Game Mechanic of the… week?
Man, did I really do this every week, back in the day? I really did. What happened?
Oh right, I missed a day, and then collapsed under the pressure of having to create a GMotW that was epic enough in scope to justify having missed a day. This is the same reason my brother’s birthday gift is about two months late at this point (but coming, Bert, I swear!).
But if I actually start posting on the regular again, some of the pressure will come off. And THAT, I can get behind. So speaking of taking the pressure off, let’s talk not about Synanthropes and those pressures, but about the best game I’ve played this year. It’s a video game, an it’s called Gone Home.
And if you haven’t played Gone Home, well… do? I guess, I mean, I could sit here recommending it all day but I’m not going to do that, I’ll just politely point out that it’s the only video game I’ve purchased on launch week in the last… five years, I think, and I have absolutely no regrets about it. Maybe you’ll disagree! I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to wait for the price to drop to $10 or so. But it’s not one to miss altogether.
ANYWAY. For those unaware, Gone Home puts you in the shoes of a young woman who has returned from a year abroad to the house her family moved into while she was away, finding it mysteriously vacated. No parents, no sister, just the detritus they have left behind and the stories you piece together from it.
(Fans of Synanthropes may surmise that “piecing together stories from trash” has a particular resonance for me).
In terms of mechanics, it plays things pretty simple: you can walk, you can crouch, you have an “interact” button which opens doors and picks things up, and that about covers everything except the metaludic stuff… maps and journals and inventory and game menu.
And you can look closer. Indeed, at the beginning of the game, a tooltip pops up to inform you:
“Hold right mouse or left shift to look closer.”
I love this. I love this for a lot of reasons.
Gone Home is, at its core, a game about looking. Obviously, the list of video games that aren’t, to some degree, about looking at things is small indeed, but most of the games that feature looking are really games about A) moving to the goal or B) killing the dudes in your way, where the ability to visually conceive of the world around you is simply a way to ensure that you are moving in the right direction and killing the right sorts of dudes. But Gone Home doesn’t have dudes to kill, and while it does have motion, that is the secondary concern; there is, yes, an end point, beyond which the house is deemed to be “Explored” and the game ends, but the player is not meant to jump straight to that point. The player is meant to LOOK.
This is a fact missed by many, like the folks on this page, who are proving that the game can be beaten in less than a minute. Spoilers, obviously, if you wander over there, but the bigger concern is folks missing the point. Yeah, you can get to the end point in a minute if you feel like it, but you know what that doesn’t afford time for? Looking closer.
It’s a theme that pops up over and over and over; you look closer, zooming in on the screen to see it more clearly. Pick up an object and you can look closer, seeing it from all angles. You are presented with a house that seems empty, but you can look closer, discovering all the secrets it contains. You think you know about your family, but you know what? You have to look closer. At some point we’ve left the realm of what you can do with the right mouse button, but the transition was so smooth you didn’t even notice.
What makes this so mechanically interesting for me isn’t just the zooming, which is useful, but the presentation of the mechanic: we’re not zooming in. You zoom in with your sniper scope or what the flip ever. You look closer when you’re on an exploration.
But most importantly this: the player is informed about how to use WASD and the mouse before the game actually begins. That’s all well and good and essential.
The first tool tip to actually pop up while you’re playing? Before checking your inventory, before crouching, before the map: how to look closer.
It’s almost like “Look Closer” is the fundamental action underlying the protagonist’s journey through the house both on a strictly literal and deeply metaphorical level, or something. Or something!