What Even Is A Gone Home?
While I try and avoid the recent Gamergate debacle on this blog so as to not dignify the *choke*…”movement”… with any kind of perceived legitimacy, its mention is integral when talking of the somewhat adversarial ground between videogame critics and consumers. Gamergate’s instigation of both parties’ explicit, virulent contempt of each other was the perfect testament to that discord.
Never before have I seen a discord so great between critical and consumer consensuses than with those of Gone Home. The difference between these particular consensuses is what some consider to be Gamergate’s angst manifest, and to be almost Gamergate in microcosm. In the interest of concision:
Gone Home is a critically acclaimed exploratory indie game from Fullbright, a then 4 person team released in 2013 and 2016 for PC and consoles respectively. According to steamspy.com it has shipped over 600,000 copies on Steam and according to Metacritic has a critical consensus of 86/100 and user consensus of 5.4/10.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is a critically acclaimed first person shooter game from Sledgehammer Games, a developer comprised of 225 employees released in 2014 for all platforms. According to steamspy.com it has shipped over 1,000,000 copies on Steam and according to Metacritic has a critical consensus of 83/100 and a user consensus of 5.7/10.
What is intriguing about this is that a third more users voted on Metacritic for Gone Home’s user rating than Advanced Warfare’s despite the title selling 400,000 fewer copies. Gamers have a concentrated anger and suspicion of Gone Home, ranging from angry internet men talking about how it stands to be the “worst game” of 2013 to multiple reddit threads, of course, conspiring against gamers’ bloodthirsty and apparently prolific arch-nemesis: industry cronyism! Grrr!
How is it that nobody internet-screams at the exact same disjoint over Advanced Warfare, a game that commercially towers above the other. How is it that gamers swarm in hordes to polarise the dislike bar on YouTube video reviews of Gone Home? How is it that this disjoint comes to arrive in the first place?
We Need To Talk About Gamers
Gamers are assholes. Not that they can be, they are. Historically gamers hand out death threats to developers as if it is some tacit requirement to survive gamer status, as if to abstain from threatening a developer when you’re pissed would somehow emasculate you as a modern consumer. On top of this the flippant sexism and thin pretence of an interest in journalistic reform during Gamergate showed a kind of sophomoric nature to gamers if nothing else. I don’t subscribe to the majorly broadstroke sociology of Katherine Cross but what she has to say is extremely interesting. I think rather the reason for all the bitterness and assholery is that gamers are innately accustomed to control. As opposed to other media, gaming audiences are anything but passive. In their collective escapism they play under the illusion of control over virtual worlds and characters, and so because of this it might just rustle their jimmies much more when resistance against a disagreeable situation or idea in the industry is found powerless, futile. Disagreeable things would certainly include the gamer’s boogieman of social progression, causing them to desperately try and grab a hold of the situation when a Rockstar game is slandered as less than perfect by icky feminist criticism.
I know what I’m doing. During my penis phase of life I would have sided with Gamergate were discussion extended to myself. One of the things I hated the most when I was an anthropomorphic penis was journalistic virulence in, what I thought were sanctimonious articles such as Alexander’s, slandering gamers in generalisations. It takes a lot to understand where she’s coming from. Even by separating myself linguistically through separate pronouns, I may come across as holier-than-thou. I play videogames voraciously. But that comes at a cost knowing that you share so much in common with droves of, well, bad people: gamers who dox for fun, gamers who bully feminists online for fun, gamers who send death threats and even worse, the gamers who deny these things as insidious problems. It is impossible to reconcile the conscious knowledge of these problems and any unconditional faith or pride in being a ‘gamer’. If being a gamer means to frolic around 4chan circulating Overwatch porn and Newgrounds flash games where you beat up Anita Sarkeesian, I am not a gamer. That is the truth of it.
What was I *machinegun fire* talking about? Oh yeah, so, I would think that based on gamers’ evident lack of enthusiasm for social progression, one of the factors contributing towards Gone Home’s unexpected backlash would be that it centres around a lesbian relationship. That is the only narrative assessment I could think of that… wouldn’t exactly warrant but rather rationalise the undermining of Gone Home’s status. Any other reason seems pernickety to label it as a bad story, A 5.4/10 story. It is to an extent unreasonable to expect a story any better than we have received when considering the four person development team and 3GB file size with Gone Home. It is even arguable that its importance as a pioneer in the exploratory genre succeeds its importance as a narrative oriented title, and to demand perfection from a genre pioneer will always be unreasonable, as there is simply no preliminary material to perfect or iterate on. Having played Gone Home five times now, it is distinctively the first of its ilk.
