions have no in-game consequence. I think that’s Gone Home biggest offering in video game design as Art. It’s not new in games (Braithwaite’s Train) or even video games (Spec Ops: The Line), but it remains rare enough to every designer experimenting is by necessity exploring new territory.

    • I became directly responsible, even if my actions have no in-game consequence.

      Hm, I wouldn’t have said that was so uncommon, either in the narrow sense (games that make you look through other characters’ stuff) or in the broader one (games that make you somehow complicit in or personally responsible for outcomes). But I certainly can’t argue with your experience that it was effective for you.

  2. I was particularly happy to see this post because, owing to a long involved tale involving the Gellert Grindelwald scenes that were deleted from the Deathly Hallows movies, in my household “backstory” means “yaoi.”

  3. This captures a lot about my dissatisfaction with Gone Home. I think it was a capable but not exceptional YA story, and a capable but uninspired adventure game. (I think it’s above-average in videogame-story terms – but this does not say good things about the state of storytelling in videogames.)

    And as you say, it definitely did things with the intersection of the two, most of which are moderately effective. (I played with Jacq, and there was a fairly long period in which both of us suspected rather strongly that gur ynfg guvat jr jbhyq qvfpbire vf gung Fnz unq pbzzvggrq fhvpvqr va gur nggvp. V’z abg fher gung gur tnzr vagragvbanyyl frg hc guvf nagvpvcngvba, ohg vg jnf na rssrpgvir grafvba nebhaq gur zvqtnzr. Cbffvoyl vg sryg erznexnoyr orpnhfr fb zhpu ryfr nobhg gur fgbel’f punenpgre qrirybczrag jnf gryrtencurq, npphengryl, sne va nqinapr.) But if this all feels a bit faint-praise-y… yeah.

    I’m mixed about the crying thing. I don’t cry, or laugh, easily at media of any kind. When I do, sometimes it represents a substantial accomplishment of the work that should be acknowledged. Sometimes it’s cheap button-pushing. Sometimes it’s justified button-pushing. Sometimes it’s entirely accidental button-pushing that the work doesn’t really deserve any special credit for.

    • I’ve just been playing To The Moon a bit and I found this comment by Richard Goodness (yes, the Sam and Leo guy):

      ‘Of course, we’re a culture who thinks that calling games “art” is a qualifier and that “making you cry” makes something art–To The Moon is an unfortunate, unfortunate side effect of this–so, I mean, there you go.’

      Which pretty on the spot. (I don’t dislike To The Moon, but boy is it sentimental.)

      I haven’t played Gone Home, but it sounds as though it doesn’t have much tolerance for ambiguity. Which makes me think of the contrast with Dear Esther — another game where you explore (in a straight line pretty much) and the reward for your exploration is an audio log — but where Dear Esther was full of ambiguity. And of Amanda Lange’s comments on Bioshock Infinite:

      ‘Where it comes to my literacy as a videogamer, BioShock Infinite was free to make assumptions…. Where it comes to my literacy regarding narrative, BioShock Infinite had no respect for me. I can set “I’m familiar with FPSes” in the difficulty settings. I can’t set “I’m familiar with how a story works,” though. So it’s very important that, after viewing a mural that shows George Washington standing on the clouds denying freedom to a bunch of racist caricatures, I also turn the corner and see “Protecting our RACE” in huge obvious letters on the wall. It’s important not only that there be a separate “Colored and Irish washroom,” but also that Elizabeth comment that that seems so silly and wrong. It’s important that a voxophone audio-diary explain what a kinetoscope visual-diary also explained five feet away, in case I missed one or the other.’

      I think perhaps Dear Esther was free to explore because (a) if the player didn’t get the back-story, there were still all the striking visuals to fall back on and more importantly (b) its creators didn’t need to make a living off of it.

  4. “What would a game look like if it were designed to encourage a process of reader engagement that consists of coming up with a narrative hypothesis and then testing it? If the discovery of layers of meaning and personhood were achieved through play?”

    When you said that, I thought of the “Ace Attorney” series of games. (The first two chapters are free to play on iOS.)

    You play an attorney. You investigate the scene of a murder, gathering evidence and developing a theory about what happened; you present that evidence in court to prove your case. If you’re wrong, you lose credibility (hit points) until you lose the trial, forcing you to restart the chapter.

