All These Variable States

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So, everyone likes Twin Peaks, right? Well, not everyone, because I know how weird and how strange it can be, melding a lot of stuff that was either too insane to be true what what was kind of groundbreaking, especially for TV.

A lot of entertainment since then, from TV like The X-Files (which you could probably consider a spiritual successor to Twin Peaks in a way) to the current wave of weird fiction podcasts, like Tanis (from production company PNW, aka “Pacific North West”, get it?) that all happen to take place in the Pacific Northwest, all have some root tracing itself back to that show, which basically helped establish that modern concept in fiction of weird towns in remote locations full of forests, full of secrets, and full of strangeness that crosses lines between the supernatural and the sci-fi, the humane and the inhuman.

The real problem with a lot of this tends to be my primary criticism with most of the world drawing influence from earlier works, which is that the wrong things are being drawn from influence-wise. If you’re going to be influenced by say, The X-Files, then the thing that really should be the impact and influence on you is not just internal government conspiracies revolving around aliens, but also about growing relationships and trust while encountering the unexplainable of the wide world, especially parts of the world that don’t usually get seen or are passed off as too mundane. The X-Files is as much weird horror as sci-fi in that sense, which a lot of “inspired-by” work fails to capture, in my mind.

Twin Peaks is the same, in that the idea of small-town weirdness in an imposing setting is a surface inspiration that often gets used as a fairly cheap-and-easy “spooky” look and vibe. However, the other elements of soap opera-drama, intense personal relationships that can damage and crack at larger things like plans and investigations, as well as the overall larger concept that you CAN’T explain or fully explore these supernatural things…all that seems to be lost in the translation of “inspiration” onto more current work.

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We played the first-person narrative game Virginia, from Variable State and 505 Games recently. I like weird video games, I like first-person exploring narrative-types, and claiming obvious references (mentioned above) is a cheap way to get me to check it out. The X-Files and Twin Peaks (rookie agent and disgraced veteran partner, small town surrounded by forests and a military base, supernatural elements, a missing child, secrets) are all over this game from the get-go, as you (the new agent) end up looking for a missing boy in Freedom, VA. The game’s minimalist to a T, almost to a fault, though not quite, which in a way is supposed to be part of its charm of nostalgia, being set in the 1992 as well. Hell, it works and sells, so why not? A lot of other video games these days in this vein seem to be on the same wavelength of near-past settings, which establish not only a plugging of story holes that a cell phone and interview could solve, but also establishing a visual aesthetic that is meant to deliberately evoke feelings and connections to other media (like TV and film) set in that area, albeit an evoking that only works so well with the minimal art style of the game.

I do like that you can actually see yourself in the mirror, though.

I guess if we’re talking about comparing to other similar games, Virginia is probably closest to Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture, where you literally move through the game simply to advance the literary narrative, with little to no actual “work” involved. It just plays out for you, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (though Rapture was a game that I found boring and dragging personally) though it does require you to have something involved to make it stand out. Gone Home and Firewatch, the standards in this kind of game as far as I’m concerned, require a little bit of actual work on your part to figure out the narrative, solve some level of puzzles, and most importantly, they help you along in figuring out that narrative.

Virginia‘s main standout element, being entirely wordless with only minimal text, isn’t that big a deal for a video game, because ideally a video game is something where you interact and figure out through playing. You don’t need a lot of literary exposition, because the actions and interactions give that to you. However, Virginia‘s claim that there’s not much if any vocal/text communication but then still have some level of reading involved is where the flaws start to pile up.

There are a couple of mysteries within the overall story of the game, and the big problem is that with no one talking, you have to snatch at bits of text when they appear and devour them as soon and as quickly as you can. Because the game sometimes makes jumps on its own (even though you’re being prompted to act to move forward) you can’t read what’s available, and not catching every little thing all of a sudden creates massive gaps in your understanding. I spent a good 1/3 of the game assuming a character’s mother was in fact her wife/life partner, because I wasn’t allowed to look at a text document (provided for information) long enough to read it, and I couldn’t go back once the scene moved on. Didn’t see the dates related to the related character, lost the narrative thread. The screen changes, I’m forced to close the file folder, or the character looks away and the scene changes.

