WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
Gone Home is a graphic adventure game in which the player takes on the role of Katie Greenbriar, returning to her family home after a year abroad in Europe. It is a dark and stormy night, the door is locked, no one is home and there’s a cryptic note on the door from your sister, Sam. So begins this first person adventure in which the player explores the house to uncover a family’s secrets. Much lauded for its new approach to storytelling, Gone Home is really about the little things and how they add up into something larger than the sum of their parts. The player works almost like a historian, sifting through the family's stuff and creating meaning from small chunks of information . Gone Home takes a narrative, fractures it into a hundred pieces and puts only some of them into the game. The narrative fragments take different forms: a ticket stub here, a voice recording there, a bottle of hair dye. But all work together to help the player create meaning. From a design standpoint, there are several critical factors at play. The first is that the player must participate in the meaning making process. Second, objects can create and reference pre-established meaning through juxtaposition with other objects, their form and context. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, is the quality of the narrative itself: a game that focuses on narrative needs a strong narrative, or at least a concept, to guide the design process.
Gone Home and other related games like Dear Esther, 30 Flights of Lovin’ and Trauma represent a new direction in games, or interactive experiences, that privilege narrative over mechanics [2, 3, 4]. While critically acclaimed, a significant number of players report disappointment with the lack of traditional game like qualities. Part of this response is undoubtedly due simply to player preferences. The main issue is, however, the fact that creating narrative driven games is a frontier and these games are taking risks and putting forward new ways of incorporating story elements. As part of ongoing research on improving the understanding of narrative in gameplay, this article seeks to explore design strengths and weaknesses in Gone Home.
The Method: History and Theory
Graphic Adventure Games
Gone Home is firmly rooted in the graphic adventure game genre. These games are often first person and range in quality from the early classic, Myst , to the point and click adventures in the casual games sector, such as the Secrets of Da Vinci . One of the earliest games of this type, Maniac Mansion  from 1987, is very closely related to the RPGs of the time like Times of Lore (1988)  and Might and Magic (1984). Both the action adventure and role playing games of that time clearly incorporate aspects of the earlier text adventure games. The common element between them is the exploration of a space presented as a type of puzzle in and of itself with exploration facilitated by planted objects. As players explore and learn to navigate, they typically happen upon items they will eventually need to advance the gameplay. From this common basis, the two genres diverge in terms of additional mechanics: action adventure primarily incorporate puzzles and RPGs focus on player stats, which are influenced by choices and role type, and require the player to battle some sort of enemy.
While the adventure game has consistently relied more heavily on narrative (see for example the Gabriel Knight series ) it is interesting that today’s RPGs and even shooters now typically include a much stronger narrative component. Gone Home follows in the footsteps of Dear Esther to create an experience that is somewhere between interactive narrative and a game. Both games explore a fragmentary narrative design that works with the other formal and dramatic game elements to express a story. Dear Esther and Gone Home rely heavily on art and sound for gameplay experience. A comparison to a text based narrative driven game, Fallen London , shows how well art and sound create a sense of place that helps to unify the game experiences. Fallen London is set in a futuristic Dickensian London filled with steampunk and gothic undertones in which players engage with a number of mechanics, characters, chained story lines and objects. The place that is Fallen London is implied for the player, from very small pieces of descriptive text, locations, location based activities and characters. Players do a huge amount of work to create the game space in their own mind which results in a lag between beginning the game and engagement with the environment.
Gone Home, on the other hand, immediately creates a strong sense of place for the player to explore, but, in this case, the environment has an additional burden. The game environment roughly corresponds to setting in linear media but, in a game, we cannot easily access a story’s emotional content and so the setting, or place, will carry some of that narrative burden. From the earliest examples in the genre, creating a space to immerse and connect with the player has been important and exploration of that space has become a game mechanic in and of itself. However, new games that push farther into the realm of narrative also use the created sense of place to convey emotional or dramatic content.
