I was delighted to be able to interview Karla Zimonja from Fullbright about the studio’s unique “story exploration video game”, Gone Home, which we looked at as part of the Games for Communication project.
I begin by asking if the designers of the game had set out to communicate with the player:
“I would say that we hoped to communicate with players in that we hoped to create a low-pressure environment in which they could feel comfortable to investigate (but which nevertheless had a little bit of impetus, so that the player would not feel bored, etc.) Hopefully the players got the message that it was safe to take their time and fully explore (which is not always something that people feel they have permission to do in a game).
Additionally, it could be said that an important message is ‘you can drive your own experience’, since pacing is up to the player, as well as individual investigatory behaviours, and the amount of thinking/pondering on events and artefacts.”
Karla also suggests that the game communicates more subtly with its players:
“I’d say that more textual communication included things like ‘women are interesting people’, ‘teenagers have real feelings’, etc., but hopefully those are more along the lines of conclusions it’d be nice if players came to, as opposed to messages to hammer home.”
I then ask if the developers thought that playing Gone Home might help improve skills in those who play it, such as investigative or critical thinking skills. While acknowledging that the house in Gone Home was not entirely realistic, and therefore, perhaps, not an ideal environment in which to hone “real life” investigative abilities, Karla was more enthusiastic about the prospect of the game helping to develop other skills.
“It would be nice if that were the case! It’s hard for us to really know this for sure, as far as we know no studies have been done, but we hope there’s several things that can be learned here.”
More specifically, Karla suggests that Gone Home might have a role to play in developing new players’ gaming literacy:
“Firstly, there’s the basic FPS control fluency; we have heard from a few people that they had never played a first person game before, but in the course of playing Gone Home they gained enough skill to go on to play other first person games (Portal was specifically put forth as the next game by one or two people). This is super important to us! Accessibility is and has been one of our primary goals. It means a lot to us to allow people to experience games they felt too intimidated to try before, since obviously a lot of first person games involve a lot of other proficiencies than just navigation and interaction with objects. But developing that skill and then being able to look to, say, Portal, and instead of ‘WHAT IS ALL THIS SHIT I HAVE TO DO’ being able to say ‘okay, I understand this movement and aiming paradigm, now the challenge is just (just!) to understand portals’ is such a great ability to be able to give people.”
Karla also sees opportunities for the game to develop more transferable skills. The requirement that players think critically, and work things out for themselves, is actually central to the game’s design:
“Secondarily, I feel as if there should be a certain amount of critical thinking that Gone Home could help develop, sure. We definitely tried to not fill in all the blanks, fictionally, but instead to allow room for the player to make the mental leaps themselves. This investment of mental work is much more enjoyable (since learning is fun, and working to understand a thing is super rewarding and satisfying when you succeed) and interesting than just giving the information would have been. I would also argue that just the practice at working to understand fictional characters is a worthy skill source – it could make players more likely to make a go at understanding more difficult works, in whatever medium. It’s hard to just jump in to Oryx and Crake [a science fiction, or “speculative fiction”, novel by Margaret Atwood], or basically any good sci-fi (for example) without that skill.”
Finally, Karla summarises the game’s intellectual appeal:
“I think it’s unusual enough to experience a game that requires mental effort, laying aside the idea of puzzles. In Gone Home the player’s job is to seek, to learn, and to understand. It’s a very different mental state than hammering on a puzzle. That feeling itself might make players more interested in seeking out other works to invest themselves in.”
Gone Home is currently available for Windows, Mac, and Linux from gonehomegame.com.