Often times with games I find it is fairly easy to judge them at face value. Meaning, I tend to know my opinion of it before even playing it, or at the very least, get enough of an idea from a few introductory moments where I can familiarize myself with both the various systems at play as well as the general direction and quality of the narrative and characterizations.
Gone Home sort of counteracts that. It’s a game that initially peaked my interest back when Sjin of the Yogscast did a playthrough of it. I only watched the first episode he put out, but it did seem intriguing at the time. While I didn’t end up picking it up until now, I couldn’t avoid hearing about the game from basically every gaming outlet. Critics and journalists alike simply loved to herald it as a prime example in the ongoing “games-as-art” debate but all the while gamers themselves were not so positive. Most aptly referred to it as a “walking simulator” or interactive storybook, not really a game, nor very artistic.
My own opinions about it were somewhat mixed going in and I only got around to playing it since it was heavily discounted during this past Steam Summer Sale. Having played through it however, I found my reactions to it a bit surprising. Partially because it didn’t really meet any of my expectations, good or bad, but also because it seemingly worked to a degree, despite being internally inconsistent, and dissonant.
Without worrying about spoilers and to summarize, Gone Home largely tells the story of Sam who is coming to terms with her sexuality in a new setting that finds her bullied at school (for unrelated reasons) and parents who are completely oblivious and ignorant to her situation.
The game itself though doesn’t ever feature Sam, Lonnie (Sam’s love interest), or her parents. Instead the game puts the player in control of Katie, Sam’s sister who has just returned from a long trip to Europe and is generally unaware of the familial troubles that have been taking place. Sam herself is absent for unknown reasons and her parents are away on an “anniversary” weekend. Thus the game actually only features Katie in an otherwise abandoned house. A house of which is also coincidentally unfamiliar to both the player and Katie as they have just moved to a new home while she was away.
Gameplay is largely just walking around and interacting with various objects, notes, and artifacts in order to piece together the narrative of the last few months that eventually shows both a marriage on the rocks, and the troubles with Sam.
At the onset, Gone Home presents a problem in its very structure or starting framework. Typically one would expect a narrative focused on one singular character to actually feature that character in question, but Gone Home doesn’t. Instead of crafting a game that would have thrust Sam in the spotlight as either the player (which could have fostered a deeper sympathy) or simply injected her presence into the game above mere diary notes and left objects, it casts the player as her largely unaware sister, as an outsider and spectator to the action. The action of which has all occurred long before Katie steps onto the front porch at the beginning of the game.
Also, visually and mechanically,Gone Home feels and plays like an old-school haunted house game like 7th Guest. The house in which Gone Home takes place even has its own degree of mystery in addition to hidden passageways and compartments. Darkness is something that is ever present in the game, with the player constantly having to turn on light switches to explore new areas. Lights also flicker and go out unexpectedly to add a creepy ambiance but is lazily explained by a note in the game from an electrician that mundanely excuses this as a result of bad wiring. There is even a bath tub with red splatter all over it evoking a fear of violence, but it turns out to simply be hair dye.
On that note, much of the setup for Gone Home,whether that be in narrative or mechanic,s is done quite heavy-handedly. The mysterious uncle who willed the house plays absolutely no significant role in the narrative nor is he ever properly explored. Instead his presence is simply used to act as a viable reason for Sam to be bullied, and for the hidden passageways to exist to add a bit of spice to the spatial exploration the game presents in an otherwise mundane house.
The notion that many gamers put forth of Gone Home merely being an interactive storybook is probably one that is most expressed because of the framework of the game itself. In contrast to TellTale’s Walking Dead, there is no sense of the player character having any significance in the overarching narrative or happenings of the game. As much of the narrative is in gathering prewritten diary notes, the game does sadly resemble a mere reading instead of meaningful interaction.
Falling back on narrative
Gone Home in my opinion overall continues a pattern of certain “indie” developers to completely ignore gameplay mechanics in favor of a more serious textual narrative. It’s an attitude that favors games that ignore its very medium and become merely textual works that happen to have some interactivity. It begs the question of why make said work a game at all? And not a piece of literature or prose? Or possibly even a film?
While Gone Home doesn’t completely suffer from this, it seemingly does seem to rely upon its writing as its main driving force. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the narrative was actually engaging and well-crafted. Unfortunately I found that much of the exposition was too convenient to be believable. It’s entirely too coincidental that the same weekend that Katie comes home from a yearlong trip, the house is entirely abandoned. In a time before the advent of cellphones, one would have assumed her parents would have postponed their couple’s counseling disguised as anniversary trip to at least welcome home their daughter. Of whom was arriving to an entirely new home and town. It’s also quite convenient that this is the same weekend that Sam decides to run away from home given Lonnie’s departure to bootcamp from ROTC.
In addition to the lights flickering for simple ambiance or the inclusion of a supposed crazy uncle to provide the simple explanation for a new home that has hidden passageways, the whole setup of Gone Home just reeks of laziness. Even the simple fact that it takes place in the mid 90s seems to be a convenient excuse to do away with modern communication like cellphones or readily-available access to highspeed Internet.
