Learning the Ropes about Tropes

ENGL 3726 - Gone Home

Spoiler alert for Gone Home — Don’t read further if you want to avoid spoilers.

Just say the word “western,” and I can immediately visualize a high noon showdown, as if I were hiding behind a barrel on the porch of a saloon. Say “sci-fi,” and now we’re zipping by the stars at light speed and shooting lasers at corrupt galactic empire forces. I played a game called Gone Home recently, and everything about it was telling me “mystery” and “horror,” so you can well imagine my thoughts as I stepped into the dimly lit, sparse mansion in the middle of a forest on a dark and stormy night.

Turns out, it’s not horror — your character, Katie, is just trying to figure out why the house is empty on the night of your return from abroad. The reasons are dramatic, rich with complexity, but totally benign of anything supernatural.

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Why was I so scared, though? Why were my immediate thoughts upon entering my family’s new home, “Something horrible has happened here”? Granted, I scare fairly easily, but I think there was more than my lack of fortitude at work. I’d like to say a word about tropes, how they’re used in Gone Home, and how mystery and horror tropes were perfect for this game.

trope is an easy way to make the participant feel standard things: just like I described at the top of the post, they provide a framework for thinking about setting and emotions. I’ve definitely been one to harp on tropes in the past, but really, they’re crucial to storytelling. Without some expectation for what’s about to happen, there can be no surprises, no twists, no novel deviations — the things that are more beloved of a story. Tropes may be a heavy-handed way of establishing the expectations, but they can be incredibly important when used right!

All that said, I think Gone Home uses tropes expertly. In Gone Home, even the title screen, with its silhouettes, secluded look, and one light eerily lit, is a trope of horror, and it immediately makes you feel jittery. I even used the word “eerily” just now, and I’ve already played the game and know it’s not horror! Throughout the game there are a number of tangible cues that make you feel like something in the house is amiss: the house is called “The Psycho House”; the lights flicker constantly; your father has an obsession with conspiracies; the list goes on. My favorite example is the upstairs bathroom stained with red, but you find out it’s just hair dye.

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You might now be thinking, “So what? Why does it matter that Gone Home uses these tropes?” Well, if you think about it, this game desperately needs to rely on them. You are the only player in the game, and you have only one environment to explore. Without the notion of mystery and horror, you would have very little incentive to explore the house — actually, you would have no incentive to explore. This and many other games relies on the assurance that the player, when confronted with a mystery (Sam saying, “Don’t try to find out what happened”), will promptly disobey and begin to search. The trope of flickering and dim lights, secret passages, and a paper trail are tediously common, but they draw you in so the true story can unfold. I guess that’s what I’m trying to get across: the tropes do not make the game; they create the tension players need to discover the game.

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Moreover, I find the implications of the horror tropes in this game fascinating. How many times have you awakened in the wee hours, gone to the bathroom, and then the floor creaks in just the wrong way, making you complete your mission a little too early? Certainly in such circumstances, we have the very same tropes of horror in mind, but we can still recognize they’re just fiction, right? I think Gone Home recreates the very same effect we experience in real life. There is absolutely no danger in the game, but good grief it just feels like something is going to get you!

I’ll leave you thinking about that — is a trope really something you feel just in a book, a movie, a game? Or is it something you carry with you and project? Gone Home wrestles with these questions and blurs the lines between virtual and real experience. It makes an ordinary home come alive with mystery, mythos, and the thrill of discovery. Isn’t that what we all want, a way to make the unremarkable, unforgettable? If that’s the case for you, I have a great game to recommend.

Thanks for reading!

Matthew

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An Unlikely Pair

Over the break, we were asked to play Gone Home.  Unfortunately, due to extenuating circumstances, we were unable to talk about it much in class, which is a shame, since this is one of my favorite games that we have played for the class.  One of the things that made me enjoy the game was its unique style.  At first glance, the game appears to be a horror game; your character, Katie, arrives at her family’s new house (dubbed the “Psycho House” in-game) in the dead of night while a storm rages outside.  What’s more, no one is actually in the house besides you, which is both very isolating and dark, as no people means very few lights on in the house.  As you continue, you find creepy hidden passages and even a very small sub-plot involving the alleged ghost of the previous owner of the house, Oscar Masan.  However, these horror elements are not the main focus of the game.

Instead, the focus of the game is on the true protagonist, Sam, and her relationships: to her sister (the character you are playing), to her parents, and most importantly to Lonnie, a girl who Sam eventually enters a romantic relationship with, leaving her homophobic parents’ house to join Lonnie in Salem, Oregon.

These two different types of games-atmospheric horror and character-driven walking simulator-seem somehow at odds at first, since the stereotypical demographic of those two genres are so different.  However, the horror elements of the game actually heighten the player’s experiences with the character-driven portions of the game by providing tension throughout the game.

