Friday, August 16, 2013

Gone Home

So, I'm going to talk about Gone Home.

If you haven't played it, go play it. The game is much like a box full of friendly butterflies: it's best to open it without knowing that it's full of friendly butterflies. And if someone asks "is it really worth $20 to just open a box? It seems like a lot for so little..." you just have to nod and hope they trust your opinion.

So, um, stop reading this and go play it. You wouldn't want to ruin the surprise of friendly butterflies.

That said, my spoilers are going to be pretty modest. We're going to be talking about some of the design pieces of the game that I happened to notice most.


Most people will have noticed the music. A lot of people have commented on how much they liked it, but I didn't particularly like it as music. But I did like it as an expression of the world those characters inhabit.

The music was a reflection of Sam and Lonnie, and their growing relationship. Even though it's not something I would put on my playlist, I really enjoyed hearing it because it was used for the purposes music is supposed to be used for: it was expressive.

Shock! Music is supposed to express things! Wow!

It doesn't sound like much of an innovative statement to anyone who really likes music, but when you think about games and music, you find that video game music is almost universally used to express the game world and the pacing within it. Not the characters. Characters have themes, but the themes reflect the character's position in the world and story, not the character themself.

So the screaming punk songs in Gone Home were fantastic because they were the expression of a character in the world, rather than being an expression of the world.

I'd like to highlight this particular uniqueness to Gone Home. It's really obvious: the characters are what make Gone Home. This is a game about discovering characters, not a game about using characters. And that's a big difference.

I was thinking about how to make characters more central to any given game. For example, in Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us, there were characters and they were a big part of the story. You could say that the characters drove the game - their impulses, needs, and desires.

Despite that, the characters in those games exist to serve the game. In Gone Home, the game exists to serve the characters.

I'd like to think a little bit about whether or not this principle could be used in other kinds of games.

Let's talk about some of the basic game mechanics used to make the game serve the characters. I'd like to wave my hands and go "woooooo, aaaaaaaart", but art is built on fundamentals, and this game uses some pretty concrete methods that could bear discussing.

The music is one example - it exists for the characters, not for the world or for the player.

Similarly, all the notes and clues you find are about the internal workings of someone's life rather than about forwarding the plot or the gameplay. There is no "gate" or "gameplay hook".

For example, if this were a typical RPG, then discovering that your mom is going to conduct a forest burn would have been a "gate" for you to step in and participate, or a "gate" for the plot to advance and, I dunno, burn the city down by accident. There is a chain of events in the game world, yes - learning more about the burning does lead you further into your mother's life. But it's not a life you are part of, and it doesn't try to involve you. At no point does it result in you having to step in and act.

That's the key to this affair. The player is never called on to act.

Like a detective, the player exists to try and piece together the pieces. But unlike a detective game, there's no real blockades. Detective games are all about solving complicated clues and puzzles... but this is not like that. Even if you miss some stuff, you don't suffer. You aren't held back. There are some gates and keys, but they are all pretty basic, there to control your pacing rather than challenge your skill. They exist to say "this area is 'before' that area", not to say "solve this to win!"

And their lives are the same way. Their lives come together in your mind - their personalities, their joys and fears and problems and successes... but at no point do you have to solve those lives. You never step in. The game is entirely built around the player trying to solve a series of mysteries for the player's own sake. You feel success when you figure out what happened to Sam, where your parents went, and so on. It is success. But it's entirely internal: you never changed their lives and, if/when people get home, the only indication that you were fussing around is all the lights you left on.

It's easy to dismiss that kind of design with "it's not a game!"

But it is a game. It's a fantastic game.

There is a lot of interaction. You can pick up a vast array of (mostly useless) crap, there's even some basic physics. There are moments of complexity and denial, such as areas that go dark when the lights go out, and passages of text you can never read again. It is gorgeous both visually and aurally, and in both cases you are at the helm when exploring those facets. There are secrets to be solved, clues to be patched together, safes to be cracked...

It's just that all that stuff is separate from the lives of the characters.

So, I was thinking about how you might be able to apply this basic technique to other kinds of games and genres and so on. Obviously, in all cases you'd need to have a strong focus on characters, but I think almost every genre can do that.

The key, I think, is that you need to completely wall off the lives of the characters from the gameplay used to mine for that information. The characters never ask for or give gameplay help, aside from some very basic gating used to establish "before" and "after" for the sake of the player's experience.

Wouldn't that be boring, though?

No, I don't really think so. To a large extent, plot exists to give games an excuse to vary their setpieces and play. It's quite possible to use characters for this purpose in this scenario.

Say you're playing a brawler. You are the stone monkey of Chinese legend, and you fight through dozens of enemies in a painfully standard combat game.

Normally the plot would be "Son Wukong goes to place A, fights a boss, the boss reveals he needs to go to place B, where he is dumped to place C so he can fight another boss..." The player is very reactive. Even if the hero is quite aggressive and is the reason why most of these levels happen, the player generally has no control.

So, instead imagine that Son Wukong is learning about the lives of the individual gods and immortals which rule over the world. He is struggling to become one, but they don't even know he exists. Even if they meet him, he's just some random monkey, who cares? So instead we learn about them in indirect ways. We hear them. Find missives. See psychic leftovers. Hear it second-hand from someone who remembers. Find their favorite music, art, and so on.

We get to know the gods in question. And our progression through the levels is much the same, but each level is driven by a god's personal life, not our own activities. We aren't really interacting with the god's personal life - it's just that their personal life caused the situation we find ourselves fighting through. We're not helping the god or fighting against them or whatever - we're just drowning in the fallout of their bullshit personal life.

Now it sounds a little interesting, to me. And at the end, you confront them and they say "who the hell are you?"

And there's a big fight because it's a fighting video game.

I can design a similar approach for my space ship game. The personal lives of the crew can be discovered if you search carefully, but the actual function of the ship only has the vaguest relationship to their personal lives. When you reach the destination, you may have to choose who gets promoted, who gets punished... or even who lives and dies. So learning all about them would be a way to get emotionally invested in that.

Anyway, it's a basic approach that could probably be used a lot more often. I think it probably requires really good immersion and needs to be carefully crafted to fit into the pacing of the game you've designed, though. It's not something you can just copy half-heartedly.

Still, I'd like to try!

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