Sometimes it’s the smallest thing that means the most. It’s a truth most often represented through clichés and parables, about the thought being what counts and David defeating Goliath. They’re all facets of the same gem, different faces to the singular Janus. The nuances change within this collection of rote notions (the devil, after all, is in the—well, you know), but that doesn’t change the fact that they all build up the same general truth: that even the most trivial parts of a running motor keep it purring instead of clunking.
Video games are a great ambassador to this idea. Among the most bombastic stories and settings you’ll find in the fictional realm where space marines fighting a war are more common than butterflies in a park and things like [insert anything that happens at all from Asura’s Wrath] operate on a placid roar, the smallest details can be the parts that stick with us the longest. For all the space drama surrounding Master Chief and the Covenant, my grasp of the interstellar insanity pales in comparison to how vividly I can recall the way our Spartan hero flips around a pistol to whack a Grunt in the head. After climbing what felt like a hundred stories into the air on a living, breathing, angry Colossus, I still remember most of all how Wanderer would float and precisely drift through the air like a feather only to land across the back of Agro with a solid thud.
The most recent addition to the Memorable Details scrapbook is something in Gone Home. Gone Home is the debut game from The Fullbright Company, a four-person studio based in Portland, Oregon. Three of its founders were key members on the team that made the absolutely fantastic Minerva’s Den DLC for BioShock 2, including lead designer Steve Gaynor. It was an incredible little piece of expansive fiction that carries with it a lot of the same sensibilities they would later imbue into Gone Home, itself a first-person exploration video game.
If you haven’t played it yet, I highly recommend that you do before reading this. There are no overt spoilers in this article, but Gone Home works best when you know absolutely nothing about it. Even going in with slightly elevated expectations via word of mouth and cursory glances at review scores could adversely affect your eventual perception of it, so truly and honestly, just go play it and then you can either read this and consider my words or get angry that you spent money on my recommendation.
In Gone Home, you interact with objects by clicking on them. This allows you to pick them up and subsequently holding Shift to rotate and examine items closer. Sometimes, you’ll find something important like a date or a name. Other times, you’ll find nothing. (I’m pretty sure I picked up every single box of tissues and looked all of them over and found nary and thing of interest.) It was pretty neat, actually, having to carry things around into better lighting to read the covers of board games and magazines. It added a significant needed and appreciated realism to an action that shows that you do not, in fact, have hands.
After you’re done spinning your fifteenth soda can or flipping over another cassette case, you can then do one of two things: 1) click again to nonchalantly toss the object back wherever you’re pointing, or 2) click where you picked up the object and Put Back the thing as you found it. Well, “as you found it” isn’t entirely correct (and has a lot to do with why this is important), but we’ll get to that in a second.
The game opens with you on the enclosed porch area of your family’s new house. It’s dark, and all you can see before you is a flickering light, a locked door, and a hurriedly scribbled note from your younger sister Sam. In this area, the few things you can interact with besides the aforementioned items are a cup, a lamp, and a cabinet contain a plastic duck. The first thing I did, as I’m sure most people did, was pick up the cup. I didn’t even read the note or check the door or turn on the lamp. I just picked up the first thing I could and wanted to see what I could do. “Huh, this is cool,” I thought, right before throwing it to the ground with a clatter and a second thought towards picking it up again just so I could throw it one more time.
When I picked up the duck and found the key to the door, I encountered for the first time the option to Put Back the thing I was holding. Hover your mouse over where you picked something up, and you can click to snap the thing back into place. So I carefully put the modestly priced novelty and then stood there for a second. I had the key, so all I really had left to do in this front porch area was open the door and enter the house. But I stood there for a second, and then closed both cabinet doors and turned off the lamp.
I hastily moved towards the door and opened it with the key and entered. I turned left and turned right, surveying my options for exploration. I was uneasy for a number of reasons, including the excessive number of dark recesses and abundance of flickering, creepy lights, but it was a hazy malaise that stood out the most to me. I rummaged through a closet and perused a set of drawers, but something kept nagging at me. This is a real house, one that my family moved into and that I will soon live in. It was so small and so inconsequential, something that could easily be blamed on the wind or family pet (do we have one?), but to right it would be an equally quick and painless exercise.
I went back out the front door, turned right, and scoured the floor until I found it. I picked up the cup I had previously thrown so callously under the bench, spun it around to check for cracks or dings, and Put it Back where it belonged. And just like that, I felt so much more at ease in a house I had never been in. I felt like I had welcomed myself into feeling comfortable with being intimately familiar with this family and this home. Who else but the daughter of the family who had just moved in would go back to clean up such a minute little mess? Who else but me would feel so free to dig out the mystery of a loved mother and father and sister in a place unknown?
What really made it click, though, was a bit later on in the game when you come across a little standing table in the dining room. It looked to be nothing more than a convenient little space where people would come in from a day at school or work and toss their belongings on the nearest flat surface. On it was a purse lying on its side, which I promptly picked up and noticed a pamphlet under it. As gently as I could in a game where I am either holding or throwing an object, I put the purse on the ground and then picked up the pamphlet. But underneath that was an odd scrap of paper, so I put the pamphlet down next to the purse and picked up the scrap.
When I was done, I did what I had done for the past two hours: I Put everything Back. The paper snapped back to where I’d found it. The pamphlet, however, seemed to have shifted; it no longer covered up the paper. “Odd,” I thought, but continued to pick up and replace the purse. But the purse snapped back upright to the left, leaving the other items unmasked. Mechanically, it made sense; it facilitated the player not having to go through two layers to get to the important bit if they wanted to revisit it, but narratively, it was profound.
It represented my character’s neat and orderly mind, a habit put on display for the first three-quarters of the game, one possibly picked up abroad when staying with strangers and friends in homes you didn’t quite belong. Your sister’s room is a mess, your dad’s office is in disarray, and your mother leaves papers everywhere in the house. Someone in this house has to be the clean one, and having just arrived home from Europe, why not you? Why not start now? So it made sense and really put me in the shoes of a lone family member going around a disorderly house. It’s such a small thing (the rest of the table is cluttered with stacks of paper and trash), but the cleaning process has to start somewhere.
So when you replace that purse, of course you put it upright. It’s a value your parents probably instilled in you at a young age: Put things Back where you found them. More importantly, it’s probably something Kaitlin Greenbriar’s parents instilled in her at a young age, and something you have just taken part in as a player in a wholly organic way. It’s such a small thing standing amongst an unsettling story of an uncle and a nephew, a modern tale of a relationship worn weary by the world, and an impossibly beautiful love story that pulls into sharp focus the contrast between dreams and reality and the immense triumph when they align. It’s such a small thing, but it’s also the most important.