Semiotics and Gestalt Principles
Much has been made of the narrative structure employed in Gone Home where “exploration becomes a form of authorship.”  When examined, it becomes clear that the mechanism underlying this strategy relies heavily on the Gestalt principle of closure. Typically, Gestalt theories are understood as relating to the processing of visual information. “However, gestalt rules equally apply to other forms of art, such as music, dance and also literature, and this is so because these fields of expressive exchange make use of principles that are pervasive and fundamental in cognition and thus are involved not only in diverse forms of art but are in fact present in other tasks of conceptualization, in the process of making sense of reality and experience, and, not least, in the way language mirrors this process.”  Gestalt principles describe ways of restoring equilibrium to a world out of balance ; methods used by humans to organize information into groups to be interpreted as a whole in order to derive extended meaning. Closure, as it relates to storytelling, has been explored in Scott McCloud’s work, Understanding Comics . McCloud explains how comic panels and the gutters, or spaces, between them use the principle of closure to engage player participation. In his example, Blood in the Gutter, McCloud shows two panels: The first shows an axe and the face of an emotionally distraught man; the second shows a city and a scream ripping across the night sky (see figure 2). We automatically assume that the axe fell on the man and he’s screaming. However, as McCloud explains, he didn’t drop the axe – we did. Comic artists routinely force readers to participate in this way and it is considered strong writing. Writers, as a rule, are told to “show not tell.” Why? Because if you give just enough information to point the readers in the right direction but allow them to fill in the missing parts, they become part of the process. They fill in with their own knowledge, they personalize and customize it, essentially getting reader buy in.
Figure 2 : Blood in the Gutter from Scot McCloud’s Understanding Comics.
Closure is tangentially related to the concepts of intertextuality and bricolage. Intertextuality is a semiotics term that describes how texts, or “content”, relate to other texts. Basically, no text, image or thing exists in isolation. During its creation, it is shaped by the creator’s understanding of the world around. Additionally, when the object is read, the reader shapes the thing with their own knowledge of the world. Some explain this process as that of bricolage, the art of putting things together. Gombrich, an art historian, states clearly that all art is simply a manipulation of vocabulary not a reflection of the world [16, 17]. This interpretation holds that nothing is truly original, we are all putting bits of information together in different ways to create a whole of many referenced parts or, as Warren Specter would say, the “mash up.” Some theorists go even farther to say that the creation is in the reading - it is that act which brings the work to life. “The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.” 
Figure 3: Louis Bunuel and Salvadore Dali, Un chien Andalou (1928-9): A surrealist film in which Dali and Bunuel state that they placed random images and scenes together, and that the film has no meaning. Viewers, however, create a narrative anyway and this film has been the subject of countless dissertations and academic papers. As an experiment, the film is a clear example of semiotic and Gestalt principles in action: the human mind will attempt to make sense of everything and draw references and relationships between things - even if they don't exist!
The Curated Narrative, or What Games Can Learn from Museum Exhibition Strategies
Stuff doesn’t just end up in a museum. Well, sometimes it does but museums usually try to cull their collections to keep them focused and in compliance with their mission statement. Decisions are made as to what will be collected, put in a museum and thus preserved. When objects are selected for display, even more decisions must be made regarding the story they will tell through the order in which they will be arranged and the type of information that will be revealed about them through accompanying wall labels. Museums understand very well that this process skews and shapes the understanding of the past. For example, the objects most likely to make it into a museum collection typically are elite items originally belonging to the wealthy and privileged. They are not the most common, but the most uncommon. Wedding dresses, for example, are more likely to be preserved than work uniforms.
Museums also know that simply by bringing a bunch of stuff together, you will imply a narrative. When two objects are placed next to one another, they will change the meaning. The text placed alongside the object will also shape meaning. Consider this famous example, of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows, from John Berger’s book, Ways of Seeing [20, 21]:
Figure 4 : Vincent Van Gogh. Wheatfield with Crows, 1890.
It’s an excellent example of Van Gogh’s work, with textual brushwork and energy. But what if you had seen the painting with the caption? “This was the last thing he painted before he killed himself.”
Suddenly, you look at the picture in a new light. Does it seem a little darker? Do the crows take on additional significance? The confluence of these two things, text and image, change the viewer experience. In this example, we have an image and a reference to what I call an indirect narrative.
Figure 5: Vincent Van Gogh. Wheatfield with Crows, 1890. “This was the last thing he painted before he killed himself.”
Indirect narratives refer to cultural knowledge that is well known by a large group of people. In semiotic terms we might think of signifier and signified at a connotative level: The two things, text and image, work together to reference cultural meaning associated with the object (signifier). In the Van Gogh example, I can count on just about everyone knowing who Van Gogh is and how he died. His story is embedded within our working knowledge of our own culture. I’m not telling you what to feel but I am exploiting all the things you know about Van Gogh to get a reaction: the famous ear story, his well-known mental illness and sacrifice for his art, the legendary prices paid for his paintings today, and how little he was able to get for them while he was alive. This technique only works well when the audience knows the cultural references. This example would not resonate as strongly on a visitor from a culture in which Van Gogh was unknown.
