Instructor Carolyn Jong
English 255B – Video Games and/as Literature
March 24th, 2017
Spatial Storytelling and Virtual Worlds
Video games may use different mediums, they can belong in diverse genres/categories and their level of interactivity can vary. To jump right in, there is one game in particular, which I discovered through this course (Thank you Carolyn Jong!), that stood out to me. The game is called Gone Home and it was published and developed by The Fullbright Company. To begin, I must say that I almost never finish a game in one sitting, but I did with this one and it took me around two to three hours to do so. Gone Home was part of Week 8 (March 3rd) and the subject of that week was “Spatial Storytelling and Virtual Worlds”. There are many games that portray spatial storytelling, however, Gone Home is one of the best example of a game that revolves around its environment. It’s as if the environment itself is a character on its own and it tells us the stories of the different individuals that inhabited the space. As Henry Jenkins states in his article entitled “Game Design as Narrative Architecture”, in games like Gone Home, where we encounter spatial storytelling, “the story elements are infused into the physical space as a guest walks or rides through, it is the physical space that does much of the work of conveying the story the designers are trying to tell” (Jenkins, p.123).
To give a brief summary, Gone Home is a game about a 21-year-old female named Kaitlin Greenbriar (the playable character), who returns to her family in Portland (Oregon) after a year in Europe. The game is set in 1995, which justifies the lack of electronics in the game. As soon as the game starts, we stumble upon a note on the front door. This note is from the protagonist’s sister, Samantha Greenbriar (see fig.01).
Right after entering the house, our task is to explore the abandoned residence and examine the household objects. You get to investigate everything in the house from the kitchen, the office rooms, bedrooms, dining room, etc. “The player must navigate the environment to finds things” (Polansky, 2012). The mansion in Gone Home is a virtual world where the storytelling is told via the spatial environment. The player moves throughout the space with the help of the keyboard and one can view objects by using the mouse. The game allows the “player [to] move through narratively compelling spaces” (Jenkins, p.121). The mansion guides you through different spaces and encourages you to open up new areas of the house and to find new messages in order to understand what happened during Kaitlin’s absence of one year. In this sense, the environment guides the player. It enables us to piece together clues and to better understand the other characters involved (father [Terrence Greenbriar], mother [Janice Greenbriar], sister [Samantha Greenbriar]). As Henry Jenkins writes, this type of game “[creates] an immersive environment we can wander through and interact with” (Jenkins, p.124). The world and the environment from Gone Home is filled with information that awaits discovery. At the same time, it is a memory space that holds and reveals secrets as well as the different individuals’ characteristics. Henry Jenkins adds to this by writing that “one can imagine the game designer as developing two kinds of narratives — one relatively unstructured and controlled by the player as they explore the game space and unlock its secrets; the other pre-structured but embedded within the mise-en-scene awaiting discovery” (Jenkins, p.126).
An interesting definition of the term “environmental/spatial storytelling” (in relation to video games) was provided by Matthias Worch and Harvey Smith during their talk at the 2010 Game Developers Conference called “What Happened Here?”. One of their slides says that it is “staging player-space with environmental properties that can be interpreted as a meaningful whole, furthering the narrative of the game” (Matthias Worch and Harvey Smith, 2010). For further information, you can find the slides here. Gone Home is all about the player attempting to understand what happened by finding “puzzle pieces” (e.g. letters, notebooks, diaries, notes from school, pictures, etc.) and fitting them together. Throughout the game, the environment helps us understand what happened as Sam’s story unfolds before our eyes. I think Henry Jenkin summarizes this pretty well when he writes that “the game space becomes a memory palace whose contents must be deciphered as a player tries to reconstruct the plot” (Jenkins, p.129).