Ultimately while there were definitely aspects to Gone Home’s narrative I did actually enjoy, I more often found myself unable to suspend my disbelief at the situation. Why wouldn’t Katie simply call 911 immediately to file a missing persons report, or get into contact with her parents? Surely any sane parents would have left contact information behind in the case of an emergency (although nowhere to be found in the game). Also as Katie, you never get a sense of dread or panic at the situation you are in. Instead, you simply go about as a mindless robot closing and opening cabinets, and generally picking up every item you come across instead of having an anxiety attack over your missing sister.
What Gone Home does get right however is presenting a touching and altogether relatable young romance between Sam and Lonnie. One that is characterized by a youthful innocence and naivete, but also one that sees Sam finally acknowledge and come to terms with her sexuality, of which was being suppressed due to a religious upbringing and a subsequent sense of wrongness.
There are hints that Sam while admitting later she knew from a young age, that she had trouble coming to terms with it. She mentions that her relationship with Danny a childhood friend and neighbor got “weirder” in recent times hinting at the shift boys go through when hitting puberty and the subsequent change in how they treat and approach girls. And also a mention of how Sam found the prospect of being friends with a girl Lonnie at first confusing and awkward.
Characterization without characters present
The characterizations of Gone Home are somewhat hard to criticize since they are so intentionally sparse. Aside from photos, no one is ever visually there and only mentioned in notes and other pieces of text. Sam however is uniquely voiced seen in voice-overs of all the diary entries Katie discovers.
Sarah Grayson, the voice actress for Sam, deserves a great deal of credit for her performance that really brings life to the character. Much of Sam’s characterization is through Sarah’s performance in regards to her sense of being lost and generally isolated from everyone with the exception of Lonnie. She is a character that is universally relatable and one that is easy to sympathize with emotionally, all without Sam ever actually being present in the game. As Katie we do actually begin to care about Sam and her well-being. This may not be as a sister or sibling, rather as a general spectator or viewer, but it’s a step in the right direction.
On the other hand, Lonnie, who isn’t ever voiced, is a bit more troubling and it’s hard to not see her as the stereotype she appears to be. While this could obviously be due to a lack of understanding from the sparse characterization, this is also not a valid excuse either. If anything it serves to highlight a flaw with the developer’s decision of exclusion.
Lonnie by all accounts is the more “butch” one in this relationship. She is essentially the quintessential “bad boy” although obviously being a girl. She sings in a punk rock band, is a delinquent, but also in ROTC in hopes of joining the army. She is also the one that initiates the relationship and is the guiding force with Sam both following her lead and emulating her to a degree, seen in her declining schoolwork and eventual departure.
It’s not to say Lonnie is by any means a bad character, but one that is unimaginative in retrospect to Sam. Also one that isn’t entirely easy to sympathize with since she is two degrees away from the player. We only come to know her from writings, of which are through Sam’s eyes. In this manner we never actually ever truly get even a glimpse into who Lonnie actually is. Instead we are only presented with an idolized version of her through Sam’s gaze.
Lastly Katie lacks any sort of characterization whatsoever which is problematic given her supposed close relationship to the characters of Gone Home. As the player surrogate and being obviously unfamiliar with any of the content, nothing is known about Sam or her parents before playing. Sam hints at Katie knowing of her true nature towards the end of the game, but I surely never knew, I didn’t even know I had a sister until I explored the house far enough to see family photos or unlock diary entries.
While this might seem overly critical, I do feel like Gone Home could have handled its exposition a bit better. A simple introductory scene with Katie maybe taking a taxi to her new home with proper voice-over would have been enough to establish who Katie was, and her relationship to various family members. Instead, Gone Home immediately drops you at the front porch without any information into even who you are aside from an easily missable tag on your luggage.
To a degree though, the presence of Katie does have its merits. It allows the player to access Sam’s inner thoughts through her personal writings in a voyeuristic manner, of which wouldn’t necessarily be available if Sam was right in front of us. Although again, it’s hard to see how this is any better then actually playing as Sam and having access to her own voice-over narration or thought processes.
Overall Gone Home is sort of a mixed bag. On one hand I was incredibly anxious to learn more about Sam and actually began to care about her well-being. But on the other, it was difficult to fully get immersed in a game that refused to ever even show the characters it was about. I just couldn’t help but feel that Gone Home would have made a better novella then a game, or should have actually taken place through Sam’s eyes as the events unfolded.
I never could see a justifiable reason to cast Katie into the mix post-action aside from it being obviously the easier game to both develop and write. But out of all of that, Sam still stands out strongly as an imaginative character that is fully empathetic and lively. Her narrative and ensuing relationship with Lonnie despite her own issues with characterization was both riveting and emotionally engaging.
