Ted Kooser and Gone Home
Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.
-from Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse”
“Something went wrong, says the empty house,” writes Ted Kooser in his poem “The Abandoned Farmhouse.” It could be said the game Gone Home opens with a similar premise. When you first approach that door and read the note from Sam to not go looking for her, seeing the dark foyer of the house and hearing the thunder rumble in the background, it feels like something has gone terribly wrong.
In both Ted Kooser’s poem and Gone Home, it’s the objects that tell the stories of their inhabitants. The still-sealed jars and rusty tractor toy paint a picture of a struggling farm family in one, while news articles, letters, and handwritten directions tell the story of family members drifting apart in the other.
As a writer, I love a good story, especially when it shows me more than it tells. In my poetry MFA program, my professor constantly quoted Ezra Pound, saying that “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.” He always marked the last stanza of my poems as unnecessary: the last stanza where I tried to “wrap it up,” explaining the moral to my audience. He told me to trust my readers and instead end the poem on an object. I heard what he said but I didn’t internalize the lesson until playing Gone Home.
Gone Home is the epitome of the writing maxim “show don’t tell.” When I started picking up objects—the Christmas Duck, books, board games, sticky notes—I was amazed at how much work each item did in building up the story and world of the characters. And unlike a clunky NPC, killing time and tension by explaining a game’s situation, the objects allow me to jump right into the story and make the connections and realizations myself. They allow me to be a real participant in the story.
And that’s what I realized my professor was telling me all along. By explaining my moral at the end of a poem, I was basically functioning as a proverbial Navi, telling my reader where to move and what to do and why. Readers, like gamers, don’t want to be told what to do—they want to make conclusions on their own, and explore a given experience. By ending on an object, I was allowing my reader to be an active participant—a player—in the world I created. And this is when I realized that Gone Home might be the most important artifact to informing my values as a writer, and what it means to tell a good story.
Poetry and Walking Simulators: Similar, but Different
Many students in a literature or creative writing class become hesitant if told they’re going to read poetry during the semester--even more so if they’re told they’re going to have to write it. Many gamers become hesitant if told they’re going to play a walking simulator. It may not seem like poetry and walking simulators have much in common, but they are both cultural black sheep of their media genres. They break the conventions of what we expect to consume. Poems don’t revolve around a plot the way stories do. They hone in on details that lead to a revelation, not a resolution. They aren’t always literal, and are more often points for discussion than one coherent linear narrative.
Likewise, walking simulators lack many of the properties we assume are necessary in making a game. There is no traditional “fail state.” The only thing impeding progress is your literal movement forward, or perhaps the requirement to manipulate a specific object. But you can’t die in a walking simulator. There isn’t typically any extrinsic goal or mission, like “kill the monsters” or “solve the puzzle.” Instead, the goal is intrinsic: the player has to want for themselves to understand the situation or experience of the game. They want to explore for their own sake, their own pleasure. The game gives no explicit rules: it gives an environment, a world, and the ability to move through that world. There is no fail state except the player giving up.
A critical component of traditional games that walking simulators lack is diverse mechanics. Walking simulators started with this name ironically because the only mechanic given the player is the ability to walk. This mechanic is quickly overlooked by many, but even if it’s the only one I’d say the ability to pace your experience is a critical control (a control however that even the “game” Virginia lacks…don’t get me started on Virginia). Walking simulators may have other mechanics, including the ability to pick up, turn and throw objects (like Gone Home), or may have temporary additional mechanics (like Edith Finch does for the mini games). Regardless, the mechanics allotted in walking simulators is much more limited than traditional games, and the lack of control or power they give can be alarming. However, this lack of control is purposeful: it allows us to focus on the elements of the game that the designer wants us to, which is less through what we do and more of what we see and realize through what we interpret around us.
Walking Simulators and Literary Interpretation
Walking simulators are also interesting in that they can be interpreted in ways beyond the literal—again, similarly to poetry. When we play a game, we don’t usually question if what we’re doing is literal. If I’m playing FFXV, I’m not analyzing what I’m doing. I’m usually taking it at face value. Now games with unreliable narrators, like Hellblade, we are beginning to interpret games in new ways. However, it’s only when I’ve played walking simulators that ‘ve found myself analyzing and interpreting a game in poetic terms.
For example, when playing Dear Esther, I found that trying to translate the experience in the way I would most games failed me. There was dissonance in the information I was getting: I was on this deserted island, but was getting these snippets about different characters. The world of the audio was dissonant with the world I was navigating.
Another component of Dear Esther is the way the audio is narrated—the language is so rooted in archetypes, metaphors, and other abstract literary devices that I knew I couldn’t fully understand what was happening in literal terms. Because of this, I found myself trying to explain what I was experiencing in other terms. I found myself asking questions like: is the island a metaphor? Is this a physical representation of the speaker’s loneliness and struggle to find meaning after losing Esther? I realized I could probably host a book club session on Dear Esther, where we would argue about our different interpretations on this gameplay the same way we might argue over a difficult text like Moby Dick.
I honestly didn’t enjoy playing Dear Esther—I found it boring and a bit too far removed, abstract, and lacking of personal connection for me to be engaged. But if I'm talking about walking simulators I feel like I have to address it. It was the “the game that started the genre” (according to The Chinese Room’s site), the first game given the label “walking simulator.” Dear Esther is like some literary classic that everyone has to study in school—like Tom Sawyer, and we’re all like, why are we still talking about this book? Because we are culturally mandated to. But I digress.
Regardless of my personal interest (or lack thereof) in Dear Esther, I was fascinated by how I was interpreting it as an artifact. I found myself doing this to some degree also with What Remains of Edith Finch. I defaulted to interpreting everything literally, but when I came to experiences that I could not process literally (Molly becoming an animal and eating everything, Barbara’s odd comic book death, Calvin flying off a swing into the sea) I resorted to more poetic translations of these moments. Did these experiences represent the values of the characters—Molly having pica, or some other obsessive eating habit? Calvin, dreaming of flying? That these endings were less about what actually happened and more about understanding the values and dreams of the people who inhabited these spaces? I find myself returning to these endings because I don’t have a pat answer for what actually happened in them, and I love that. I love the open-endedness. I’m still baffled by what exactly happened with Barbara. Did anyone actually show up to her house? Or was it all in her head? Who told the story of Barbara, and what perspective might be distorting the reliability of their narration? This kind of interpretation has a different kind of haunting power than Lewis’ ending, which is very clear narratively on what happened but tells it with such compelling mechanics and visuals that we are haunted by what we know more than by what we don’t know.
So this is one fascinating gift walking simulators give us for games, and the future of gaming as well: giving us a medium that invites interpretation. If we want games to be treated as a legitimate art form in larger circles, this room for interpretation, analysis and discussion regarding what is actually happening in a game is a great compelling similarity to other art forms. If we have classes in college that demand reading and interpreting poems, walking simulators show us that we can also have courses playing, watching and interpreting games.
Meg Eden teaches creative writing at Anne Arundel Community College. She has five poetry chapbooks, and her novel "Post-High School Reality Quest" is about a girl whose life is narrated as a text adventure game. Find her online at www.megedenbooks.com or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal.