[20 December 2013]
In a recent article on Kotaku, Stephen Totilo asks “Do we grade video games on a curve?” He specifically discusses Gone Home for consideration and wonders: “Would I cherish it if it wasn’t a game? Would it seem special if it was a short story or a movie or a play?”
The simple answer to the latter question is: yes. Gone Home can be considered a great story, and especially a great romance, regardless of its medium because it successfully tells multiple intertwining stories that relate to each other narratively and thematically. Its plots are simple (deceptively so), which is the catalyst for much of the criticism of it, but it is really the emotional honesty of its characters that elevates it into something special.
That’s an accomplishment for any story but the fact that Gone Home is video game makes it especially impressive, not because all game stories supposedly suck and Gone Home is better than average (which is the implied criticism when Totilo asks if we grade games on a curve), but because video games are not a medium well-suited to romance. Games should be graded on a curve because they’re at a disadvantage when it comes to telling a romantic story (I also believe that they’re at an advantage when it comes to horror, so horror games should be graded more harshly than horror movies. The curve works both ways.).
Romance is a genre that is better suited to film—or really any passive medium.
The first, most obvious, challenge facing a video game romance is that we must, at the very least, like the proposed object of our affection. Because if our love interest isn’t likable, let alone lovable, then the entire game falls apart. It’s a house of cards in which the success of the entire experience rests on a single interaction with a single character. It thus falls to the writer to craft a character that is liked by a vast majority of the player base, but this is where things get tricky. Horror is relatively easy because we’re all scared of the same things. Fear doesn’t change much from person to person, but love does. We all have our “types” and we all find different features and attitudes attractive. Trying to make one character lovable to as many people as possible inevitably results in a bland and inoffensive love interest. No one likes that, so the game falls apart.
One alternative is to give us multiple romance options, but those options face the same dilemma. They’re just trying to appeal to a slightly more fragmented player base. As a result, romance options usually fall into clichéd extremes. Just look at any Bioware game: Our romantic partners are always split between “the shy one” and the “the confident one” or to be even more archetypal, the “good girl/boy” and the “bad girl/boy”: Liara vs. Ashley, Tali vs. Miranda, Leliana vs. Morrigan, Alistair vs. Zevran, Merrill vs. Isabela, and Sebastian vs. Fenris. And how do you compensate for the player that just doesn’t care about any of those people? Are they doomed to hate your romance game?
Gone Home tells a great romance story, but it tells a particularly brilliant video game romance story because it finds a way around all these problems; you’re not part of the romance. By placing the player outside that relationship, Gone Home can develop a romance that feels realistically nuanced.
The game highlights important moments through Sam’s letters: meeting Lonnie, dyeing each other’s hair, sleeping on the futon, their first kiss, etc. These are the major moments of their relationship, the turning points when Sam’s feelings start to change, and together they form the backbone of Sam’s story. These are the big moments that every romance story must include at some point, and in fact, these are the kind of moments that any BioWare romance is built around.
These big moments are universal, so it’s easy to build an engaging romantic sub-plot using just them because they’ll inevitably make the romance feel honest to most players. And it is honest. We all experience the first meeting, first kiss, first fight, etc. However, a good romance story can’t be just these big moments, and that’s where BioWare always stumbles. These moments are only the backbone of a story. They don’t form a complete story on their own. A complete romance, which is to say a good romance, must fill in the space between those big moments. That’s very hard to do in a game because these in-between moments are specific to the people involved. They’re not universal, but that’s what makes them so important.
Personally, I think the most romantic image in Gone Home is Sam’s plan for matching Halloween costumes of the characters she has created to represent romance, Captain Allegra and her First Mate. Sam’s evolving story of Captain Allegra is a very personal wish fulfillment fantasy for her, so seeing Lonnie embrace her partner’s cherished and goofy fantasy is a subtle yet powerful proof of their mutual love. It’s also the kind of character moment that you can’t have with a player.
The romance at the center of the game is entirely passive and that allows it to be evocative, emotional, nuanced, and realistic—yet Gone Home isn’t a passive experience. It still requires player interaction, both a physical interaction (exploring the house) and a mental interaction (piecing together the story). The fact that it requires you to be physically and mentally active while playing already makes it more interactive than most games, which only require physical interaction from the player.
Gone Home gives us the best of both mediums: an interactive world that tells us a passive story. Gone Home does indeed tell a great story “for a video game,” but in this case, that’s not a derogatory caveat. The caveat actually makes the game even more impressive because it means Gone Home tells a great romance story in a medium uniquely unsuited to romance.