Memory Lane: A Review of Gone Home

I finally managed to make time in my life to play Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013), which I powered through in one sitting (not nearly as impressive as some games, since there’s only about 2-4 hours of content in Gone Home), in large part because I assigned it to my class for Monday, which meant that I needed to play it before teaching it. (Yes, I know that assigning things one has not read/seen/played is bad pedagogical practice. I endeavor not to do it every semester and inevitably fail. Bad professor.)

I’ve read a lot of reviews and basic analyses of Gone Home, which has won a slew of awards, including Game of the Year (Killscreen, Polygon, Paste), Best Debut (GDC, BAFTA), and Best Story (IGN), among others. It bills itself as “an interactive exploration simulator” and “a story exploration video game,” both of which are pretty accurate descriptors of something I’m not completely convinced is actually a game (a categorization that has been fairly widely debated).

Gone Home is definitely interactive, and definitely about story. There are – technically – game mechanics, involving picking up objects, examining them, and putting them down. But I’m not convinced that’s “gameplay” in a traditional sense. There is no way to win or lose (other than to finish or not), no “enemies,” no puzzles to solve (unless you wish to consider the whole story a puzzle, but I think that’s stretching it a bit), and no meaningful choices to make. That’s not to say that Gone Home isn’t interesting or valuable – it is – simply that it isn’t what I’d consider a game.

I also don’t particularly appreciate the complete lack of agency Katie has in the story – everything has already happened, and even the order in which she finds things in the house is scripted. You can’t go into half the house at the start, the basement is locked until you figure out the combination to Sam’s locker, you can’t get into the attic until you’ve worked your way to the other side of the house, and so on. In terms of exploration, it’s more following a path than it is actually exploring.

What Gone Home definitely is, though, especially for someone who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, is nostalgic, and not entirely in a good way. The years between 1984-1998 are not, for me, characterized by happy memories. The plethora of 1990s and 1980s era artifacts throughout the house were familiar, but not necessarily pleasant. There are cassette tapes, for instance, which the player can put in a boombox or cassette player; VHS tapes with labels handwritten on them of 1980s and 1990s shows and movies (Airplane, X-Files, The Dark Crystal, etc.); tvs emitting static, the colorblock test screen, and the emergency weather broadcast; posters with a clearly 1990s aesthetic; and so on. All this is meant to appeal to an audience in the 30s and up who remember what it was like to be a teenager in the 1990s – and who understand more clearly than modern teenagers what it was like to live in a household like this one.

Set in 1995, Gone Home’s player-character, Kaitlin Greenbriar, has just spent a year on a European “tour” immediately post-high school graduation (so she’s rather privileged, since most kids in 1995 didn’t have the money to do that), and is returning home to an empty house. spoilers ahead

gonehomeKaitlin – Katie to her family, given the abundance of things in the house labeled “Katie” – has two parents and a sister, and family money that has enabled them to live a rather charmed life in spite of the fact that her mother works for the Forest Service (not a highly lucrative job) and her father is an all-but-failed novelist (also not lucrative). The set-up is that they inherited a mansion in Oregon from her supposedly psychotic uncle (now deceased), and Katie returns home from Europe late at night, in the middle of a thunderstorm (yup, “dark and stormy night”), to find no one at home, the house half-packed and partly trashed, and an ominous note on the door from her sister Sam.

The whole mise en scene tries very hard to give the player the feeling that there’s something horribly wrong – there’s a Ouija board, notes from Sam about ghost hunting, and an invoice from an electrician mentioning mysteriously flickering lights. Add to it the fact that it’s called the “psycho house” by Sam’s classmates, and you have a recipe for a horror game.

Except not. Certainly, there are things wrong with the family, but none of them appear to actually be supernatural (although there are creepy secret passages in the house). The father (Terrence) is obsessed with conspiracy theories surrounding JFK, someone in the house is equally obsessed with X-Files, and he can only get his work published by a press that’s clearly a bit crackpot. The mother (Judith) has some sort of crush – possibly an affair, although that’s doubtful – on one of her coworkers, and clearly her success and her husband’s failures are putting a strain on the marriage (they’re gone for a week at a couples’ counseling retreat).

