The Problem With Gone Home
Gone Home is a slight, first-person adventure game, something of an “art game” with its focus on untraditional game narrative, from Portland developers The Fullbright Company. Players control Katie, a twenty-something invisible vehicle for the player, as she explores a vast, spooky mansion in Oregon after being away on vacation in Europe for a year. The game takes place in 1995.
Gone Home received a great deal of praise from critics and fans when it was released in 2013, becoming something of an indie hit. The game was praised for its unique approach to storytelling, and for its themes and “beautiful” writing. It instantly became an anti-Call of Duty (et al), and fans of the game will quickly cite it as an example of a game that is not targeted toward “white, young males.”
I’m always cautious toward claims of great or “amazing” writing in contemporary media, but I was still excited to play the game finally. What I experienced was a problematic game from the initial few moments, a nagging feeling that only intensified in the final moments of the game.
Gone Home as Genuine And Human
Gone Home does a lot right.
Its colloquial ‘90s language is spot on and is certainly “cool.” Bratmobile music and Sonic Youth posters and zines are all really cool and “in” and nostalgic and punk rock. The game earns major points for these details from fans and critics and even me, these details that give the game its otherworldly nostalgia.
The riot grrrl motif adds some genuineness to the characters and their world, and even for players who did not experience the era (or have any interest in punk) find themselves identifying and impressed.
On a side note: I can’t help but wonder how the game’s reception would have turned out if the music theme was deemed “uncool.” Would the game be as popular if the characters listened to Aaron Carter un-ironically? Would it feel as genuine or still be viewed as cool?
Even more important, though, is the queerness of the game. What games focus on being a teenage lesbian and focus on real emotions of real fictional people? Not a ton, not many at all. Katie’s exploration of the mansion reveals many secrets about her family, her sister Sam’s relationship with another girl being the highlight.
Gone Home is hardly subtle about its sense of queerness (it feels real enough, but still very in your face), due to its loose writing, but it gets points for “showing” (not “telling,” for all you creative writers) a story that people can relate to and be affected by. In terms of gaming, Gone Home is “progressive,” though never subversive or transgressive. The game seems to be informed by ‘90s cult hit My So-Called Life and this is a plus.
I’m wary of the claim that Gone Home is great because it is queer. Its story is an average, coming-of-age tale of a teenage girl discovering who she really is. Its depiction of a lesbian teenager is certainly relatable and realistic, if not a bit romanticized and idealized, but does Gone Home truly deserve “points” just for being queer?
We can look at popular games, see how they are targeted toward our “white, young male” demographic, and then make the claim that Gone Home is special because it’s different, that it changes the playing field of games, that it’s a milestone in storytelling in games simply due to its theme and focus. The game is certainly “real” enough, yet I have difficulty making a final judgment on it. Something to consider.
Playing the Game
Gone Home‘s opening reminds me of the original Resident Evil for the PlayStation. It’s dark and stormy outside, and players find themselves in this huge antechamber with a large staircase in the center, with moody doorways going off to the left and right. Even the wooden panels of the walls recall Raccoon City’s infamous mansion. At first glance, Gone Home is a “scary mansion” story, and thus stems from games like Resident Evil and films like The Shining. This is an important first impression.
Each room and corridor is dark (sometimes too dark), and players will often find themselves stumbling around, desperately looking for light switches in pitch black rooms. Thunder crashes in the background, and the house creaks eerily at certain intervals. Even the title screen makes the house seem haunted, with its dark hues and supernatural purples, a single light shining in a window on the second floor.
Pacing is one of Gone Home’s strong points, as players are constantly exploring new areas of the house as they uncover new tidbits of information. Visual cues, such as a father’s porn collection, are too scant, but nice when discovered.
As players explore the unfamiliar house, they receive information about a crazed, dead uncle, about ghosts and spirits, as well as a sprawling family disfunction, including a disparaged author father, a mother hung up on being a wife, and, the spotlight, Samantha, a teenage girl exploring her sexuality. Information is conveyed through notes and diary entries placed around the house, and Sam’s diary entries are accompanied by excellent audio that may give too much precedence to them.
For a story that seems to focus on Katie’s return and her discovery of her family’s secrets, much of the player’s time is spent solely on Sam’s character arc and her developing relationship with best friend turned girlfriend Lonnie, and their teenage punk shenanigans. The mother in particular gets shafted, and her story out of the three is by far the sparsest and least fulfilling. The three characters are too independent from each other, and even if Sam is the focus, more connections to her parents would have fleshed out each arc more.
The Horror of Gone Home
I’ll be the first to admit that tone and atmosphere are king and that plot is weak. One does not play Dark Souls for the plot, does not watch Clerks or Bergman or Fellini for plot. Memorable media has a heightened sense of atmosphere and tone, as well as character, and it is these elements that stick with an audience.
