Videogame violence meets the non-violent videogame.
When we say a game is violent, what we usually mean is that it’s filled with violent images. No matter how upsetting those images get, playing a game (thankfully) doesn't feel like the act of doing violence. Pop a zombie’s head with your sniper rifle and you’ll see an explosion designed to gratify more than disgust. Everything in a game has been designed for you to hurt. No rules are being broken, no victims feel any suffering, no trauma is dealt. As long as you can stomach the virtual blood and guts and misanthropy, the dynamics of the game are consensual: everyone’s here to take part in this gory, yet safe and sanitized, spectacle.
Look at the levels in a multiplayer shooter: inert and clinically devoid of narrative context, let alone the detailed baggage of human experience. Mirage, a popular map in Counter-Strike, may dress up like a real Middle Eastern city block, but the only stories that unfold there are mechanical ones. Boom, headshot, terrorists win. There’s real anguish and triumph in these stories, but it’s a limited emotional palette. What about whoever lives in the apartment overlooking Bombsite B? For the terrorists and counter-terrorists it’s simply a passage from one part of the map to another, but for that apartment’s inhabitants, these events would carry a particular dread.
Videogame spaces with that intimate sense of realness do exist. Creating such a place is the entire point of Gone Home. In having you attentively explore your new family home, mysteriously missing the family, the game gets you up to speed with the day-to-day anxieties of the characters who live there, and how they relate to their living space. Every room has memories. Here’s where Terry slaved over his manuscript, drunk and depressed. Here’s Sam’s room, where she practiced Street Fighter on a borrowed Super Nintendo. Here’s the dining room, where she came out to her parents and it didn’t go well. It’s not quite the sense of habitation you get from your own home, but it’s close. In Gone Home we get to participate in the emotional history of a lifelike place. What might it feel like to play a violent game there?
No need to strain your imagination! A longtime member of the Counter-Strike mapping community who goes by the name N1PPER has made it happen: cs_gonehome, a fascinating intersection between two very different games and the closest most of us will likely get to playing a shooter set in a house we know by heart.
Even with you and your loved ones out of the way, to see your home become a warzone would be heartbreaking — the space where you make your nest, treated as nothing but a system of cover and lines of sight by some professional tactician interested only in making the other guys dead. Neither side in this fight is protecting this place. It’s simply a battleground, soon to be shot apart, bloodied, all but burned down as collateral damage. By invoking our familiarity with the Greenbriar house, cs_gonehome captures something that has always been reserved for those amateur mappers who, learning to make a custom map, start with a place known to them — their house or their school, restaged as a battleground.
Some say that Gone Home lacks a thing called “gameplay,” an ambiguous word which sometimes seems synonymous with “violence.” Without any violence, the game offers these players little besides its clever method of storytelling. Once that story is told, they struggle to find reasons to pick the game up again. But cs_gonehome fills the house up with “gameplay:” infinite permutations of bloody struggle, millions of tiny stories about predator and prey. I’m not sure whether N1PPER was trying to make a comment on Gone Home’s status as a “non-game,” but by creating this dissonant fusion between a small peaceful game and a big violent one, the map does a lot to clarify the nature of the distinction. It’s also utterly strange to play. It’s a game which feels genuinely violent.
The essential thing to know about CS is that back in ’99 when it was a labor of love by a couple of Half-Life modders, it boiled down to an excuse to play dress-up as real-life special operations men with a pointlessly wide array of real-life guns with sort-of-realistic rules. If your shooty guy got shot in the head, he was going down and staying down until the round ended. Those high stakes made it really fun, if that was your thing. Now, 13 years later, the game’s a fairly successful e-sport, and it’s still great fun, but Valve still hasn't found a use for all those guns. The most important new feature is a button to make your shooty guy admiringly inspect the gun in his hands.
CS is a game about guns. CS loves guns. Conversely, cs_gonehome feels as though it’s fearful of guns. That’s because in three broad ways, cs_gonehome plays quite differently from Counter-Strike on a typical map.
First, the Greenbriar house has much less square footage than Mirage or Nuke or Dust, taking up most of its space with four vertical layers: the basement, the ground floor, the second floor, and the attic. That and the way sound works in Global Offensive mean that your every footstep will be audible to any other player no matter where they are, so to avoid giving away your position you’ll want to hold down your shift key and walk everywhere, moving slowly but silently. Careful, though — some doors creak when you open them.
Second, the house is dark, and full of hiding places. A carefully designed CS map will have a few good defensive spots from which to stake out a room, but the designer keeps the number of such spots in check. Entire rooms in cs_gonehome serve little function besides being just off to the side of a squeaky door your opponent will eventually need to open. Even better, all the hidden connecting passageways the designers of Gone Home use to shepherd your progress are still in cs_gonehome, so there’s plenty of opportunity to take sneaky shortcuts. In a funny way, someone who’s played Gone Home has an advantage over someone who hasn’t: they already know the secret ways to get from place to place faster.
Third, the map has more random elements than a typical CS map. In a match, a totally inexplicable hostage is the objective. The counter-terrorists, or CTs, need to reach him and then escort him to the garage for rescue. The terrorists, Ts, simply need to kill all the CTs or run out the clock. This hostage appears in one of several random locations when the match begins, all throughout the house: the servant’s quarters, the upstairs bathroom, the sitting room, or the music room. Moreover, each terrorist begins in a different room every round: the guest room, the attic, the TV room, and the basement. The CTs always start on the front porch, same as Katie in Gone Home, but as they move into the house it’s impossible to predict where a threat might be hiding.