    Each chapter is designed to have multiple reversals or “turnabouts,” where, as you dig a little deeper, the responsible party changes completely. (In Japanese, the game is called “Gyakuten Saiban,” or “Turnabout Trial.”)

    • Indeed! Before cutting (yes, at one point this blog post was significantly longer than it is now, believe it or not), I mentioned those, but that led to a tangent about how much of the gameplay was about really testing your hypotheses vs how much was about being clever enough to notice gotcha clues, and then I decided I couldn’t remember the game scenarios I’d played in enough detail to make a strong argument about them, so dropped the reference.

    • I write mysteries and work with mystery authors, so my mind immediately flew here as well.

      I think designing around research and hypothesis testing as the main play element (rather than traditional adventure game lock and key puzzles) is definitely the way to approach making a good mystery game. It feels like it ought to be so easy… most mysteries are already games, even in static fiction. Readers who want to play along come up with a theory about the crime, and then at the end they’re either right or wrong.

      But games are just too different, I think. How do you design that crucial step at the end, where the player demonstrates that they’ve solved the mystery? How do you stop/minimize guessing or brute forcing (or do you even try)? What if the player solves the mystery straight away?

      I play the Ace Attorney games because I enjoy the wacky mystery setups, but I really don’t think they’re anything like what Emily is imagining here. The story certainly encapsulates the idea of testing theories, but the gameplay doesn’t at all. It’s almost 100% on rails, and the player isn’t given any chance to direct the story based on their own theories about the murders. It’s more like a selection of mini-quizzes. Perhaps it could feel like you were forming and testing hypotheses if you were completely on the writers’ wavelength and incredibly lucky. But the illusion is shattered as soon as the game doesn’t let you ask the questions you really want to. Which for me happens at almost every stage.

      The game I’ve played which gets closest to capturing the feeling of research and solving a crime is the 1997 adaptation of Bladerunner, of all things. The designers’ solution there was to provide plenty of clues and many different routes through the mystery. It’s hard to find all the clues but it would be difficult to find none, and most sensible hunches about these clues are either rewarded with progress or a clear indicator of why your hunch was wrong. One consequence is that the game is rather easy. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it also doesn’t have that feeling of solving a single overarching mystery, or putting together all the pieces of a difficult puzzle. The big twists at the end all arrive regardless of what the player does, and the end has a lot of shooting and action. Which fits with the style, but doesn’t get any closer to solving the problem of making a game where the player is a more thoughtful detective like a Miss Marple or a Gideon Fell, slowly working towards a single, dazzling deduction.

      • Certainly every smart person I know who’s played Ace Attorney has the same feeling: “I know the answer, but how do I present an inventory item at the right time/place to demonstrate that?”

        But IMO, that’d be fine if they just offered better feedback on your guesses, and/or offered multiple solutions. Being a “mini-quiz” is OK by me; getting the right answer is what “testing your hypothesis” is all about.

        I mention AA, though, because I find it hard to come up with any other in-game contrivance in which you’d need to demonstrate that you’d developed a solid narrative theory in order to continue. In AA, the prosecutor can argue back, explaining why your theory is wrong. Who else could you have that conversation with? You could break the fourth wall and argue with the narrator, I suppose? (a la Hotel Dusk?)

        Also relevant: “Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher,” heavily inspired by AA, in which you argue about philosophy instead of a murder case. http://www.kongregate.com/games/chiefwakamakamu/socrates-jones-pro-philosopher

      • I think the frustration with Ace Attorney goes deeper than that. Because I’ve read hundreds of mysteries and think a lot about their construction, I almost always work out the solution well before I’m allowed to present it, often as soon as the murderer is introduced for the first time (the AA writers are rubbish at hiding their killers). And while I can accept that I might be an edge case here, I’d guess most players find themselves ahead of the plot at some point. But you’re still forced to present and test the hypotheses that the game wants you to test, in order, even if you know that they’re bound to be disproved again before the end of the trial. Maybe it would be less jarring if there was any sense that you were roleplaying as Phoenix Wright, but his intelligence and deductive abilities fluctuate wildly between “wilfully stupid” and “completely psychic”.

