Readings & Workings

Phantom Interaction

L. Rhodes

There's much that I admire about Gone Home (Fullbright; 2013), but I didn't particularly enjoy playing it. While I certainly don't have for it the contempt you find in the user reviews section of Metacritic, I found the experience somewhat frustrating, which ultimately kept me from giving it the wholehearted love it received from professional critics like Polygon's Danielle Riendeau.

What bothered me were the terms of interaction. That's sometimes subsumed under the heading of "mechanics," and sometimes boiled down to "controls," but I want to stick to the clunkier phrase for a moment because it makes my point more explicit. The obstacle I continually found standing in the way was not what Gone Home asked me to do, but rather the particulars of how it had to be done.

Specifically, I mean a particular set of conventions for navigating 3-dimensionally rendered space. Those conventions, the "terms of interaction" in Gone Home, were largely cribbed from the first-person shooter genre: moving through the environment with one thumbstick, pivoting the view with the other, or handling those functions with a combination of keyboard and mouse, picking out objects with a "reticule" that is functionally (if not graphically) identical to cross-hairs.

In shooting games, those conventions function to give greater substance to the essential behaviors (running, dodging, aiming) by giving the player a relatively broad range of ways to move through and position themselves around the playing field. That results in more opportunities to exercise the specific skills that constitute the fun of the genre.

That isn't the case with Gone Home. There's no shooting, no cause for evasive maneuvers. The better the player is at the conventional terms of interaction, the easier they'll find it to move through the house that is the videogame's only environment, but that freedom of movement is an extravagance here. There's no particular advantage in hewing close to a wall -- walking down the exact middle of a corridor works just as well. The terms of interaction might have been different in a number of ways without significantly changing the player's ability to canvas the entire house.

That point may be illustrated by comparison with an historical example. While the best remembered graphic adventures tend to have been arranged laterally, oriented as though on a theater stage (think: The Curse of Monkey Island), there have also been a few graphic adventures situated from a first-person perspective, so that movement through the word happens in three dimensions. The paradigm here may be Shadowgate (Mindscape; 1987), and if that aesthetic is too retro, there's a 2014 remake that demonstrates how the form can be brought more in line with modern sensibilities. Shadowgate

from Shadowgate for the NES (ICOM Simulations, Inc., 1989)

Shadowgate's terms of interaction bear kinship with first-person role players like Sir-Tech's Wizardry series: the left and right keys reorient the view along the cardinal directions, up and down move the player forward and back through the map, the mouse can be used to select onscreen objects and commands. This represents a more restricted set of terms for moving through a 3-dimensional space, but that's the point. Gone Home really only requires you to move around the house, clicking on items to examine and move them. I see no reason why the terms of interaction shouldn't be more limited.

Among other things, that would make the game more accessible, both to videogame novices and to players with physical disabilities. Excelling at (and, to some extent, enjoying) an FPS requires a degree of mastery over the genre's terms of interaction. From a design standpoint, then the learning curve that comes with those conventions can only be flattened so far before play itself loses appeal. Particularly with a work designed to reach beyond the traditional "core" demographic of the videogame market, avoiding needlessly demanding terms of interaction would seem like a natural goal. Even if you are reasonably proficient with FPS conventions, they can be distracting when superfluous.

Yet I wouldn't go so far as to say what some detractors have said about Gone Home -- that the interactions themselves are needless. The gist there is usually that the core of Gone Home is a plot that's relayed entirely through narration. And while it's true that you could isolate the story of Samantha Greenbriar's romance with Lonnie (as well as the more implicit story of Oscar Greenbriar's estrangement from his family) from the rest of the medium, the videogame achieves its specific aesthetic effect by mapping the elements of that story onto a fully-rendered 3-dimensional space. That's done by spreading narrative clues throughout the house, as well as by designating certain points in that space as virtual tripwires to trigger the next voice-over narration.

If, then, you are receptive to it, the videogames' interactions do more than just lead you through a linear series of events that might have been communicated as effectively (if not more so) as a prose novella. Similar to the way that Gaston Bachelard wrote of a "poetics of space," playing Gone Home encourages you to explore a narratology of space. Over the conventional meanings of the representational spaces found in the eponymous home, the incremental unspooling of the story superimposes additional significance, gradually guiding the player toward the increasingly secretive spaces where the most momentous decisions were made. The kitchen is not just a room outfitted for the usual functions of a food storage and preparation; it's also freighted with the memory of a young woman's changing relationship to a childhood friend. The dining room is not only where the family eats, but also where her parents refused to come to terms with the person she had discovered herself to be.

Thus, each of the discrete interactions required to play one's way through the videogame -- explore, examine, read, listen -- point the player to a more significant set of underlying behaviors. The house becomes a spatial pattern, and the detective work of uncovering clues serves as an inducement to shape the narrative according to that pattern. While the narrative elements are placed before the player more or less linearly, the effect of play is to arrange them into a 3-dimensional skein congruent to the space where they were told or took place. "Home" ends up being something more than "house." The difference is in how we imbue the structure with interpersonal meanings no architect could have anticipated.

The potency of this phantom interaction depends, in no small part, on leaving it for the player to discover in the course of play. Instructing the player to give meaning to the house would have robbed Gone Home of much of its force. Instead, the given interactions are strictly conventional: move, pick up, put down, and so on. But if the effectiveness of the phantom interaction depends on its being withheld, its accessibility is also a function of the thinness of the videogame's explicit interactions.

That's why it matters that Gone Home gives the player excessive mobility at the cost of imposing more complicated terms of interaction. If we are to connect on the level at which a videogame becomes more than just an exercise in skill or dexterity, we must be able to scratch beneath the surface of play, to the significance of what we're doing. The more extravagant the terms of interaction, the more difficult that becomes for the player.