Mind Games

Examining the intersection of psychology and digital entertainment

Why Gone Home Is So Immersive

How a small team's game creates more spatial presence than any other.

Gone Home, a first person exploration game from indie developer The Fullbright Company, is getting a lot of attention lately, owing largely to how wrapped up in it players tend to get. The game plops you into the role of a young woman returning from a long trip to find that her family's new house is empty. There's just a cryptic note from her younger sister that kicks off your investigation into what the hell happened.

(Note: There will be only the mildest of spoilers for the game below—things you'd get from reading a back of the box description if this game had a box. Feel free to read on if you haven't played it, or go and play it then come back. I'm not waiting for you, though. I'm still typing!)

What's amazing about Gone Home is that it is a textbook example of how to make a game immersive. That is, you quickly lose track of the technology between you and the virtual house that you're exploring, to the point where you start to feel like you're really in that game world and consider your in-game actions accordingly. I've written about immersion (a.k.a., "spatial presence") in video games at length before, but the short version of how spatial presence happens is that it takes two steps:

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  1. Players form a mental representation of the space with which the game is presenting them—the richer and more detailed, the better.
  2. Players begin to lose focus on the media and technology between them and the game, and thus favor the game world as their primary point of reference for where they are.

But not all games are equally immersive, obviously. Previous research has identified characteristics of the media, the person, and the technology that are critical to either of the steps above. Gone Home provides great examples of several of these.

First, Gone Home does so much to create a rich mental model of a familiar environment. Being able to interact with objects and having those objects consistently behave in a way that you would expect helps weave a convincing game world. One of the game's hooks is that it happens within a small environment but that environment is extremely detailed. You can pick up and inspect almost everything—highlighters, magazines, ticket stubs, knickknacks, various reminders that your parents still have sex, WHATEVER. What's more, you can rotate the item and inspect it up close. The game artists even carefully replicated different people's handwriting where appropriate. And it's not like there are a bunch of identical objects copy/pasted into the world, like there are in other open world games where you see five copies of the same book in one room. Most of Gone Home's in-game flotsam is unique.

If you thought games like Skyrim were super interactive because you could pick up pots and cheese wheels, you haven't seen anything. Gone Home has the most interactive, detailed, and believable game environments I've seen, and it's clear that the developers spent a considerable chunk of their limited resources on these little details for no other reason than immersion. And while the game doesn't fully escape the "disembodied voice reads you journal snippets" trope a la Bioshock, the bulk of narrative information is presented through realistically written notes, letters, and other handwritten detritus.

So Gone Home checks off nearly every item on the "How to create a rich mental model of a virtual environment" checklist. But it has two other qualities that speak directly to that second step in the immersion process where you lose track of the real world and adopting the house at 1 Arbor Hill, Boon County Oregon as the primary reference point for where you are.

In a recent article Matthias Hofer, Werner Wirth and their colleagues put this model of spatial presence formation to the test using a setup that strikes some resemblance to Gone Home. Research subjects were sedated, tagged, and put in front of a computer loaded with a program known as "The House of Learning." Within the program’s virtual environment was a two story manor with ten rooms full of displays about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I like to think that subjects were constantly expecting the the famous composer's ghost to leap out and scare them. Regardless, study participants wandered through the house and investigated different rooms. Part of the study was to examine the importance of two related factors in creating spatial presence: domain specific interest and involvement.

Domain specific interest is a measure of how much the themes, settings, or other content of a game float your boat. If you're way into spaghetti westerns, for example, you will have a high level of domain specific interest in Red Dead Redemption. Gone Home will probably float a lot of boats in the harbors of its target audience, since it deals with themes we can all relate to and have experience with: young love, teenage rebellion, making friends, and realizing how bad your taste in music used to be. What's more, the game is set during 1995, and anyone who spent formative teenage years around that time will delight in many references to its pop culture. Video tapes, music tapes, concert posters, toys, SNES games, and other icons of the era are everywhere to be found in the house.

Hoffer, Wirth, and their co-authors argue --and found in the course of their study-- that this kind of domain-specific interest motivates media users to focus more of their precious attention on the game and interact with it more deeply. Which in turn results in the next reason why Gone Home is so immersive: Involvement.

Involvement, the researchers say, is intense, prolonged focus of attention and thought on the media. It's thinking hard about the game's virtual environment and wondering how it relates to you and what you're doing. But it's not simply paying attention to something. Rather, it's effortful and deliberate mental processing of the virtual world.

Gone Home is very easy to become involved with. In fact, it demands involvement, because very little is spelled out for the player, who has to piece together scraps of the game's narrative through information gleaned from all those intricately modeled objects, notes, and other clues. You have to search for sources of information, figure out from whose perspective that information originated, how it fits in chronologically, how reliable it is, and many other factors. The clues are often vague, so much of the game's enjoyment comes from letting them tumble around in your mind and constructing a narrative that makes sense. Plus the writing in the game is so good that you WANT to find out more about what's going on, which requires ever more involvement, which according to the research cited above leads to more spatial presence (i.e., immersion).

For all these reasons, Gone Home is a textbook example of many of the ways to create immersion, and I honestly think that media researchers studying spatial presence should be using it in their research. It's much more likely to create spatial presence than a house full of Mozart infographics. There are other aspects of the game that facilitate a rich mental model and adoption of that model as a reference point for location, but its incredibly interactive and detailed environment, broad domain specific interest, and demands for involvement are enough to do the trick.

REFERENCES

Wirth, W., hartmann, T., Bocking, S., Vorderer, P., Klimmt, C., Holger, S., Saari, T., Laarni, J., Ravaja, N., Gouveia, F., Biocca, F., Sacau, A. Jancke, L., Baumgartner, T., & Jancke, P. (2007). A Process Model for the Formation of Spatial Presence Experiences. Media Psychology, 9, 493-525.

Hoffer, M., Wirth, W., Kuehne, R., Scramm, H., & Sacau, A. (2012). Structural Equation Modeling of Spatial Presence: The Influence of Cognitive Processes and Traits. Media Psychology,15(4), 373-395.

Jamie Madigan, Ph.D. is an industrial-organizational psychologist, writer, and life-long video game enthusiast.

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