First of all, the tension the horror provides gives players a reason to be engaged in the game.  Exploring a normal house is boring, but exploring a dark, abandoned house that might be haunted by a sinister being is more compelling.  This is especially important in the early game where the horror is most prevalent, since players have not developed a reason to care about Sam yet.  As the game goes on and it becomes more clear that Gone Home is not actually a horror game, the player’s (theoretical) interest in Sam’s story is enough to carry them through to the end.

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And if you’re not a fan of horror games, don’t worry-there is an option to turn all the lights on from the beginning.

More importantly, however, that tension allows players to get into both Katie’s and Sam’s heads.  For Katie, the reason is simple; imagine you came home to a house you have never been to before late at night.  Your family, who you expected to be waiting for you, is nowhere to be found, it’s storming outside, and the lights in the house keep flickering.  Being slightly scared is expected in that situation.  However, this tension is also mirrored in Sam’s experiences as she writes them down in her journal.  While large parts of Sam’s journey of self-discovery are fun and exciting, she also has to deal with unfamiliar, scary situations-just like you, the player, are dealing with.  Sam has no support system outside of Lonnie since she has just moved to a new school.  She knows her parents will be unsupportive, and her only possible familial help, Katie, is away on a year-long stint in Europe.  Sam is exploring uncharted waters where even usually welcoming sights can be dangerous, just like the player is.  By including these horror elements, the game makers are also including a pathway into Sam’s own experiences.

Going, Going, Gone Home

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One of the many objects you can pick up and interact with in the game

Playing Gone Home this week I was struck by the notion that it seemed like large chunks of the story were either missing or obscured by a false sense of horror. As you explored the house it was easy to follow the story of Sam and Lonnie because it was read out loud in the form of journal entries Sam wrote to you. Each entry was tied to an object or location in the house so that the story naturally unfolded with your exploration and you could hear the inflection in her voice as if she was telling you her story in person. If you were an observant player you could also notice what was going on in the lives of the other family members and the history of the house. However, this part of the story was told entirely through scraps of notes and objects left lying around the house. You could read letters written by various family members and look at your past school projects but it was easy to miss the details of the story when presented with a wall of text. The story was also obscured by the fact that the game insisted on attempting to be creepy when there seemed to be no real reason for it. There was just a constant sense of dread since the lights kept flickering and turning off so you got the sense that something would jump out at you even though it never did. I would have enjoyed the game much more if it didn’t have this false sense of horror and I was able to equally explore each of the characters presented instead of just focusing on one story that was read aloud since I often missed details and had to go back to figure out what was going on with the rest of the family.

Gone Home

Earlier in class we had to play a game called “Gone Home.”  And it’s a bit of an interesting beast I would like to reflect more upon.  Once again, this is an independent game (I know, I have a bit of an obsession with them, but they always seem to turn out so amazing).  It’s developed by the Fullbright Company.  I would suggest that you play it before you read this blog post.  Seriously, it’s a beautiful, amazing game that deserves praise, and its developers deserve the money for creating this work of art.

SPOILERS BEGIN NOW

The game is a love story.  Simple as that.  It presents itself as a horror story at the beginning.  A hastily scrawled note on the door warning you not to search for your sister, a stormy night, and hints that the house might be haunted by a crazy and/or vengeful ghost.  Lights flicker, televisions are mysteriously turned on, and an intense loneliness permeates every single fiber of your being.  Yet, following your gaming instincts, you examine the first note you can interact with, and a soothing voice-over, that of your little sister, begins to calm you.  You continue to explore the house, following the plot-hook of what happened to your sister, in the hopes that perhaps this story will have a happy ending despite all of your senses yelling at you that “No, this does not have a happy ending!” And how could it?  You find hints that your family has fallen apart.  Your mom appears to be cheating on your father, their marriage seems to be falling apart, your sister is left alone and struggling with her burgeoning attraction to a girl in an age where that was even less accepted than it is today.  You are forced to assume that the worst possible action has occurred in that attic with the “keep out” sign and ominous red lights.  And yet it hasn’t.  Your mom never actually cheated, your parents went on a couple’s retreat to try and repair the divide between them, and your sister ran away with her girlfriend, hopefully finding some form of happy ending.

So what makes this game so great?  I know in my earlier blog post, I argued that gameplay and narrative should intertwine, yet how does it in this game?  This game is literally walking around a house and looking at notes.  Most people would argue that this doesn’t even constitute a game, let alone a great one.  And yet, it manages what most games never can.  It manages to make the player feel like they are living the story.  It allows the player to fully immerse themselves in the protagonist’s life.  You worry about the family as if they were your own, you root for them to overcome their demons, you explore the house hoping to find clues, you feel joy and apprehension when you discover the sister has run away to chase her happiness.  It uses the medium of video games to accomplish something that no other medium can.  No other medium can create the form of immersion that this particular story needs, and that is why video games need to be classified as an art form-  because of games like this; games that use their powers and limitations to do things that no other medium – literature, painting, film- cannot; games that make you feel and think and cry and reflect and hope.

~N. Edwards