        But I guess those are problems that could be overcome with more skilful writing and design. However, I just don’t agree that quizzes (or equivalent) are a good way of approaching this. Sure, they’re potentially a great way to test players’ hypotheses, but I think they do a lousy job of encouraging players to FORM hypotheses, or at least not spoiling the most rewarding part of that process. The most interesting hypothesis/test scenarios are going to involve looking at one or several aspects of the story in a whole new light, whether it’s approaching a murder case from a different perspective, or overturning unwarranted assumptions about a character, or realising that you can fly in that section of Photopia, etc. etc. It seems to me that presenting these things as a quiz (or equivalent), even if the answer is hidden amongst many, would undermine players reaching those surprising and rewarding conclusions on their own.

      • You may be misremembering how the games work? (I just replayed the whole series recently.) In half the trials, the real killer is directly revealed to the player (but not the PC) in the intro video. The game directly tells you who the killer is before the attorneys know it; you are indeed roleplaying to discover what you already know. It’s odd to say that they’re “rubbish at hiding their killers” when they’re doing it this way.

      • Is it as many as half? I remember the tutorial cases in each game being “Columbo style”, but I was surprised in Dual Destinies when the second case did it as well, for no obvious reason. (In the first case there’s a certain amount of tension when the killer appears on the stand, but in the second case knowing the killer in advance undermines a lot of the twists with no obvious compensation. But it generally seemed a bit rushed and thrown together. There were an extraordinary number of proofreading errors, considering how important the text is to the game and how little of it is redundant.)

        Anyway, I don’t see that this much affects my point. There are at least some cases where the murderer is a secret, but it’s quite possible to solve it well in advance, and the game doesn’t let you do anything with that knowledge until it decides you’re ready.

  5. I have to agree with the Stephen Bond Quote. All things be equal I’d rather go through a linear story in the present then discover it peace meal by wondering around an abandoned set. Here ineractive works like Photopia and Violet comes to mind. Neither of them gives you any real choice. Both have a single solution involving doing things in the correct order, and yet I enjoyed them immensely. On the other had there is the exploration of back story pieces like Blue Lacuna which I never managed to finish. Sure there where puzzles for me to solve but all the interesting stuff had happened already, and to someone else. In the end the game elements ended up feeling like a barrier between me and the story.

    Note that this sometimes applies to works of normal fiction as well. Right Now I’m reading the Book Thief, and I’m finding it quite hard going for much the same reasons. Instead of getting the Liesel’s story as it happens, We get it from the point of view of an annoying narrator who won’t get out of the way.

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  10. This is an excellent analysis, really interesting points well formulated. I agree Gone Home’s storytelling would be stronger if characters told each other’s stories as much as they told their own. There’s a hint of this in Daniel’s story – the mum and Sam have different perspectives on him, he eventually gets his own voice and Sam seems to change her mind about him. The player is expected to first perceive him as a creep but eventually come around to sympathise with him.

    I disagree that the house brings nothing to the story. It’s obvious how separately these people lived their lives from how spread out their stuff is, plus I think it adds a hard to quantify “colour” to what you’re reading. But I’m a gradutate architect so I’m biased.

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  13. >I wish we could stop treating cried-during-game as some kind of litmus test of art.

    Testify. I look forward to seeing the ‘[game] made me cry’ meme go the way of the ‘Citizen Kane’ meme. ‘[game] made me cry’ is often either patronising (‘wow, this toy made me cry’) or defensive (‘see, this game gave me the same reaction as Winter Light’).

    >I’d expect the player’s reaction to involve such things as standing in the foyer and yelling

    ISTR the writers addressed, or at least acknowledged, this by putting a note on the front door from the protagonist’s mother that said ‘Don’t panic’. I remember you blogged about a similar problem with Alan Wake: wouldn’t a sensible protagonist drive to the supermarket and load up on camping lights? I do think sometimes one just has to roll with the conceits.

    Almost the first thing I thought when I heard the Gone Home pitch was ‘how are they going to fill a whole game with this?’ Almost the first thing I thought when I started playing was ‘this is *amazing* – how much work was it to get that much content in every five minutes of gameplay?’ As it turned out, of course, they addressed both those by making a very short game, but that’s okay. And as backstory goes, the variety and intelligence of the clues is a bar-raising change from audio diaries. I think the effect of GH on the landscape is much more interesting than the effect of Dear Esther, because the idea of making good YA emo drama for a mainstream audience in a game interface is much ballsier than making another self-consciously arty experiment. (though I have nothing against DE, or indeed against self-consciously arty experiments.)

    • I do think sometimes one just has to roll with the conceits.

