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“It’s just a walking simulator”: The Lazy Complaint Emblematic of an Attitude Holding Back the Medium – Thoughts From Gone Home and Firewatch

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I just finished Gone Home again last night, and full disclosure, I loved it. I want to take a look at what this game does, how it does it, the backlash against the game (both the valid and invalid complaints), and why I think it represents a view into what games could be. I’m also going to be talking lightly about the game Firewatch. I’ll be spoiling Gone Home pretty heavily, so be warned, but Firewatch spoilers are less relevant to my points so they’ll be in spoiler text.

I’ll quickly outline my post:

  • Preface: Story Outline – a quick overview of the story for those who haven’t played it. You can probably skip this if you’ve played the game, though there are things you might have missed (which I did too on my first play through)
  • Disclaimer: The Gay Agenda – quickly address the frankly ridiculous argument that this is gay propaganda, hopefully something nobody needs to hear, but something I feel is worth throwing in.
  • Part 1: the Backlash – an overview of the response to the game, and my response to many of the criticisms of the game, and those that I think have validity, and those I think are argued in bad faith. This is less relevant to the main thrust of the post, so if you’re not interested in Gone Home in particular, and more interested in the game design stuff, feel free to skip this.
  • Part 2: “Just a walking simulator” – my response to the “not a game” criticism, and why I think it’s lazy and limiting.
  • Part 3: Why We Need to Leave This Attitude Behind – Why I believe this attitude holds back the medium.

Preface: Gone Home’s Story

I’ll keep this short, like the game.

You are Katie Greenbriar, a 21 year old woman coming home to Oregon in 1995 from her time travelling in Europe. You arrive to the house your family has moved into, which is still being unpacked, to find your father Terrance, a failed novelist, mother Janice, a wildlife conservationist, and 17 year old sister Samantha, all gone. The house is empty, there is a thunderstorm. Spooky vibes abound. There is a note from your sister not to investigate what happened.

In spite of that, you investigate. As you walk through the house, you read notes, documents, and assorted other clues around the house, which let you slowly begin to understand what your family was like, what was going on while you were away, among other things.

Your father is a failed novelist, who wrote two books about somebody travelling back in time to 1963 to save JFK – a topic he’s obsessed with – until his publisher tells him that he’s been dropped as his books aren’t getting sold. Your mother got promoted, and met a ranger named Rick, who it’s implied she had a crush on, if not more.

But the core of the story is Samantha, who’s story is revealed through audio diaries which trigger when you pick up items around the house. She’s been bullied at school, in part due to the fact that the house they’ve moved into is called the “psycho house”. Eventually, however, she meets Yolanda, or “Lonnie”, a punk girl in her class.

They become friends, with Lonnie exposing her to punk music, new fashion, video games, and all sorts of things that made suburban white parents scared in the 90’s. As you pick up the audio diaries, it becomes increasingly clear that Sam, and Lonnie, are lesbian, though Sam doesn’t herself realize it until a moment with Lonnie after going to a punk show.

Sam and Lonnie get in trouble at school for passing out feminist pamphlets, and when somebody defaces Sam’s locker – presumably with homophobic slurs – their parents figure out she’s gay. They forbid Sam and Lonnie from having the door closed, and tell Sam that it’s “just a phase”.

It’s also revealed that Lonnie is planning to join the military, and Sam realizes that she won’t see her after that.

You find out during this that this house, the “psycho house” is called that because it’s previous owner was your father’s uncle, who sexually abused him in 1963 – hence his obsession with travelling back to 1963 to change events.

You find out the reason your parents are missing – they’re on a couples retreat, an anniversary week. You also then find out that Lonnie was shipping out that week, and Sam and her spent one last night together.

You finally get access to the attic, Sam’s photography dark room, and a message from Sam about how after Lonnie left, she felt miserable, and decided to go up there. There is a… implication that you might find her dead up there. That’s not explicit in the text, but it’s something almost every player feels a fear of.

