I enjoyed Gone Home. The rest of this post is full of loose and extremely spoiler-filled thoughts about it.
One is tempted to deeply analyze the game’s genre-headfake. The horror-game tropes run thick in the first half of play, from the answering machine message of a sobbing girl straight out of The Walking Dead through the boo!-moment of the secret passageway’s lightbulb popping, and held up by winking references to The Shining. All the while, the player searches desperately for light switches and pull-cords to bring blessed illumination against the terrifying darkness. These fears unravel gradually, but with a sort of acceleration: by the time you reach the family calendar in the kitchen and learn that the absence of Katie’s parents isn’t at all mysterious, let alone horrifying, you’ve probably noticed that all the light switches are right by the door in every room and work just fine.
I decided that I liked this trick, in the end. The forced expectations bring an additional weight to the “mundane” discoveries that Katie makes. When the player is tensed to find the inevitable body in the bath or the hear the people-eater shuffling through the darkness, the realization that the actual story is something far more human than all that feels like quite an effective sucker-punch. By dint of all the snooping and learning about the family they’ve performed by that point, the player’s already quite invested in the story by the time that story transforms. I can’t say whether or how this would work without all the scary stuff to get it going, and I’m not sure it would work a second time. But it does work.
To its credit, the game doesn’t just bluntly leap tracks from horror to family drama. In a particularly deft move, it leaves the concern over that disturbing answering machine message unresolved until its final moments, but by that point the meaning of it has quietly transformed in the player’s mind from the initial assumption of Oh no, ghost pirate zombies are scaring that poor girl into Oh no, poor Lonnie’s heart is broken, I hope she is OK. And then it peels that last vestige of “horror” away for the happy-ending reveal, as part of the final journal entry in the attic.
A brilliant way that the game justifies the player’s expected, Amnesia-trained scaredycat behavior against the character Katie’s activity in the game-world: the bulletin-board note from the parents scolding Sam for being “almost as bad” as her older sister when it comes to leaving all the lights in the house on. The player’s sweaty-palmed survival instinct maps neatly to the player-character’s perfectly mundane bad habit.
I’m not sure I liked all the “chaff” objects littering the house. As with an oft-criticized element from L.A. Noire, many things you can pick up and examine serve no purpose aside from scenery. A noble goal, of course, but one confused a bit by the fact that you can, for example, pick up and freely rotate the bathroom’s soap dispenser before setting it back down (or hurling it across the room), while the hand towels hanging beside it are completely non-interactive and immobile. I can sympathize that the game would never have been completed were every single object able to be dragged off its shelf and tossed around, but I also assume a concern from the authors that limiting interactivity to “important” objects would have made the search for them far less interesting: waggle the mouse around until something glows, click to advance plot.
Text-parser interactive fiction enjoys a well-established conventional fix for this problem via its notion of scenery objects and affinity for synonyms. A nosy player in a text bathroom who wished to play with the towels mentioned in the room description can simply be fed a line about how there’s no need to mess up any of your parents’ neatly arranged linens. Even if that same text is applied to every towel, sheet and curtain in the whole house, it would still feel far more responsive than a cursor in a 3D world that completely fails to acknowledge the existence of one visible object while feeling free to play with another. Perhaps Gone Home could have benefited from a bit more textual output, as a sort of hybrid solution? It’s clearly an interesting and not at all easy problem for an immersive 3D game like this to deal with.
Setting a new story about a troubled teenager in 1995 immediately reminded me of 2001’s Donnie Darko, set in 1988. Knowing little about the artists involved, I expect in both cases that the works chose their respective time periods because they align with their creators’ own formative years. Certainly for me personally, the 1990s feel like a liminal space, part of graspably recent history but still just distant enough to affect more than just set-dressing with a story like Gone Home. That gave me much to ponder.
The most obvious, story-affecting difference from today that the 1995 setting brings is the lack of ubiquitous cell phones, whose presence would have sunk the whole premise rather quickly. But I find a more subtle rationale here too, one that has to do with how the Gone Home house contains no personal computers, and which makes me reflect on how the spread of internet access has changed life in ways far deeper than simply rapid communication.
I suspect that 1995 is just about as late as you can set the depiction of otherwise loving parents coldly denying a gay child’s coming out, at least not without any sort of further narrative justification for apparent homophobia. Jan and Terry live comfortably in the Pacific Northwest and seem to have no particular interest in religion or politics. We do know that they’re both good at their jobs, and feel deep investment in holding their family together through a rocky relationship for the sake of their daughters. So it’s shocking to hear Sam describe how they viewed her emergence as just another teenage transgression, repairable by grounding her for a month. Where did that come from? How could they be so ignorant?
Well, I think the answer was that everyone was a little more ignorant back then. The story occurs during the final days of life before the web started to change everything, in part by letting marginalized people — and their families — find and support each other in network-sized groups, and begin to effect change in larger society. The Overton Window, slow as it moves, sat quite a ways down the track from its position today. I did find Jan and Terry’s reaction shocking, but I also found it entirely believable. 1995 still feels like recent history to me, in some ways, so I found it a welcome take-away for Gone Home to, with a very light touch, suggest one way that things have changed quite a bit.