      Sure, and I have enjoyed a number of games where the protagonist did something really unlikely.

      What I meant was not “this gameplay is bad because it’s not mimetically true to what the protagonist would do,” but “this gameplay is disappointing to me *and* doesn’t have the justification of being what the protagonist would do.” I’m not advocating replacing the opening of Gone Home with a “Press X to yell JASON!” QTE, but there are many pieces of boring, simplistic, difficult, or frustrating gameplay that I found artistically effective because of their fidelity to either the physical or emotional experience of the protagonist (see also: Cart Life, Dys4ia).

      And yes, some of the individual clues were good; I particularly liked Sam’s stories, and the love and artistry put into illustrating her and Lonnie’s zines, etc. The story about the female reproductive cycle was hilarious. I wanted the experience of reading these to come more smoothly, though, and without the risk of missing some of them (as I know I certainly I did) because finding them required squinting around the screen for slightly-paler patches in dimly lit rooms.

      I also can’t disagree that GH is daring in its cultural/market context and that it’s drawn a lot of attention from people who might not have been paying attention to artier things, which is important in itself.

  14. >this gameplay is disappointing to me *and* doesn’t have the justification of being what the protagonist would do… squinting around the screen for slightly-paler patches in dimly lit rooms.

    I see what you mean, and you’re right. IMO this is less of a problem in Alan Wake, because the game, the story, the atmosphere, the homages are all at the most fundamental level about stumbling around in dark woods – there’s thematic integrity in intent, if not in execution. There isn’t that same kind of thematic integrity in GH. Mechanical and UI frustrations aside (because they’re harder to propose changes to, not because they’re less important) I wonder how it would have played out if she’d been going through her parents’ things after their death, or if the messages implied her family expected her to be a sneak and a gossip.

  15. Is there any mileage at all in trying to make a game which guesses what the player’s hypotheses are and reacts accordingly, without explicitly asking about them?

    For example, imagine a police procedural game with a victim and a pool of potential suspects, all of whom you can research. The game tries to guess the player’s current suspicions based on their research actions (simplistic assumption: a player is most interested in the guilt or innocence of the characters they spend the most time researching) and then tries to make the investigation INTERESTING based on those guesses, using traditional mystery tropes.

    So if the player seems to be invested in a particular character’s innocence, they might discover evidence which gets that character arrested, raising the stakes. Or if the player seems to be invested in a particular character’s guilt then, when the game decides it will be the most effective, they could turn up evidence that shows that character CAN’T be the murderer (an ironclad alibi, their corpse, etc.). The player has to re-evaluate their hypothesis, and the game quietly deletes or neutralises all the other research strands related to that character’s guilt that the player hasn’t found yet.

    So there would be a initial space of possible solutions which gets narrowed down as the player investigates. Once there’s only one solution left, that gets locked into place and the player can now proceed to the finale.

    That makes me shudder even as I type it, because I have great difficulty letting go of the idea that a mystery is a battle of wits between the author and the reader, which necessitates having a single, pre-determined solution. But I think something like this could at least give the illusion of investigation and research.

      • That’s interesting. I don’t have enough design experience to have a good handle on what is and isn’t feasible. It feels like it would depend on the tone. I could imagine a parody of 30s country house mysteries or perhaps a slasher scenario would be easier? Then it would be less jarring if the plot seemed to twist wildly or the game elected to bump off a lot of characters in quick succession.

        But then maybe you’d just get a souped-up version of Mystery House, which might not be worth the effort…

        On reflection, there’s a Nancy Drew game (one of the short ones) that tries something similar, but much simpler: you’re asked who you think the villain is twice during the game, and whoever you pick the second time is the murderer. You’re then funnelled into an a unique end sequence which highlights the clues supporting that solution and completely ignores the others. Which works well as long you don’t play again or talk about it with anyone!

        I have played Make It Good. It’s extremely clever, and I agree that it’s very satisfying to complete. But I wonder if it’s too special to be much use when considering future mystery games. So much relies on the conceit regarding the protagonist. And while hypothesis testing does make up a lot of the gameplay, by the later stages it felt more like building a Rube Goldberg machine or working in a particularly awkward programming language than conducting an investigation.

        I play most mystery games I can get hold of, and I still haven’t played anything that captures the experience of being in a thriller/mystery better than The Last Express. Which is a little sad, considering how old it is.