Oops.

That this happened a few times, all at what I later on realized were fairly crucial moments in the story (in terms of actually learning what’s going on) was probably my major complaint here. Things just moved on with little to no space to understand, to learn, to even move on your own. So much of the criticism of these types of video games is that they’re basically short stories or movies that you’re just along for the ride, and that criticism actually feels pretty apt when applied to Virginia.

If you’re going to include elements in your storytelling that require some level of independent thought and analysis, you still need to include some level of “jump-starting” to fill in the blanks that would start the reader/player down that road, and ultimately if you can’t take the minute or two it requires to grab that information you need to be able to continue forward with a story and then make your decisions and interpretations of the story, then what’s the point of giving someone that interpretative freedom?

When I teach literature, I semi-jokingly tell my students that in literary studies there are “no wrong answers,” which is a really simple way to introduce them to the idea of informed subjective analysis of material. Too often students are scared to give their own opinions when they start out doing this kind of reading and writing (college-level lit classes) so I encourage them to just throw interpretations out there, see what sticks. However, as the class eventually moves on, I introduce more basic concepts to help round out the “but”‘s of “there are no wrong answers,” which include the concept of context.

Context is king. Context is key.

Without even basic context of a story, or the story’s background, you can have all sorts of great connections and some real deep influences going on connecting your work to other works, and you have have a setting that’s rich with emotional punches, but it can feel like it’s too scattered across the board, which is what kind of happens to this game.

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I don’t hate Virginia. The more I think about it, the more I kinda like it quite a bit, especially in certain areas. I think the concept is really bold honestly, and mechanics-wise this could have been really great if a few things were fixed, because those few things really skewed (not ruined, not quite) the game away from being really great. Also, as I mentioned a bit when I wrote about my frustrations with prestige TV’s obsession with attaching homework as a level of even basic understanding of the story, having to almost immediately jump into external reading and analysis to not just understand the thematic elements but the very basic linear narrative of a work, then I start to feel like maybe we as creators have kind of forgotten the point of there being different storytelling mediums. Yes, good stories are universal, and Virginia is, when you put the work in, a really good story. However, is it best told as a game like this? I don’t know. It could work well in a bunch of other settings (which I sort of suspected might have been the origin here, but that’s another story for another time) and it’s not a bad game, but it’s not what it could be.

Ultimately it left me more frustrated than satisfied, though that frustration is a little tempered knowing that I can go back and try to re-understand better with another play-through. I guess it just depends if I feel like the work is worth it whenever I get around to it. I don’t know, it might be.

Olly Olly

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One of the games I really liked playing last year was OXENFREE, from Night School Studio. A group of kids gathering to have an all-night party/hangout on an old semi-abandoned island off the coast of their town, exploring a place that has a lot of weird mysterious history. The story continues to grow from the simple relationship interactions of the start to a much more in-depth mystery/horror/sci-fi thread that I ended up loving a lot for a variety of reasons. It was probably one of my favorite video games of 2016 (of the few I played admittedly) and is one I look forward to going back and playing again, something you can do thanks to the multiple paths and potential endings.

The mystery and story of the game unfolded really well and I ended up loving it because, like any good story, it starts small and builds. That whole idea of not starting with vast big concepts, but building layer upon layer is a difficult one in storytelling, honestly, because I see it screwed up in storytelling a lot. I think part of it has roots in childhood and teenage imaginations, when you think about it. Basic small concepts that build into larger things are the roots of most childhood play. We’re explorers. OK, what are we exploring? Uhh, this old house, because it’s got something in it we want…and so on, and so on.

