What Gone Home learned from To The Moon, or why we do not play games out of chronological order, no matter how apropos it is to the subject matter of said games.
So I played To The Moon. I did not cry. I did smile broadly once or twice, and it gave me goosebumps, so it did, but that was it. I was too annoyed by the game to fully buy into it and when the beautiful inversions and reveals happened, I was suffering from a severe case of Verfremdungseffekt.
Obviously we need to talk about Bertolt Brecht. In his theory of epic theatre, the Verfremdungseffekt is when the audience is made aware of its distance from the narrative. Breaking the fourth wall, absurd turns of the plot, commentary on what’s happening: anything that’ll break the illusion of the play being a real thing that’s happening to real people. As the audience is made aware of the artificiality of what they’re observing, they gain the ability to critically judge what is before their eyes. That’s a good thing, according to Brecht. Unfortunately that also means what’s before our eyes affects us less severely, which is a bad thing, according to me.
In short, if you want to cry at an old man’s life story, it is better to be under the illusion that it is an actual life you’re watching than being acutely aware of playing a video game with all its limitations.
I cried at the end of Gone Home. I teared up multiple times before, I felt the indignity of the father on reading the grand father’s letter, I felt Sam’s suffering as she discovered her feelings for Lonnie, I felt for the mother’s helplessness. All of those things were real to me. Johnny and Joey, though? Pixelated contrivances that hit clearly identifiable moments of tear jerking and triumph. Why!
Well, let me start with the superficial. Drs. Watts and Rosalene are cynical and not very funny, while trying very hard to be. At least that was my reading. The actually good jokes (e.g. the JRPG send-up) happen outside the narrative. The poor attempts at humour that the characters make fall flat and had me roll my eyes more often than not. As an aside, by the standards of video game writing, the dialogue is sublime and true to live, but this is about games that aren’t games, and Gone Home happened, which means I’m judging these things by higher standards. True, as many people pointed out, Dr. Watts grows into more of a character toward the end of the piece. Ironically enough, this only happens when Eva takes away his agency and he gets to struggle against a turn of events the player never had a chance of influencing. But every time the writing in To The Moon tried to evoke a bit of silly / witty banter between the observer characters, I felt verfremdet: made sharply and awkwardly aware of the artificial nature of this entertainment and moved further away from the illusion of the narrative.
This isn’t the big thing, though, at least I don’t think so. In Gone Home, I inhabited an implausibly large mansion, full of implausibly convenient pieces of letters and diaries and notes, and yet I was firmly embodied in the house. I was THERE, I put cassette tapes into tape decks and listened to sometimes awful sometimes wonderful riot grrrl music, I explored corners and hidden documents, and even though it was a perfectly linear roller coaster of reveals and doors opening, it never felt that way.
In To The Moon, I clicked on a bunch of sprites in what felt like a predetermined order. I did not get to discover non-essential information, I did not get to skip anything, and it basically felt like I was reading a graphical novel that kept hiding its “continue” button in different locations all the time. At times I would miss lines of dialogue because I was spamming my left mouse button, trying to advance through the 500th instance of the very JRPG-esque “…” speech bubble popping up over a character (indicating, I believe, a reaction of any sort, be it surprise, anger, or dumbfoundedness). This is another weakness of To The Moon: you are twice removed from the action, observing the good doctors, who in turn are observing a memory reconstruction. Once against, this causes a Verfremdungseffekt. We’re practically reminded that this is a play, totally not real, nothing we should feel upset about.
By focusing on found documents (as contrived as their existence may be), enhanced by a voice-over reading out diary entries and enriching the entire thing with visual information in the environment (so many details!) Gone Home allows you to set your own pace and lose yourself in the house and the unraveling story. What’s more, you’re not just an observer. You’re Sam’s sister, and why did you go to Europe for a year anyway? What’s your part in all this?
To The Moon was a great game, and if I’d played it before Gone Home, I’m sure I would have loved it. There was nothing like it before (to my knowledge), and it did make me very happy in a few moments: sad-happy when we saw the alternate life unfolding with Johnny passing through scenes that were about him and River previously, now reduced to a random passer by, and happy-happy when the (admittedly cheesy and predictable) pay-off happened. I’m not sure why, but the Joey fragment did nothing for me, and I still don’t understand how restoring Joey helped–it just made everything sugary sweet and turned the final version of the old man’s memories into an exaggerated happy end, but I won’t lie: the shuttle taking off was a great moment, as was the scene of the young Johnny and River stargazing, and the moment when “And what else?” finally started to make sense. It’s a well constructed narrative, expertly told in reverse, but the video game trappings surrounding it have been shown to be very sub-par by a single game doing the same thing, only better in every way imaginable.
Still, we’re standing at the beginning of a new genre, the walk-about game. I believe there is room for some more player agency in this type of genre, but I’m not sure it’ll necessarily be improved by it. If I get another Gone Home every year from now on, I’ll be perfectly happy. A branching Gone Home? Yes please! Maybe even a To The Moon with more incidental detail, fewer needless mini-games (dear God, that running scene. Most superfluous 5 minutes of my life), more conversation options to discover back-story? Anyway. Games that aren’t games? Brilliant.