Creative Restriction and The New Realism


Much of the critical writing that has blossomed in the immediate wake of The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home sounds a bit like a sigh of relief: yes, we can do this! A big part of it is due to the subjects of its main story (which have been written about wonderfully). Another part of it, and mixed in with the first, comes with the form of the game– its willingness to work within certain creative restrictions.

A future student of this medium might find it difficult to understand what a departure this game really is from the kinds of things that came before it. Up until now, most of the major efforts that explored close human relationships and emotions through the lens of a game leaned heavily on some fantastical setting: the zombie-infested lands of The Walking Dead or The Last of Us, the child-spun fantasy worlds of Papo & Yo and Limbo, the bizarre Columbia in BioShock Infinite. Even Dear Esther’s cold Hebridean island is best understood as representing the mental state of the main character– a rendering of his internal world– rather than as a “real” place.

Gone Home’s steadfast refusal to include the supernatural, melodrama, or even pulp is one of its most defining and most interesting qualities. We keep expecting to hear a scream, see a bloodstain, or be inundated with one-frame flashbacks. We have been trained to assume that these things go a certain way. But what we find instead is a disarming family story, left there for us to discover and take in at our own pace. Gone Home’s world is the real world, where the kids go to school and grow up, where a middle-aged couple struggles through marriage, and where the occult only exists inasmuch as the characters attempt to interact with it. 

There have been many attempts to depict relationships in a gamelike format, even though humanistically representing character through a system is quite difficult. Often the interactions are too shallow, such as when carefully listening to someone’s life story for half an hour or so leads to them declaring you the love of their life. Then there are the distant, abstract representations, like you find in the sprawling procedural dynasties of strategy games like Crusader Kings, or the traits of the soldiers in Valkyria Chronicles, where a character’s particular attributes can be amusing but are really meaningful only through in their contribution to, or hinderance of, the player’s overall goal of conquest. Even in the most touching of regular systemic interactions– calling your father in Mother 2 because you’re homesick, for example, or holding Yorda’s hand in Ico– become rote activities after a while, and somewhat lose their poignancy with repetition.

This is not to say that real human interactions are not ritualized to the point of mechanic in some ways, but that procedural rhetoric about human life nearly always makes a specific argument: life works this way, life works that way. Counter to this, Gone Home eschews systems; in particular, it avoids systemizing anything about its characters. Instead of portraying the characters themselves, or providing a set of interactions with those characters, it presents instead a series of artifacts from the characters’ lives without trying to build mechanics around them. The family is only present through those artifacts, the shapes and shadows each member leaves behind. In a certain sense, you could say that the game sets its sights low. But it also hits its mark extremely well– and by doing so achieves something greater than a reductive mechanical take on those same characters ever could. Gone Home is not intended from the top down to be “a game about life”, as some ham-handed experiments have been– instead, it simply represents or evokes certain lives very well (and therefore naturally becomes about life). The game allows its characters to exist on a plane that we usually reserve for ourselves. 

Chris Sullentrop, writing in the New York Times, called Gone Home “the closest thing to literary realism I’ve encountered in a video game.” This is an astute and important observation. In fact, when evaluated in the light of its companions in the average Steam library, Gone Home seems almost radically realist.

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An interesting question that follows from this is: does this new kind of interactive realism have applications beyond one title? Does Gone Home lead us to a rich vein of non-abstracted, non-fantastical, and only lightly mechanical takes on the human condition through the medium of video games?

There are some big limitations to the strict environmental storytelling approach. These limitations are similar to those of the epistolary novel, where you can’t impart any action as it happens, but only as it was later filtered through someone else’s recorded experience. In this kind of framework, you must allow for the fact that what is transferred to the reader (or the player) has to be discoverable– that is, out in the open in some way and accessible to the audience. And you must strike the right balance between what feels plausible, not overtly expository, and what will get the information across that allows the full story to come into being.

The Fullbright team has brilliantly navigated these self-imposed restrictions. By having the player-protagonist come home from a year-long trip to an unfamiliar home, for example, they neatly sidestep the dissonance between a character who should be familiar with the environment (Kaitlin’s own home) and the players of that character, who are seeing it for the first time. This choice allows both us and Kaitlin to experience the home as new. By setting the game in 1995, on the early cusp of the Internet revolution, the Greenbriars would not be expected to be e-mailing or texting one another. It’s believeable, then, when much of the drama is preserved in physical artifacts instead of taking place online.

Part of the joy of playing Gone Home, to me, was to see those solutions in action– to understand the shape of the problems and appreciate the creativity involved in solving them. As many of us come to learn as we make things, one of the best things one can do to catalyze one’s creativity is to work under specific limitations. This may be especially true of games, because within them one can do nearly anything; the possibility space of all game rules and systems is so large that it might be no wonder we’ve mostly clung to known forms over the last three decades.

Perhaps what we really need to advance our medium, then, is not the development of yet more new technology, but instead new sets of rules under which to work– that is, new kinds of artistic forms.

And perhaps one of those forms takes, as its primary instrument, the eye of the literary realist.

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