We Need To Talk About Critics
Beneath the assholery of the (what I like to imagine) spandex-clad internet ragekids is a genuine incredulousness at a perceived critical leniency. During the time I was a limbed phallus, I did have an interest in videogame journalism reform but not for the same reasons exactly as Gamergate. I can understand and sympathise with gamers on the issue of critics.
A legitimate reason for gamers disliking video reviews of Gone Home is that, for the most part, these reviews are bad. The body of their writing is simply bad. Marty Sliva spasmodically draws comparisons between the game’s world and Bioshock Infinite’s… and the Last of Us’s… because… these three things are videogames? He also steps up with this banger: “the bedroom of an angsty teenager feels like the bedroom of an angsty teenager” and the subsequent “I’m being a bit vague for a reason”. 10/10 mate. Similarly, the then editor of Gamespot Carolyn Petit cites “excellent voice acting” while failing to name a single voice actress. This is one of my pet peeves as a consumer and something which I need to improve on in my own criticism: failing to name specific developers or actors.
This is why I was interested in journalistic reform, not for some disingenuous interest in critical ‘objectivism’ (also known as critical banality) or a bloody journalistic ethics code on Gamergate’s part, but of a reform in journalistic competence in general.
On top of this, critics seem to be impervious to any actual criticism of the game. While I am certainly fond of the game it is not without its problems. For one, the polarising homosexual element of the narrative was innately artificial. When playing through the commentary mode, you hear an excerpt of Steve Gaynor’s and Karla Zimonja’s discussion on the inception of the game’s narrative. They imply, in effect, that the character of Sam being gay presented the character with internal and external struggles and this would better the narrative through players’ additional sympathy. Rather than being in the interest of social progression, it is arguable that this narrative suffers from some selfish and contrived appropriation. I’m not saying this is true, but I have never seen this considered. As well as this, if we are to be truly progressive, should we not treat LGBT stories or characters with equitable indifference, instead of unconditionally hail inclusion or utilisation of these characters? While I understand praise is in good faith, there is something insidiously self-serving in straight people being conspicuously overexcitable over inclusion of LGBT issues in narratives.
Even if you do, as aforementioned, regard Gone Home’s importance as an exploratory game higher than its importance as a narrative one, then there are still problems. To quote Steve Gaynor: “A lot of Gone Home is about pointless interactivity”. A good portion of your time in Gone Home will be spent pondering at nondescript household goods with fictionalised nineties brands. While this is all in the interest of conjuring authenticity, it dilutes the interest in being observant after the third or fourth sighting of the same ‘softface’-brand tissue box asset. This is not the only design problem. There is no entity connecting lampshades to lamps, assets reappear too frequently, there is a side door in a cupboard asset that is never used to conceal an object, the text interface malfunctions, et cetera. It is a cardinal sin of any critic to claim that something is perfect, and believe me there have been perfect scores, without explaining why. Despite Gone Home’s deeply introverted narrative, it clearly does a good job of imbuing own personal memories in the minds of its players. IGN’s Sliva can’t go a paragraph without mentioning his family and in commentary mode Sarah Grayson, the main voice actress, begins to cry into her microphone as she admits that the story reminds her of those in her own life. While these people commend the story’s applicability, it can also be criticised for this. If something is too easily identifiable with an audience then something may be said of a lack of plot complexity. Gone Home may be sweet, but it is short and simple and not a criterion of videogame narrative.
Okay So What?
Gone Home is a game I played with my mum. My bloody mum. Were she to suddenly find herself in the midst of any other videogame universe with its respective context I could bet that she wouldn’t be able to tell her arse from her elbow, as it were, when it comes to narrative or mechanics.
Gone Home’s charm is in its evidently universal simplicity, its intimate development team, its small file size, its short length but also its everlasting impression. It may well be a pioneer in a whole new genre of games that seek to subvert expectations of what it means to be a videogame.
Unfortunately its reputation must be now affiliated with that asinine conflict between the retrograde and vitriolic consumers and the somewhat irritatingly comfortable leniency and flippancy of journalists.
We should not let artefacts of innovation such as Gone Home be so dramatically polarised as it has. We can all do better.