In short, cs_gonehome is a lethal game of hide-and-seek quite unlike the relatively controlled firefights of vanilla CS. It’s not exactly “balanced” — the plentiful hiding spots and the small size of the map heavily favor the defending Ts. So, to make sure you’ll have fun playing it, it’s worth modifying the rules a little. I suggest one human versus five bots, or two human CTs versus one human T. It’s worth the trouble: for both sides, the experience is deeply tense, even terrifying. I’ve yelled out loud when my brother shot me in the back. One minute you’re looking over your shoulder, the next you’re gleefully stalking your prey. It’s the perfect multiplayer horror game.
Gone Home played with horror tropes — the dark and stormy night in an old creaky mansion, the mystery of your missing family, the ghost story on the periphery — but in that game it was all a red herring, a reminder that just because a place looks like a scary movie doesn’t mean there’s a monster in the closet. The thunder outside the quiet house is still there in cs_gonehome, but now you’ve got a gun in your hands and the knowledge that the silence really does cloak a killer. He’s sneaking through the secret passages, he’s waiting for you in the basement.
Looking at Gone Home down the barrel of a gun may be an obvious enough joke, but for me, the experience wound up evoking surprisingly uncomfortable feelings. The big trick of Gone Home is its weaving of architecture and storytelling together, and even with the story removed and a HUD on the screen keeping track of my bullets and health, the narrative context of the house doesn’t go away. Creep up to a closed door, open it to check that no one’s hiding in there — and here’s Sam’s room, where she practiced Street Fighter on a borrowed Super Nintendo. All clear. Close the door, cover your tracks.
The setting has a way of making the violence feel much more fraught. Shoot another player and, as usual, they turn into a hefty ragdoll, blood splattering on the wall behind them. But painting a doorway with blood feels very different when you know something about the character who lives behind it.
This time you won’t find out where the Greenbriars all went. The only people left are these gunmen and a hostage, all unspeaking. The details aren’t even quite right. There’s a bulletin board there, but it doesn’t have the letter Sam wrote to protest her curfew. There’s a painting there, but it’s not the familiar family portrait. You couldn’t play cs_gonehome and learn anything about Sam, Katie, Janice or Terry, but that doesn’t stop their presence from being felt. The very act of standing in their house as a man with a gun, vandalizing it with blood and bullets, feels like an act of violence deeper than in any other game I’ve played.
While the house may not lose its original sense of history, it does take on a glut of new memories. Rooms assume new, parallel identities: the parents’ bedroom is a key hiding spot, the grand hall is a treacherous central junction, the kitchen is where a defending player can make his final stand. Play Gone Home again after lots of cs_gonehome and the process repeats itself in reverse. Even without any of the violent gameplay to worry about, it’s hard to shake the instinct to toss a flashbang around that corner, or to ignore the memory of when you sprayed bullets desperately through that closed door. In a way, the house becomes the victim, bearing the trauma of the violence, its identity disfigured. This gameplay is like a strange fire, engulfing the house inch by inch, killing everybody inside over and over again.
So: it’s a rich feeling, playing a videogame in a place which seems real. But was I not also playing a videogame before there were guns? If you think about it, everything special about cs_gonehome is something it owes to Gone Home.
Maybe Gone Home flirts with the horror genre so that small moments like groping around a dark room to find the lightswitch might carry some of the tension that can be felt in cs_gonehome. There’s something about make-believe life-and-death that really causes a memory to stick in your gut. I can understand why a game which doesn't focus on that gripping feeling might seem vacuous to some, but as much as I love Counter-Strike, I think those people are missing out. Look closely at how someone plays Gone Home and you can find playful, spontaneous actions, no less dynamic for not involving guns.
In truth, I wouldn’t agree that Gone Home lacks gameplay. I’ve played it twice myself and then twice more vicariously through others, and every playthrough was just as vibrant with nuanced micro-narratives as any round of Counter-Strike. Put someone in an interactive space, and they’ll develop their own relationship with it. I remember puzzling for multiple minutes over why I couldn’t get an empty cassette case to play in the stereo. My brother became amused by the apparently unopened soda cans lying about the house and made a project to put them all back in the fridge. Some skillful players race to collect every diary entry as quickly as possible, plotting out detailed routes through the house’s passageways.
Why is it that a game like Grand Theft Auto can be so unstructured, and yet never stand accused of lacking gameplay? Hit the slow-motion button just in time to watch a body crumple over the hood of your car, and it’s pretty obvious that you’re playing a videogame. What makes that interaction so different from grabbing some Greenbriar family heirloom and chucking it in the garbage? Is it the gruesome immediacy of the former visual, the in-your-faceness of it?
I think that players stand to gain a lot by opening themselves up to the pleasures of gameplay even when they’re smaller and harder to detect. I don’t think that these moments are lesser because of their slightness — on the contrary, I find that they’re unhampered by the stress of winning or losing, killing or being killed. I find that they gain access to warmth, nostalgia, the slow and easy joy of a welcoming place. Emotions that games too often struggle to convey.