In this blog I am going to discuss some major plot points from The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home. As such, I strongly suggest you play Gone Home for yourself before reading on. It is well worth your time and I think everyone should have the chance to try Gone Home without any preconceptions or foreknowledge as to what they are getting themselves into. You can pick the game up for yourself here: http://bit.ly/1nqqJOa
Gone Home profoundly impacted the way I look at interactive media. The emotions I felt while playing Gone Home will stick with me for as long as I live.
Art is so much a product of the environment in which it is displayed, and I believe I experienced Gone Home during the perfect storm of misinformation and ignorance. I played it several months after release so the buzz or, in this case the anti-buzz, had died down to the point where I had basically forgotten the game existed. My original disinterest in the game allowed me to avoid any and all discussion of its narrative, game-play and even genre. The only encounters I had with Gone Home were passing mentions on the Giant Bomb podcast, which I was just starting to listen to regularly. This obtuse introduction to Gone Home warped sense of exactly what Gone Home was. Somehow I had constructed a portrait in my head of this strange first-person horror game with a veiled story and haunted house. I assumed Gone Home was Amnesia.
I abhor horror. That’s not to say I don’t like playing horror games or watching a good horror movie, but I find myself asking, “Why am I watching this?” I watch horror movies for the suspense, the feeling of being driven closer and closer to the edge of your seat. I love the rush of knowing something is right behind the next door, but I can stand to actually open it myself. I prefer to watch horror movies on TV so I can flip to a different channel right when the protagonist starts closing the medicine cabinet, and I have a deep self-loathing for my sick curiosity that keeps me going back every single time. I enjoy the horror game staples; Eternal Darkness and Silent Hill have become personal favorites by providing most of their scares through eeriness instead of jump scares. On the other hand, I could not bring myself to play Amnesia: The Dark Descent for more than a few minutes. As soon as I walked into Amnesia’s first room and the door creakily closed on its own behind me, leaving me alone in an unlit room, I “NOPED” my way right to the ALT and F4 keys as fast as my trembling hands could muster. Even a heavy dose of liquid courage wasn’t enough for me to sit down and give it another go.
I started GH to satisfy the itch to self-flagellate and it began exactly as I expected: dark, stormy and isolating. There was an expansive empty house, a missing family and that damn thunder. It had all the trappings I was expecting and I began exploring in kind. I moved slowly, checked every corner and turned on every light I could. I jumped at every clap of thunder and tensed up every time I entered a new room. I uncovered notes detailing paranormal activity and books on conspiracy theories. The further I trekked into the mansion the tenser I felt. “When is something going to happen?” I shrieked when I ventured upstairs and uncovered the dark room lights surrounding the house’s attic stairs. I hightailed around and ran right back downstairs. All the while the narrative unfolding in the form of journal entries, read audio-log style, by the disembodied of the character’s missing younger sister: The story of a teenager coming of age and finding forbidden lover. Hand written maps, secret passages and locked doors; still nothing.
As the story continued to unfold I slowly realized I cared less about the poltergeists and killers, and more about “my sister.” The fear of the house faded and was overtaken by my fear for what actually happened. All the tropes were there so I filled in the narrative gaps myself. Two teenagers had decided they could not find acceptance in a world run by adults who just don’t understand. The only contact I have with “my sister” is through audiologs and notes, she must be dead. The brash, star-crossed lovers could not stand to be part and Sam decided to take her life. Finally, the game story prompted me to face my fears and enter the attic. I braced myself for the sight I was about to uncover: “Was it pills, hanging, cutting?” I ran for the attic at top speed, heart racing, no more checking corners, no more examining surrounding. “Just get it over with!” And then there was nothing. No blood, no corpse, nothing. In fact they have decided to run away together, find a place where they will be accepted, a place where they are happy.
I was tricked, hoodwinked, misled…by my own assumptions. My perspective was shaped not by what was happening, but by how I perceived what was happening. I was driven to experience fear, doubt and the desire to stop. I felt how Sam felt throughout the narrative; I had empathy imposed on me. This realization has changed the way I look at video games. Interactive media has the capacity to do something no other art form can. It has the power not just to show display feelings but impart those emotions into players’ experience. Gone Home would not work the same way as a film or play. Film can evoke sympathy for characters on screen, but interactive media places the viewer in the role of the character. I know it is an extreme simplification to try and compare my experience of a piece of art with the struggles of a person coming to grips with their sexuality, but Gone Home has given me a new level of appreciation for these struggles in a way that no article or film could. Until humans discover the ability to swap emotions on flash drives, games and other interactive mediums can be a powerful way to facilitate these exchanges.
As I mentioned in my “Be Kind” blog, I have tried to write this article a few times over the past year but I could never quite do it. With the looming sense of contempt and hate surrounding games and games culture it’s important to remember the power games possess. It’s dismally ironic that so much of the vitriol related to video games comes from a lack of empathy, when games can convey empathy so uniquely. Maybe someone should make a side-scrolling platformer about receiving death threats on social media or Doxxing Simulator 2015.