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Video Games Showcase the Human Experience

Storytellers help listeners to connect to experiences. Current storytelling projects such as The Moth, Story Corps, and Human Library showcase human experience through various media platforms. Video games today demonstrate how storytelling continues to evolve. The format allows players to interpret the game and to make in-game decisions that affect the fate of the characters and the plot of the story. The video game industry has recently provided players with two games, The Novelist and Gone Home, that present an opportunity to play with human experience.

The Novelist presents the story of writer Dan Kaplan who has rented a coastal home for his family and intends to spend the summer writing a novel and drinking. The interactive component centers around a ghost that occupies the house and seeks to uncover the family’s story through post-it notes, diaries, and letters scattered about the home. The premise portrays some clichés—a writer that drinks, the pursuit of artistic dreams without sacrificing relationships, and a child that wants more attention. The game designer also relies on devices that prove heavy-handed. Dan’s son Tommy, for example, draws a picture of his father crying next to the typewriter while he mopes in the background.  However, the ghost’s ability to read character’s minds helps to build a credible story. Through the character’s internal dialogue, the player learns that Dan, his wife, and son act single-mindedly. Their egocentric motives “make it very hard to like any of them,” notes Wired writer Ryan Rigney. The player must choose if the characters fulfill selfish impulses or make compromises, which mimics the events of common, real-life occurrences.

Fullbright’s Gone Home also presents realistic dilemmas. It’s an “atmospheric, introspective exploration game” explains Joystiq reviewer Jessica Conditt, “that tackles one of the most mysterious, emotional, and twisted phenomena of human experience—being a girl in the 90s.” The story follows Kaitlin after she returns home to the Pacific Northwest from a year of traveling abroad. Kaitlin explores her family’s empty suburban home to look for environmental clues that will help her determine where her parents and sister went.  The family drama evolves when Kaitlin reads her sister’s diary entries and listens to her cassettes. The game soundtrack features music from bands like Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile. These bands formed as part of the early feminist punk movement (riot grrrl) and the use of the genre in the game helps to solidify both geography and temporal place. Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor describes the choice of music and character as a “chicken-and-egg thing.” The music helps the player to experience the way art and music opened the world up to the teenage character. Gone Home creates a dialogue for generational and societal conflicts.

The Novelist and Gone Home feature intimate, human-scale stories but the games place deliberate constraints and the content does not feel especially playful.  Some video game critics argue that these games deny the player one of the most desirable experiences generated by games—to be something he is not. Yet, The Novelist, Gone Home, and other story-driven video games like Dear Esther help players to connect and to develop empathy.