When is a game not a game?

Perhaps not an overwhelming commercial success, one of last year's most intriguing critical video game success stories was a game about an empty home and the story it told to a returning daughter.

With no violence, no action, no threat, no way to die or be hurt, Gone Home still managed to captivate its audience, receiving accolades and nominations for game of the year from websites, newspapers, magazines, the industry and, most recently, even the Games for Change conference.

But for some, one odd question remains: Is Gone Home a video game?

Unlike with movies, music and literature, the thing that defines video games still remains, in some corners, a debated issue.

Gone Home is a game of exploration and narration, an effective vehicle for story telling. But its lack of puzzles and combat, and the inability to lose or even change the outcome, have some questioning its gaming legitimacy.

Steve Gaynor, writer and designer at Gone Home developer Fullbright Studio, agreed during a recent talk at the Game Developers Conference that these missing elements set it apart from what he called "modern mainstream video games," but said the title still has very much in common with game experiences.

Three key things that make Gone Home a video game, he said, is its central focus on player agency, the game's inherent spirit of playfulness and the variability of player experience.

The game, told through the first-person perspective of Kaitlin Greenbriar, opens with the young woman returning home to an Oregon mansion after a year-long trip abroad. Players must explore the home, reading notes, finding recordings and interpreting clues, to piece together why Greenbriar's parents and younger sister are missing.

Despite the fact that there is only one story to tell, and only one ending, Gaynor calls the experience a dialog between the player and the designer of the game.

"It's an edited discussion," he said. "The designer established the rules and your inputs are changing that conversation every session that you play.

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"The content that you encounter appears differently than for someone else. It is unique to each user and their interpretation. The interactivity of it makes the experience unique to yourself."

That's because, Gaynor argued, the player's own interpretations of what they see and how they approach examining the home changes those interpretations for each player.

"Every note is always in the same place, but the game is about entering a space and imbuing this with meaning," he said. "The structure of your experience is unique to you even though you don't get to decide what happens in the story."

Gaynor said the developers also went to great lengths to subtlety acknowledge to the player that the developer knew they were there because the designers didn't want it to feel like just an empty house, but an adventure in a home written by real people.

Some have questioned why Gone Home's powerful story wasn't delivered simply as text, with no graphics, a throw-back to the text adventures popularized in the 80s.

"The story wasn't written in isolation and applied to those mediums," Gaynor said. "It was written for the medium it was intended for. We didn't decide to tell a story and figure out a gamer to make around it. The game came first and the narrative was designed for that.

"It is a story about exploration and discovery."

Ultimately, he added, Gone Home is a game because it is a story told within an interactive environment which allows the players to decide how to tackle the unwinding of the game's fiction and its interpretation.

"There is a deep trust in the player to explore of their own volition and not to be told what to do," he said, "to understand how the whole game works."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.

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