Gone Home (2013) is a story built within the framework of a first-person exploration game. A girl named Kaitlin returns home after a year of studying abroad to find that her family is not waiting to meet her. She sets out to explore the empty house to figure out what happened to them.
The Stanley Parable (2013) is a first-person exploration game built within the framework of a story. A man named Stanley is at work one morning when he realizes that all his coworkers have disappeared. He sets out to explore the empty office building to figure out what happened to them.
For me, this comparison raises two important questions. First, what was in the drinking water in 2013? And second, what did these two indie games manage to do with story and gameplay that had everyone once again questioning what, exactly, the definition of “video game” is in the first place?
[Some spoilers for both games ahead.]
“Please, please don’t go digging around trying to find out where I am.”—Gone Home
Gone Home and Stanley are both games that ask the player to slow down, take their time, and get to know their environment. The controls in both games are very limited: look around by moving the mouse, move around with WASD, crouch if you really want to, and don’t even bother trying to jump. Neither Gone Home nor Stanley is about solving tricky puzzles or navigating complex mazes. In Stanley, the whole game is the puzzle, a mystery of navigation and freedom of choice. One of the first rooms the player enters in Stanley contains two identical doors that lead in different directions.
“When he came to the two open doors, Stanley chose the door on his left,” the Narrator declares as you enter the room. This is the first real defining moment of the game, one which the player will return to again and again: will you side with the Narrator and do what they say, thus surrendering a degree of your independence and free will? Or will you rebel against them and risk sending both the story and the game itself toward destruction and ruin?
Gone Home, in terms of structure, is extremely basic: locate key A, bring it to door B, access room C, rinse and repeat. But if you’re rushing through the game to do this (perfectly justifiable if you’re caught up in the story), there’s a lot you’re likely to miss out on. Much of Sam’s story is experienced aurally through the form of recorded journal entries that are triggered by your progress through the house. But there’s a lot more to Sam’s story lurking in the papers, books, buttons, and cassette tapes littered throughout the house. And Sam’s story isn’t even the only story hidden there. There are other, darker tales about her relatives lurking in the 3D clutter—if you’re willing to do some detective work.
“I don’t recognize this at all … is this the story?”—The Stanley Parable
In terms of story, Stanley is a bit like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel. Each playthrough starts with the same beginning, but quickly branches off in different directions. While these different routes are typically referred to as “Endings” (the Museum Ending, the Explosion Ending, and so on), each Ending has its own distinct story that goes with it. Depending on which route you take and how you react to the Narrator’s directions completely changes the game: will it be the tale of a lone man rebelling against a faceless bureaucracy that has been mind-controlling him into complacent obedience? Or is it the bitter story of how Stanley isolated himself in his job, neglecting friends and family to the point where they all abandoned him? Or what if Stanley is just a character in a video game, and both he and the Narrator are aware of the fact?
At the end of the day, though, Stanley is meant to be satire, not drama, and I think that’s evident in which stories/endings are the strongest. Although virtually every Ending has some nod toward the fourth wall and video games as a genre, those which embrace it work better than those which simply try to be dramatic, in my opinion. One of the more heavy-handed but significant Endings is the game’s so-called Freedom Ending, which is only accessible by following the Narrator’s every direction, finally relinquishing even control over the mouse and keyboard. It seems the only way to win really is not to play … but is it still a game, then, if the player’s interaction is limited to “pause” or “continue?” By this logic, the player’s no better than Stanley himself, sitting at a desk pushing the buttons the computer tells him to press. (I did warn you it was heavy-handed.)
Gone Home, meanwhile, is first and foremost a story (or rather, several stories). The central and most in-depth of these is that of Sam Greenbriar and her adventures in life and love throughout the course of a year of high school, as recounted to the player-character, her older sister Katie. You need no experience as a gamer to play Gone Home; you just need simple human curiosity and a desire to interact with this digital environment. The game envelops you in a virtual world and teaches you how to play as you go, all while telling an engaging story and letting you have some fun trying to uncover it. I’ve never played a game quite like Gone Home where story is placed first and foremost, and every other element—from the controls to the soundtrack—is designed specifically to enhance it.
