Take a moment to think about the things in your home. What story do they tell about you? About your relationships, your family or your life?
In a dusty vase I have some roses, dried. Four months ago I got them for Valentine's Day, and then I had to travel for a few months, so they stayed here. I remember my sweetheart writing me while I was gone: Your roses are almost black. Neither of us will throw them away, now. We have a ginseng called Felicity and a pot of violets called Vicar Amelia; both of them once boasted their hardiness on their tags. Plants that don't need a lot of care, that even we couldn't forget.
"Is it okay if I write about our plants," I asked him.
"Nobody wants to read about that," he demurred.
Except I'm not writing about the plants. I'm writing about us, and everything you know about us only from our plants. And the other things: The vintage maps of each Earthly pole that hang over our bed, distant and uncharted white whorls in the center of robin's egg seas. A box made out of cloves I got when we went to Bali, and the many tiny things I hid inside. An edition of Stories of the Arabian Nights from 1955. It had been my mother's and now it's mine. We have so many stories and games and cards and gifts and books. And piecemeal dishes, and an ever-present thin film of dust on my vanity, which has a mirror taped with photobooth strips and a recent ticket stub to Surrey cricket, of all things. Where'd I get this, why'd I keep that—you could learn, probably, everything there is to know about me if you could answer those questions.
Of course you could probably just open my computer and read everything on it, too, but that'd be no fun. There'd be no game in that.
The Fullbright Company's Gone Home launched in 2013 and became an instant classic among video game fans. The atmospheric game cast you as a girl exploring her family's new home, half-unpacked, in search of clues about your missing sister. The story told through that exploration—the pillow fort and stained pizza boxes in the VHS-littered living room, the printed zines and childhood scribblings spilling out of storage areas—is so delicate that to talk too much about it collapses it. But the game, along with other rebelliously observation-oriented, "action"-averse games like Dear Esther, helped prototype an entire genre: Telling the stories of people, of a place, through gentle exploration.
It was no happy accident for the four-person Gone Home team, which had experience working with environmental storytelling in more traditional video games, like the BioShock series. Those games are about clobbering aggressors, but they're also often atmospheric works about grand social decay and weaponized morality. You can imagine wanting to hone in just a bit more on the latter part, to tell the human stories, to remove the "fire plasmids" and rusty wrenches entirely and just draw the lived-in world.
And in many ways, Gone Home wasn't a self-conscious stab toward "games as art", but probably the natural result of practical design constraints: A single house is a manageable development space for a small team; an empty, half-packed house is a sensible conservation of assets, and telling a story about vanished people through notes and objects deftly avoids the need for gawping 3D-modeled humans, uncanny and generally far out of even successful veterans' indie budgets.
Gone Home owes much to its nostalgic 1995 setting—the tone and themes of that age elegantly endorse the game's plot. But the era is not only evocative, it's pragmatic: Before the internet, we had complex folding patterns of classroom notes, cassettes hand-recorded and labeled. The game's setting underlines how much of ourselves it's possible to invest into places and things. It'd be a different experience in the digital age.
The "home", the places we live and the objects we put there, continues to be an increasingly-popular and important setting for independent games. The Elsewhere Company just finished a successful crowdfunding round for a game called Apartment: A Separated Place, a game about navigating the wreckage of a relationship—you play as Nick, floating through the space he once shared with his girlfriend of four years, Madison. The remembered silhouettes of her things are still present (try a demo of the game here).
"When you live with another person you share that space and it transforms into something new, not quite the same — it becomes both of yours," the team writes to me over email. "The absence of that other person is blatant. You still see the semblance of your home but mostly you see the absence of that person. It's the absence of Madison in Nick's day-to-day life that we focus on in Apartment. His thoughts reside in his environment just like she once did, and they all revolve around the fact that she's absent and isn't coming back. Everything feels wrong."
"The details in his environment are objects that were significant to both of them: some in major ways, some in small. The salt and pepper shakers they bought together when she first moved in. The shoes she always nagged him to put away. It's the mundane things strewn about that stand out most to Nick, after she's gone."