Anyway, like a lot of first-person/POV games that exploded last year, it’s both travel-driven (walking through the environment to specific locations) and dialogue-driven (depending on how you respond to speech prompts, the story alters), but it looks more like a side-scrolling/traveling/whatever game, so it’s a little more old-fashioned in traveling around the world of the story, videogame-wise. It’s described as having a “2.5D perspective”, which is a good way of describing it.

The game’s major flaws is the weird viewpoints that can make looking at the action on screen, the movement, and the dialogue bubbles/boxes difficult at times. The background art is so beautiful in the usage of pastels and shadows, and the light or lack thereof works really well naturally  (as time progresses from dusk to dawn), that it sorta sucks to feel it’s all wasted pushed far back into a zoomed-out background. The story of trying to unravel the mystery of the odd signals that seem to be saturating the very air around the island, which was a research facility for odd radio wave-related technology in WW2. There’s something that may or may not be an extradimensional alien force that seems supernatural driving the weirdness of the island, tied to a horrific tragedy

What I really thought about when this game was on the TV in front of me, honestly, was the basic idea that it’s a group of kids left alone to explore the remnants of war, paranoia, and Cold War infrastructure, as they wander the island in search of their friends and answers. It struck a weird chord with me, not just in the nostalgia factor (in that a lot of the game relies on the usage of radios) but in the exploration factor.

As a kid, I’d be left alone a lot when shipped off to visit family in Greece, out on the island(s) alone for hours at a time. My Greek was pretty poor, I couldn’t sit inside and read all day unfortunately, I’d get restless and want to go out. The valley villages and beachfront towns I stayed in with relatives were nothing like I’d ever see before, places where abandoned  but seemingly-new houses stood alongside near-wrecks that people still lived in. Construction would sit dormant for years, paths cut across fields and all over the sun beats down, mercilessly.

Mostly, I just walked around.

I walked through people’s yards, never knowing if they were inside napping in the daytime heat or if the house was abandoned. I have a memory of fleeing in terror from someone’s weird front yard I was exploring because the house had some strange 80’s semi-“Golden Girls” look to it and I was fascinated, thinking the levels of dirt everywhere was a sign the inhabitants weren’t there. They were, and when I heard the door unlocking from the inside I ran in a blind stupid panic down to the beach, in full view of whoever came out.

A lot of the houses had been abandoned either before or during WW2, when Greeks fled en masse and became refugees in Asia Minor, in Egypt, in Ethiopia (like my grandparents). When the war was over, some only came back to the islands to gather what they could and contact relatives in Canada, America, and the UK to go live there, the country ravaged by famine and occupation. After that, those empty houses would be reused and repurposed by whoever was left in those villages in the 70s. Houses and taverns now turned into what I assumed was storage for church stuff. The old abandoned school that only went to 10th grade. The building made out of cinder blocks in the early 1990’s that’s become the mini-market, walls and shelves stocked to the ceiling with stuff now, constantly humming from the three freezers in there. I’d walk all over and marvel and old and semi-abandoned places, thinking about adventures that could be happening there, about who lived in these buildings and what was going to happen to these half-built and half-abandoned structures littering these tiny villages.

OXENFREE feels like that, in a way, listening in on weird half-forgotten stations in the airwaves and wandering through the ruins of former lives and former inhabitants, from the spookiness of the old mines and military bases to the empty storefront windows of the waterfront “tourist” part of town. The things that your brain does when places are abandoned is kind of fascinating, the leaps that it can make, be they correct or incorrect, are so cool. I thought that construction sites were abandoned military posts because I knew there were supposedly some old forts and stuff around, someone told me someone had told them. When I was really young and out there left to my own devices (those nostalgia-tinged halcyon days of being left alone all day during summers as a kid regardless of where you were), I’d play alone in these ruins, pretending I was a gunslinger or a pilot of an explorer or whatever, only the goats and the lizards and the half-done cinderblock walls hearing me.

