In this recurring column, Leigh Alexander visits exciting new creative frontiers in the video game space, which is seeing a period of incredible growth and diversification, attracting new talent, and demonstrating intriguing innovation. Here she'll cover emerging artists, trends, and so much more.
The very nature of the commercial game industry lends itself to sameness: genres, themes, and gameplay mechanics get popular, and then publishers make more like that. Year after year, we look to the indie game community for the next crucial injection of innovation—notable indie games catch fire in the dev community and among fans, and make their way to the annual Independent Game Festival, where some of the most prominent new ideas can ultimately influence everything the community knows about design.
Evolving narrative in video games is a challenge somewhat more complex than, say, inventing new play mechanics—it's only in recent years that a broad community of game developers has begun to focus on how to couple immersive storytelling with a medium that has mostly prioritized action, interaction, and moment-to-moment experiences.
But a four-person team of insightful creators called The Fullbright Company is making huge waves with currently in-development Gone Home, an understated and poignant exploration game whose early chapter has earned near-universal enthusiasm in its press previews, and a nomination in the IGF's Excellence in Narrative category.
Excellence in Narrative is a competition category for the first time this year, reflecting the increasing importance designing for story is gaining within the games community. Nominated games have approached the challenge of how to tell a story and create drama—without making the player put down the controller and watch cinema—in brand new ways.
Gone Home presents the player with a fascinating premise. You're the eldest daughter of the Greenbriar family, just returned from a year abroad to the home where she expects her parents and teenage sister to be waiting to greet her. Instead, she arrives late and in a storm to an empty place—and the intriguing challenge of piecing together what happened.
At the core of the story is Sam, Katie's little sister, whose audio diaries and notes feature most prominently. As the player opens drawers, examines discarded notes and seemingly-innocuous objects, they piece together a rich and tactile story of who this family is. A ceramic mug reveals Mom works for the Forestry Department; incomplete typewriter pages reveals Dad's work as a struggling novelist, for example.
The game leaves nearly everything to be discovered by you-as-Katie—even details of your own past—and discovering hidden details teases that the house itself holds bigger secrets. Imagine what you could learn about a family by stepping into their abandoned home? Gone Home works with that same experience of fascination and logical inference, while playing as someone who belongs in this place lends a sense of intimacy almost from the beginning.
Part of the reason Gone Home is so delightful to its early audiences is that it proves there are ways to develop fully-interactive, immersive first-person game experiences without "action" in the traditional sense. There's no weapons, no combat, and no immediate conflict except for the slowly-unfurling mystery and the familiar creepiness of being in a big, creaky old place with an unsolved problem, alone. Alongside a new rush of dialogue on violence in games and shooter genre fatigue on retail shelves, this is a powerful thing.
It's also unique that Gone Home casts you as a young woman looking for the facts of her little sister's life. Without giving too much away, this is miles away from the typical "power fantasy" character-driven games often try to reach for, to say nothing of the testosterone excess that's previously restricted games' appeal. Much of the game's mystery has to do with the dramatic, nuanced complications of being a teenage girl.
The game is set in 1995, prior to the age when a teen's secrets would be locked up in Facebook, Gchat, and text messaging. It's an age when kids still passed ballpoint notes and sketches in class and among lockers, and wrote down all their dreams and plans in well-loved, black-and-white mottled composition books. You can find stacks of chunky VHS tapes where a recording of Airplane shares space with Robocop and every season of X-Files has been taped, mine the lost art of breathless music magazine tributes to dreamy, still-cool Seattle grunge, and find the shells of handmade cassette tape gifts.
But these go far beyond nostalgia: touchable, permanent objects tell the story better, and have the added effect of placing the narrative in an era when it was cool to mope and when being strange was a cross to bear.
The Fullbright Company's Steve Gaynor, Johnnemann Nordhagen, and Karla Zimonja (joined now by environment artist Kate Craig) last worked together on the unique Minerva's Den, a downloadable adjunct to 2010's Bioshock 2. Given the task of creating a separate episode for the game, the team focused on telling the game's story through its environment. Following the success of Minerva's Den, the team decided to branch out into creating its own tale.
"Environmental storytelling shows up in a lot of games, in big and small forms. Sometimes it’s a big part of the experience, like in the BioShock series, and sometimes it’s just a little set-dressing," Gaynor tells us. "With Gone Home, we wanted the story to be told entirely through exploring an environment, and finding clues yourself and putting the pieces together and understanding the people who lived there by investigating what they left behind."
"There's so much you can find out about someone by looking around the place that they live their life," he continues. "We want to give players the ability to do that in a game, to a level of depth and fidelity that hasn’t really been done before."
Screen grabs of Gone Home courtesy of The Fullbright Company.