I have trouble with empathy in games. And in movies.
Sometimes I apply it wrong. I refused to finish Shadow of the Colossus largely because I resented being expected to give a shit about the 'hero' or his damsel, and I resented being asked to torture what I perceived to be innocent animals (I also fucking hated its controls, world, intro, direction finding). I will not be playing Castle Doctrine not because of its treatment of women (which I seriously have issue with) or its glorification of paranoia, but because the first thing I saw on visiting its website was a long, detailed change log focused on a mechanical discussion of beating pit bulls to death with crowbars.
Sometimes I don't apply it at all. I laughed my way through Black Swan and only realized after that it wasn't a comedy. I want Jim and Pam to fall into a well that is on fire. I would rather watch YouTube videos 'refuting' Tropes Vs Women than be subjected to another Quantic Dream abomination. I think Ferris Bueller is an entitled brat.
I demand characters earn my empathy, to prove that they are worth my time and my energy. Simply existing, simply having struggles, is not good enough.
I tell you this so that when I tell you Gone Home made me feel for and with its characters you understand my full meaning.
Gone Home is environmental storytelling boiled down to its purest essence. It is an hour-long exploration into what can be done with indirect storytelling. I don't know if I've ever seen a game do this kind of storytelling this well. There are some that come close, like System Shock and Cargo Commander, and a lot more that look (even more) like blunt instruments in comparison (BioShock and The Last of Us).
The excellence in crafting is, well, excellent. Admirable. Needs to be aspired to. The house is evocative, creepy and convincing. By the end of the experience I understood the parents without a single piece of direct characterization. I grasped their struggles and mindsets and desires, all from a few scattered notes and books and pictures. It was marvelous, realizing that I was being steered into feeling empathy and disdain for characters not only fictional but completely unseen! Not only are they not shown, you are never even directly told about them! Even in the sister's audio journals, she never specifically characterizes them. There is no exposition of them as people, and there shouldn't be. The language is natural and convincing in a way that is rare enough in literature, never mind games.
The game describes itself as being barrier-less, and that's true. Moving through the house felt natural, organic. As I moved forward, so did the experience. I always knew where to go, because there was only one way to go. And that, I think, is where my issues with it begin. Gone Home is, essentially, a passive experience. There is no player agency, beyond whether you choose to continue engaging with the experience or not. It is interactive in the same way that Call of Duty or Mario is interactive: you move forwards through it, see what has been placed for you to see, and then you are done. You cannot change the experience.
I will say, now and explicitly, that there is nothing wrong with this. Gone Home is a game, and it is art. That is not, to me, up for debate.
And yet I found myself yearning for barriers. The closest thing to what I would call real 'gameplay' is right at the very start you must find the key to unlock the front door. When I began exploring the house, I moved things around, played with them, examined them. I piled toiletries in a running sink. I searched for play, but found narrative. There are very, very 'lite' puzzles around finding combinations and keys, but they exist to pull you through the narrative, as they should. I wanted to feel accomplishment and failure, not just empathy.
I think, at the end, Gone Home is absolutely a game, but it is also only part of a game. It is a game like Crackdown: an excellent, engaging and superbly crafted exemplar of how to do one facet, a critical facet, of interactive media. But it is not a holistic experience, at least not for me. I experienced a nice, well-written and gracefully handled story of teenage love and alienation, that dealt with gender issues and sex in the way that games need more of.
And yet I am lingering upon threads not tied off. Why was there blood on the bathtub? Who was Oscar, and why did he want to come back? Why is it called the "Psycho House"? What were the secret passages built for? When the story reveals its sweet, prosaic ending my immediate response was, "Yes, okay, that was nice, but what about the interesting stuff?" My willingness to engage diminishing with my interest with the characters. I wanted my brain to be engaged, I wanted to feel accomplishment, I wanted to play. The beautiful thing about games, the thing that makes me love them as a medium, is that games alone can make me really feel like I earned the narrative, that I am part of it and I can touch the narrative in a way that I never could in a book and that there is more to it than what I placed in front of me by the creators. Gone Home uses the tools of games to tell me a story about a stranger's family. I am a non-participating observer, a ghost in someone else's house. I am not part of it, I cannot touch it. It is excellently told, and it is a good, important story for a game to tell, but I still enjoyed it in the way that I enjoy a movie or a book, not in the way I enjoy a game.
Gone Home is good, and interesting, and well-made, and worth the money and the time. But for me it is not the end of the journey to great narrative in games. It is a signpost, a reminder of what we need to do as we push the medium along. Art pointing the way to Art. It tells its simple, touching story and then it is done. The promised mystery deflates into the story of a family grappling with disillusionment, hope, detachment and coming-of-age and as the credits roll the first thought is, "I've seen this before." The way a story gets told has been pushed, but not the story itself. I don't want to observe this story again. I want to live it, experience it for myself, and have to grapple with these issues myself, not listen to someone tell me about them. That is where the magic of games is. They make you, the player, the consumer of the medium. That someone can share with me what it is like inside their own story. Instead I feel like Gone Home's main character, unable to touch what has happened, only to look at it, passive and uninvolved.
But it's still gotten me thinking, and feeling, and engaging in the conversation, and I will remember it every time I think about or deal with storytelling in games, and maybe that's enough.