In a similar vein, the radio kind of tied into this as well for me then (just as the radios carried by characters in the game), especially in such a weird isolated place. I had no idea what I was hearing, stuff that’d never come back after the first time I’d find it, odd signals and sounds that came from who knows what (maybe military stuff nearby? The many boats that traveled the waters of the Aegean?), snippets of Western pop music both old and new, voices in languages (Turkish mostly, as well as heavily-accented Greek beyond my ability to translate) that I didn’t understand. I’d turn the dials on AM and FM back and forth every night sometimes, or during quiet afternoons when it was too hot to be out, just trying to see who was out there talking, and what it would be like to intercept some kind of secret message, a crude understanding of numbers stations somehow half-forming in my brain.

It was, in hindsight, kind of dangerous. Not the radio stuff, that just fueled my overactive imagination. The exploring, I mean. I admitted about some of my exploratory ventures from those summers to my mom once and she basically said she’d beat exploration out of me, mostly because the older abandoned houses we’d go into in those desolate corners of those villages were full of rotted walls and floors, with half-hidden wells and septic tanks underneath them, traps waiting to catch and drown us like they actually had quite a lot of people through the years. There’s even a ghost story from those little Greek villages of naiads luring drunk single young men off the roads at night from the tavern, out into the fields to lay in the grass with them. You step off the well-worn road, into the grass, following this ghostly beautiful young woman, and step over a half-covered old well, falling in and breaking your neck.

Oh well.

That sense of exploratory uncertainty is probably the best part of the whole thing, moreso than the story, which is still excellent. I liked the blurring of the lines between the horror and the science fiction elements, something I don’t see a lot of (at least not well), it ties a lot into an idea of embracing the uncertainty of unknown enemies and not worrying too much about “explaining” them. Unknown voices and time glitches/reality manipulations that come from some weird tear in the world around us? Enough explanation for me.

There’s a bunch of criticisms of OXENFREE that I completely understand, from the dialogue (everyone’s sorta relaxed considering the danger they claim to find themselves in) and puzzle-wise it’s sorta light, though as something coming out in the visual/walk-through narrative “era” of video games that seems to be happening nowadays, it fits. I’m kinda excited to see what else Night School do.

I’m curious what other buttons from my weird exploratory childhoods they’ll end up pushing, because when done well, it’s less cashing in on nostalgic experiences or mining them for material, and more expanding on the origins of imaginations that began during periods of time we tend to look at nostalgically.

Nightmare Windows

So I wrote a game. It’s called “Out The Window.”

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Nightmare Party games is more or less an informal “umbrella name,” but acts more like the overarching project name for this, and it’s something interesting. The limited amount of coding is what I like, considering I barely know any HTML. I found a fascinating piece in the New York Times magazine online (linked from a piece at Slate) about the “return” of text-based gaming,

One of the downsides to Twine, the platform/program that this runs on, is that if you’re going right off the browser, once you clear your browser you’ll lose the game. Eventually, “Out The Window” will disappear, but it’s mostly a test, an experiment. There’ll be more Nightmare Party games through Twine, it’s an interesting way to play with writing fiction, interactive fiction, and old text-based exploring and adventure games.

I guess stay tuned, and get those old horror- and fantasy-based text adventure gaming skills sharp and ready.

Stories In Stories In Stories In Stories In…

(Spoilers ahoy for the games “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” and “Until Dawn”)

I like weird takes on stuff.

The way that literature can take a deep and interestingly-critical look at its own self is probably one of the best aspects of reading and consuming literature. The idea of a medium within a genre using itself as a way to talk about the genre is what makes storytelling great, and really being able to dig into a story and pull it and the genre apart, see how it ticks, and mess with that is such a cool concept to me.

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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is ostensibly a supernatural mystery story, a detective with some level of mystical awareness or powers that allow him to basically view elements of the past. The surface story here, that of a young boy who reaches out to supernatural investigator Paul Prospero for help against his supposedly-possessed family and an ancient evil, is only a part of the whole actual story.

