Meet the game that shows us the future of storytelling

Robin Sloan
Jul 7, 2014 · 5 min read

This tab is for people who don’t play video games. People who watch movies and sophisticated TV dramas instead. People who read fiction.


You don’t play video games, but I’m going to try to convince you to play one particular game in one particular way.

This game—it’s a humble production, made by a team of four in Portland, with none of the face-melting visuals of the big-budget games you see advertised on TV. But it’s achieved something that has eluded all of those games, even at their most cinematic: This is the game that punches down the walls between games and movies and TV. This is the New Thing.

This tab is for people who are interested in the future of storytelling.

I see you there. Keep reading.

This game—it’s called Gone Home. It was released in August 2013. It earned effusive reviews and won a spate of awards. If you’re a video game player, you already know about it. This tab is not for you.

I’m not even going to explain the premise. There’s a spooky house. That’s all you need to know. Well, and this: There are no guns. No “enemies.” No lava pits. No coins or gems or first-aid kits. No ticking clocks. No puzzles.

Let me repeat that: There are no puzzles. There’s nothing to get stuck on, nothing upon which to bang your head.

What remains? Space and story, braided together. To play Gone Home from start to finish takes 90 minutes—maybe two hours. That’s the length of a movie, or a couple episodes of an HBO show. This game offers an experience as rich and human and satisfying as either.

There is, however, one problem.

Gone Home dispenses with most of the mechanics of video games, but it does still require its players to navigate through 3D space using a mouse and keyboard. That’s easy and natural for those of us who have racked up hours of 3D play time, but difficult and disorienting for those who haven’t.

So here’s what you’re going to do.

Get the game. It’s $20. Think of it as the cost of a movie ticket with a small added surcharge for futuristic coolness.

Find a 3D pilot. This needs to be someone who does play video games. Maybe it’s your roommate; maybe it’s your daughter; maybe it’s a coworker known to be in possession of a dark elf avatar. You can invite others, too, and make it an even bigger group. The only crucial thing is that the 3D pilot is someone with a few winning rounds of Goldeneye under her belt.

Plug the computer into your TV or projector. Set it up as if you’re watching a movie. Don’t forget the speakers! There’s some great sound in this game.

Procure snacks. Optionally open a bottle of wine.

Start the game. You’re looking at the TV; your 3D pilot is at the controls. Think of yourself as a passenger directing a taxi driver in a strange city. Okay, that sounds painful. This will be fun, I promise. Gone Home is a game about exploration, and everything you’ll experience is tied intimately to the space of the spooky house around you. Your task is simple: Poke around.

Call out your ideas for in-game actions: “open that cabinet” or “unlock that door” or “check out that book.” (If you have a larger group, consider taking turns directing as you move from room to room.) Your 3D pilot will twiddle her fingers and flick her wrist to make it happen. Her hard-earned video game intuition will come in handy, and it’s definitely okay for her to make suggestions—“What about that discolored panel over there?”—but don’t let her run away with the game.

This arrangement might feel awkward at first, but trust me: It works. You’ll explore this house together and uncover the story hiding there. You’ll venture down dark hallways, rifle through cluttered drawers, inspect books, play cassette tapes.

Ninety minutes later—maybe two hours—you’ll be done.

The wine will be gone.

Your eyes will be wet.

I know this sounds like a big production. It is. It’s worth it. This game is a quiet Star Wars — a piece of pop culture so vivid and unexpected that it triggers the reconsideration of a whole genre. The challenge, though, is that experiencing Gone Home demands the application of significant skill. It’s as if watching Star Wars required you to actually pilot an X-wing.

This challenge is not insurmountable. There are X-wing pilots out there.

Video game players — ignoring the fact that this tab is not for them — might grouse about my fixation on this game. It’s true that in the past five years, there are many video games that have been more important as video games. But Gone Home is special because it’s not just a video game, or even primarily a video game. It’s something else: some new hybrid of theater (think Sleep No More) and museum (think interactive exhibit) and holodeck (think… holodeck) — something that doesn’t have a name yet.

It is a New Thing, and already, there are More New Things Like It brewing.

And we can spin this forward. Based on everything we know about fun, non-nauseating virtual reality experiences — which is sort of a surprising amount, actually — I’m betting the VR “games” of the near future won’t particularly resemble the big-budget video games of today. Compared to games like Order of Battle: Insurgent Armageddon 2: Stealth Commando—which deliver spectacular effects, sure, but only to players who have accrued a fractional lifetime of experience navigating 3D spaces—VR “games” will be far more intimate; more emotional; more accessible.

They’ll be more like Gone Home.

Buy the game. Find a 3D pilot. Throw a party. This is the New Thing.

The Message

A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection. Season 2 stars @anildash @alanalevinson @ftrain @hipstercrite @itsthebrandi @jamielaurenkeiles @vijithassar @yungrama @zeynep. Season 1 available on DVD shortly.

Thanks to Joanne McNeil, Kate Lee, and Craig Mod

    Robin Sloan

    Written by

    The Message

    A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection. Season 2 stars @anildash @alanalevinson @ftrain @hipstercrite @itsthebrandi @jamielaurenkeiles @vijithassar @yungrama @zeynep. Season 1 available on DVD shortly.

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