While going through the game, there are no other people/characters, it is just you and the environment. However, this environment embodies the other individuals. For example, when I played the game, one of the first rooms that I entered was the father’s office. It was quite interesting to see how that one room made me understand the father’s character, how he is as a person and what his life is like. His chair is not properly pushed back and there is a book on his seat. This suggests that he started reading and left without finishing it or without placing the book back on the shelf. I found crumpled papers in his trash bin conveying his many attempts at writing but failing to come up with something satisfactory. On top of his book shelf, there is a bottle of whiskey hinting at the fact that he has been drinking. Through the details that the environment provides to the player, it hints to us the personality of the father, his ambitions and his frustrations (see fig.02).
Every room within the Gone Home world has something to say about specific individuals and their personalities as well as their values. While going through the father’s office, I could tell that he is work oriented and gives great importance to his occupation. I really enjoyed the component of discovering things and indeed, as Lana Polonsky writes, “there is something archaeological to discovering” (Polanski, 2012). The items give a window to each individual’s character and their traits.
This is also valid for Sam’s room. Her room is a contrast to her father’s office. I could tell that the two individuals share different interests with the help of the spatial storytelling. The teenager’s room shows her interest in pop culture (e.g. the poster on the locker door), her interest in teenager’s literature (e.g. the books on the bookshelf), etc. Furthermore, her room is more of a compilation of things that accumulated through the years (e.g. stuffed dinosaur toy on her bed, the collar of a cat they used to own named “Mittens” that I found in the closet, a binder from her elementary school days, the small basketball hoop installed on the door, etc.) (see fig.03).
Furthermore, it is through the house that we understand the coming of age of Sam and her acceptance of her personal orientation (e.g. Lonnie’s picture in the locked locker, the drawing of S+L) (see fig.04). The environment in Gone Home tells the story and the struggles of the individuals within the game. In a way, it implies their presence without having to show them physically which gave the environment “life”. As Andrew Yoder states in his article entitled “Environmental Storytelling and Gone Home”: “when we walk through these rooms, and see the how their occupants have shaped them, they come to life, not as single events, but as months and years played out at once” (Yoder, 2015).
It is interesting to see that the sister, Sam, “gradually becomes less an individual and more an avatar immersed in evocative symbols of a time and place: a poster with the names of Black Francis and Lisa Loeb; cassette tapes with handwritten inset cards; console cartridges, and cheat codes scrawled on pieces of paper” (Logan Decker, 2013). Everything we find around the house becomes evidence and we begin to understand that (spoiler alert!) Sam was actually romantically involved with another girl. Her parents seem to be conservative seeing that they don’t approve of their daughter’s homosexuality. Her parents wanted her to be a “normal” girl (e.g. letter from her father, letter about the mother) (see fig.05). While playing this game, I can say that the pressures of adolescence have been portrayed quite well. I love the fact that I could interact with almost everything that belonged to the game’s environment. Furthermore, “by creating a sense of place and of history, [we] can use an environment full of various meaningful objects that reflect a pervasive theming” (Lana Polansky, 2012). I find that the storytelling conveyed by the environment allows the player to feel more engaged. From my personal experience, I found myself immersed and lost within this world, enjoying every little detail.
To conclude, although at first I was a little reluctant on paying 20$ for the game, I enjoyed it and would recommend it. I have to say that, as soon as I completed it, I had to share my experience with my peers and family members. Moreover, I thought it was very interesting that this game, being a first person perspective game, is not at all about violence and shooting like most first point perspective games I play. Gone Home uses spatial storytelling and allows the player to understand the other characters as well as the “story” as it unfolds before you throughout diverse rooms. The spatial storytelling is very present and crucial in the virtual world of Gone Home.
Decker, Logan. “Gone Home review.” Pcgamer. PC Gamer, 14 Sept. 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
Gone Home. The Fullbright Company. 2013. Video Game.
Harvey, Smith, and Matthias, Worch. “What Happened Here?.” Witchboy.net. N.p., 9 Mar. 2010. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 118-30.
Polansky, Lana. “The Poetry of Created Space.” Bit Creature. 5 October 2012.
Yoder, Andrew. “Mclogeblog.” Mclogeblog. N.p., 24 Sept. 2015. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.