The fact that somehow almost every element of Ethan’s life and “adventures” are reflective of his real and really troubled life is the first step to realizing the deep issue with the story here. Though the true ending of the game is ultimately and somewhat-purposely left ambiguous, the point here is that Ethan would somehow rather immerse himself in a world of ancient leviathans and possessed blood sacrificing-oriented predatory adults to the reality of his shitty brother, bullying uncle, nagging mother, and spineless father.

The fact that the protagonist of a world like this, a supernatural detective who functions in this incredibly dangerous world, is the desirable role model, is fairly telling. It’s pretty telling of that sort of level of wanting to escape into fiction, which is a major underlying theme here in the game. One of the revelations I came to as we ended the game was that so many of the dangerous and fantastic situations were actually just imagination-fueled viewpoints of the real world. The spaceship? It’s a treehouse that offers a level of escape up off the ground. The tentacled flood monster in the mines? A kid playing in caves and imagining what lurks in the dark.

The old sorcerer’s home and source of his black magic? An old ramshackle building where a boy dies in a horrific accident, dreaming of a better life. A haunted life full of fantastic dangers…but to him, this story is definitely a better life.

Furthermore, the fact that this life is the life that is initially presented to us as reality before we realize that it may or may not be the “real” or “correct” one is what throws the story and frays at the linear traditional story. The story continues to fall apart as we progress, not as a way to reveal a “truth” (because ultimately we get a level of uncertainty about the true nature of the story and characters at the end of the game) but rather as a way to show us just how someone can cling to stories as a way to escape and to re-form their realities, not just in the last moments of their life, but throughout their whole day-to-day existence.

It’s a really interesting testament to the love that people can have to the art and impact of storytelling.

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We had a party and played Until Dawn. We’re all horror movie fans, and this game advertised as basically being a role-playing/interactive horror movie. However, there’s a lot more to it than that specifically about what it is that man make up a horror scenario.

How do you scare the shit out of someone? In particular, how do you come up with the elements of a horror story?

So much of what makes basic horror work is that, like it or not, there are standards that need to be hit for there to be an appeal for the lowest common denominator to find appealing. There’s gotta be drama, there’s got to be some level of hyper-violent action, there needs to be suspense and play with sound and visuals (the jump scare), and there has to be a cast that we can observe going through the moral trials regarding their eventual deaths or brutal scares.

The thing is that, in this game, you determine so much of it in so many ways, it’s fascinating. The very mechanics of the horror storytelling are entirely controlled by you. Until Dawn lets you pick you amongst the group you like more or less, who you prefer, what kind of things scare you versus other things, etc. The in between-chapter breaks that are ultimately metaphorical/mental (not literally in a therapist’s office) and the setting for all of this  groundwork. You choose things that have subtle influences on the background and primary scares of the first 2/3 of the game, within the house. It also influences the tensions and the interactions between various characters, and thus, to an extent whether or not you can successfully complete some of the more obscure “trophy” mission aspects, like getting everyone in the game to work together so everyone survives (versus no one surviving, another option if you’re morbid and bored).

I don’t think that enough people are willing to look at what exactly it is about horror that makes it so effectively. Part of Until Dawn is that we look at that effectiveness being rooted in interpersonal relationships. Being able to manipulate those relationships and the roots of all interaction and all the ways those interactions get you different endings is a satisfying thing.

When it comes to genre, I think a big aspect of my taste is rooted in the critical understanding that I picked up in college when I was exposed to critical thinking, nontraditional literature, and all that jazz. It allowed me to build up my tastes and to expand my understanding of how writing works, how storytelling works, and how you can continue to create great work in great subjects but not fall prey to the blind idealism and blind noncritical fannish slavering over the lowest-common-denominator aspects of loving that genre.

