Gone Home: Jump Scares and Ludonarative Harmony

So there’s a new game out called Gone Home and I don’t have the superlatives to describe it adequately so just take my word for it and go play. It’s some trifling amount of money on steam. If you haven’t finished playing it, I advise you to stop reading this essay now and just spend the two or three hours it takes to finish because it is about one of a half-dozen games that actually can be spoiled by reading too much about it.

With that out of the way, I want to talk about one particular moment – the one, single, solitary ‘jump scare’ in this whole spooky house game. It’s the when the lightbulb pops on the staircase down in the first ‘secret passage’. I jumped so hard that I literally threw away the little crucifix I had just picked up to inspect. I probably even made some kind of noise as I spun around looking for some ghost or monster inevitably bearing down upon me to eat my soul or something. God punishing me.

So that moment, and really it’s true for the rest of the game, is a really nice example of ludonarrative harmony – an example of when I am experiencing exactly what the games mechanics (popping lightbulb) and the story (scared 20 year old in the ‘psycho house’ at midnight alone) am supposed to be feeling. It’s just really nice and I think it begins to answer some of Robert Yang’s question that he posed earlier this week, which was ‘Why should we care about ludonarrative dissonance since most players don’t seem to either?’

Yang takes, I think, slightly the wrong lesson from mainstream ‘core gamer’ audience’s failure to care about any major ludonarrative dissonance in a game (his example is Bioshock Infinite but take your pick). His point is that the “dissonance” component of ludonarrative dissonance isn’t really all that dissonant at all, which is sort-of true because heaps of people barely even register it. But my contention is that it never was an obvious form of dissonance, since even the prototypical Bioshock little sister example of ludonarrative dissonance went unnoticed until you did the kind of analysis that Hocking undertook. The concept never specified an overt dissonance to begin with. We put up with (even enjoy!) all kinds of learned dissonances everyday – just listen to jazz.

But getting back to the game, I raved about Gone Home on Facebook last night to a friend of mine James Dalmau – who is not a ‘core’ gamer, just a smart guy with a masters in law who like most people also plays games – and we chatted this morning about his experience, which differed considerably from mine. James told me via FB chat that,

…to be honest I never really thought it was spooky ghosts

I thought that was just silly kid stuff put in as a red herring

But every ‘core gamer’ journalist/critic friend of mine seemed to expecte horror. We’ve all played Amnesia: The Dark Descent (or watched hilarious Let’s Play reactions). Brendan Keogh even wrote on his blog about this point exactly:

I love the way Gone Home plays on Horror tropes to build that sense of trepidation and forewarning. The stormy night in the woods, the eerie old mansion, the missing family, those (at first) messed up answering machine messages. I was terrified for most of the game, just waiting for the inevitable ghost. When the lightbulb burst as I picked up the crucifix, I almost had to stop playing. When I found a room in the basement where the light wouldn’t turn on, I refused to enter. My mind turned the shapes of curtains and shadows into people staring at me. The tropes of the Horror genre reverted me back to being a terrified teenager who should probably know better but really doesn’t. Like the time I freaked out when I was 15 because there was a guy getting out of a car in front of the house and it was just dad’s friend dropping by. Something about being a teenager means you always expect the worst. Because being a teenager is dramatic, right? It’s a time of constant change and impermanence and everything new that you discover you want to hold onto but it’s going to be lost the moment you finish high school or move to a new town or enter puberty or whatever. Until the closing moments of Gone Home, I expected the worst.

Likewise, Dan Bruno responding to Brendan’s piece in a Facebook comment said that he played the game in the style of a scared teen, rushing for the light switch in every room:

…that is literally exactly how I played. Open door, peek around corner looking for switch, then make a beeline for it before looking at anything in the room

At one point in the game I thought I spotted an actual ghost, but it turns out it was just black jagged veil that indicated the limits of the engine’s render distance, the contents of a hallway on the other side of the house appearing and disappearing as I stepped back and forth. But I was still expecting ghosts.

So what’s going on here? A non-core gamer isn’t scared by the game’s red herrings, but we seasoned veterans expect the worst. I’m going to suggest that what Gone Home does is actually exploit gamic expectations, gamic tropes, even the expectation of ludonarrative dissonance to resolve into a weird, and almost ironic, situation of ludonarrative harmony. Because we expect the worst, we get the best possible synchronicity with the player character.

If you expect monsters because you have played horror videogames, your expectations are set up by the history of the medium, by the hundreds of spooky-house games that have come before (no slight on them). But until now there has never, or almost never, been a game this real before. Gone Home is almost shockingly quotidian, in an ordinary rational sense, and it’s the confounding of our gamic (ludic?) expectations (built up through years of expectation of ludonarrative dissonance since ghosts don’t actually exist but okay sure I’ll fight one in a game) which places us, the player, into the subject position of exactly who and where Katie is and what she is feeling.

That is supremely weird, and a triumph of a sort that I haven’t seen anyone comment on yet. Of course, there is so much more to say about this game – and so much great stuff has already been written. Check out Cameron’s piece, and Brendan’s is also great linked above. Leigh Alexander obliquely addresses the game’s setting of the 90s in a piece for Gamasutra. Claire Hoskings has a piece that I’ve read a draft of too which should be coming soon. And this post addresses an element of the relationship between two characters that I totally missed myself.

But I wanted to highlight this strangely harmonious aspect of Gone Home and maybe set up for another post that I have in mind that is a bit more ambitious, aiming to unite the political ideas of ‘accelerationism’ that Mark Fisher applies to the realm of cultural production with the idea of ludonarrative dissonance/harmony. It’s an exciting time.