A few months ago…
I played Gone Home for the first time and have been meaning to revisit it ever since. This game was, simultaneously, my first simulator experience and first story driven experience. Overall, I really enjoyed my first play through and was excited to see the game offered a developer commentary mode. Today, I finally made time to check it out, and I wasn’t disappointed.
I rarely replay games, but I have to say, the developer commentary mode of Gone Home is a must play. I would recommend it even if you didn’t love the campaign.
Gone Home‘s developer commentary mode includes up to 90 minutes of background information on the game: including Easter eggs, art, music, voice acting, design, mechanics, narrative, and more. Commentary is interspersed throughout the game via clickable icons throughout the house. Some of the commentary, such as those relating to music, is more holistic (having little to no relation with the space its located in). However, many of the icons are placed in specific areas to explain an individual object or piece of narrative to the gamer.
After playing Gone Home‘s developer commentary mode, I walked away with 3 game development takeaways:
1. There’s a fine line between paying homage to gaming conventions and being cliché.
I have no idea how developers manage to walk that line, but, as a gamer, I can definitely tell failure from success in this category. One of my favorite commentary notes was a story where one team member woke up in the middle of the night to tell everyone else that putting Sam’s locker combination on 3 slips of paper the player needs to find was “too gamey” and needed to be changed. And, as a player, I’m happy with the change, too. I suppose the best way to pay homage to gaming conventions is with a subtle hand: like how the file cabinet combination you find is 0451–a combination that’s been used in many games that came before.
2. Game developers insert their lives into the game, creating many “personal Easter eggs.”
I love getting to know the people behind the things I love. Gone Home’s commentary mode gave me a window into the developers’ lives and interests: from Star Trek Easter eggs to podcast references. It was great to see how Gone Home’s realism is, in part, rooted in cannibalizing people’s experiences. My favorite example of this is someone’s long deceased relatives’ portraits being on the back of the Escape From Ghost Mansion game board. Spooky.
3. Specificity and getting the details right is key, especially when writing characters whose life experiences are far from your own.
With the house being the focal point of the gameplay/story, specificity is key. This is something I’ve discovered I really love about the simulator genre: the details. And when they’re done well, you hardly notice they’re present. The details become a seamless aspect of the realistic world you’re exploring. I never thought about how many games leave out little things like the chords for lamps, and, until I played the commentary mode, I never noticed how Gone Home did that (and so many other things) so well.
In order to write Sam’s character, the developer(s) did a lot of research: from blogs to in-person interviews. For me, this isn’t just a matter of creating an authentic story; it’s about respecting other people’s existence and reality. Being heterosexual and writing Sam, a gay female character, requires a certain level of care. As one of the commentary notes mentioned, game developers have an obligation to “reach out to people that have lived it” to avoid “cheapen[ing] the experience as an outsider.”
I’ve been playing video games since the 90s, but I still don’t know much about the development side of things. I believe many of us are in this boat. Sure, I can evaluate and analyze a game, but as far as what thought actually went into a game—well, that’s conjecture on my part. Outside of documentaries and occasional articles, I haven’t heard too much from developers. And with the video game journalism world dominated by reviews, let’s plays, and opinion pieces, primary sources become especially important.
So here’s hoping more game developers include a commentary mode or some behind the scenes interviews; it makes for the perfect DLC.