But in the end, I found Gone Home mostly problematic. Aside from the various quirks and flaws already mentioned, the manner in which the game concludes seems to send a troubling message. Or at the very least, one that isn’t so much closure instead a situation that pits Lonnie and Sam into a worse situation then they were in before.
Gone Home ends with Katie eventually learning about Sam’s fate and the nature of her disappearance. With her parents gone and Lonnie soon shipping out, the two take a final opportunity to spend one last night together and consummate their relationship. Sam awakes alone to find Lonnie already gone seemingly already on her way to boot camp. Shortly after Lonnie calls to confess that she couldn’t go through with it and asks Sam to run away with her to start over somewhere else, to which Sam agrees.
While initially this might appear like a satisfying conclusion, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of disbelief at it. While it is easy to understand Sam’s decision to do so especially given her parent’s complete lack of understanding, it’s hard to imagine that this is a positive development for Sam in the context of the real world. Sam had just been accepted into a good college program and Lonnie was about to join the military which had been a lifelong dream. Instead, both threw away their future prospects over what boils down to a high school crush.
I kind of found myself being a bit offended by the whole venture since if Gone Home had instead involved a heterosexual coupling, no one would have found the two running off together as romantic or conclusive, rather instead being naive and ignorantly childish.
Ultimately this leads to my main issue with Gone Home and its main creator Steve Gaynor. While I wouldn’t say being lesbian is core to the characterization of Sam, I did find it to be the case with the character and overall identity of the game holistically.
Gone Home,however you slice it, is centered upon the fact that Sam is gay and in a position where she seemingly isn’t and doesn’t feel accepted. Many of the other narrative threads such as Terrence’s struggle with his writing career, or Janice’s affair with Rick are not so much their own proper storylines, rather more exposition to elaborate upon the setting which Sam finds herself in.
Steve Gaynor, if it isn’t obvious by his name, isn’t female nor gay. And to put it as civilly as I can state it, really has no business in taking up such an authoritative artistic position to make any personal statements in regards to growing up as either in a time period that wasn’t as accepting as today.
This isn’t to say a creator shouldn’t include or write characters completely separate from who they are. For example Joss Whedon is known for introducing both well-written female and same-sex characters into the mainstream with shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its characters such as Willow or Tara. Or even recently with characters such as Cosima in Orphan Black, a show developed primarily by males.
The issue is with it being so personal and central to the notion of being gay that it basically defines the whole work. Thus it’s hard to not see it as anything but as a personal statement of experience. One of which was obviously not experienced by Gaynor and only comes off as a dishonest portrayal.
Ultimately, while there are aspects of Gone Home I deeply enjoyed, I couldn’t shake the sense that the whole game was merely an exercise by Gaynor, a self-described feminist, in attempts to “white-knight” for a group that really doesn’t need another male to either lead the charge or speak for them. And subsequently to mark the game as supposedly “progressive” to push the right buttons with critics and those who happen to give out game awards. I mean honestly, it’s a bit difficult to take a game completely seriously that explicitly advertises that it has “no combat” as a key feature, almost asking itself for a pat on the back.
But quite possibly the most troubling aspect of how Gone Home wraps up is that it does so in such an ignorant fashion. It makes an abrupt shift from presenting a narrative steeped in realism to one that immediately forces the player to have a “fairy-tale” level of expectation. It’s hard to imagine Sam and Lonnie lasting long for a multitude of reasons. Both have effectively ditched their planned careers of creative writing and serving in the military respectively, as well as cutting themselves off from loved ones instead of reaching some sort of understanding with them.
It’s clear that Katie and Sam’s parents are far from perfect themselves, suffering from their own marital tensions. Despite their religious qualms, if anything I would have assumed these troubles could have served as a shared space of understanding. At the very least a starting point from which her parents could realize that whatever type of relationship individuals might find themselves in, there can always be potential for trouble.
At the very least, it’s quite the sour note that Gone Home seems to indicate that the preferred route is to impulsively ditch your old life behind to somewhat idiotically pursue your first love, of which by all odds won’t last realistically.
Lastly, I have to reiterate that Katie’s role (or the player’s) is a complete mystery in the end. It might have made more sense from both a narrative and gameplay standpoint to have actually put the player into the character of Janice or Terrence, one of the parents who were completely oblivious to Sam’s plight and in disbelief on discovery. By accessing Sam’s inner and personal thoughts in the fashion Katie had done, it could have provided an intriguing internal narrative that saw her parents actually break through a wall of disbelief, ignorance, and religious conservatism. And thus provided an altogether more satisfying conclusion that didn’t demolish a family in the process nor leave Sam and Lonnie stranded to fend for themselves.
Instead we are met with Katie. A sister that Sam herself states at conclusion that “she knew all along” which casts her not in a role of ignorance but understanding. But everything about Gone Home mechanically speaking is in complete contrast to this. It’s ultimately a narrative that sees a completely clueless player piecing together clues and bits of information to unravel a larger picture. One where Sam’s sexuality is used more as a plot twist in media res, then simply being a facet of who she is.