"Setting our game in a lived-in space lets us show an inordinate amount about Nick and Madison and the way they felt about each other," the team adds. "The simple display of Nick's sweater draped over a couch inspires him to tell players that Madison always hated it when he left clothing lying around. It only appears after a particular part of the game, making it new and worthy of investigation. It's a plain sweater — no logos, not a hoodie, which tells you a little about the man who owns it."
"Lived-in spaces give us the ability to let our players investigate these details and offer us ways to design mechanics around a populated area. On the other side of the coin, they let us develop a character's personality, create a space players want to be in, and adding details that give realism to the story we're selling."
There's also something intimate about being in homes and living spaces that are distinctly not yours. There are a lot of things I enjoy about Life is Strange, Dontnod Entertainment's ongoing episodic series about teen girlhood and time rewinds, but among my favorite moments happens in the first episode: You revisit a former best friend you haven't seen since younger days, and are left to wander their family home alone, taking note of what's changed about the people, the place, since you were last there. The mother who once made you snacks has remarried. The swings you shared as a child are still in the backyard. You've been out of your friend's life for a while, and there's a lot about her you no longer recognize. You feel at once a sense of belonging and a sense of alienation that only the game's rendition of this place could create, far more effective than any explanation action or dialogue could provide.
Developer Quinn Stephens made Lantern, a short, poetic vignette game where you play an elderly woman carrying a light, gliding through the home at night like an interloper. "I set my game in a house because I wanted to take advantage of a space that consistently felt to the player like it belonged to someone else," he says.
"It's a home, but it's not our home; the player character is a former servant in the vast mansion and would have felt much this way herself even when she lived there. I tried to convey through visuals and sound that the house provides shelter from the wind and chill outside, but not comfort or safety. It's quiet and dark and unnervingly empty–at least until the player character arrives in her old room, which is the closest she had to a true home. It was easy to tell a story with very little dialog or explanation by setting it in a house, because the player expects the house to tell the story and actively looks for it there."
With upcoming adventure game The Guest, set in a mysterious hotel room, Madrid-based Team Gotham actively aims to subvert the player's sense of comfort with lived-in spaces. The team's Juan de la Torre says the familiar, warm and intimate iconography of a "home" is fertile ground for a designer to play with expectations. "Here's where it becomes really interesting for game design: We have the ability to turn this space into a place we don't want to be in," he says. "It's thrilling to watch someone play your game and observe them feeling secure at the beginning, but as things start to go wrong, that comfort area is gone forever."
"We can definitely break norms with something that feels so close to our lives," de la Torre suggests.
Giant Sparrow's What Remains of Edith Finch, launching sometime next year, also seems unsettling and darkly subversive, setting players in an eccentric family home across years. Why is Edith the last Finch left alive? Only the Washington State home, sprawling and eerie, has the answers. It seems the player will get to investigate many different eras of this place, letting them see the effect of time, deriving the story by filling in the spaces.
"The home" has always been a fertile setting for horror—part of what made beloved and now-vanished P.T. so instantaneously-beloved was the believability of the single hall and foyer to which it was contained, the distinct grotesque feeling of being the one to gouge away the eye of a portrait of an unfamiliar woman. Its so-called "spiritual successor", Allison Road, will also use the normalcy of a high-fidelity home space as the backdrop of more fearsome things. I still think fondly about the often-underrated Silent Hill 4, the main conceit of which is locking the player in an (initially) ordinary apartment that has a giant, sobbing concrete hole in the bathroom wall.
Gone Home has what you might call elements of the horror genre, too: You may not trust the darkness, the flickering lights, the presence of something that has the heft of years to it. But it's about bigger things than that, and so is this wave of new games: our houses, our apartments, our rooms, our lived-in spaces, are becoming favored spaces for independent developers to tell stories about life—with humor, melancholy, romance and intimacy, elements video games could always use a little more of.
Sometimes I write things down in notebooks, just because, even though we hardly ever use notebooks. I'm thinking about my story. Like if something happens to me, I want people to know how much I loved them. In a way we are all made visible by how we use space and what we leave behind. I still think a lot about that Kurt Cobain quote, from his journals of the days before he became a rock star, when he was living with a girl who looked after him, his first girlfriend.
"Please read my diary," he wrote, "look through my things, and figure me out."