Around midnight last night I had a desire to play something. Something I’m sure everyone can relate with. Something new, something you hadn’t already mastered or invested 1000 hours into. I looked to my ever growing Steam library; the Winter Sale did just wrap up, maybe I’d find something new worth playing for a few hours? My cursor moving through the list of titles and hovered over Gone Home. I had gotten it damn near a year ago on the recommendation of several folks in a Video Games and Rhetoric course I took in university. I’m sure it had been on sale so I scooped it up saying, “I love story focused games; I can’t wait to give it a try!” And, like so many other precious indie darlings, it sat in my backlog while I ground out game after game of League of Legends.
In an attempt to avoid oversharing to you my dear readers, I’ve had a bit of a shit year in 2014. Perhaps it was this emotional wreckage recently that put me in a place to receive Gone Home with arms spread wide, heart tender, and eyes maybe a little bit glassy. Maybe not. I can only attest to how these few hours made me feel immediately afterwards.
Spoiler Free Thoughts
So much of this game, this interactive short story, is in the things you discover as the player. To put it simply and hopefully without ruining anything, you take control of Katie Greenbriar, a 20-year-old girl who is returning from a year abroad. During her time abroad, her family, consisting of her parents and younger sister, have moved into a new home. You show up after a late flight to find no one home and a note on the door from your sister begging you not to snoop around and find out where she went. Obviously, you’re not going to take this weirdness laying down, so you investigate.
The gameplay is simple. You use arrow keys or WASD to move, the mouse to look and interact with objects and 1/2/3 for Items, Map, and Journal. That’s it. The game will take anywhere from 2-4 hours to experience the story and mystery of where your family is, what’s with this house and how they came to be there.
I know some people have a hard time calling this a game, or say that what the player does isn’t actually ‘playing’; but to me, that’s just semantics. If we wanted to give in, we could call it an interactive story, something much more involved than a TV show, but less controlled than a standard video game experience. I may be wrong on this, but I’m not here to argue its classification.
If this has at all made you interested in trying the game I urge you to go do so without reading further. Don’t look at any other spoilers, nothing. If you have ever felt lost, in love, rejected, confused by yourself or your own family, if you’re at all empathetic for fictional characters, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
It currently sits at $20 which is a bit steep of a price point, but being a hit, it seems to go on sale often. If you’re on Steam add it to your wishlist and wait for that notification of price drop. Maybe it will work out like it did for me; you’ll come to it in the right time for you. Just do yourself a favor. Be open, and for gods’ sakes put on headphones and play in the dark.
A More Spoiled Discussion
To be honest, I just want to talk about this with people. So here I am talking to all of you about how Gone Home made me feel. Legitimately feel. I had no idea what I was expecting when I loaded it up. Friends had been chatting about it recently talking about it being creepy, but is it supposed to be or not? Lights off, past midnight, with some low-tier Turtle Beach headphones I prepared myself for the experience.
The game does a magnificent job of creeping you out to start. The thunderstorm raging outside, the floors and walls creaking while you shuffle through crumbled pages or old photo frames. Several friends and myself all remarked, “Is this supposed to be a creepy game?” A moment early in, while staring zoomed in on a wall of odd conspiracy looking mumbo-jumbo, one of the first clue to the missing father’s identity as a writer, the sound of a creaking door opening behind Katie causes my physical self to stand up, take my headphones off and loudly inform my dog “Can’t do it!” laughing in that way that only assures yourself “I’m not scared, how silly this is! Ah-ha!”
But I persevere (I know, I know, I’ll collect the Lifetime Achievement award later). You ease past the crazy weather and move into finding all these details about your family members. That your family moved for your mother’s new post in Parks service, your father is a writer, and your sister is attending high school in this new town.
Through exploring each room, finding and examining artifacts scattered about the house journal entries written as if letters from Sam to Katie unlock and lay our her story. And of course there’s no doubt about it, the main story here is Sam. Their parents’ relationship, the history of the house and the uncle who owned it prior, all those things could be missed or remain less fleshed out, but not Sam’s. Hers is the focus.
That tale is of a teenage girl coming of age in 1995 Oregon. Room by room, you learn the stories of Sam as the new girl at school. Sam as she meets a senior girl, Lonnie who is punk as fuck. Their first shows and hangouts together. That first kiss. The awkwardness in attempting to admit feelings.
Meanwhile clues come up of a tough secret in the father’s past and his struggle with alcohol, as the mother looks to be flirting with the idea of an affair. Your sister has come out of the closet only to be met with disbelief, your parents seemed to be such good people! Imagine finding these clues: letters, a promotion, a ticket stub as the daughter and hoping nothing has destroyed your family as you rush through the home to find any lead on your sister’s current whereabouts.
Then you find more clues, your parents went on an anniversary camp-out. Lonnie is joining the military while Sam is going to a writing program. Lonnie shipped out last night, the same night you arrived home. Your father’s previous works and his new book have found an audience at a fringe publisher. He’s working on ideas that grapple his own history head on. That camp out your parents are on is actually to a couples retreat for repairing their marriage.
Upon finding the key to the attic, a journal entry from Sam says she’ s gone up to the attic one last time. You bolt as fast as you can up the stairs dreading what you’ll find. You might even miss the photo on a sleeping bag or strung up along the walls that will illuminate the situation further. Your sister is alive, she has run away with her love Lonnie to try and make their own space together. The game ends, riot grrrls punk rock playing you out as you finally found after hours of searching that everything is going to be ok for everyone.
Games Studies guru Ian Bogost wrote a much more eloquent and likely better thought out piece, an essay on the game, for the Los Angeles Review of Books in which he states:
“This is an unpopular opinion. Gone Home has been met with almost universal praise in the gaming community, a world where numerical scores on a 10-point scale mean everything, and where Gone Home has achieved mostly 9s and 10s. After playing, dude-bro game dev celebrity Cliff Bleszinski gushed, “This game moved me in a way that I’ve never been moved by a game before.” Lesbian, queer, and transgender players — an increasingly vocal and welcome counterpoint to traditional straight male voices in game development — penned love letters to the game, expressing how it captured their own teenage disquiet.
It’s impossible and undesirable to question these reactions, to undermine them with haughty disregard. But it’s also not unreasonable to ask how these players could have been so easily satisfied. For readers of contemporary fiction or even viewers of serious television, it’s hard for me to imagine that Gone Home would elicit much of any reaction, let alone the reports of full-bore weeping and breathless panegyrics this game has enjoyed. I felt charmed upon completing Gone Home, but then I felt ashamed for failing to meet the emotional bar set by my videogame-playing brethren.” [emphasis mine]
And you know? He’s not wrong. The game isn’t a masterpiece. The story is a simple one, maybe even a tropey one, and told through objects mostly openly laid out for prying eyes in a generally empty home. There’s no benchmark in the gameplay on display. The story isn’t a masterpiece.
But to the question Bogost asks “…how these players could have been so easily satisfied” I can only answer for myself — a genuine lover of books and viewer of film and television — that the multiple stories of love on display, the parents’ almost collapsed marriage, their attempts at recovery, the individual trials of success of the father, the daughter’s secret relationship that looks to be doomed, that only just gets averted in the final moments of the story, took me on a roller coaster of despair and hope at a time when I was maybe more vulnerable to it or have come to a point in my life with more experience to empathize.
Maybe that makes me simple, but a story told simply is not necessarily unaffecting.
I’m linking to Bogost’s essay again here to share it again. I enjoyed it a great deal in my immediate post-play-through read-through and he makes many great points that don’t take away anything from my enjoyment of the game, nor hopefully yours.