The objects themselves can also create narrative when in groups. Imagine all the ways that Van Gogh’s work can be arranged to shape a narrative (also, see figure 3). They could put them in chronological order so that a narrative about the development of the images over time would be implied. They could be grouped by subject matter, location painted, or with other groups of painters. Each grouping would influence experience and narrative construction through application of semiotic theory and Gestalt principles such as similarity, dissimilarity, denotation and connotation. Museum exhibitions also often bring in objects related to the artist’s life, or the people shown in the images. These related objects help visitors create narratives about the personal life of the artist or perhaps the wider context of the surrounding culture of the time.
What does all this mean for games? Well, at the very least, players are going to use objects to create narrative so designers better understand how target demographics will interpret them. Consider a game that uses strong quest structured narratives, like the Elderscrolls franchise, in which a number of objects are used to create a place. Literally, these items are used as clutter. Players are focused on the quest narratives and NPC dialogue and so do not have need to go searching for more meaning. However, in a game like Gone Home, in which players are not directed by a strong game narrative, everything else in the game, including objects, become more significant. Players will pick up every piece of crumpled paper, book and toilet paper roll searching for meaning.
The genius of ordinary things
Gone Home pushes the frontier of narrative driven games a little farther back but there are some weak elements. A number of reviews comment on Gone Home’s new form of authorship in expressing game narrative through exploration and objects . On close examination, however, the narrative component in Gone Home functions exactly like earlier action adventures such as Myst in which journals are used to convey the narrative. Yes, objects are used and they do contain some of the dramatic elements of the game. They do not, however, contribute directly to the narrative but rather are used to build rich character biographies. Finding a short story that Sam wrote when she was young, for example, allows us to picture a more nuanced character. And, all of the items in Terrence’s office show us a frustrated man with an unfulfilled career. Yes, these all add depth but let’s not kid ourselves, the real work of the narrative is still done by journal entries that are triggered by specific objects or locations.
There is one very clear example of object-related connotative confusion and that is the book found under the Greenbriar parental bed, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass . A classic book of 19th century American poetry, Leaves of Grass is an unknown entity to the average player. Curiosity, peaked on finding the book, prompts a Google search and the player finds that it was banned for its erotic content. Additionally, in the game, the book contains a bookmark that lets the player know that the book was lent to Mrs Greenbriar by her co-worker, Rick. This has led a number of players to develop a romantic back-story that Mrs. Greenbriar and Ranger Rick may be having an affair. With no other contextual clues, it is difficult to tell what the designers had in mind, however, interpreting Leaves of Grass as a book of erotic poetry is just wrong. The poetry is not readily accessible to contemporary readers but anyone who bothers to look at the poems, as Mrs Greenbriar and Rick surely did, will know immediately that there is not much erotic here by our standards. Whitman was capturing the essence of democratic America by celebrating the everyman:
“the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors;—but always most in the common people.” 
Leaves of Grass, and Whitman, were shocking to 19th century audiences for a number of reasons. First, he refused to follow the accepted European structure used for poetry at the time in favor of a free verse he considered in keeping with the American spirit. Second, he considered sex and the human body as being sacred, rather than profane, as it was commonly understood at the time. Lastly, he celebrated all the working folk – including prostitutes – which made his work difficult to discuss in polite company.
Figure 6: Whalt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855-1881):
I Hear America Singing
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning,
or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day--at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
The inclusion of this book makes interpretation difficult because the designers have not clearly defined the connotative levels of interpretation of the object. This is made even more jarring by the fact that the house is full of generic objects which are clearly clutter but can be picked up and handled. If the purpose of these objects was to recreate the time period, then more attention should have been given to the representation of the objects. Alternatively, if the purpose was to create a haystack in which the player was to find the meaning laden objects, then this “hidden object” mechanic needs to be polished. The selection and arrangement of objects within the household could have been more thoughtful and sophisticated. It was clear that the parents were educated and kind of arty through Stan Getz posters, jazz records, easel painting setup and the books in the library. However, designers missed the opportunity to comment on, or deepen our understanding of, 1990s culture and the game characters through object selection and juxtaposition.