Gone Home goes to great lengths to be classically horrifying, but why is it so creepy?
At any point in the game, players feel like they’re trapped in the underwater dystopia, Rapture, of BioShock fame (fun fact: the lead designers of Gone Home actually did work on BioShock 2‘s Minerva’s Den) due to the dark, creaking corridors, and slow, careful crawl. Text and audio of seances and psycho houses amount to little, and while I won’t explain what exactly happens in the game’s final moments, these clues and hauntings do end up as nothing more than a tool to assist the tone and atmosphere.
Katie has never been to this mansion in Oregon, where her family has just moved. The house has a feeling of emptiness, which makes sense because a). it is unfamiliar to Katie, b). the family has recently (well, a year ago?) moved there, and c). because the house is the “Psycho House” where her uncle Oscar apparently went insane. But the game never even bothers to reconcile these mismatched tonal issues, and thus, the horror feels tacked on.
There’s a lot to be considered when trying to interpret Gone Home‘s eerie atmosphere. It could be argued that the emptiness and creepiness of the house parallels Katie’s distance from her family, and as players learn more about them through clues and notes, they become more at ease both with the family and with navigating the house.
Or perhaps, just as coming out of the closet to one’s parents could be akin to a final boss fight in a JRPG, the mansion’s labyrinthine and haunting qualities mirrors the confusion and excitement of Samantha’s realization and followthrough of her feelings toward another girl. The game is murky, disorienting, and maze-like, not to mention sort of horrifying, because that’s what being a confused teenager is like.
I don’t find either of these possibilities satisfying, though. Katie is such a first-person non-entity, that she never even matters. This distance to her family is only inferred, and the flashes of text from her thoughts only mire her character further (whenever she finds a postcard she sent her family, players get a “hey! that’s the postcard I sent my family!”). Samantha’s love story is hardly confused and is actually quite romantic, exciting, and actualizing. It barely mirrors the horrors of the house.
Late in the game, Katie stumbles upon a secret series of passageways in the house, which look like they’re straight out of something from Amnesia: The Dark Descent (fun fact 2: the prototype of the game was built in Frictional’s HPL Engine 2), and there are scattered zines everywhere, and some punk and riot grrrl allusions on the walls and tables. There are some great details here for the keen of eye, some nice aesthetic qualities, and it’s a lovely moment, except for the fact that the player is still stumbling around in this gloomy dungeon, holding her breath.
Several reviewers noted that the game felt real, that the house was real, but it’s entirely game-like and fictional, part-dungeon, part-sewer, part-Resident Evil. Stumbling upon this secret teen riot grrrl haven is nice and it does feel lived in. There are some interesting spatial relationships and lightings, but the sense of dread and dungeons lingers and is too jarring.
In another section, deep in the basement of the house, there’s a room that’s pitch black and the light switch doesn’t work. I accidentally closed the door on myself looking for anything on the floor, and was trapped in this black room for a few minutes while I searched for the door. It was horrifying and claustrophobic, and even though I knew nothing in the game could harm me, it was genuinely scary. A visceral experience, nonetheless, but a jarring one.
Gone Home is not a traditional (or really, untraditional) horror game, not a horror game at all, and thus these scares feel out of place. Proteus, another non-violent and nontraditional game, delivers a truly ecstatic and intimidating ending through some pastel colors and no text. Proteus is successful through gameplay alone. Gone Home’s plot and its characters have much more complexity than anything in Proteus, but that does not make them more effective.
Would Gone Home be interesting if it wasn’t scary? Would players want to control Katie and move through a normally sized, normally lit house and search for clues and keys? Or would it be too boring? Is it one of gaming’s fallacies, that a game cannot simply tell a story without also having a game-like intensity and structure? And is this even a fallacy, or perhaps, a strength that should be better utilized?
At the end of the game, even though I had read all of the clues and knew all of the truths, I still had the lingering feeling that something bad would happen to Katie, that she would find something horrible up in the attic. I knew it wasn’t going to happen, but there was a build up to it nonetheless, the ascent to the top floor only emphasizing the feeling. The final moments of the game were alright, but ultimately unfulfilling.
The Fullbright Company had a great setup, and certainly lots of talent and vision, but Gone Home fails in delivering an earth shattering game narrative. Obviously, something horror-related happening at the end of the game would not have saved Gone Home, that is not the issue. I didn’t necessarily feel cheated out of a “satisfying ending.” The whole of the game failed to leave a deep impression on me, despite its ‘90s nostalgia and queerness. Maybe it needed another layer, such as anthropomorphic animal characters (I’m serious) to help balance the tones and senses of reality.
Or perhaps, ultimately, this is the point of Gone Home, that a game can still be frightening and maze-like, look and sound like a traditional game, and still be completely non-violent and tell a nontraditional story.
What do you think? Leave a comment.