My favorite horror movies are the ones that work hard to pervert and transcend the genre. The science fiction I feel has the biggest impacts on literature and genre is the stories that don’t treat the trappings as the story, but rather use them as a setting to be able to craft critical and interesting work about different issues. In a similar way, I like being able to look at interactive storytelling and story-oriented games in a way that can mess with the traditions of storytelling in the genre they focus on.

Oh, and that jumpscare in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter in the mines is total bullshit and scared the fuck out of me.

Perfect Happy People

Fiction hates having to describe and deal with shitty people.

I don’t mean evil people, villains, antagonists, stuff like that. What I literally mean is a shitty person, a shitty character who just isn’t that nice or particularly “good.” The friend who drinks too much, the aunt who took off from her family to marry some guy she worked with .  That goes double for characters who are the “heroes.” We tend to shuffle truly flawed and shitty characteristics to the back of the protagonist Rolodex in favor of more attractive “flawed” characteristics like “tries to hard” or “minimal trust issues that are resolved relatively quickly thanks to romance”.

I played Firewatch on PS4 with my girlfriend a few weeks ago, an interesting game we’d been looking forward to together with an interesting premise. We saw the trailer during the E3 broadcast and it immediately stood out. It’s puzzle/mystery-oriented, it involves a unique setting and a unique concept that couldn’t really be summarized in a neat little package. I just knew it’d be weird, which is what I like.

You arrive to a new summer job in the Shoshone National Forest as a fire lookout in 1989 in Wyoming. You explore, you solve a mystery, you interact with things and do your job of patrolling and watching and talking to people. The mystery is an interesting one, I had to roll it around in my head while it was happening and after we finished.

I’m not interested in the mystery though. I mean, it’s a cool one, one that I still think about. What I’m interested in is the fact that the protagonist, Henry, is kind of a shitty guy.

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You’re drinking, you’ve more or less abandoned (albeit supposedly temporarily) your mentally-ill wife, and every clue in this game leads to the possibility of emotional cheating with another lookout while the strange mystery and your summer unravels around you. You’re an older character, you’re kinda fat, not exactly Nathan Drake, you huff and puff and wheeze when you climb. You look like the dudes at the bar I never pay too much attention to honestly, the stock “working-class guy” form that would normally be in the background of a story, not at the forefront.

The real interesting thing about this game (which I was warned of as being depressing as fuck) here is in having a truly-flawed and truly-broken character here who we, the player, are meant to literally have to be that shitty person. You make the decisions, in the beginning, to get into a relationship. There, you’re either bordering on being a negligent partner or a controlling alcoholic jerk (alcoholism as the unseen constant crutch of broken people is a big interwoven thing in this game, with most of the characters referencing it or admitting it outright) who ends up, one way or another, fucking up.

The prompts are all for lose-lose situations in that beginning of the game, the “intro” that determine a lot of the dialogue and choices you might make later. The ultimate outcome is always the same despite the options though, because you’re supposed to be a shitty guy. If you let her get the dog she wants, when you guys get mugged you beat the mugger half to death. When you first meet, it’s because you’re drunk and leering.

You either put your mentally-ill wife in a home because you don’t want to deal with the burden of being the one who has to take care of her…or you keep her at home to care for her yourself, and end up getting a DUY when you sneak out to drink (and barricade her in her bedroom) because of the pressure.

Despite all that though…you’re not a villain. You’re trying to do your best, and the game’s primary drive to complete your missions to solve the mystery mean that there isn’t too much dwelling on the past. Still, the fact that as an imperfect character reflecting legitimate real-life issues that have no positive solutions, it puts you in an interesting solution. It also makes you, the main character, a bit of a reflection of another lost soul in the game who plays a part in the mystery, Ned.