The big “problem” in the family, though, is Sam. Katie is clearly the star child – she does well in school, there are trophies from her track wins in the house, and she is clearly beloved by both parents and her sister. For example, there are two homework assignments kept by the parents, one from each child, in which Katie has excelled and Sam has not – but due to her refusal to be constrained by rules. Katie wrote out the very bland reproductive cycle assignment according to directions, but Sam turns the whole thing into a dramatic narrative, which is unappreciated by her teacher (who writes “See me” on it in red).

This particular incident seems to have been drawn from someone at Fullbright’s own past – and it strikes me as likely being a much-misremembered anecdote… the kind that a “misunderstood” child would likely recall as having been stifled by the oppressive institutional regime of education, and which was more likely a frustrated teacher being fed up with a student’s refusal to ever demonstrate their actual knowledge. Sure, the US education system leaves a lot to be desired in terms of busywork, but a story about pirates does not the female reproductive system demonstrate. I’m much more sympathetic with the teacher than with Sam in this one.

Which is not to say that Sam doesn’t face challenges – she definitely does. She’s a creative writer (although the quality of her writing as it appears in the game is not what I’d consider Reed-worthy, having read the work of a student who has applied there in the past) whose pirate narrative is clearly a proxy for her own budding sexuality.

The crux of the game’s narrative is that Sam is a lesbian, and she has developed a relationship with Lonnie, another student at her school bound for the army (I was unaware that high school students could join the ROTC, but whatever). Lonnie’s hair is purple (also didn’t know ROTC students were allowed to do that), and Sam explains in a journal entry at one point that she doesn’t get how Lonnie can reconcile her ultra-feminist self with the military. At the same time, Sam and Katie’s parents clearly don’t know how to deal with this, being fairly typical parents of the 1990s who think that homosexuality is somehow a phase or a choice.

Lonnie and Sam are smitten with each other, start a feminist zine (that was a thing to do in the 1990s), and generally rebel against anything they consider patriarchal, including school and Sam’s parents (who are admittedly a bit clueless). By the end, Lonnie graduates and heads off to basic training, leaving Sam heartbroken.

What it’s up to Katie (the player) to discover is that on the way, Lonnie reconsiders, calls Sam, and begs her to come pick Lonnie up and run away with her. This is characterized in Gone Home (with swelling music) as the denouement of the story, the happy ending to Sam’s story of misunderstanding and oppression.

On the one hand, I like the fact that Gone Home gives us a narrative in which an LGBTQ person is empowered to take control of her life. On the other hand, she’s seventeen years old and this relationship is highly unlikely to last (which has nothing at all to do with the fact that the couple is lesbian). Sure, some high school romances become life-long partnerships, but most don’t. Valorizing the kind of recklessness of two teenagers driving off to somewhere with no plans and no financial means just seems itself rather irresponsible. It’s a romantic image that is far more likely to fall apart or end in disaster than not.

What it feels like, to me, anyway, is an expression of frustration at the ultimately conservative culture of the 1980s which produced a lot of the problems LGBTQ people are facing today – and certainly experienced in the 1990s. It’s also a reminder that the “good old days” weren’t actually very good for a lot of people, and that the kind of latent oppression which characterized the experience of people like Sam forced them to take drastic steps in order to be who they were – like running away.

And for those things, I think Gone Home has a lot of value. I think it’s important to tell the stories of people who generally fall between the cracks – we make films about people like Harvey Milk and Matthew Shepard, but we don’t talk about how the attitudes against LGBTQ people in ordinary households were still profoundly harmful in terms of invisible everyday oppression. These narratives, too, are important and also deserve to be told. I applaud that aspect of Gone Home, and I think it tells the story in a way that brings to light the ordinariness of Sam’s experience.

But it just isn’t a game. As a player, I can’t help Sam. I can’t do anything to support her struggle or to confront her parents about their bigotry. I can’t actually make a difference about anything in the world – I can’t even make the choice whether or not to tell her parents where she’s gone. As an interactive story, Gone Home is interesting, it does something innovative in the genre for being the first of its kind, but I just can’t see much success for pure interactive stories going forward. Gamers want choices – we want things that we can impact in some way, not narratives we experience without agency. I certainly don’t think that the two hours I spent uncovering the narrative were worth $20 (I can see a movie for far less per hour and have about the same amount of input).

It’s an interesting experience, one I don’t regret having. It did, however, leave me with a bad taste in my mouth – both because I didn’t find the ending satisfying (especially as satisfying as I think it was meant to be) and because the 1990s are a time I didn’t ever really feel the need to revisit. I’d much rather look forward than go back home.

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