You get up there, and find one last audio diary – Sam had woken up, to get a call from Lonnie. Lonnie couldn’t go through with the military, and asked Sam to run away with her. She does. Credits roll, I sob for about an hour.

Disclaimer: The Gay Agenda

I guess I have to start with this, because, well, that’s where society is at. I’ll say, first off, I am a bisexual male. It’s quite possible this impacted my enjoyment of the story, but I don’t think it did so to such an extent that it is a requirement for enjoying the story. I’m bisexual and male, this is a lesbian story. Do I identify with the story more than a heterosexual man? Yes. But I grew up in an accepting household. I enjoy plenty of stories dealing with struggles I personally haven’t experienced, so I don’t think you have to be gay to enjoy this story.

Is this gay propaganda? I mean, kinda? In the sense that it allows the player to experience and empathize with emotions and events that they wouldn’t have a chance to otherwise. I’d say you could call it propaganda, but only if your definition is broad and nuanced, not derogatory. The goal of the game isn’t to turn people gay, or anything like that. If you come away from this game angry that you’ve been made to empathize with a gay character… that’s on you. Nobody gets angry at, like, the Star Wars Sequels, for being “emo sadboi propaganda” for making Kylo Ren a nuanced character.

That’s all I really have to say on the matter. You’re not a homophobe for not liking this game. But if this is why you don’t like the game… yeah, you’re a homophobe. Stories aren’t propaganda for having gay people in them. To quote Elizabeth from the OA: “People are gay, Stephen”.

Part 1: The Backlash – the Valid and Invalid

Oh boy. Okay. So, if you’ve heard of this game, there’s a good chance you’ve heard it in the context of the backlash.

The game, when released, was critically acclaimed. A number of reviewers and gaming publications lauded its story, tone, and message.

However, some people weren’t fans. I want to address, first, what I think are the valid criticisms of the game, because there are some.

First of all, the tone and genre. Watching trailers for Gone Home, and marketing material, it’s not at all clear what the game is about. The steam description is as follows:

“June 7th, 1995. 1:15 AM. You arrive home after a year abroad. You expect your family to greet you, but the house is empty. Something's not right. Where is everyone? And what's happened here? Unravel the mystery for yourself in Gone Home, a story exploration game from The Fullbright Company”

Combined with the trailers… it’s pretty obvious that there was an intent to frame the story as a horror game in some sense. The thunder, the eerie empty house, even the one jump scare, one could be forgiven for expecting something different. If I went into this game wanting a horror game, I might be disappointed. This is one criticism – the game marketed itself as one thing, and delivered something entirely different.

But on the other hand, while I think that’s a fair criticism for a product, it’s a bit blurry when it comes to criticism of art. Especially because, in my opinion, a huge part of the tone comes from you expecting a horror game, and that tone is integral to the story. You go in expecting supernatural horror, and end up with something more of a human horror, the horror of judgement, of abuse, of bullying, of intolerance. So while I think it’s a valid criticism, personally I count it as a point towards the game.

A second criticism which I don't think is entirely invalid is the length, or more accurately, the length relative to cost. This is a $20 game that lasts around two to three hours. Plenty of games give you a lot more time for less money.

This is… not entirely invalid, though my subjective opinion is that it’s a bad criticism. I think it assumes that the purpose of games is to be something you play, rather than something you experience. The distinction might be small, but it’s important. I played Gone Home for two hours. I’m experiencing it still. If you feel cheated for your money, that’s fair, but at the same time, why don’t you just play games like Minecraft which don’t ever end? This isn’t a “gotcha”, I’m just trying to say, story games will have an end, and I think it’s unfair to judge them by how long they last. I don’t think Gone Home needed to be longer, and I don’t think length equals quality. Length is important for stories, but it isn’t just “long = good”, it’s “long enough = good”, and if it’s long enough to tell it’s story, it’s long enough.

That’s kinda it in terms of criticisms that I’ve found to be good faith.This is of course subjective, and if some of the “invalid” criticisms I will talk about heare are things you agree with, I’m happy to discuss. I’m not saying you’re wrong for having those opinions, merely that whenever I’ve heard.

