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.
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.
“You should read An Instance of the Fingerpost.”
I 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?
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.
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.