Best narrative game of the year: Gone Home
Welcome to the PC Gamer Game of the Year Awards 2013. For an explanation of how the awards were decided, a round-up of all the awards and the list of judges, check here.
Traditional storytelling techniques suffer in the transition to interactive entertainment. While many games choose to compartmentalise their storytelling and interactive sections, others experiment with new methods. In Gone Home, exploration becomes a form of authorship. The entwined stories of each family member unravel at your command as you flick through the detritus of their lives. The resulting tale was the most affecting of the year.
A warning for those who haven't played it yet, the discussion below does contain a few spoilers.
TYLER Gone Home’s interlocking tales of love, rejection and regret are exposed almost wholly by the artefacts left by your family members as you explore their new house. The story is moving (although the sentimentality sometimes borders on schmaltzy), but what makes Gone Home extra special is how it’s told. More than interacting with spaces and things, I’m interacting with motivations and fears, solving a maze with empathy rather than spatial reasoning. In a medium rife with expository cutscenes and deus ex machina, Gone Home brings vital innovation to the art of the interactive narrative. Also, I teared up a little at the end, if you must know.
ANDY I was expecting the worst. I went into this game not knowing a single thing about it, and in every dark room, and around every dark corner, I was expecting something horrible. So it was a relief, and a pleasant surprise, to discover that it just wanted to tell me a story about people. This was far more interesting than serial killers or ghosts or whatever I was bracing myself to encounter in those gloomy, eerily quiet corridors. Even as I climbed to the attic I was preparing to stumble across something grim, but instead I found a beautiful, touching end to a wonderfully understated human story. Years of playing videogames have trained my brain to always expect conflict or danger, and it was nice to have those expectations subverted. I too have a low tolerance for schmaltz, but Gone Home was on just the right side of sentimental for me.
TONY It’s all in the dad’s room. It’s set up so that the first thing you come across is his desk, where you discover what seem to be the scribblings of a would-be science fiction writer. This is a dad with dreams. Then, as you work your way around his den you find the boxes of books with his name on and realise he made it: he’s a published author. That’s great! Good for you, unfulfilled American ’90s dad! Only... why are there so many boxes of his book? Then you read the publisher’s letter, rejecting his latest manuscript because his books have all bombed. Lastly, you read the snarky editor’s memo from the consumer electronics magazine the dad works at now, writing puff pieces about hi-fis, and realise that this is a dad who went for his dream – and failed. A whole life in boxes, in a single room.
CHRIS It’s been said that Gone Home subverts our expectations of what a game experience should be in order to tell a different kind of story – but what I like most about it is that it’s not about throwing away what games are good at. Games are a form of communication that demands mutual participation. Good games expect your critical engagement, and treat you like someone capable of interpreting situations and environments intelligently without the need for hand-holding. There’s something positive and hopeful about entertainment that wants you to be active, not passive.
Gone Home is, as much as any other game on this list, a game about making choices. Not which soldier to turn into a robot, but where to go, what to look for, what to choose to attribute meaning to. It’s about following lines of potential through to the point where you discover what is, a drama that celebrates the things your brain is doing when you’re switched on and engaged with the world.