The following is guest post written by the magnificent Lily Xavier. You can check out her blog here.
Gone Home was one of those games that I wasn’t going to pick up until Robyn mentioned that she would be interested in seeing my input on it. She didn’t spoil me at all to the plot, but she spoke so highly of it that the following weekend I pulled the game up and got down to business. All in all, I played the game from start to finish over the weekend, and I have to say I’m impressed on multiple levels. What it did was very simple: it told a story through a window character. How it did it, however, was complex enough to be beautiful without being pretentious.
And trust me, I was in high school in the 90s, I know pretentious. Below are going to be SPOILERS, so click at your own risk.
When you show up on your doorstep, the story has all the trappings of a traditional horror. I was expecting at least one jump scare all the way up till the end, even though by the time I’d put the first half of the game away I realized what I was really playing. You don’t have to worry about any jump scares; to be honest, that’d take away from what the real story is. See, what Gone Home does expertly is packaging.
On the outside you have a family that moved while their eldest daughter (you) was away in the military. When you start the story, you find out that the home had once been your uncle’s and that he had apparently lost his mind. The house your family moved into is assumed to be haunted. By itself, this is interesting, however, it’s just the setting of the story. By framing it as a ghost story you get two things: mood and information about your sister.
The true heart of the story here is a broken family; the mother is having an affair with a coworker, the father is drinking too much and his work as a writer is suffering to the point that he’s taking on (and failing at) basic advertisement work. Last, but not least, there’s Sam.
Sam is the Quintessential American 90’s Teenager. The first thing you see of her is a diary entry, where she explains to you that the house is apparently haunted, she hates school, and she misses you. She talks a bit about how a guy friend of hers just got ″weird,″ and how she’s not hanging out with him anymore. She talks about the cool girl at school that she wants to become friends with. She says how much she wishes she could talk to you.
To younger generations, this lack of ability to communicate with the outside world may come as a shock. However, in the 90’s we didn’t have half of the communication methods that are widely available now. We were the last generation where you could lose track of friends by simply having someone move away. We didn’t have email, cell phones, most of us didn’t have internet access.
I remember that feeling of isolation when I was separated from my then best friend. Unlike many people, however, the sister knows that you’re going to come back. That means she takes to her dairy ″just till you get back″. The tone of the girl is believable. It pivots from maturity and clarity – talking about her relationships, to childishness – refusing to clean her room and what was, for my generation, typical rebellion. There’s an intelligence behind Sam and an honesty about her that I found to be beautiful because I was hurt by it’s honesty.
I had that male friend who just got weird. In most narratives, that’s where the romance starts. Everyone else feels poorly for the boy who just can’t get ″the girl″. But when you are ″the girl″, more importantly, when you’re ″the gay girl″, that’s not the point. You don’t mean to hurt someone simply by liking what they like or by being friendly. It doesn’t seem to matter that you just aren’t wired that way. That boy’s broken heart is your fault. We all wish we got the chance to come out to that one male friend. That chance that Sam so wisely took as part of her coming out process.
What hurts the most is the way that she relates the narrative of her parents. Her parents completely ignore that her romance with another young woman is even happening. In the face of all of the things your sister has left around (dairies, maps, mixed tapes, and photographs) it seems improbable that they would be able to do that. However, this is the truth of many people’s coming out experience.
We are told that it is just a phase, that it is rebellion, that it is us not knowing who we are or what we want. However, these are the same people who berate us, the Sams of the world, for breaking that poor young man’s heart. Because apparently a straight person’s first romance is the only legitimate one.
The multitude of bibles that are scattered throughout the home add a tension that knotted up in my stomach. Regardless of one’s religious orientation, straight people do not have this gut reaction to people that we love touting religion. That one detail repeats itself enough times for me to feel unwelcome. It’s enough to make Sam know, with punishing clarity, what she is dealing with. This isn’t that her parents are cruel. They are flawed, they want to communicate to her. But they cannot accept this part of her. This massively huge part of her is what they choose to ignore, so they can allow themselves to accept her.
When she talks about how they refuse to believe that her relationship was going on at all, I felt like I’d been slapped. That conversation. That blatant IGNORING of a huge part of what makes me who I am isn’t tolerance. That’s not acceptance. That’s saying, very openly, that I will never know what I am or what I want. This is something that is not only true of homosexual people, but of women as well. Sam hits on it perfectly with the right weight of sadness and anger.
She’s living under a roof with two people who refuse to even see her. As you continue through the story, the feeling of erasure is even more plain. The sister, who she was, who she used to be is peppered with notes around you. The life your parents are living are shoved into the corners, but you are alone and cannot see any of them. In the end, Sam leaves a going away note, she begs your forgiveness but makes it clear that she must leave to feel truly at home.
This is a game where you see no one. You only see what they left behind. You can look for the people that you knew all you want in that home, but it’s nothing but broken hopes and fluttering paper. The real horror of Gone Home is that it so perfectly shows you a feeling of erasure. It does it in a way that is pure, unflinching, and completely unsettling without showing you one truly bad person. Because it’s not bad people that participate in erasure. It’s the people that you love more than anything in the world.