Games and Nostalgia · Games Criticism · Narrative in Games · Sexuality in gaming

Went Home

Alright. So thanks to a gift from Maddy Myers, I went home. I had no plans to buy the game, mostly because “mansion games” (thank you Robert Yang) or “first person experiences” (thank you Cameron Kunzelman) aren’t my thing. I don’t really enjoy point and click adventures, or games where you progress by turning over every little thing until you discover the tiny clue that opens the secret staircase on level 5 that leads to the Haunted Donut Shop or whatever. I find them hard to engage with since I get little feeling of mastery from drudge work, and the payoff is almost always narrative information that I could easily read off a wiki page.

Now, before the pitchforks and torches come out, I am saying the game is not in my strike zone, NOT that the game is inherently bad. Please don’t roll up in my comments telling me how I’m an awful human being for not liking mansion/point-click games. I am begging you.

Right. That’s out of the way.

So the whole point of this genre, as I said on Twitter, is to find narrative things out through a carefully-crafted obsessive-compulsive disorder simulation. By necessity, discussing it without revealing any spoilers thus becomes impossible and has very real potential to deeply affect the game experience even for people who normally don’t have a real problem with spoilers (like myself).

Thus, vague impressions? Interestingly put together, ventures into territory not frequently touched by mainstream AAA games. Cohesive. This is the same response I had to Kentucky Route Zero and that seems pretty apt, all things considered. As I said on a recent Gayme Bar podcast, I found KR0 to be engaging but not necessarily fun/enjoyable. Gone Home made me feel similarly. I was pulled through it by powerful inertia but I wasn’t having a strong emotional response either way.

If you want to know more — SPOILERS ABOUND AHEAD — then check after the cut:

So here are two things I really dislike doing in video games:

  • Moving through a space and exploring every tiny nook and cranny, every miniscule detail, to find [x].
  • Being scared, shocked, or surprised in the “jump out and BOO!” way.

Sadly, in the pursuit of its own clever use of tropes and genre indicators, Gone Home evokes both of these (though not in equal measure). Moving through the house’s dark spaces was a panicked “WHERE’S THE LIGHT SWITCH WHERE’S A LAMP WHERE WHERE WHERE” adrenaline high for me, over and over again, that was entirely unwelcome even though I think Fullbright effectively uses that against us. I will say that the game’s use of such tropes as a massive number of red herrings is really clever. When I encountered this in the game, I had to stop and have a good laugh, because I knew exactly why it was there:

A note from a concerned mother
A note from a concerned mother

And it was true. Kate, through me, had indeed been turning on every light in the house like she was attempting to guide in a landing plane, especially after another note in her father’s office about the shoddy wiring in the house (I expected to be caught out by that and it only increased my sense of paranoia). There are other similar touches; the splash of red hair dye on the tub that is supposed to evoke slasher fic feelings, though that one didn’t faze/fool me for long; the entrance to Sam’s attic dark room with the string of red lights in a dead-end hallway complete with visible but unintelligible-from-a-distance note is tres spooky, etc. These were all genius craft touches, but they were also explicitly things that I hate it when games do, even used in such a self-aware way and so I didn’t exactly have the most relaxing time.

Of course, I think Fullbright rather intentionally created this artificial feeling of stress and confusion not necessarily because Kate would feel them, but because Gone Home is a game where you invade your family’s privacy to sate your curiosity, and that’s a situation where you should feel uncomfortable. I mean, the “mansion” genre tells you that you are supposed to be ransacking this place in search of answers, but the truth of the matter is that the mystery of this game is very small in scale: she expected people to be home and they’re not. The reasons could be practically anything, and while the fact that they didn’t leave a note — and Sam’s dramatic and somewhat cryptic note on the front door at minute one doesn’t help — ratchets up the confusion, as does the 1995 setting that precludes easy mobile phone or internet answers, this is not a mystery where the solution is “literally open every closed surface, every locked door, every nook and cranny of this house until I find out what happened.”