That is not to say that Gone Home is flawless. There’s an inevitable sort of disconnect between the story that’s already happened and the story as told to the player-character Katie. Even the journal entries play into this disconnect; although the player (and presumably Katie) are reading/hearing them throughout, Katie does not actually find the physical journal that contains them until the very last moments of the game. In a way, it’s a little like Stanley’s Happy Ending: there’s no way of changing the story, only activating the right buttons to make it continue.
But what Gone Home lacks in interaction, it certainly makes up for in story and heart. Yes, I’m a little bothered by the illogicality of the journals. But I don’t think the game should have left them out. I don’t think it would’ve been possible to tell Sam’s story in such depth without them, and the warmth and emotion brought to them by Sarah Grayson (Sam’s voice actor) is one of the game’s greatest delights. Where Stanley falls back on structure and satire, Gone Home relies almost solely on its story—to both games’ benefit.
“I’ll say it—this is the worst adventure I’ve ever been on.”—The Stanley Parable
The controversy is not that Gone Home and The Stanley Parable are both just stories masquerading as video games. That’s not the controversy at all. The controversy is that Gone Home is a story masquerading as a video game.
I’m not quite sure why Stanley seems to get so much of a pass in regards to this, while Gone Home is continually attacked. Is it because Stanley is so intentionally weird? Is it because it’s able to bounce back and forth between seriousness and humor and ends up sounding deep? Is it because it genuinely is deep? Or are we all just suckers for funny lines said in a British accent? There’s some solidly good stuff in Stanley, and I don’t begrudge the game its good reviews. Its sense of humor is right up my alley, and it’ll forever have a place on my ‘good games’ list. But being clever doesn’t mean it gets a pass from criticism, and I start to smell something much nastier in the air when I start to see the reviews of its sister game, Gone Home.
The reactions to Gone Home aren’t just unfair, they’re problematic. For every review I read by someone who was brought to tears with emotion over Gone Home, I find ten more reviews angrily accusing it of misrepresenting itself as a video game. Why is this game taking so much flak about everything from its short length, to its $20 price tag, to its story and characters while the even shorter, similarly priced, equally story-reliant and character-driven Stanley Parable gets a pass? Is it simply that the trolls were outraged by a game that focuses on sister relationships and a love story between two girl teenagers? Or is it the fact that Gone Home dares to tell a dramatic and emotional story that hit home for many gamers, while Stanley is continually humorous and satirical?
Gone Home isn’t a perfect game, and not all its reviews should be positive. But honestly, I’m still inclined to go with my first theory and just blame the trolls for the negativity, especially whenever I see posts with headers like “Lesbian Sister Simulator 2012” or “This game sucks and is a conspiracy.” That lesbian conspiracy, you can never escape it.
“You know that feeling where the first moment you see someone, it’s like they have a big gold star around them, and you have to get to know them?”—Gone Home
So, bottom line: are either of these games worth playing?
Definitely. Both of them, I’d say. Pick them up next time they make their rounds in a Steam sale. They’ll amuse you, befuddle you, and certainly keep you entertained. The Stanley Parable is one to play in short bursts, then force your friends to play while you backseat drive over their shoulder. Gone Home is more of a slow burn, something to explore on a rainy day while curled up with a cup of hot tea. The atmosphere of both games definitely gets spooky at times, but neither game is trying to jump scare you (though if that sort of thing alarms you, you might want to do some quick research before you play—there’s a couple of potentially triggering moments in both games).
But if quiet exploration games aren’t your thing, that’s cool. Shelve The Stanley Parable and go back to where it got its start, as a fanmade mod for a little game called Half Life. Gone Home fans, I’m afraid your alternatives are limited to the fake Gun Home DLC. Or, go pick up a copy of Gone Home’s soundtrack, fire up some old favorite FPS, and rock your feminist heart out.