(This article contains serious spoilers from Fullbright's seminal Gone Home. I implore you, if you ever plan to play this game, wait until you finish it before reading this. It is best you go in to this game fresh.)
There’s an emotional drop after finishing Gone Home that, in retrospect, forms an image in my mind of Wile E. Coyote running right off the cliff and taking a few seconds to realize he’s no longer on the ground. It’s those steps over the edge where you still don’t quite realize you no longer have solid footing that you begin questioning why something impacted you the way it did, partially because your head has already made conclusions that the rest of you has yet to realize.
I think this is where the experience of Gone Home lives, not in a series of twists and turns and story points that would ruin the experience for you if you knew about beforehand (but I do suggest playing the game fresh, regardless), but rather analyzing how you related to characters that you never see. You go through the game exposing yourself to the diaries of mundane lives that, for the people who actually live them, are filled with combinations of raw emotions, quiet desperation, and the realization that your own failings are not always because you made the bad decision when given two options. Sometimes your life of creeping mediocrity refuses to change even though you tried and it didn’t work.
Gone Home is a game played entirely in isolation. You don’t interact with anyone outside of their various missives, written to or from others (or to themselves), and the context clues within a large house that balances itself on a see-saw of having its own personality and being cold and unfeeling. Yet you still get to know these characters, both from the perspective as the daughter and sister of your family and as a player who has never seen these faces before. It tells you a story in a way that only a video game can – which is not to say that it would be impossible to tell the same story in a different form, but it could not be done the same way. I have said this about other games with wildly varying tones, but I feel this is the first time it has ever manifested itself in the form of characterizations.
The main thrust of Gone Home’s story is about your, Katie’s, sister named Sam. I identified with Sam in some ways, having once been a teenager who struggled to break through in to any sort of relevancy in the social bubble that, at one time, constituted my entire world. Though I always thought the kids like Sam were cool, at least compared to me. They were punk, they wouldn’t care if their parents were mad that they stayed out too late, where I listened to Cheap Trick because I liked the way their music sounded, they listened to Cheap Trick because it expressed something inside them that they wanted to get out. It was dumb, it was the product of being fifteen, but at the time, all of it felt real and raw. Despite her struggles and the way that you can feel every string of her life was being tugged in different directions, teenage me would have envied her. In a lot of ways, Sam’s part in Gone Home was the uplifting, life-affirming part of the story.
Sam’s story ends with her casting off everything, including
the identity she thought she had, for a chance to have something great for just
a little while longer. By contrast, her father Terrence struggled through life,
a victim of circumstance, limitations, and very real monsters that terrified
his childhood. It is in Terrence that I found myself most relating to a
character in the game, at times feeling like I have an uncomfortable
understanding of him. At first he was almost cartoonish, a trope worthy of
being pressed to the very pulpy science-fiction he gives to the world. The
agonized writer that never amounted to anything significant, that can’t
separate reviews of high-fidelity stereo equipment from his own life even if he
has no interest in the former, how comfortably vapid.
And I, with an obligatory hint of irony, am about to explain why I can relate to that.
There’s a letter you find in the basement, amongst many of Terrence’s forgotten items, from his father. He begins the letter with congratulations on Terrence’s book, offering faint praise for publishing his first book before tearing him down for producing such low-ambition works. It reminded me a lot of the relationship I used to have with my own father, something that is best described by not describing it, before he survived his heart attack and decided that he needed to change. It was a large part of why being a teenage rebel appealed to me, why I so desperately wanted to be anti-authority but was too cowardly to ever act on that desire. Gone Home struck me with a fear that I’ve tried to push down for years but I find increasingly obtrusive as I age, the fear that the way my father raised me will have unintended consequences on the way I raise my kids one day.
Terrence, for whatever kind of intentions he had, proved to be a dullard of a parent. When his daughter needed him to understand, or even react with some emotion, he merely shut down the idea of who she was. A life of mediocrity lead him to the moment where he could choose to be different from his father and not rob his daughter of her identity in a way not-unlike it was stolen from him as a child. Make no mistake, Terrence was a victim, but that cycle of victimization manifested itself in a way that strangled his life and threatened to do the same to his daughter. He made the same mistake my parents did and so many other parents do without noticing, they became so embroiled in their own strife that they don’t acknowledge the entity their child is trying to hammer down.
When exploring the house in Gone Home, you come across box after box of unsold copies of Terrence’s books, constant reminders of his inability to rise to the expectations hoisted upon him. He lives in the house of the man who molested him as a child, denies his daughter her father, and, when he does attempt to reach out to her, does so in clumsy, humiliating ways. Terrence is a man who does not struggle with his demons, but plays dead in front of them in hopes they will leave him alone. His unspoken character arc ends with an excited letter, the only such correspondence of its kind in the house, wherein Terrence is delighted by the reprints of his books and wishes for the reprint company to move forward and authorize publishing of a new book in his cult series. It was a message that smelled of desperation, but slightly charming in how earnest and passionate it was. He had found validation, however small, and wanted to push forward in his niche.
There is no resolution to this letter, no response confirming or denying his request, just a cover letter pitching his newest story where his series hero goes back in time to save himself.
The symbolism, it bowls me over.
Gone Home made me uncomfortable in ways I did not expect. People are going to identify with different characters for different reasons and it will not always feel good, which is one of the reasons that this game is so successful at what it does. I closed this game swimming in thought, never realizing that my feet were floating in the air for just a little while.