Where do you draw the line between what is a ‘game’, and what isn’t? If you ask the detractors of The Fullbright Company’s debut release Gone Home, it would seem that the laundry list of criteria that bestows ‘gamehood’ upon a piece of interactive media is near endless. Criticism of Gone Home cites all manner of things – more often than not, things it doesn’t do – as being the reasons why it ‘just quite simply should not be called a game’. Some people didn’t like the fact that there weren’t any other characters to interact with. Other people felt that the lack of a challenge somehow meant that it was not a legitimate experience. Negative reviews everywhere gleefully threw scare quotes around the word ‘game’ as if they possessed the kind of authority to make such a distinction, disregarding completely the fact that that idea in itself is devoid of any logic. The one mainstream criticism of Gone Home that I can appreciate is the fact that, yeah, it really shouldn’t have a $20 (£14.99 on Steam in the UK) pricetag given how long it is, but at its core this isn’t a condemnation of the game itself, rather a castigation of its developers for setting the price so high.
So with all that in mind, when is a game not a ‘game’?
Well, as it happens, the answer is pretty much universally ‘never’. My real issue with this discussion is that it’s not a discussion that should have to be had in the first place. Running new releases through this checklist of concepts or mechanics that must be touched upon in order for it to be viewed as a valid piece of interactive entertainment is detrimental to the medium and, despite how much an army of indignant and entitled dudebros on Steam and Metacritic might try to argue otherwise, is a practice best avoided. Thankfully, the gaming media were much less partisan in their evaluations of Gone Home, with journalists rightly praising the game’s approach to environmental storytelling and its tackling of issues more grounded in the real world. They understood that in a market so over-saturated with bland rehashes of commercially-successful franchises and power-fantasy-simulating shooting galleries about anonymous space marines/American soldiers/stealthy and mysterious ‘bad boys‘ (delete as appropriate) that a niche title from a smaller studio might just be what we need more of.
But the most important distinction between the views on Gone Home shared by the gaming media at large versus those espoused by rabid hordes of neckbeards who somehow managed to make time in between rounds of aggressively shit-talking each other on League of Legends is that the former does not trade on these entirely subjective notions of what is and isn’t a game. Their evaluations of Gone Home were based on critical examinations of the content – scant though it may be – contained within it, rather than being cursory dismissals of its mechanics and themes simply because they weren’t exactly the same as everything else that they typically enjoy. I guess the point I’m trying to make here is this – AAA game studios do not dictate what is and is not a game. The games media does not dictate what is and is not a game. I do not dictate what is and is not a game. You do not dictate what is and is not a game. Nobody dictates what is and is not a game. If someone releases something that they chose to produce and market as a game, do you know what you do? You believe them.
Do you know what you do not do? Take to the internet and shout to all who will listen that their product does not fulfil your arbitrary criteria for ‘gamehood’ and as such do not recommend that other people play it. By doing that, you are – however deliberately – potentially depriving people of an experience that could have a decidedly real impact on them. And why would you want to do that? It is, above all else, an incredibly selfish course of action. I personally can’t recommend Gone Home enough. Everything about it was executed in profound detail and it was obvious how much care the people at The Fullbright Company put into its development. I could wax lyrical for 700 more words about why the majority of criticism levelled at it is unfounded and, for want of a better word, wrong. But that wouldn’t do it justice – what really makes Gone Home a great game is not something I can convey here. You have to go out and play it yourself. Just wait for it to go on sale to make sure you don’t feel short-changed at its relatively brief duration.
Gone Home has been available on Steam for quite some time now, and is scheduled to be released for the Wii U before this year is out.