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The first of these is that the game is “cliche”, that “gay kid with homophobic parents who runs away with their partner” is played out. I think this is absurd, because uh, have you played video games? So many of the stories are cliche as hell. In fact, I don’t think I’ve played a whole lot of video games with stories that aren’t, in many ways, cliche. A big part of the appeal of, like, action games, is that they allow you to actively participate in action stories, stories you’ve heard about but haven’t gotten to participate in. This to me, rings kind of homophobic. Again, not to say that if you have this complaint you’re a bigot necessarily, but if you accept the cliches abundant in the medium but suddenly have an issue when it’s a gay story… Sounds like the “I’m fine with gay people as long as they don’t rub it in your face” person. I’ve played a ton of games about white dudes saving the world and getting laid, you can handle a lesbian.

Now, let's get to the biggest complaint, the one I think is the most interesting, and the one most worth talking about.

Part 2: “Just a walking simulator”

So this is the complaint I’ve heard the most. It’s just a walking simulator. You just walk around and read. It’s not a real video game. It could’ve been a movie.

This, I think, is unfair, lazy, and an attitude which holds the medium of video games back. Let’s unpack this.

I could strawman this criticism as just being lazy gamers who just want to shoot things, but that’d be unfair. There are plenty of games which aren’t about shooting things that aren’t criticized for this – puzzle games, building games, etc, are all game genres that aren’t criticized for not being real games.

Gone Home is, arguably, a walking simulator. It is part of a unique genre of game where the player isn’t challenged in reflex or intellect. The player isn’t there to solve puzzles, to optimize systems, to master skills, or anything like that. You don’t get “good” at Gone Home. It’s not a goal oriented game. There aren’t “good” Gone Home players, because there isn’t any challenge.

But it’s still a game. And I think the argument that “it could’ve been a movie” is wrong in a way that helps explain this. Because honestly? If it was a movie, it would be a bad movie. Pretty boring, honestly, and super cliche. I know I said the “cliche” accusation was bad, but I think that it would be cliche as a movie, and provide nothing new to that cliche. But as a game…

I sobbed playing this game. I got into character to an extent few other games have made me, even role playing games where a huge selling point of the game is that you roleplay. Gone Home is a game without meaningful narrative decisions, but it gets you into character like many games can never dream to.

See, this is why it couldn’t be a movie – the power of this story is empathy. When I learned that my parents Terry and Janice – and yes, I mean my parents – had told Sam, my sister, that it was just a phase. I got ANGRY. I wanted to yell at them. I wanted to shout “fuck you mom and dad”. I wanted to find my sister and hold her, to tell her I loved her, that I cared about her. The story is cliche, and despite that, it’s effect on me was much more than a movie with the same story would be. And all because I was the one who moved Katie around the house. The only decisions you make as Katie is which room to enter, but the first person perspective and those decisions turn you into Katie.

Another great example of this is Firewatch. Another first person story game that could be called a “walking simulator”, one of the strongest mechanics, IMO, is that you make dialogue decisions for the character. None of them make any mechanical difference, provide you benefits, or change the story drastically, but you, the player, form an emotional bond with the character you’re talking with. Like Gone Home it had me completely in character, to the extent that I was literally making freudian slips out of game, in character. I’ll put this in spoiler tags, though it’s not a major spoiler and gets revealed early on, so don’t worry about it ruining the game. I accidentally called the other ranger by the character's wife's name, a mistake the character makes in the game later on. I was thinking out loud, and accidentally called her Julia, and then later on the character calls her Julia. It was a pretty crazy moment, and I think it’s evidence of how much the medium can do with interactivity to make stories more powerful.

Okay, so to bring this all back together, Gone Home and Firewatch refrain from using the medium of video games as a way to provide mechanical challenges to the player, instead using it to make the player empathize with the story to a larger degree. The result is that the player gets more into character, with this one simple trick, than they might with hours of open world RPG character choices.