One of the things that Gone Home does very well is create the characters and their relationships through miscellaneous pieces of ephemera. We learn about Sam, not through direct description, but by finding things that belong to her: a short story written in grade school, grades received on projects, cassette tapes of her music and magazines. As the player walks around the house, finding particular items trigger a voice over journal entry from Sam. For example, picking up a bottle of red hair dye triggers a journal entry that retells Sam’s emotional experiences and first romantic flutterings with Lonnie. Combined, these elements give us a complex understanding of Sam. We know she’s a bit rebellious and anti-authority, not only from her choice in music but a note on a metalworking project tells us “she needs to show more pride in her work.” The use of objects has strong benefits for creating deep character biographies but designers must have clear ideas of how players will interpret the objects to fully exploit connotative meaning and indirect references.
Place, exploration mechanics, characters and narrative
Gone Home takes place in a very large house. In a narrative, a home, or any other building, are man-made objects which represents the personal and cultural relationships and actions that take place in them. Metaphorically, your home is your soul and, in Gone Home, the house represents the Greenbriar family and mirrors their past: full of dark, secret passages that aren’t meant to be found. We never do conclusively find out what awful event took place there in 1963 as the secret is only obliquely referenced in the game. However, we know there must be something terrible hidden in this house as the environment is filled with haunted house tropes: a voice recorded message of a hysterical friend, thunder and rain, no phone or cable, flickering lights and the distinct lack of human presence.
Figure 7 : Player's map of the Greenbriar house midway through the game.
Players are drawn in and engaged both through the tension of the haunted house environment and in figuring out the narrative mystery. I personally was expecting a horrific scene or something weird or terrifying around every corner. But it never came. I was misled. The environment suggested a narrative that never developed which was something of a disappointment at the end. It detracted from the nice simplicity of the story and deprived it of a strong ending. In addition, the design went even farther and really misled the player from the very first note on the door from Sam (see figure 8): Sam implores her sister not to look through her things as she “doesn’t want anyone to know,” which is contrary to the thematic structure of the game - which is all about uncovering secrets. All of these elements - the note, the character of the “psycho” dead uncle, ghost hunting, the secret passageways, along with the hysterical crying on the voicemail - lead the player to believe in a greater evil lurking within the house than the story actually delivers. There isn’t any evil at all, really.
Figure 8: Sam's note to Katie on the front door at the beginning of the game.
So what was the point of the haunted house tropes? A number of players have commented that the horror wasn’t in the main narrative but the story only hinted at in the game: the father’s story. We don’t know much about Terrence Greenbriar but we do find out that he is a man who is: apparently obsessed with the year 1963, not doing well at his job, has issues getting his books published and is trying to write another one. Other than that we are left with nothing but questions. What happened in 1963 and why was the uncle banished from the family? Why did the father never again visit his uncle after 1963? There is not enough information for the player to come to any clear conclusions. In fact, so much is left up to the player to fill in that the uncle/father story can be completely rewritten depending on the player. We are left wondering just what exactly the designer intentions are.
The secret hidden passageways and gothic horror tropes, however, resonate very clearly with the untold uncle/father story. It would seem that the repressed sexuality and abrupt departure of Sam in the main narrative make sense when considered as subsidiary to this other darker story. Through this lens, her actions make more sense. However, there was not enough information given about the back story to really pull the whole thing together. We needed to hear more from those characters, instead they were silent ghosts.
The narrative pieces in this case aren’t enough for players to interpret a “correct” answer so players fill in with their own fears and anxieties. Some have interpreted that Uncle Oscar was a pedophile that molested Terrence, the father . However, this is only one of many possible interpretations of the data and while it does explain the evidence, so do other theories. Maybe he raped a babysitter, maybe he had an affair with the Terrence’s mother, maybe Uncle Oscar shot heroine with Terrence, maybe Oscar was gay and was caught in flagrante delicto by Terrence and his Mom? We do know that Uncle Oscar ran a pharmacy that he quit because of “temptation.” A little research reveals that in the 1960s, pharmacies were undergoing an evolution into the modern entities we know today. But back then, pharmacists could still be called on to “compound” or create a medicine from a formula. I interpreted the drug paraphernalia found in the safe and Oscar’s “weakness” as being drugs, not children. I thought that he had perhaps, when under the influence, compounded a medicine with the wrong ingredients and killed someone. Either of these scenarios, killer or pedophile, works with the evidence presented in the game but neither feel very rewarding as the player is never able to achieve the fulfillment of experiencing an ending.