In that regard I think Gone Home is a fantastic look at how little we question this sort of behavior in games. It certainly makes me think about the character of Kate, a more or less entirely obedient puppet (with, as Naomi Clark observes, one notable exception). I thought what we know of Kate made her entirely bland and personalityless which is perhaps kind of the point. She’s an upper class white girl who was an okay and boring student that then took some time to see Europe before coming home… and, when she finds her house empty (the family moved while she was away) she starts, you know… breaking into her sister’s shit and opening her parents’ closets and drawers in search of “clues.” I wonder if, secretly, Gone Home is really about Kate’s secret voyeuristic side coming to the fore now that she has the chance. It’s certainly clear that Kate is entirely unaware of her parents’ rocky marriage, her sister’s budding lesbian identity, and a host of other really important facts… and I’m not convinced the trip to Europe is entirely to blame.

Lonnie, the riot grrl love interest in "Gone Home"
Lonnie, the riot grrl love interest in “Gone Home”

That said, what I really want to talk about — and what I had the strongest reaction to in this game — is Sam and Lonnie’s relationship, as recounted by Sam herself, both in her journals (literally read aloud) and in what sometimes feels like an almost purposefully-laid path on Sam’s part of clues, hints, and objects that Kate finds.

Much has been made of how this story — Sam’s coming out, her losing Lonnie to living a lie, and their eventual reunion at the game’s closing, explaining why Sam, at least, isn’t in evidence — is the actual meat, the “important” part, of Gone Home. I can probably agree with that. Merritt Kopas wrote on how that impacted her, and her account is pretty compelling. I think I come down on the side of Anna Anthropy’s reading, really: I appreciated what the game was attempting but for a lot of contextual reasons, I found it really hard to relate to.

Let me be up front: stories, let alone games, about lesbians are comparatively rare, and happy endings for those lesbians are rarer yet. Based on that alone, I am for Gone Home. Gay men — especially white, pretty gay men — dominate the media’s understanding of queerness and having alternative narratives to that is pretty crucial. Of course, that statement is going to make what I say next sound pretty damn hypocritical:

As someone who was growing up queer in 1995, this is so far from my experience I don’t even recognize it. I have a notorious obsession with, and hatred for, coming out narratives. They are almost universally written by people looking backwards, hoping to inspire the people behind them, and so they almost always end on an upbeat note. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but it means that coming out narratives almost universally make me feel ashamed and sad about my past.

The coming out narrative reads like this: person is unsure, person finds love interest, insecurity or other factors drive them temporarily apart, person and love interest reunite in an affirmative way. Books, movies, whatever: that’s the pattern. Sam and Lonnie’s story follows this pattern pretty well. They meet, Sam is enthralled by Lonnie’s rejection of norms, they become close, then become lovers, Lonnie’s insecurity and fear break them temporarily apart, but in the end Lonnie makes the decision to throw that away and comes back to Sam, who throws everything away to be with her. More or less happy ending.

I didn’t have a mysterious first love who awakened my understanding of what being gay meant. If I had to characterize my experience, I’d call it a short series of desperate, kind of degrading sexual experiments followed by years of having to accept being gay because the people around me had already decided and had proceeded to make my life even more miserable through emotional and often physical violence thereby. I had to hold out hope that I could escape to college, the “Golden Land” where the Triforce of Homosexuality would grant all my wishes. What I found at college is that by being gay and fat and a geek I was a pariah that also didn’t have any place in the gay culture that frequently mocked me for that fact.

I’m not saying that stories like Gone Home don’t have a place, or even that the story was bad. As I said, we have precious few enough of these narratives, far too few for me to be writing one off because it doesn’t reflect my personal history. In her piece on the game, Merritt Kopas put it pretty well:

I know I’m bringing a lot of my own stuff to this game. I know my experience of it is being shaped by my history, the moreso because the player character is a kind of cipher with no real spatial storytelling to indicate much of substance about her relationships to any of the other characters in the game.