Now of course, this isn’t to say RPG’s don’t have their own place – while Gone Home gets me into the character of Katie, it can only get me into the character of Katie. An RPG where you make your own character and make your own choices gets you into character in a very different way. I still love RPGs, and don’t think of this as a replacement, but as an option that should be more explored.

Part 3: Why We Need to Leave This Attitude Behind

Gone Home and Firewatch (as well as a number of other great games which I haven’t brought up) represent a design space that is relatively unexplored, especially in AAA studios. I think the best AAA game to employ this design philosophy in some sense is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which literally puts you in the main characters head, hearing her psychosis and hallucinations. It’s an absolutely amazing game too – and it’s short. $30, and around ten hours. Like Gone Home, it quits while it’s ahead, and doesn’t get exhausting.

But more to my point, look at AAA titles. They are… fairly repetitive. There are a few major genres, and each genre is incredibly tropey. Like INCREDIBLY tropey. One game uses a mechanic, and it gets popular, and now every game in the genre does it, to the point that every game feels like it was designed with the ethos of “throw everything people like into it”, to try and please everybody. Every RPG action game has a skill tree, a crafting mechanic, etc. Every game needs a stealth section, even if it’s badly tacked on and sucks to play. Every game needs a ton of side quests. Every game needs to be open world, and also it needs to be a HUGE open world.

There are, of course, exceptions. Nintendo doesn’t tend to fall into this “absorb every game” trap as often, and CapCom has some great games which have stayed distinct. I think the Nemesis System is a great mechanic which adds something new to a fairly boring genre, though of course they managed to ruin that with loot boxes, and then patenting the system so nobody else could try and explore its potential.

But there are no AAA “walking simulators”. There aren’t any games like Gone Home or Firewatch which take a small story, and tell it by putting you in the characters head and shoes. Why not?

There are a few reasons, I think. The first is profit. Simply put, a game like this can’t be long, and people won’t buy a shorter game for $60. It’s a shame, but it seems like most major studios have decided that its just not worth making a game for anything less. Hellblade is so good, in my opinion, because it was designed with the resources of a big studio, but it didn’t force itself to be longer or bigger than necessary. But most studios just… don’t do that. It’s easier to make the same, safe, big games, for the same prices, so players feel like they can guarantee a certain amount of time and depth for their money.

Furthermore, it’s just not a popular genre. But like… of course it isn’t? Nobody makes the games, so nobody knows if they’ll like it. The most interesting, revolutionary games were games that didn’t have anything like it to compare it to. Think about how much of like, Breath of the Wild’s style and mechanics are being copied these days. And think of how many games are compared to Breath of the Wild. But that is only a meaningful comparison because people have played Breath of the Wild. It’s not the best comparison, but the point stands – you can’t say “people won’t like it” if your only evidence is that there are no popular, big games in the genre because nobody has made any. The assumption here is that game studios just… know what games people like, and so if they aren’t making any, it must be because people won’t like them. If that was the case, there would be no bad games.

And that’s why this attitude, of “it’s not a game”, is so limiting. The most uniting feature of “games” is mechanically challenging the player. But why? Why is that necessary? Is that all games are? Challenges of skill? Or, as I hope, are games art? A medium capable of telling a deeper story, of providing unique value, by allowing the player to engage in the fantasies they can’t in real life, by challenging their views on the world, or by allowing them to relate to experiences they might never have?

Conclusion: What Can We Do?

I love video games, of all types. I like roguelikes, shooters, metroidvanias, fighting games, story action games, open world games, action RPGs, platformers. But nothing is as disappointing to me as seeing the medium limited by subjective features. I think the medium has so much potential, and it’s sad to see that potential wasted, only used for one or two of its potential uses.

I don’t have a solution for this. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see a major AAA studio develop something like Gone Home or Firewatch. And that might not even be a problem – one thing I love about them is that they don’t need the resources something like Monster Hunter or Horizon Zero Dawn does. But one day, I hope that more room is found for games which focus on personal, emotional stories, rather than the grand epic narratives which dominate the medium.

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