The medium is not the medium
For a good while debate raged on the internets over the truth of McLuhan’s claim that the medium was the message. These days, when it comes to the arts, I’m not sure that the medium is even the medium any more.
Exhibit one: Gone Home . Gone Home claims to be a “Story Exploration Video Game”. In it you play as a girl returning home after a year of traveling, to find the house your family moved to shortly after you left strangely empty. By exploring the house you piece together what happened to them over the past year, and discover why no-one is there. You do that by picking through rooms and finding scrawled notes, diaries and, well, things. Your Dad’s collection of old, unsold novels. A mixtape given to your sister by a school friend. Your mother’s correspondence with her best friend. The whole thing is tied together with entries from your sister’s diary, narrated out loud at various points as you progress through the story.
Now Gone Home looks like a game, it controls like any first-person 3D game, but unlike most, you don’t have a gun. It’s distributed on Steam, a digital distribution system for games, and it’s created in the same software used for Temple Run and plenty of other games.
But the game elements are close to non-existent. At no point should you get stuck – you simply wonder around the house, exploring, reading and listening. Discovering a story. There are a couple of places where you get keys in one room that will open up another, but these aren’t designed as puzzles, they’re merely there to restrict your exploration slightly, so the story unfolds in roughly the right order. It’s also perhaps notable that Gone Home was created by a bunch of people with a background in video games, rather than theatre or elsewhere.
A few times in discussions I’ve claimed that Gone Home isn’t a game for a fairly simple reason: Gone Home could have been made at any point in history. Because Gone Home does not need to exist on a computer. You could build Gone Home. You could get a house and stick all this stuff in it, and let people explore. And at that point, no-one would try and claim it was a game; it would be an interactive-theatre experience or a piece of installation art. The idea of telling a story using objects in a physical place isn’t new, it’s just generally not financially or logistically viable. Especially for something like Gone Home, where to create the right atmosphere, you’d have to open it to just one person at a time.
That said, the principle of it is used all the time in historic sites and museums, where you may wonder around an old building while reading signs or listening to an audio guide telling you how that space was used in the past. It’s just far rarer to do that for fiction (though it has been tried, and we’ll discuss Mark Watson’s The Hotel in part two).
So Gone Home is essentially an installation-based narrative, that just uses the technology and grammar of video games to make its existence feasible. It’s not actually a game. But what’s interesting is that it works the other way around too. Enter exhibit two: Hint Hunt . This is a room escape game similar to the online game Crimson Room or The Room on iOS. You explore a room, find clues, solve puzzles, and eventually find your way out. Except this isn’t on a computer. This is a real-life room whose puzzles you tackle in a team of 3-5 people, with a time limit of 60 minutes.
It is, undoubtedly, a game. The puzzles are the focus, and while both current rooms have a back-story to give them context, it’s extremely brief, and the narrative doesn’t develop at all as you solve the puzzles. In some ways that’s a shame: the focus is solving puzzles, not trying to solve a mystery, though it’s somewhat understandable as with a one-hour time limit, you’re not going to have time to piece together a story and solve a bunch of puzzles.
But the lack of any narrative element to Hint Hunt means that however you try to describe it, it’s in the context of it being a game. It offers it a certain purity that makes it interesting in this discussion (a purity that something like a murder mystery party doesn’t have). It’s not interactive theatre and it’s not installation art. It’s not trying to tell you a story or evoke an emotional response. It’s just trying to give you a game to play for an hour.
So there we have it. A narrative-driven interactive art exhibit that thinks it’s a video game, and a video game made flesh in the real world.
There’s going to be a second part of this where we’ll look at non-linear fiction through the work of Christine Love and new project by Mark Watson, then I might do a final bit about The Cyberdrome Crystal Maze, The Shrewsbury Quest, and Tales of the Arabian Nights. At which point I hope you’ll all be sufficiently confused about where one medium starts and another ends.