On videogame debate, misunderstandings and the importance of keeping an open mind

The Fullbright company 2

Gone Home is one example of a release which has attracted criticism from some quarters for not being a ‘real’ game.

Write columns, blogs and articles like these for long enough and you’ll often feel misunderstood. Whether talking about the highs and lows of using free-to-play economics, the question of whether games will ever be any good at telling stories (no, nay never), or any one of a dozen other topics, some people will misread you. They’ll think you said something you didn’t, or that you were going somewhere with an argument you weren’t. They fill in imagined gaps and draw illusory connections. Most readers get your point, but they generally aren’t the ones who comment. So the discourse can seem a bit lensed.

And if that’s true for written work (believe me, it is) then it’s doubly true for the games you make. Folks misunderstand them in all sorts of ways all across the spectrum. Take, for example, Gone Home. It’s great. Play it. Don’t worry so much about whether it’s a game or not. Just play it. You’ll probably like it if you give it a chance. You’ll probably find it interesting for its length and that it leaves you pondering – if you let it. But will you?

Or will you be one of those people who immediately dismisses it as not-much-of-a or not-a-real game? Think about why you’d do that for a moment. Do games have a set shape in your mind, or is it more the case that you expect certain things from them? Is a firstperson game not a game to you without the shooting? Or is it more the subject matter that bothers?

I hope you’re not one of those not-real types. That kind of close-mindedness makes the gaming community look like a bunch of dimwits. It makes us seem like those guys from Anvil: The Story Of Anvil, hanging on in there with their visions of a world built on heavy metal. It’s fine and all, but it feels very out of time in a sad old dude way.

Debates often polarise around games like Gone Home when they do something different, or defy easy categorisation.

Conversely, are you one of those people who heard about Gone Home and its supposed significance to ‘the evolution of videogames’, and so judged it worthy before you ever played it? Because there’s plenty of those people, too. They’re the ones over-attributing significance where there is little.

Just as the functionalist’s narrow-mindedness is a net negative, so too is the wavy-armed school of games, art and narrative critique. It’s not so much a critique as a theology, the belief that games
and stories will some day mix well, despite the mountains of evidence showing that they do not.

Let’s get back to Gone Home. Forget the backing track of the plot and so on for just a second. What is it you actually do? Trawl through a house looking for keys that open doors. Put another way, Gone Home is essentially a Doom level without the shotguns. Everything else is, mechanically speaking, icing sugar.

Pay attention to the setting, the culture and the ideas and what story is trying to come across and the gameness can seem weird. Why, asks the critic, must it still rely on the artifices of hunting and play? Why can’t it be purer still, just an ambient exploration? Why must it be sullied by the vestiges of fun? Both positions are just link- or quote-bait. They’re the sort of tagline that gets sidebarred in an article by a wily editor in search of emotion. But they’re each ludicrously short-sighted in their own way.

Gone Home is one of those games that says a lot about the player rather than itself. It challenges them in a variety of subtle ways. It may not be the most mechanically dense game ever, but in the space left something interesting happens. The sense you are in that house searching somewhat urgently to find out what’s going on starts to feel real. It’s one of those games that crosses the barrier and for brief moments you find yourself believing. It’s thaumatic. That word I invented.

‘Gone Home is one of those games that says a lot about the player rather than itself.’

“Why,” a friend recently asked me, “are you always making words up? There’s perfectly serviceable words there.” To which my answer was essentially “No, there aren’t.” Just because we’re used to the landscape being defined in a certain way doesn’t mean that landscape is correct. Sometimes you’re trying to move beyond, to express a quality in a way that doesn’t match anything else you see. What else can you do?

Camps often form around easy dualisms because they appeal to our emotional judgement and reduce cognitive load. That has the adverse effect of leading to entrenched thinking, though. They say that when people with strong politics hear opinions that affirm or deny their stated opinions, their reason centres literally shut down. Think about that. (Or don’t.)

Sometimes it’s better to redefine how you challenge the reader. Gone Home is one such game, a challenge to the stated order of games as we supposedly know it. It stands somewhat and asks, ‘What am I?’

Over time, the issue of being misunderstood usually fades. In part this is because thought refines and smooths. You learn to accommodate, to redefine from within (which is why sooner or later every game designer gets around to trying to define ‘game’). But it’s because of perseverance, too. Keep working at it, keep finding new ways to express what you think or feel, and the real meaning eventually starts to seep through.