2 min read

Week 11: "Gone Home" and Interactivity

I will admit right away that I couldn't get myself to finish Gone Home. After spending about an hour exploring every room of the house where the game takes place, wondering whether people in the 90s (I was born in '96) actually conversed with each other at home through handwritten notes or if that's only a subset of white people in the suburbs, and throwing cups at walls to see if they would break, I realized I had no way to open the various locked doors I found throughout the house, and was so repelled by the idea of trudging through the ridiculously large house a second time over that I saved (mostly out of respect for the time I'd already spent) and quit.

I read about the game after that. As a brief aside, I rarely ever play a game without reading or hearing some kind of "review", a habit my sister and I built growing up when the only time we could buy games was on our birthdays, and we learned we couldn't waste the opportunity on untested content. But after reading up on its history, I began to wish I had the patience to play it. I learned that it was considered both innovative and controversial for its non-linear story progression and limited interaction, and became the center of conversations about "video games as art" and what makes a game a "game" in the first place.

I'm not sure I'm as interested in those conversations as I am in the contexts where they occur – for example, the gatekeeping that spurs these conversations in the first place seem like a consequence of some structural damage in society. But I feel that the limited interactivity is why I can't play this game, and perhaps why a classmate in another section found it enjoyable enough just watching on YouTube.

I had a chance to read the first chapters of Chris Crawford's book on interactive design, where he explains why a book or movie are not interactive, despite the strong reactions they might evoke from us. He writes, "There exists no continuum with reaction at one point on the continuum and interaction somewhere else...A stronger and stronger reaction does not transcend its nature and become an interaction. You can turn up the reaction volume as high as you want, but playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at 20,000 watts does not make it a painting." Crucial here is that interactivity does not equate a good or bad experience, but rather that it exists as one component of many that make up these experiences. But I think if we claim that an experience lacking interactivity is interactive, we may undermine its merits in other areas, as well as the experience altogether.

When we were assigned Gone Home, we were told to download Steam, which some may be familiar with as a videogame storefront, and "play" it, which is common language we use for games. In other words, we were primed from the beginning to read Gone Home as a game, a category that may carries different connotations depending on our backgrounds, but informs our expectations nevertheless. Perhaps my relationship with games made me expect something interactive, and when what I saw didn't align with that expectation, I felt something like disappointment, turning me off from the experience altogether.

In other words, maybe the barrier to my enjoyment of Gone Home was a semantic one, which isn't to say that it is or isn't a game, but that "game" itself can so contextual or subjective that we need a more descriptive set of words to understand what kind of experience it will be.