nebby - adj - sort of like ‘nosy’ but depending on the speaker’s tone of voice it can maybe be more or less negative than ‘nosy’ — sometimes, even a little affectionate (Pittsburgh English)

A lot of detective stories, no matter their medium, have a dual-story structure (I’m lifting this idea from a class I took years ago and I can’t remember the specific source of this idea. I apologize).

The main story, the one you usually watch or read, is that of the detective. They look at evidence, they interview witnesses, they have rapidly-cut-together-flashes of inspiration, whatever. What they’re doing is putting together a story of the crime they’re investigating. Sometimes this story is the inverse of the detective’s. Both start at the discovery of, say, a body, and while the detective moves forward in time, picking up clues, the story they create moves backward. From evidence to commission of crime to suspect and motive, often they step backward to the beginning.

Basically the detective does two things to create their story: they look and they think. This particular kind of story-construction maps really, really well onto videogames because of both of these actions.

It’s not snooping if it’s institutionalized legally or scientifically.

The thinking the detectiveplayer has to do is a very specific kind of connection drawing: determining causes from effects. That’s sort of what people do when they play videogames, but maybe a bit in reverse. You press buttons / click on words / walk down hallways to see how the game reacts to you. If you’ve got a certain personality type, maybe you take the audiovisual effects of your actions and try to figure out the system that translated your press-click-walk into them.

It’s, well, it’s maybe not the most flexible mindset, one that finds reassurance in known causes-and-effects, but it definitely is an asset in, say, computer programming. In programming, if the effect of something doesn’t line up with the cause’s intended effect, it’s a bug. Or, if you’re more inclined to take these events as productive rather than destructive, a glitch.

But back to piecing together a story: when the detective does it, their story has a network of allies in the evidence they use. The story they construct is missing one crucial ally that their story as written has: the author. What I mean is the story of the crime as told by the detective is one level removed from the story of the detective as told by the author. Barring a flashback, it has a slightly different level of authority.

Which brings me back to games and their stories: usually when a game asks a player to piece together this kind of evidence it’s in addition to a. shooting b. looting c. puzzle-solving. Actually, it’s usually a narrative version of C that it’s asking. It’s almost always extraneous to the action-at-hand, something you do after you’ve shot and killed everything in a room. And just as the mental action of piecing together the evidence is extraneous, so is the story the player creates.

See, because it’s usually just backstory or world-building, but also because it is only delivered in this specific way, it is divorced from the actions the player is taking. It’s exposition-delivery, replacing non-interactive cinematics that set the scene with something optional. It’s the ludic equivalent of appendices in Tolkien, except there’s still tons of exposition in Tolkien that gets in the way of plot (and that ruins a perfectly good map inside the cover of the books).

Sometimes you just have to go through someone’s dresser drawers.

Oh, and remember the first part of what the detective does? The looking? Well, since that’s a verb that’s already available to game developers it doesn’t require much in the way of technical innovation to be used. In games with graphics, and especially in first person games, the player is always looking at things on screen. Most of the time they can point the camera wherever they want. And then conversations in games, whether or not the player can choose what the character says, are more like interrogations. They’re written as “fact” delivery machines rather than as a means to build a meaningful connection between two people.

Because Gone Home is only about looking and piecing, because it doesn’t ask you to switch from tactical-survival-combat mode to story-making mode, and because its evidence is crafted in such a way that it can fit together in multiple ways and different pieces of evidence change how you look at other pieces of evidence, and because it’s warm and empathetic, and because what happened before isn’t an explanation but a story of relationships, is why I think it’s a really great first-person-nebber.