I know all that and honestly? I don’t really fucking care, because this is a game that feels like it was made for me, and that’s rare and important and at the end of the day – especially in a medium that caters overwhelmingly to straight boys – universality can suck it.

In the same way that Merritt’s history makes her more receptive to the narrative, I think mine pushes me away from it. My 1995 is not Sam and Katie and Lonnie’s 1995; my history is not their history. And as Maddy Myers noted to me earlier when we were discussing this — and, coincidentally, expounds on more fully in her own piece on the matter — this is the story of two conventionally-attractive white girls, one decidedly upper class, and their almost (note ALMOST) entirely obstacle-free romance with the happy ending. I don’t want that. I don’t need what Maddy refers to as “the nostalgia lie.”

Maybe it’s simply a difference of perspective. I can understand not wanting a game that perfectly reflects my life experience, for fuck’s sake. At almost-35 I am still struggling with my body image, my sexuality, and their relationship to each other. I still feel like an outsider. I never had my own Lonnie to draw me into the narrative. If I hadn’t been spoiled on the game — I knew, coming in, about Sam and her eventual fate with Lonnie — I think my sense of growing anxiety would have been much more intense. Even knowing how the story goes I still had the occasional moment of “Jesus, this ends in a suicide, doesn’t it?” panic that made my pulse shoot up and my hand yank off the mouse because I didn’t want to experience that. So I get not wanting to make it a grimdark story about how hard stuff was. Maybe sometimes you need that glimmer of hope, that element of the fairy tale. And part of me wants to believe that my experience was atypical… that the Sams and Lonnies of the world were the norm and maybe things weren’t quite so bad. But part of me knows that’s not true, and thinks the fairy tale is a dangerous rewriting of history.

I think this is why, when I hear people talk about the “beauty” they saw in Gone Home, when they talk about it affecting them so deeply on an emotional level, I feel not just sad, but outright guilty. As if I can’t just be happy for these girls and their one-in-a-million happy ending, and can’t appreciate it for what it is without dragging it down. And maybe that’s true. But Gone Home operates on nostalgia, for good or for ill. What has its roots in a production constraint becomes a powerful rhetorical force in the end result. As I walk through this house, I see how so much fine-detail work has gone into making me think back to and relive those events, those days, when I was doing some of the same things Sam was. The cost of that, though, is that I can’t find beauty in this illusory thing that I would have given anything to experience during that time. Because I was there (as it were) and refracted through the lens of my experience, this beauty is illusory and, to me, it becomes somewhat hateful. I feel actual malice toward the illusion because it feels like that bit of me is erased, slowly, by the fairy tale.

I have no doubt that many people reading this that have gotten this far are now shaking their heads at me in annoyance, anger, or both. I probably deserve it. But I don’t know how else to feel. When I write on Twitter about how I have this compulsion to read young adult gay coming out novels and then get furious and upset and depressed because of them, though, I’m talking about the same thing.

Maybe I’m just whiny? I don’t know. Things could have been worse for me, thanks to one or two privilege markers. But I just… I dunno. Whatever, I guess.

In the end, I think in my case Gone Home is a victim of its own successes, ruined for me by being too good at what it set out to do. It was so genre-savvy it unsettled me, and it was so good at evoking feelings about the past that I was just unable to see this beauty others are finding, clouded as it was by the dark and upsetting memories of my own time, running parallel to Sam’s own.

7 thoughts on “Went Home

  1. “I have a notorious obsession with, and hatred for, coming out narratives. They are almost universally written by people looking backwards, hoping to inspire the people behind them, and so they almost always end on an upbeat note.”

    That’s so curious to me, because my experience with most coming-out narratives (or gay YA lit in general) is that it almost always ends on a negative note which is why /I/ have tired of them. Like it’s just an endless sea of downer endings which has only just started to yield some more positive stories. Which was why I liked Gone Home’s more positive ending, because a positive ending (especially for lesbian characters) is so rare when it comes to these narratives.

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