      • Yeah, I don’t expect it’s possible to replicate Make It Good. I assume if you follow these things closely you’re also familiar with An Act of Murder: it impressed me by pulling off the murderer-and-method-are-randomized trick better than most, and I found it a lot of fun. But I think that only worked because there was a sort of schematic quality to the story; the characters weren’t so much deep, convincing, well-developed beings as they were tokens for the game.

        I think anything one tried to do around making the game adapt itself to the player (the way you suggest) would kind of have to go this way: simplify the characters and their possible motives and means until the whole thing is straightforward enough that the various subplots can be swapped out with one another safely. It would require at the very least a lot of discipline at the design phase to prevent it from getting utterly, absolutely out of control.

  16. I find myself generally in agreement with your analysis, especially on the over-reliance on videogame tropes and the misguiding atmosphere.

    However, in terms of this game being all backstory, I would disagree. There are 2 stories here – the one you discover, and the one of you discovering it. The first is the backstory, but what you are actually playing is the story of a kid discovering its family’s backstory. You have some agency in this second story, inasmuch as you are the one pushing it towards completion – but not much else. And it really cannot be called interactive, because the game does not respond to you, it just passively waits for you to find that one piece of paper under a pillow, or that one tape so you can push it forward. And one way interaction is really missing that “inter” bit :)

  17. Most, or perhaps all, of the developers came from a AAA game development background (the mass-market bloodbath Bioshock, no less!). I feel like this troubled history might account for a lot of the aspects you find problematic.

  18. Great article, and I’m glad to see your comments on interactive fiction not simply being a question of who controls the plot.

    We are trying so hard to find ways of making gameplay resonant with the experience of the story. What if it was entirely orthogonal and used as a device to capture and hold attention?

    The cartoonist Chris Ware has done a lot of experiments with comic book storytelling. I remember a series of little strips he did that were genuinely little — each panel was maybe a half inch to an inch across, with no word balloons. I literally had to hold the page right up to my face to decipher them. What I found was a small narrative of longing and loneliness that, in just a few pages, brought me to tears. If I hadn’t had to focus so intently on them I doubt I would have been as vulnerable to their content.

    I recently played the iOS game Stride & Prejudice, an endless runner where you tap to jump while running across the actual sentences of Pride & Prejudice. Bizarre though it may sound, I read the entire novel this way, a book I’d never read before. Reading a Jane Austen novel while tapping to jump the spaces between sentences required a degree of focus that minimized distractions. Ordinarily my mind is busy and noisy; the minimal gameplay occupied that distractable portion of my mind and left me with just enough attention to purely read and comprehend. I’m not sure I would have been as successful reading the book under normal circumstances.

    What I’m saying is that gameplay doesn’t have to be a tight fit to content. Gameplay can simply be a frame, a medium, within which story occurs. If you take that approach — which I’m not saying is the only right approach, of course — then you would consider gameplay from a completely different perspective based on things like managing attention or increasing comprehension rather than trying to use game design to drive narrative.

    • That’s fair enough. Would you say that Gone Home actually does this, though?

      I’m not sure it does, and I think that I missed some information on my initial playthrough because the hide-and-seek-in-the-house presentation made it possible to do so; certainly I didn’t find all the elements of Terry’s story that others have teased out.

      But I could be wrong and would be interested to hear a counterargument.

  19. Good article with some interesting points. I think one thing that is often overlooked with this medium is that it leaves the narration up to ones self. I thought gone home was great in this regard and hit a lot of really strong points. As far as the story telling for the direct characters (father, mother, sister) then I think other mediums do a much better job of getting complex characters built. But if looked at from the point of view of the main narrator (you) then the game provides a very great experience that would be hard to capture in another medium.

    Remember that the main character is a college student coming home after a long time away. I think many of us can relate to the experience of coming home at some point where our point of view is no longer that of self centered childhood, and that our family feel like strangers. What you felt when the feeling of dread released over the course of the game is perfectly tuned to this. You come home and you feel actually unsafe, until you turn on a enough lights and realize “no this is just my parents house, just not one I know. Perhaps I’ll find out what’s going on with the family.”. Then there is all the info which give a smaller of unease and more one of wanting to know what went so terribly wrong with the family. By the end you realize that this is just the family you thought you knew but never REALLY saw. The complexity of character you are looking for is completely within Kaitlin who must come to terms with being an adult and what to do with all this information she’s rummaging through.