Ned is ultimately the “antagonist,” if there is one, in this game. He’s the loner living in the park after disappearing from his lookout, mourning the accidental death of the son he snuck into the park to join him on his summer fire-watching. He too was fleeing a shitty situation to hide in the woods, the death of his mother and being saddled, wholly unprepared and already (it’s insinuated) crippled by PTSD, with taking care of his son Brian on his own. Who knows if Brian’s death was the only thing that led Ned to living in the caves and woods (and staging an elaborate ruse to make you and Delilah think you’re being monitored, to keep anyone from actively searching the park to look for him. He himself says it was in the note he leaves behind, but at the same time, he was already there, willingly in an isolated and isolating job.

Delilah herself implies in the beginning of the game that the only people who really take these sorts of jobs as lookouts are people trying to get away from something, to hide. Maybe she’s right. She’s obviously hiding from the world, and Henry…well, dementia in someone you love is probably almost as crushing as PTSD…or your child dying and it’s your fault.

The more I think about it, the more both Henry and Delilah are just on the cusp of being like Ned, which is what ultimately makes this game so fascinating. How you grapple with life and the awful decisions you’re essentially forced to make, from the big ones like your wife or beating a mugger half to death, to the small ones like annoying Delilah or keeping a photo of your wife face down during your stay in the tower, they all matter. They’re all reflective of dealing with hands we’re dealt. Sometimes it’s  just a shitty hand, which makes us look like shitty guys.

It’s OK though, because  being a shitty person is what can make us a better one down the road. Henry emerges possibly being on the path to being better at the end, depending on the game. He’s not Ned and he shouldn’t be isolated, he shouldn’t be a drunk, and he shouldn’t be isolated (though weirdly you can somehow bypass the end of the game and stay behind on the mountain).

I think that, ultimately, is the point of Firewatch. Be Henry, go to Australia to see your wife. Don’t become Ned.

“I’m coming home.”

I’ve been slowly exploring playing video games more and more these days. I’ve got terrible reflexes when it comes to stuff like that, but writing and storytelling and mysteries are things that I’m drawn to, so those elements are always interesting. There are games where the action is non-existent and the puzzle-solving or the mystery is the primary drive behind the game’s engine, and that sort of stuff is what I find myself liking.

There was this video game that I heard about, called Gone Home. I didn’t really know what it was, or what it was about, although the basic surface details I got were intriguing. A imagesgiant empty house on a stormy raining night, scattered with clues about the past year’s events. You’re the older daughter home from a year abroad, and the clues help to develop a sense of what went on while you, the older perfect daughter, went away. Did your parents’ marriage fall apart? Why is your sister gone? Seriously, where is everyone? How did you end up with his new home, this house in the middle of nowhere in Oregon?

So we got it to play together. We were both interested in it, and we played it together.

My apartment looks lived in. Sure, there’s cool stuff up on the walls (well, crap I consider cool), but there’s the clean dishes drying in the rack, the bills on my desk, the tax paperwork, the books I use for work. Someone lives here, it’s not just a collection of furniture or of things, it’s someone’s messy (in my case, very messy) life.

The house I grew up in for the most part, the house my grandparents lived in together (and my dad spent most of his life in) and that my parents and grandmother live in now, when I go to that house, the comfort comes from it being lived-in. The TV remote is on a couch, and the couches are ancient. The dining room table used to be covered in stuff during the days, though not so much anymore now that my grandfather died. Still, the kitchen is constantly going, and the books are everywhere, the one basket of laundry either going up to the linen closet or down to the washing machine is always at the top of the stairs. When I moved back to New York and was back in that house for a while, the first few months has a very surreal feel, as I was recovering from a ruined attempt at a new life and seeing if I really could just slide back into the old shed skin of my old life.

I couldn’t, obviously. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t feel at home.

My grandfather was still alive then, so the TV was always on. He drank a lot of coffee, so the leftover cups were either on that kitchen table or in the sink. I got my voracious reading habits from my dad and grandfather, so of course the books were everywhere, and the same old fridge, older than me, with the same old magnets, older than a lot of us, were up. They’re still there.

