I’m going to try to keep this post from being jumble of words and thoughts and feelings that don’t communicate anything at all. I’ll say here, at the top, that all of those feelings are good feelings, the sounds and noise would all be praise, and if you don’t particularly care about what I have to say then you can just know that I think Gone Home is wonderful and definitely worth spending the $18 or so that it is on Steam right now.
SPOILERS FOR THE GAME BELOW
If you’re a frequent reader, then you already know that I’m no stranger to what I have been calling “first person experiencer” games. I’ve written on Dear Esther a number of times, I’m a huge fan of Robert Yang’s work, and Thirty Flights of Loving worked for me in a way that a lot of other games simply can’t manage. There’s something powerful about walking through a 3D environment as an implicitly embodied person, touching things, talking to people, and listening to the world around you. The best parts of the Bioshock franchise are the times before the fights–the opening of Infinite, devoid of the ability and necessity of slaying hundreds of citizens of a flying city, was the high point of the game for me.
Gone Home fits a particular niche in the first person experiencer genre. It should go without saying that there isn’t any combat, but I feel like I need to point that out precisely so I can make the point that the act of playing Gone Home never degrades. It never switches gears in a bid to become more exciting or more pleasurable to a wider range of the gaming audience. There is a way in which Gone Home isn’t about you. Fullbright has done a phenomenal job of quickly pushing the player out of the spotlight. There isn’t any spectacle or careful nods toward the player’s agency or complicity in the world. There is just a house and you use your sensibilities about how houses and the objects in houses work to make your way through the game.
This shouldn’t be so amazing, but in the same way that Dear Esther rethought the very act of walking in a video game, Gone Home rethinks interaction. Everything in the house is there to add to the story, whether implicitly or explicitly. Dad is a failing and flailing novelist who is turning to alcohol often, and we know this through the placement of objects of his in relation to bottles of booze (and the booze in his office, high on a shelf, placed there precariously). Mom is flirting with another man, attempting to have him moved into her local branch office. Kaitlin, the character the player is acting through, was a star student who paved a heteronormative, Eurotrip-having, Upper Middle Class 101 path that younger sister Samantha (Sam) wouldn’t, and couldn’t, follow. All of this is communicated through objects and their relationships to other objects.
[There’s an alternate history where this entire post is about objects and how relations are bound through the nonhumans in the game and that the very concept of mystery only comes to us because of the opacity of objects and their relations.]
Samantha Greenbriar, the younger sister of the player character masterfully voice acted by Sarah Grayson, touches me through objects. The game gives up the central conceit of the traditional audiolog in games. There’s no record players or voxophones or tape recordings you to approach and listen within a predetermined radius that forces you to stand around and wait. All it takes is a notebook or a panel or a ticket stub and Samantha is there, speaking with so much exuberance about life and love.
Gone Home is a game about exploring a house and finding out what happened in an intervening year while you were away, but that pales in comparison (for me) to Samantha’s narrative of queer discovery, love, and escape. The house is riddled through with compartments and secret passages. It is weighted down with history, with servants quarters, with the memory of the uncle. Against all of this, Samantha speaks in my ears, telling me about finding love with Lonnie in these rooms, these passages, these hidden places that her Average 1990s Nightline Parents can’t seem to find or understand. In unmarked rooms, she comes to understand and craft herself into who she wants to be. She builds herself in the hidden world of her own house, and then she makes a choice to fly.
I wept for beauty and for everything Gone Home can’t encompass in the narrative. The abuse. The difficulty. The fact that is is all so precarious and can fall apart. But against this, the absolute uncertainty of it all, she just goes. She’s out there being who she needs to be.
And this is groundbreaking, right? Gone Home is one of the few games that I can think of where a young woman character makes a choice for herself and we are not intended to sit in judgment of her as some kind of social transgressor. It is the opposite of the dadification of games–it is the sisterfication of games. Gone Home has constructed a character in such a way that we cannot help but feel immense love and respect for her decision. It isn’t just about sympathy or empathy–when Samantha says that I have to understand in that closing monologue, I cry a little because she’s exactly right. I do understand.
I guess that my takeaway, if I have to have one, is that Gone Home proves that we don’t need photorealistic sweat drops to become emotionally attached to someone. Danger doesn’t equal the most powerful relationships.
I want my games to have fewer dads and more sisters.