A Different Way to Win
Late last year I wrote a paper for one of my classes about Gone Home. Today, it was announced that Midnight City will be bringing the game to consoles in 2014. The fact that this game will reach an even larger and more diverse demographic has made my heart swell, and I could not be more excited.
PS: Please keep in mind that this is an undergrad paper with a boring structure and not many original ideas. I just love talking about this game…and, by the way, SPOILERS ALL AROUND.
Gone Home defies typical narrative and video game tropes in order to tell a compelling and surprising story that results in an unexpectedly empathetic experience. The Fullbright Company has created a game that plays right into typical gameplay conventions, and then makes a surprising turn around each (literal and metaphorical) corner.
From the first few minutes of the game, the player encounters a number or horror game tropes. There’s a dark, lonely house with a cryptic note on the door that calls the player to action. This, like almost every other clue and story point, is unlikely to be what one would expect. As the door opens it is revealed that the house’s foyer is filled with boxes, not bodies. From here on out, each possibility for agency leads the player through a narrative that defies what most know video games to be.
Every room within the house of Gone Home (save one, Sam’s) is shadowed in darkness. This presents a moment of agency each time a player enters a room. The first thing to do? Turn on a light. Most would expect some sort of grim setting, but every room is just as typical as one would expect from a home in the mid 1990s. Instead of being surprised by something scary, the player can be surprised to see a room very similar to one they, or one of their friends, had while growing up.
Again and again, Gone Home uses this expectation of horror and turns it against the player. Similar to the “lights out” motif, there are staticky televisions in multiple rooms. The player will creep up to a TV, expecting perhaps a poltergeist. Instead, they’re greeted by an adolescent couch cushion fort that’s been abandoned but is still filled with used coke cans and snacks, as well as old copies of The X-Files. Once again, the player is greeted with nostalgia, as well as another potential bond with the unseen characters of this game. This sister, Sam, seems like a typical teenager.
The very same thing happens when entering Sam’s own room. Yes, there’s a creepy staticky TV, but there’s also a Super Nintendo with Street Fighter moves scribbled on a scrap of loose leaf paper. At this point, Fullbright knows that they have hit on a number of objects that will trigger emotions within the player and connect them even more strongly to Sam.
Each bathroom that the player enters is similarly creepy. Until the player turns on the lights and sees that it’s a typical bathroom with soap, tampons, and magazines from the 90s next to the toilet. There is a prime opportunity to scare the player with shadowy reflections in the mirror (or a frightening reveal of what the player character looks like) but there are no mirrors to be found. In one instance, however, there appears to be blood spattered across a bathtub. Yet when the player picks it up, it’s nothing more than red hair dye and another connection to Sam.
As the horror tropes continue to subvert the player’s expectations, a parallel story comes into the narrative. Things that shouldn’t be frightening such as an old family photo, old letters, and newspaper articles are the most troubling objects within the game. When the player first encounters remnant’s of Terry, Sam’s and Kate’s father, he seems like a typical dad. He loves books and records, and looks to have a stable job writing reviews of stereo and video equipment. Then the player starts to uncover the dark corner’s of Terry’s life that are often in the literally dark corners of the house.
A strange science fiction novel involving time travel to thwart the assassination seems to have been fairly successful, but as the player finds more evidence it is obvious that Terry is in a downward spiral. Letters of rejection from his editor sit next to empty glasses (of presumably scotch). In the basement, there is a note written from Terry’s own father that he has been a disappointment and that he can do better. In fact, Terry even wrote his father’s harsh words on a post it note so he must constantly see it on his desk. These elements may not be “scary,” but there is a cold, darkness that seeps in between the nostalgic trinkets littering the house.
Along with her Terry’s professional failures, other found objects suggest that his wife is having an affair. Flirtatious notes can be found in throughout the mother’s living space, and there is even an incriminating ticket stub that suggests she went to a concert with her lover.
Eventually it is revealed that the parents haven’t been brutally murdered. When the final section of the house opens up, the player may except to, at last, find bodies, but instead there’s simply a note revealing that Sam’s and Katie’s parents have gone away for the weekend. This could seem anticlimactic for the actual player, but for the character of Katie, this could very well be frightening.
As a character in this narrative, Katie is experiencing these unsettling things right along with the player. There may not be traditionally spooky elements, but a young woman coming into her family’s home and uncovering these secrets would be undoubtedly be scared. After being gone for a year and coming home to a life in shambles, one would undoubtedly be shaken. It’s not the seance candles or the ouija board that would be frightening to Katie, but rather the secrets that her family is holding.
Most troubling of said secrets is the history between Terry and his uncle, Oscar. Scraps of newspaper in the basement reveal that Oscar owned a pharmacy for years, and then suddenly gave it up to live alone in his large house. Upon his death, Oscar gives it to his nephew, Terry. The player discovers this through a piece of paper that’s been mangled so that an apparent apology letter Oscar gives to Terry isn’t legible. Eventually, a safe in the basement reveals clues suggesting that Oscar was addicted to morphine and probably gay. The player slowly comes to realize that Oscar sexually abused Terry in 1963 and become ostracized from the community. This is the year Terry’s growth chart stops on the wall, and the year all of his novel’s take place. Terry has written a fiction about a man going back in time and stopping a national act of violence while he himself wishes he could prevent the personal violence he experienced.
This, ultimately, is the scariest part of Gone Home. One man’s taboo sexuality led to an vile assault of a young boy and turned into drug addiction. That young boy grows up and has a gay daughter who is afflicted by her father’s own prejudice and anxiety about what his child could become. The house in Gone Home is indeed filled with fear, just not the kind typically found in video games.
Up until the conclusion of the game, the player could believe that Sam has had a tragic death. With the revelation of the house’s dark past, literary and cinematic clues point to a fatal tragedy for a queer character. The final journal entry and the cryptic messages left on the family’s answering machine by Lonnie, Sam’s girlfriend, indicate that something has gone terribly wrong. Knowing that she has been rejected by her family and that Lonnie is leaving, it’s reasonable to believe Sam has committed suicide. But, as the player runs through the attic, quickly rummaging through objects in an attempt to find out what happened to Sam, a single journal is found illuminated by a desk lamp. Instead of succumbing to a trope that has plagued cinema and games for decades, the tragic gay hero, Gone Home concludes with optimism and possibility.
Of course, the family is still in shambles. There is no resolution to the marital conflict or to their parental homophobia. In fact, the player isn’t even sure if Katie is happy about her sister, or if she’s even more afraid than when she entered the house. This may be Gone Home’s biggest rejection of traditional video game narrative: there isn’t a resolution for the player’s avatar. What there is, however, is a happy ending for a character archetype often on the sidelines: the weird/teenage/lesbian sister. Sam and Lonnie’s relationship could (and probably will) end abruptly like most teenage romances do. But for what feels like the first time in a video game, a young woman without large breasts, a gun, or magical powers, gets to win.