It’s a stormy night in 1995 and you’re a college student just returned from a year abroad. During that time your family moved to a large house on the outskirts of town. A house, you discover, without anyone home that looks like it’s been stolen.
That’s how Gone Home opens, a game where you assume the role of Kaitlin and explore your new house, trying to figure out what happened during the year you were away.
Now, Gone Home toes the line of being a video game. Sure, it’s ‘played,’ but there’s little in the way of actual choices to be made; you’re essentially walking around. There’s no proper conflict, no goombas to stomp nor Russians to shoot; you’re exploring a house and trying to discover what happened to your family. It’s a cool experience rife with environmental storytelling that sits somewhere as a first-person adventure game where the emotional heft comes from a sense of being there.
But that’s Gone Home, a game built entirely around that experience by an independent developer. It’s not something you’d expect to see in a Triple-A video game, the blockbusters of the gaming world. These games, much like movie blockbusters, focus on the action with the story being told through brief cutscenes (or, in the case of the Metal Gear Solid series, radio calls that last a quarter of Gone Home’s playtime). There’s a distinct separation of gameplay and story.
And this is where I talk about Uncharted.
Now, the Uncharted games have made a reputation for themselves by allowing you to play an action movie. Meaning that you don’t just watch Nathan Drake trying to grab on to a falling cargo container or running through a crumbling city; you, the player as Nathan Drake, get to try to grab on to falling cargo containers and run through crumbling cities. Big moments that would either be a cutscene or ignored entirely are made playable. It makes the action in Uncharted feel that much more visceral, you get to be the action hero.
Story, though, has mostly been done through cutscenes and bits of banter interspaced through gameplay. In that sense, Uncharted wasn’t really doing too much besides telling great stories.
Then, earlier this month, came Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Still a grand action-adventure story that would make Indiana Jones jealous, this entry took the time in the story’s downbeats to really let you be there.
Much of the central tension stems from Nathan being persuaded to leave the normal life he’s built with his wife, Elena. But the game doesn’t just tell you this, because that’d be obvious and boring. Rather, once we’ve caught up to Nathan in the present, we get the beautiful chapter “A Normal Life.” In it, the player can explore Nathan’s house, starting in the attic where they can look at notes and mementos of Nathan’s prior adventures before exploring the rest of the house where they can flip through a book of wedding photos and look at to do post-its on the fridge before sitting down with Elena to talk and play a video game (yes, in a video game; it’s awesome). What this delightfully quiet chapter does is put the player in Nathan’s shoes, establishing what he’d be walking away from were it to go on another adventure. Rather than just having Nathan say “I have a good life” in a cutscene, A Thief’s End employs Gone Home’s technique and has the player explore a space, using the clues to form their own narrative.
In other words, “A Normal Life” has the player playing a cutscene, only instead of an action one, it’s a purely story and emotional focused beat. You don’t fight anyone or climb a rockface, instead you just get to be there.
Which is pretty friggin’ fantastic.