That, I think, more than anything is what I really enjoyed about this game. The setting of Gone Home is lived-in, and I think that this element of the game’s writing and development was done on purpose. Lived-in environments (in real life) always draw us in, because they (like comfort foods), remind us of home and security. Something lived-in is something we can connect with, there’s an element of life and of reality to it. What makes people so wary of the cliche of picture-perfect homes with nothing out of place is the fact that there’s no elements of people actually living in those spaces, so our natural fear of impostors, of simulacra, rises up.

The drawers in the bedrooms of Gone Home are somewhat half-filled, half-open. The dining room and office tables and desks are scattered with mail and papers (the game takes place in the mid-1990’s, so no bills paid online or email). A nice chunk of the story is the allusion to the house being perpetually half-unpacked, of a family life struggling to be maintained that’s very evident in the evidence that you both actively seek out as well as notice. The dad’s spaces, with notes and papers and books and typewriters. The mom’s spaces, with letters from her friend and work notices and books and day planners. The sister’s spaces, with mix tapes and zines and letters.

There are a lot of letters. There are a lot of other little things that are clear time period indicators meant to feed into the 1990’s nostalgia that this game brings up, from furniture and home style to electronics and the lack of certain other kinds of electronics (landlines, old video game consoles, older model TVs, no cellphones obviously, no Internet, probably no cable TV).

I had one of those older TVs in that house I grew up in until a few years ago, still-working artifacts that we kept out of sheer stubbornness. They worked, and they interfaced with the cable box, so why bother replacing them?

Reclaimed parts of the house that are hideouts and comfort zones besides the traditional office/kitchen/bedroom are probably both the biggest indicators of the interactive narrative of the game with all the clues, but they’re also the big indicators of familiar comfort spaces being built within the house. The basement and attic where the younger daughter Sam makes zines, has secret sleepovers with her girlfriend, and explores for the ghost of her dead uncle who built this house. The second writing desk and typewriter in the greenhouse/glassed-in garden, where the dad goes through mail and is working on a new book that that isn’t the stereo reviews he seemingly does for a living, somehow revived as a writer. The sewing rooms off the main bedroom where Mom’s books and sewing machine and materials are, and the corner of the kitchen where her promotion letters from work are displayed, work that we can tell means a lot. I’m reminded a bit of a page in Alison Bechdel’s Gone Home, where she describes her childhood home as something like an artists’ colony by the time she and her siblings were teenagers, with every family member off in their own worlds and corners, oblivious to the rest until dinner time.

Gone Home garnered a lot of praise, which I can see in the story and the gameplay (a really in-depth Forbes piece on the game’s flaws describes it more as an interactive narrative than a “game” per se, which I agree with). There’s something lacking in it, though, which I can’t quite put my finger on.

For one thing, the game’s ending leaves a lot to be desired, honestly. You probably could have fit another hour or two of story into this game without sacrificing much in terms of gameplay. You don’t really solve mysteries so much as piece them together the main story from reading and inferring, but I feel like the story could have been expanded more to fill in the missing year’s life before coming to the conclusion of the end.

Also, while I understand the desire to not just be a “haunted house” story or game, the mystery of Uncle Oscar, the father’s uncle who willed them this weird old house, is one that I feel could have been further expanded on, and not in a supernatural way. Personal/family mysteries, Nineties nostalgia, and the Pacific Northwest are great as concepts to work with, but for $20, I kinda wish I’d gotten more out of it.

I think there’s at least one or two more play-throughs of this, mostly because i think I missed some stuff and I want to go back. However, even with the flaws, I really enjoyed this primarily because of the things it made me think about and feel. So much of the game is about the cycle of a year and metaphorically “going home,” a heavy-handed trope but one that, with a deft hand, works incredibly well in literature. Gone Home is pretty much that. It’s a really good little novella/longer short story, albeit one packaged more as a full novel.

I like novellas. They’re comforting. Short and interesting fiction I can always come back to, to me, is coming home.