On the other hand, we do get Sam’s full story. And, like the player uncovering hidden passageways and unlocking safes, Sam rebels from the tradition of secrecy that has plagued her family (contrary to the note on the front door). Sam is not just telling her story, she’s revealing things about herself that are hard to face, and which may have repercussions. Gone Home uses the secret passages and locked areas of the environment to reflect Sam’s journey of love and self-discovery. By having the player’s actions, uncovering secrets, reflect the characters’ inner psychological work, the emotional content of the story is amplified. Once again, though, the horror atmosphere gets in the way of this story. It does create an atmosphere of heightened emotion but, while the family history is troubled, it does not approach the levels foreshadowed by the use of horror clichés. They suggest that something really awful would be revealed or happen, which never did, thus leaving the player feel somewhat underwhelmed at the end. Sam’s secret isn’t really such a big deal and the contrast between the horror atmosphere and the nature of the mystery were out of sync, leading to an unfortunate diminishing of Sam’s story conclusion.
Gone Home, along with Dear Esther, clearly shows the potential for fragmented narrative as an effective method in a game. However, it requires a clear conception of player experience as it relates to the narrative content. Thinking of it as a design choice, this approach allows players either 1.) the freedom to interpret in multiple ways or 2.) to take part in a linear narrative in a non-linear way . The choice really depends on what is important to the designer: if a carefully delivered emotional response or narrative experience is desired, for example, there would need to be more pieces of the puzzle present to allow players to reach the appropriate conclusion.
Gone Home also incorporates simple puzzles that serve no other purpose but to structure journal trigger points and player access. This is a necessary device to ensure that content is encountered in a meaningful way. Although these bottlenecks can sometimes be frustrating to players, the real issue with the puzzles in Gone Home is their poor quality and their obviousness. These are not puzzles, really, but locks that can only be opened with the right code. The code requires nothing of the player except that they have stumbled on them and noticed them somewhere near the lock. It would have been better for player experience if the player had to use some knowledge of the environment or narrative to obtain and apply the codes. In addition, this would have been another avenue in which more narrative information could have been brought into the game.
Games like Gone Home prove that narrative driven games need to use everything in the environment to convey dramatic elements: objects, place, music and sound, text, game mechanics and NPC dialogue, if appropriate. Fracturing the narrative and distributing it amongst these elements in snippets to be assembled, rather than blocks of linear text or cut scenes to be absorbed, is a strong approach for creating character depth and telling a story. However, this approach demands a lot more thought on the part of the designer about the meaning of the objects in the environment and their relationship with the narrative and player interpretation. This approach also requires that designers are clear about the impact the narrative will have on player participation and design accordingly:
- The game narrative has content that designers want players to experience or to elicit a specific emotional response. In this case, there must be enough of the narrative fragments within the game for the player to correctly reconstruct the narrative.
- Designers want players to freely interpret and create their own interpretation. In this case, there should be fewer story fragments. Perhaps even contradictory or random fragments that drive multiple meaning creation.
- Something in between where there is more or less interpretation required from the player.
The specific inclusion of Leaves of Grass was interesting because, even though it may have been unintentional on the part of the designers, it referenced the very structure of the game. The thing that is really new in Gone Home is the choice of subject matter and method of describing characters through text and objects. Gone Home, like Leaves of Grass, celebrates the ordinary things. The narrative is not some epic hero’s journey set in an alternate universe but a personal tale that could be found in anyone’s family or town. A small tale, told through the accretion of insignificant things to build into something larger than the sum of its parts. Steve Gaynor has stated that the intent behind the use of the objects was not a reaction to the current culture but an attempt to recreate a specific time:
It’s nice how much physicality there was in the nineties. You pick up a cassette tape and you put it in a tape deck. It has a very satisfying payoff that is different than finding an iPod and navigating through the user interface. But with Gone Home, it’s more about us being faithful to that era than a reaction to this one. 
However, he is somewhat naive in believing that his choice of objects will simply recreate a bygone era. Any audience, reader or viewer or player, participates in the creation of meaning through the basic cognitive functioning of their brain. Game objects resonate with cultural and personal meaning. Understanding what these objects mean will empower designers and writers to exploit those meanings to create better game narrative. Gone Home, along with Dear Esther, takes some of the first steps towards the conscious manipulation of dramatic elements to better convey an interactive narrative. However, they also show that there is a lot of work to do in defining the game narrative vocabulary and design strategies.
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