Gone Home: A Tale of Three Games

This article contains spoilers for Gone Home. It’s recommended you complete the game before reading any further.

Which, surprisingly, is a fairly common spoiler warning for Gone Home. It’s only when the end credits roll that the game resolves as a coming-of-age story about Sam and Lonnie’s teen romance. This is a major part of the cause of its critical success: that a game would brave to be about something as trivial as teen romance while throwing heteronormativity to the wind.

It’s a boilerplate story, though. Ian Bogost described it as young adult fiction as he puzzled over its critical success. It’s not dreadfully complex or hazardous; it’s almost conservative in how their story plays out. What’s exceptional is that it unfolds in a videogame without the need for space marines or puzzle-platforming – the standard apologies for tormenting your player with a narrative. Gone Home shows us that games can be about everyday things, personal things, off-beat things, without apologizing, and succeed.

Like Bogost, the image built up of the game through reviews and articles has me puzzled, not so much by the extent of the praise but what’s being referenced. There are two Gone Homes here – three actually, I’ll talk about the third later. The first speaks of this wonderful voyage through normalcy without the need for videogame decor.

But the spoiler warning’s familiarity betrays this conceit. Even now on twitter, over two months after its release, people still discuss Gone Home discretely, knowing that to identify it as about gay romance spoils the mystery, the excitement of discovery. People could barely last a week without broadcasting BioShock Infinite’s ending, so fair play to them now that they hold out.

But they know, to admit it as this intimate heart-warming tale without goblins or murderers speaks of how it’s not a horror story. Gone Home spends a ton of energy pretending to be about ghosts or suicide or whatever is conjured by your imagination on a dark and stormy night. The set-up is classic: abandoned mansion, missing family, messily-written notes, frightened voicemail message. The attic. The basement. The red-streaked bath. The crucifix. The lightbulb – as I fled that lightbulb, I swear I heard muffled voices from the library. The Ouija board. The estranged former tenant. The Psycho House.

The only thing missing from Gone Home confirming itself as a horror story is for the thing to finally, finally jump out at you. It never does, but until the credits roll you’re left guessing.

This is what’s great about Gone Home: as a horror game, it plays the part perfectly. There’s some fantastic horror design going on in there – having to step inside a room and turn your back to it to find the lightswitch is a great first-person adaptation of the second-person perspective camera work inside Project Zero and Resident Evil. The presence of all this horror stimulates the sense of mystery and discovery. But it’s a horror game predicated on the player’s lack of foreknowledge that, ultimately, it’s a story about teen romance. Without that ignorance, all the effort at stimulating an overactive imagination is redundant.

And it is a horror game, one without a monster, when all is said and done. To act otherwise is like pretending Thomas Was Alone isn’t a puzzle-platformer because it’s about relationships.

Gone Home is too dressed up as a horror to justify comments that it proves forthright tales about teen romance, about lesbian relationships, about nostalgia and broken families, can be made at this scale and succeed. I wonder, even now, if it would have succeeded without tricking the player into playing it as a horror. The most cynical part of me wonders if it was made into a horror because Fullbright figured it wouldn’t sell otherwise.

I admit zero experience with the game prior to playing it. I watched no trailers, read no interviews. I went solely off word-of-mouth. But I know some (maybe many, maybe most) critics entered the game knowing full well the horror was a feint, despite the time and effort put in to crafting it. Perhaps this is why I’ve yet to come across an unapologetic reading of it as horror, if foreknowledge protected them from reading it as such. Why it’s so often addressed as an honest, forthright coming-of-age tale, however, suggests there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance going on, that people don’t perceive it as a horror game, yet know not to spoil new players that there’s no monster around the next corner.

Earlier I said it feels like there’s three Gone Homes: there’s the horror game and there’s the image built up of it. Within the latter is a narrative of how its story is told, namely through player interaction with artefacts and their context in the Greenbriar house. It’s the narrative mode by which Dark Souls endears its worldbuilding, here being used to connote the personalities and relationships of the game’s cast of characters, and it’s commonly suggested that it is through this method that Gone Home’s story of teen romance is expertly told.

Here again, the image built up diverges from the game. Although it does heavily rely on objects to convey story, Sam and Lonnie’s relationship is told almost exclusively through audiologs: the player picks up a concert ticket or zine and Sam’s voice chimes in to express the relevance of this item to her experiences at school or with Lonnie. They’re not called Voxophones but they’re functionally identical. Seldom does the item connote anything more than is granted through the audiolog; seldom does its placement or positioning in relation to other objects belay narrative that is not made clear through Sam’s tone or dialogue.

There is nuance to Sam’s character to enjoy from a crumpled note behind the bin, or her snarky answer to a homework assignment, or her Captain Allegra fiction, but that’s aside from the dominant narrative form and focal point. Beyond the audiologs, there’s little more to the story of Sam and Lonnie’s relationship.

It’s in the other characters and their relationships that Gone Home’s dark souls kicks off.* For each of them with a backstory and narrative arc, it’s told entirely through this mode. In the basement is a defaced portrait of Terry’s father; nearby a letter from him criticising Terry’s work and belittling his childhood trauma. These objects only make sense if you cop Oscar’s story and contextualize Terry’s narrative arc against it, marked through the sources of Terry’s fiction and his passage through the house. Its conclusion fleshes out against Janice’s story, itself similarly told.

And because it’s rooted in the interpretation of objects in context of each other, there’s enough wiggle room to allow for alternative interpretations: a reading of Oscar as gay blends nicely with Sam and Lonnie’s fascination with him throughout their own relationship; perhaps Terry’s disapproval of Sam and Lonnie stems from homophobia passed down from his father, as a rift between the brothers tore their family apart; perhaps Oscar, not Terry, defaced the portrait; perhaps Terry’s trauma is this.

The beauty of the dark souls narrative method is the eloquence with which it drops nuggets and hints, and invites the player to want to explore and resolve these mysteries. But truthfully, it only really belongs to Gone Home’s peripheral characters. Sam and Lonnie’s narrative form is little different than BioShock’s, with a voice in your ear clearly explaining everything you need to know at each story beat, leaving little mystery on their part for the player to unlock. It naturally dissects itself to form two not-quite-related parts: the plainly told teen romance, and everyone else’s dark souls. Which, I think, could offer an interesting reading of the broken state of the family, but I’ll leave that for another day.

*I don’t know if there’s a proper term yet to describe this narrative method, so I like the idea of using Dark Souls (not italicized, lower case) as a sort of shorthand for it.

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