A common debate lately surrounds whether video games can be considered art. As far as I know, the initial argument was launched by a post from the late Roger Ebert, who argued that they “could never be art” which met him with the wrath of angry gamers (who, I’ve since learned, are a crowd that doesn’t care much for criticism of their games). For a long time, I was pretty ambivalent on the subject, feeling that games often had artistic properties but lacked a certain individual purpose or statement that I tend to associate with art, or at least my definition of it.
A good example is a game like Grand Theft Auto V, which I played when it was released a couple years ago. Its graphics were absolutely stunning, featuring gorgeous scenery, realistic city streets, and characters that really moved and felt like humans. But all of this technical mastery was done in service of a go-nowhere story that just involved running around and shooting people, randomly running over pedestrians, etc. Part of why I’ve never been big on video games is I feel an enormous percentage of them resemble GTA: they’re the equivalent of blockbuster Hollywood movies that dazzle with special effects but ultimately have no real purpose or insight. When held to an art-level standard where I was looking into what it was trying to say or what its themes were beyond “wouldn’t it be cool to kill a ton of people,” most games fell woefully short.
Part of this is that, for a long time, games have been mostly marketed toward a specific demographic of over-caffeinated young boys/men, which has been associated with a lot of blood, mayhem, and explosions. In the last year, I’ve been sort of passively following the industry as critics like Anita Sarkeesian have focused on many of the long-time issues in games and have argued for increased diversity in the business. Sarkeesian has been basically under siege from the gaming community since starting her “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series, but I see her as a true critic: someone who loves what they are criticizing, and does it because she wants everything to be better. Her goal of increasing the range of stories games can tell and improving the way characters are depicted mostly aligns with where I wish video games would go — more towards telling stories and away from senselessly blowing stuff up.
One game Sarkeesian recommended was Gone Home, the first release by The Fullbright Company, a small indie game studio in Portland, Oregon. When I played it, it was really easy to see why she recommended it: it is a game grounded in characters and story, and it proves the artistic potential video games can have when they’re not being aimed at such a narrow audience.
In Gone Home, you play from the perspective of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21-year-old who returns from a year of studying abroad to find her family missing from the old mansion they moved into the year before. The gameplay is exceedingly simple: you move around the house from room to room, and find little clues sprinkled around the house that allow you to piece together what happened to your family. (I should add that this all takes place in 1995 — the story kind of doesn’t work in a world of smartphones.) Most of the plot comes from journal entries you find from your younger sister Samantha, who directly tells you her story through the duration of the game.
The advantage video games have over any other medium is that they allow you to play an active part in the story — in a sense, to live it out yourself. Many games waste this potential, but Gone Home really pushes it into an interesting place. As Kaitlin, you never speak with anyone in the game, but you really inhabit the character and feel like you’re in her head as you try to piece together the game’s central mystery.
This is part of why I’m sharing as little of the plot as I possibly can: a ton of what made Gone Home a really memorable experience for me was the feeling of piecing together all of the threads myself. The game gives you a certain amount of info on a platter (some disbelief needs to be suspended at how many useful plot tidbits are just left laying around), but tons of the story takes place “off the page,” so to speak, relying on your ability to draw certain conclusions about the characters based on what they left in the house. This is an ambiguity in storytelling that I really love and had never really gotten out of a video game before.
Where Gone Home really succeeds beyond other games is in its characters — which sounds crazy, since none of them are actually on screen, and only Samantha speaks. But through the objects and artifacts in the house, I developed a real understanding of who each character was and what their motivations were. And regardless of what they did, the game portrays each of them with a tremendous amount of empathy. While many games are about good characters and bad characters, the people in Gone Home all behave like real, flawed human beings.
Gone Home is the game that really convinced me that Ebert was wrong in his initial assessment of video games, largely because it feels like a real statement. It has a lot to say about identity, family, tolerance, and the secrets people keep from others. The video game medium was also necessary for the way the creators wanted to tell this story, and part of what ultimately makes it so poignant. Despite a relatively brief amount of gameplay (I brisked through it in about three hours), Gone Home is a game that has really stuck with me in a way I didn’t think video games could.
If you want to play it and then talk with me about it, buy it at www.gonehomegame.com.