I’ve been slowly exploring playing video games more and more these days. I’ve got terrible reflexes when it comes to stuff like that, but writing and storytelling and mysteries are things that I’m drawn to, so those elements are always interesting. There are games where the action is non-existent and the puzzle-solving or the mystery is the primary drive behind the game’s engine, and that sort of stuff is what I find myself liking.
There was this video game that I heard about, called Gone Home. I didn’t really know what it was, or what it was about, although the basic surface details I got were intriguing. A giant empty house on a stormy raining night, scattered with clues about the past year’s events. You’re the older daughter home from a year abroad, and the clues help to develop a sense of what went on while you, the older perfect daughter, went away. Did your parents’ marriage fall apart? Why is your sister gone? Seriously, where is everyone? How did you end up with his new home, this house in the middle of nowhere in Oregon?
So we got it to play together. We were both interested in it, and we played it together.
My apartment looks lived in. Sure, there’s cool stuff up on the walls (well, crap I consider cool), but there’s the clean dishes drying in the rack, the bills on my desk, the tax paperwork, the books I use for work. Someone lives here, it’s not just a collection of furniture or of things, it’s someone’s messy (in my case, very messy) life.
The house I grew up in for the most part, the house my grandparents lived in together (and my dad spent most of his life in) and that my parents and grandmother live in now, when I go to that house, the comfort comes from it being lived-in. The TV remote is on a couch, and the couches are ancient. The dining room table used to be covered in stuff during the days, though not so much anymore now that my grandfather died. Still, the kitchen is constantly going, and the books are everywhere, the one basket of laundry either going up to the linen closet or down to the washing machine is always at the top of the stairs. When I moved back to New York and was back in that house for a while, the first few months has a very surreal feel, as I was recovering from a ruined attempt at a new life and seeing if I really could just slide back into the old shed skin of my old life.
I couldn’t, obviously. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t feel at home.
My grandfather was still alive then, so the TV was always on. He drank a lot of coffee, so the leftover cups were either on that kitchen table or in the sink. I got my voracious reading habits from my dad and grandfather, so of course the books were everywhere, and the same old fridge, older than me, with the same old magnets, older than a lot of us, were up. They’re still there.
That, I think, more than anything is what I really enjoyed about this game. The setting of Gone Home is lived-in, and I think that this element of the game’s writing and development was done on purpose. Lived-in environments (in real life) always draw us in, because they (like comfort foods), remind us of home and security. Something lived-in is something we can connect with, there’s an element of life and of reality to it. What makes people so wary of the cliche of picture-perfect homes with nothing out of place is the fact that there’s no elements of people actually living in those spaces, so our natural fear of impostors, of simulacra, rises up.
The drawers in the bedrooms of Gone Home are somewhat half-filled, half-open. The dining room and office tables and desks are scattered with mail and papers (the game takes place in the mid-1990’s, so no bills paid online or email). A nice chunk of the story is the allusion to the house being perpetually half-unpacked, of a family life struggling to be maintained that’s very evident in the evidence that you both actively seek out as well as notice. The dad’s spaces, with notes and papers and books and typewriters. The mom’s spaces, with letters from her friend and work notices and books and day planners. The sister’s spaces, with mix tapes and zines and letters.
There are a lot of letters. There are a lot of other little things that are clear time period indicators meant to feed into the 1990’s nostalgia that this game brings up, from furniture and home style to electronics and the lack of certain other kinds of electronics (landlines, old video game consoles, older model TVs, no cellphones obviously, no Internet, probably no cable TV).
I had one of those older TVs in that house I grew up in until a few years ago, still-working artifacts that we kept out of sheer stubbornness. They worked, and they interfaced with the cable box, so why bother replacing them?
Reclaimed parts of the house that are hideouts and comfort zones besides the traditional office/kitchen/bedroom are probably both the biggest indicators of the interactive narrative of the game with all the clues, but they’re also the big indicators of familiar comfort spaces being built within the house. The basement and attic where the younger daughter Sam makes zines, has secret sleepovers with her girlfriend, and explores for the ghost of her dead uncle who built this house. The second writing desk and typewriter in the greenhouse/glassed-in garden, where the dad goes through mail and is working on a new book that that isn’t the stereo reviews he seemingly does for a living, somehow revived as a writer. The sewing rooms off the main bedroom where Mom’s books and sewing machine and materials are, and the corner of the kitchen where her promotion letters from work are displayed, work that we can tell means a lot. I’m reminded a bit of a page in Alison Bechdel’s Gone Home, where she describes her childhood home as something like an artists’ colony by the time she and her siblings were teenagers, with every family member off in their own worlds and corners, oblivious to the rest until dinner time.
Gone Home garnered a lot of praise, which I can see in the story and the gameplay (a really in-depth Forbes piece on the game’s flaws describes it more as an interactive narrative than a “game” per se, which I agree with). There’s something lacking in it, though, which I can’t quite put my finger on.
For one thing, the game’s ending leaves a lot to be desired, honestly. You probably could have fit another hour or two of story into this game without sacrificing much in terms of gameplay. You don’t really solve mysteries so much as piece them together the main story from reading and inferring, but I feel like the story could have been expanded more to fill in the missing year’s life before coming to the conclusion of the end.
Also, while I understand the desire to not just be a “haunted house” story or game, the mystery of Uncle Oscar, the father’s uncle who willed them this weird old house, is one that I feel could have been further expanded on, and not in a supernatural way. Personal/family mysteries, Nineties nostalgia, and the Pacific Northwest are great as concepts to work with, but for $20, I kinda wish I’d gotten more out of it.
I think there’s at least one or two more play-throughs of this, mostly because i think I missed some stuff and I want to go back. However, even with the flaws, I really enjoyed this primarily because of the things it made me think about and feel. So much of the game is about the cycle of a year and metaphorically “going home,” a heavy-handed trope but one that, with a deft hand, works incredibly well in literature. Gone Home is pretty much that. It’s a really good little novella/longer short story, albeit one packaged more as a full novel.
I like novellas. They’re comforting. Short and interesting fiction I can always come back to, to me, is coming home.