    All that said if you are looking for something that really does explore the medium in a really meaningful way with very tight execution I would highly recommend “Kentucky route zero” http://kentuckyroutezero.com/. It is similar in that it uses simple mechanics that are not so “game like”, but they utilize every element at their disposal with purpose and care. In addition their explorations of time, spaces and storytelling really push to the forefront that there is a lot more possible in this medium than most people give credit for. Gone home is less an exploration in the medium. More so it is a statement that games can be about everyday human life just as much as they can be about fighting zombies, yet still resonate just as strong.

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  21. Thanks for this. A great piece.

    I had very similar misgivings about Gone Home too. I thought the characters were not really worked as hard as they could be, the interaction didn’t sit it very well, it was too simple, and so on. And I found myself mentally tracking those problems as I went. But then the ending also moved me, and that was a surprise. So what do I know?

    Also…

    “After the British Library event I went home and ranted at length to my husband.”

    Many belated congratulations :D Now you have even more names to choose from ;)

  22. I liked Gone Home very much, but my background is a bit unusual. Because of some odd wiring in my brain, I don’t “do” accomplishments. That is, I don’t enjoy “winning.” I enjoy watching process work itself out, and never trouble myself if it’s “too easy.” Hard, for me, simply gets in the way of the story, and usually feels contrived and false, as if the developer were trying to put his or her finger in my eye for his or her own amusement.

    From this perspective, a lot of the comments on Gone Home seemed “outsider.” They were in the voice of a player, an outside manipulator, not a participant. I wasn’t predisposed to like the game, but I soon found myself slipping into it and letting it flow around me, and feeling Sam’s wonder and terror and awe at what was happening to her. There were so many little details to think about if you weren’t trying to “win” the game. You didn’t really know “what was going to happen” to her and Lonnie except in the broadest sense, and sometimes not even then. Right to the end, Lonnie seems committed to her Army career, and it was a very clever touch to make her agonized attempts to get Sam on the phone to tell her she couldn’t go through with it into one of the “clues” you find at the very beginning that leads you to believe something horrible must have occurred.

    Is the ending silly? Love is great, but it doesn’t pay the bills. What I felt should have happened is that having faced their own crisis, with the mother’s promotion (which also makes her commute much shorter) and her father’s renewed hope in his literary career, and with the older sister back, Sam and Lonnie might have “gone home” again and this time been taken seriously and accepted by Sam’s parents. That’s what I hoped happened, anyway. Though I may have gotten that from having a genderqueer partner myself….

    PS: It’s quite correct to object to “makes me cry” as some sort of litmus test for a good narrative. But it’s very distasteful to turn up your nose at it, as if that were a thing that only peasants do, nothing but a cheap trick.

    • Did I turn up my nose at it? I didn’t think so, but if it came across that way, that was unintended.

      And I’m with you on not requiring all games to be hard. Some of my favorites, and many of the things I’ve written myself, don’t pose much of a challenge. That’s a different issue from whether the thing the player does is at all related to the story content.

  23. Working from your comparison/interrelation of Fingerpost and Gone Home, I have a different interpretation of Fingerpost than you do. I think it proposes a different sort of epistemology, in part, by staging contradictions like induction and deduction. I think the two texts resonant, because like Fingerpost, Gone Home offers an alternative mode of epistemology as well — “looking back” as proposed by Sara Ahmed in Queer Phenomenologies. Ahmed argues that deviation from the norm often results in disappearance from history, so, what do QPOC do when faced with a disappeared history? Look back, Ahmed suggests, to the place of disappearance. with joy. and resist the temptation to fill in the blank.

    The “backstory” in Gone Home is normal, undeviating, recordable history, and writable archive. It tends to be boring, because we’ve heard it. read it. before. before. before. It’s a back to the future story, of an unending, undeviating now. But. It is also the backstory for a deviation — in which the Home is Gone and Gone is Home, for Sam. If a different future is coming, then it’s coming from the direction “gone home.” and that’s the epistemology here — how to greet what’s coming, when you’ve never seen or done anything like it before. how to get gone.

    When I succumb to temptation and fill in the long disappearance I hear “Fast Car” (chapman) and I see “It Wasn’t Love,” (benning), and I remember all my friends who left home precipitously, unprepared, alone and I think: yeah. that’s right. go.

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