video games | writing

Gameplay Vs. Storyline : A Short Story in 3D

August 27, 2013

As you may or not know, when I’m not writing, I spend a lot of time playing video games, and a lot of the time, I’m drawn to the kind of games that offer an interesting story, as well as the ability to shoot things into tiny giblets. After all, there is no other medium so capable of putting its audience right into the heart of the story – we see what our character sees, we do what our characters do. Video games, for the most part, eliminate the omniscient narrator, because the player decides how the story is told. We love, we hate, we feel as the character feels, and we do all of this ourselves.

But recently there’s been a rise in the number of games which choose to really think about the capabilities of the medium. In the past year we’ve seen games like Dear Esther and Gone Home – both big titles that chose to really focus on their storylines – receive high scores from all the major game review sites. But a common complaint from gamers is that what these games gained from their intense storylines, they lost in terms of, well… actual gameplay.

I’m going to focus on Gone Home, simply because it’s the most recent of these titles to sweep through the charts. Gone Home is a game about a college student who returns home after traveling Europe to find that her entire family is missing, with no explanation. Genre-savvy gamers, I’m sure, were already getting serious ‘NOPE’ vibes from the premise, and if they were anything like me, were looking forward to a few solid hours of hiding in closets and desperately trying to turn all the lights on. What I’m getting at is that Gone Home, on the surface, looks exactly like a horror game. Without spoiling anything, this is very nicely played with in terms of the storyline – we’re told that the house in question is known locally as ‘the psycho house’ and a major plot point is that the characters try to summon the ghost of the titular psycho. But my issue, and the issue for several other gamers, is that all this setup – the ouija board in the hidden cupboard, the spooky basement, the mysteriously inaccessible attic – leads to nothing.

Which is barely even an issue with the storyline, but a major one in terms of gameplay. After all, even when horror games have no combat at all (Shattered Memories, Amnesia), they are infamous for their puzzles. Even a quick google will have Gone Home pegged as ‘a first person puzzle game’ – even though the in-game ‘puzzles’ amount to nothing but reading notes and plugging in numbers into various locks. The kind of ‘puzzles’ you’d see in, say, a well-made (and free) flash game.

To be fair to the developers, the game’s steam page states categorically that there is ‘No combat [and] No puzzles’. Well, alright. That’s pretty original. And it does allow gamers to ‘play at their own pace’, and ‘explore’. I spent a good couple of hours exploring the house and unraveling the story, which is, by the way, very uplifting and fairly well-written. But the whole experience left me sat staring at the credits and wondering ‘So, which part of this was… the game?’

Gone Home plays more like a visual novel than anything else. And that’s being generous – even those have some substance to them, some level of difficulty that keeps the gamer playing. Gone Home can be completed in under two minutes, without any real effort at all. The proof is right here :

‘At the player’s own pace’ clearly means ’30 seconds flat’.

This isn’t ‘allowing the player to explore’. This isn’t ‘a nonviolent and puzzle-free experience’. It’s lazy development. If the devs really wanted to let the player explore and enjoy the game, then why not include a failsafe to let them wander the mansion without accidentally stumbling across the end of the game? Given the game’s undying love for combination locks, wouldn’t one of those have been more appropriate than a hidden door that can be clicked on and opened accidentally? 

The New York Times called Gone Home ‘The greatest video game love story ever told.’ They are wrong. Gone Home is not a video game, it’s a short story in 3D.  And I guess that would be fine, but I, and hundreds of other gamers, are paying £14.99 to be told a story – which is, quite frankly, ridiculous. In comparison, Dear Esther, a Half-Life mod built on the same ‘storytelling > gameplay’ premise, costs £6.99. A book, another storytelling experience which eschews gameplay, costs on average about £8.00, and is DRM-free.

And okay, Gone Home has a very compelling and interesting story – but then again, people have said the same thing about Twilight.

£3.85 with free delivery.