Editor’s Note: This article was originally published May 25, 2016
There are a lot of games that are touted as having something to say. A je nais sais quoi if you will, that certain something that makes for a truly special experience, one that you want to come back to again and again. Gone Home is the utter definition of just such a game, and what it packs into it’s 2-3 hours of exploration and involvement is a tiny glimpse of something so profound and important to our existence that narrative-based games which offer 10, 20, or even 50 times its weight in content often miss it entirely, or simply bury it so deep that we barely feel it at all.
A treatise on reflection and understanding, Gone Home is the story of a girl named Katie who has been spending some time abroad and arrives “home” to find that her family is not as she left them. While Katie was off discovering herself in the world at large, her mother, father, and sister were going through their own adventures and struggles without her. When she returns to greet them some time later, she finds only an empty house and a note from her sister pleading for her not to look too hard for the truth in this new house.
Now, your natural inclination, especially as a gamer, would be to assume that something horrible has happened, and in some ways, you wouldn’t be wrong to imagine that this was the case. “Horrible” things have been happening to everyone in your family while you were away in one way or another. Whether in the form of addiction, temptation, discrimination, or self-loathing, each of your family members have suffered in your absence, and even if their demons are only metaphorical, they become your focus as you seek to unravel who these people you’ve spent most of your life with really are.
So who are they? Well, Katie’s father is a failed writer who has become independently wealthy via a family inheritance. These days he hides his porn addiction while writing reviews of electronics as a way of earning an income. Her mother is a career-minded forestry officer who is feeling distant from her husband and contemplating an affair with a co-worker while she pines for the exciting days of her youth. And then there’s Sam.
Sam is your wily, wacky sister. Sam is a rebel. Sam is a writer. Sam is a punk. And Sam is a lesbian. In the time you’ve been away Sam has grown infatuated with a girl named Lonnie and she’s been spending her time balancing between hiding it from your parents, who are achingly conservative and at least a little religious, and trying to figure out what love is as a teenager.
Her notes and journal entries make up the crux of the main story, sometimes only showing themselves in a few words scrawled on a napkin or torn piece of paper, other times punctuating your entire experience with a voice over representation of how she was feeling on a particular day and time. Large and small, these are the moments that make Gone Home what it is. Transparent short-stories that bear an obvious semblance to how Sam herself feels, saved ticket stubs and kitschy keepsakes with sentimental teenage value, and, of course, the confused and insecure ramblings of a young woman who has found what might be her first love. The aching, honest truth behind this puzzling piecemeal depiction of Sam forms the bittersweet center of Gone Home, and remains with the player long after the credits have rolled.
Gone Home is a snapshot of a slice of life in every sense imaginable. From the very opening seconds of the game, this much is clear, if not much else. The opening title is scrawled in stylized magic marker, and the time stamp (1:15 AM, June 7,1995) is so specific and so relevant that it informs the experience of the entire game, again and again, in subtle but determinate waves of recognition. Everyone is talking about Pulp Fiction, Street Fighter II is the game to master, and, of course, any music that matters is heard on a cassette, including a series of mix tapes which the player will discover throughout the game.
The deliberateness and succinctness of this time and place for these characters is so honest and heartfelt, so utterly sincere in its depiction, that it feels like this story could not have possibly been told any other way. It showcases a certain cultural turning point in a lot of ways that any child of the 90s will remember well. It was a time when homosexuality was still just on the cusp of being acceptable in the public eye, even as members of the LGBT community were finding more voice and representation in art and popular culture, there was still DOMA to contend with, and even liberals and democrats were split on the issue in terms of what should or shouldn’t be “allowed”.
The punk movement was still alive but just barely, or maybe it was just on its second life. The original wave of angry, anarchic punk music had faded to make way for new wave in the 80s. However, a new punk was emerging with a different kind of sound and message, one that was less a “fuck everything” destructiveness, and more a pointed series of passionate rants aimed at changing things. Now it was powered by people who were trying to send a message to this society–a society that refused to accept the legitimate desires and needs which were important to the many outcasts who had united under its banner of rage. The need to have a voice, the need to be heard, and, most of all, the need to be understood.
This may all seem a bit beside the point but it really isn’t. Like any writers worth their salt, the folks over at The Fullbright Company didn’t just pull this setting out of a hat. Gone Home is a period piece as much as it’s anything, and the setting is as important as anything else about its ultimate message and motivation. This is a story where context is key, and the context here is that the times, well, as the inimitable Bob Dylan would put it: they-were-a-changing (just not quite fast enough).
With that said, though, all of this is simply what informs the world and the time of Gone Home, the question of what it’s actually about is a lot simpler: it’s a love story. It may be a love story where you never actually meet or speak with either of the star-crossed youngsters in question but a love story it remains. Your sister Sam has fallen for a girl named Lonnie, and as you find one scrap after another of their journey, discovering themselves and each other along the way, you start to get a feeling for them as people. The story touches upon the experience of being infatuated, being afraid, being vulnerable, and ultimately, being in love, with such a pure sense of raw power that you can’t help but feel a prickle in your soul and a salty feeling at the corner of your eye every now and again.
In the end, their story is a simple one, and, in fact, it may be the simplest story of all the stories we experience, even in our own lives, as we came of age and grew, ourselves, into adulthood. That doesn’t make it any less important though, and the pinpoint accuracy with which we can remember and conjure up those moments when that flame of remembrance is reignited by a story like Gone Home is the only proof we need that those stirrings still hold sway in our hearts and minds, even if our lives have long gone on in the wake of those vulnerable, youthful years.