I, like most nerds, anticipated BioShock Infinite‘s release like I imagine the pilgrims on the Mayflower anticipated America: optimistic about its potential, nervous it could never live up to such huge expectations, and lethargic from all the scurvy. Infinite looked like it would take the original BioShock‘s already considerable scope and ambition and multiply it tenfold; plus, what human can watch this trailer and not want to take a f**king grappling hook to some racist policeman’s face?
And for the first two hours or so, BioShock Infinite exceeded my wildest fantasies. I played it with a perpetual case of goosebumps, overwhelmed by the graphics, the gameplay, and most importantly, the fascinating story they were setting up. Class warfare and the rise of the Vox Populi? The inside story of how a cult leader rises to power? Parallel universes and the woman who’s able to move between them? Enigmatic twins who seem to have some inside information on the nature of fate? If they explored even one of those storylines fully, it would be the greatest game I’d ever played.
But then, like a middle-aged accountant who decides climbing Everest doesn’t look that hard, it ended up hanging out at base camp the whole time and telling the sherpas about its great idea for a screenplay where what if the good guy was the bad guy the whole time?? The game M. Night Shyamalaned itself, sprinkled in some explanatory audio logs as an afterthought, and went out for celebratory drinks while I downed a pint of Phish Food to eat my disappointment.
Video games provide a wholly unique medium for storytelling. Unlike movies, books, or your uncle’s drunken Thanksgiving ramblings, games give you a deeper level of immersion because you’re in control. The events feel like they’re happening to you, because you don’t relate to the protagonist; you are the protagonist.
Since it’s still a young medium, games are clumsily figuring out how to utilize this element. Usually, like in BioShock Infinite, story is told in cutscenes and fun happens in gameplay when you get to shoot stuff, and never the twain shall meet. Narrative games are usually chunks of movies split up by fight sequences. Unlike BioShock Infinite, though, most games don’t promise anything more than that. You don’t get mad when the kid in school who eats chalk and looks at the tissue after blowing his nose a little too long becomes an assistant night manager at Wendy’s. But when the smartest kid in class ends up spending all his free time at that strip club by the airport, the squandered potential is enough to inspire a rage stroke.
At this point, you might be wondering why I even bother bringing this up now. The game came out in March, which was practically the Reagan administration. I’ve sat on this for a long time, feeling discouraged by its nigh-universal praise; it has a score of 94% on Metacritic, and IGN called it “a zenith of storytelling”. Maybe that was as good as we could do, I thought. Maybe it’s the illusion of control that gaming gives us that actually detracts from the ability to tell a story; the writers need the story to follow a certain path, and the mechanics they’re forced to use to make sure we get there will always, by definition, alienate us and remove us from that immersion. If everyone was calling this the greatest story ever told in a game, maybe I should shut up and stick to Tetris.
But then, after hearing rumblings about a great new indie game called Gone Home, comedian Mike Drucker tweeted:
So I did.
It’s a short game. Steam says I finished it in 108 minutes. The only controls are “move” and “interact.” The graphics are nothing special. The entire game is reading bits of paper left around and listening to monologues. It should have been awful. But I hope it changes gaming forever.
You play as an early 20s woman who’s just returned to her family’s house after backpacking around Europe for a year, only to discover an abandoned, creepy, note-filled home and are forced to piece together what happened from there. I won’t spoil it for you, because it’s important to me, as someone who has to share this world with you, that you play it. Just…go play it right now. Really. I’ll wait.
As Cameron Harris, veteran games writer, said in a panel at PAX Prime last month on the issue of storytelling in games, “When it comes to storytelling, all our research and all my experience has shown this above all else: gamers want to be at the intersection of agency and meaning.” We don’t want to feel swept up in an inexorable tide of plotlines, watching impotently from behind our controllers as we’re shunted from one input-free plot point to the next; we also don’t want to find ourselves floating aimlessly in an ocean of endless, meaningless choices, where our decision-making leads us so far away from any semblance of coherent story that we might as well take our chances with going outside and talking to real, non-scripted humans.
The story, this unique, fascinating, heart-consuming story, is told entirely through reading discarded letters, scraps of diaries, notes scrawled in the margins of calendars. You have what feels like absolute agency in the game; you’re not required to read any damn thing if you don’t want, so every new revelation feels personal, like you really earned it by seeking it out. And every discovery is meaningful — not in the frying-pan-to-the-head way BioShock Infinite‘s clues were, but subtly, cleverly. The story is told with unflinching honesty and tenderness towards the characters, your family — and by the end, they really do feel like your family.
Because here’s the thing: Gone Home found that intersection between agency and meaning. It didn’t stumble on it, either; it carefully, deliberately, brilliantly took you through a story that you didn’t even realize you were being ushered through. I never once encountered a frustrating dead end, a “the princess is in another tower” moment where it was clear the designers needed me to do something else first before I could move on; never once did I feel like I was in anything less than complete control of the game. And yet, I think it’s impossible to experience the game in any other way than the writers specifically planned you to, discovering the crucial points in exactly the right order, at exactly the right time. This wasn’t a story told in cutscenes; the gameplay, however simplistic it may have been, was the primary driver of the narrative. It’s overwhelming, when you think about it.
And here’s the most important part, to me: the story told in Gone Home would not have been told better in any other medium. Sure, there are plenty of great games that wouldn’t translate well to movies (as Uwe Boll seems bent on proving), but this is the first game I’ve ever played that would have made a brilliant movie, and I would rather see that story told in a game.
I hope Gone Home feels trite in ten years. I hope, like when today’s 18-year-olds watch Seinfeld or play Half-Life 2, it feels dated and simplistic. I hope that happens, because that means that gaming took Gone Home‘s lead and ran with it, and each subsequent great game improved upon its predecessor’s successes until someday soon, this game will represent the absolute minimum level of storytelling a game can include to be taken seriously.
I hope that’s the case, because if I have to rescue one more goddamn princess from one more goddamn castle, I swear to god, I’ll turn this car around.
Alli’s combined her love of story tropes and her love of drinking when We Devised (and Tested) a GTA V Drinking Game! introduced you to your favorite games with How to Make a Gamer and took those 14-year-olds on Xbox Live to town with 3 Reasons Your Misogyny is Boring.