Experienced Points

What Made Gone Home Such a Powerful Game?

Gone Home - Social

Gone Home still comes up now and again in conversation. Depending on who you ask, it was either an amazing and emotional experience, or a walking simulator. It was one of the games I had in mind last week when I talked about the disconnect between critics and their audience. I thought I’d dig into it this week as a good illustration of the thing I’m talking about.

No, I’m not going to try and convince you to like Gone Home. If you played it (or just read about it) and it didn’t appeal to you, then this article isn’t going to change your mind. And I really don’t want to have another argument over what a “game” is. But I do hope I can help you see the game through the eyes of the people who loved it so you can understand what all the fuss was about. Also, I’m going to spoil the whole game, so this is your last chance to bail if you want to experience the game as intended. (And I do recommend the game highly.)

Gone Home takes place in 1995. In it, you explore a house, read letters, and examine objects to figure out where everyone is and what happened to them all. There’s no combat and no fail states. No “Game Over” screen. (Hence the “Walking Simulator” label.) To get anything out of the game, you have to find something interesting in this core experience.

The gameplay consists of picking up objects and examining them. The game is filled with hundreds of exquisitely detailed curiosities from the past. As I played I was constantly sucked back to my teenage years, remembering things that I owned and used on a daily basis. Things that I haven’t seen or thought about in the two decades since. The game showed me all sorts of teenage artifacts. Not just inert objects, but precise re-creations that captured all the little details of an object. The way a cassette tape case flops open. The sound a locker makes when you shut it. The dog-eared edges of a book cover decorated with ball-point pens.

When we talk about a time period, we tend to focus on the big, obvious superficial details. If we were talking about the 80’s, then you can probably name all the fixtures of that time period even if you were born in the following decade: Big hair. New-wave music. Polo shirts with popped collars. Neon colors. But that’s not really “The 80’s”. That’s movie shorthand for “The 80’s”. That’s the Disney theme park version. Actually nailing down a time period in a way that resonates with people who remember it is supremely difficult, and Gone Home nails it with countless small details: Furniture, wallpaper, technology, calendar art, fridge magnets, fad-driven book genres, food packaging, carpeting, teenage lingo, lighting fixtures, kitchen appliances, and countless other things we don’t think of as being part of a time period until we see the old contrasted with the new.

(If you want an example of a movie that fails at this: Hot Tube Time Machine probably looks like “The 80’s” to young people, but it fell completely flat for me. It didn’t have any of the detail work that we see in Gone Home, so it felt like a modern-day resort with goofy haircuts.)

Gone Home blew my mind. I graduated from high school in 1990, so I’m just a little older than the protagonist of Gone Home. Half the objects in the game activated some gut-punch memory for me – some strange moment of temporal vertigo where I suddenly saw the past clearly while at the same time realizing just how far away it was.

This is why the sneering charge of “walking simulator” always rubbed me the wrong way. If I transported you back to the past and let you revisit your childhood bedroom, I hope that later you would have something more to say about it than, “I walked around a room.” The interactivity in this game was integral to the experience. Gone Home couldn’t work in any other medium. It would be torture to read page after page of detailed item descriptions, and even the best description couldn’t evoke the flood of memories the way Gone Home does when you pick up a random item and turn it over to see some forgotten detail on the base. All of that magic would be lost if you moved it to a passive media, for the same reason that watching vacation slideshows isn’t as stimulating as going on the vacation.

The thing is, if you’re not part of the narrow age band that this game is dealing with, then none of this will mean anything to you. If you’re younger or older than me by more than a decade in either direction, then this stuff probably looks like random meaningless yard sale crap to you.

The other thing that I really appreciated about Gone Home was how it handled homosexuality. Sam (sister of the player) is a lesbian, and the adults in her life don’t know how to handle her. See, it would have been easy to look at this situation through the lens of 2013, portraying the adults as a bunch of evil homophobes. But instead the game was far more circumspect (and historically accurate) by showing them as well-meaning people who were confused, frustrated, and uninformed.

Gone Home

It’s probably really hard for millennials to grasp just how much the world has changed since 1995. Back then, we didn’t quite “get” homosexuality yet. We thought it was a kind of kink, like furries or people into BDSM. (Not that it’s okay to make fun of those people, either. I’m just trying to give you a frame of reference.) The thinking at the time was that gay individuals were incredibly rare and very screwed up. (The outrageous stereotypes of the day probably didn’t help.) It was common for people to think the homosexuality was a condition that needed to be treated with therapy.

That sounds daft now, but keep in mind that most homosexuals were still in the closet. We didn’t understand homosexuals because we didn’t talk about our sexuality openly. We didn’t talk about it openly because the subject was taboo. It was taboo because of religious norms, but also because it made people uneasy to think about. (Even non-religious people.) The taboo kept people in the closet, which prevented open discussion, etc. It takes time to unwind nasty feedback loops like that.

(Obviously what I’ve said above doesn’t apply to everywhere in the United States, much less the world. Attitudes towards homosexuality vary by region, but the portrayal in Gone Home stuck me as being appropriate for suburban communities in 1995.)

Now, it would be really, really easy for a writer in 2013 to want to paint the people of 1995 as a bunch of ugly, bigoted, narrow-minded, villains. We love stories where we can smugly look down on the people of the past, and bigotry makes for easy drama.

But instead Gone Home takes a more honest approach and shows Sam’s parents as typical for the time period: Basically good folks who love their daughter but don’t understand what she’s going through and don’t know how to talk to her about it. Yes, it was tough being gay in small-town America in 1995. But it was even tougher in 1975 and harder still in 1955. Cultural snapshots like the kind we find in Gone Home are invaluable for letting us understand the past as it really was.

This context made the end of the game thought-provoking and bittersweet. Yes, Sam had a rough time of it, and her parents didn’t quite get it yet. But if they followed the trajectory of the rest of middle America then things were probably going to get a lot better for Sam in the next few years, and her family would most likely come around eventually. That’s not a happy ending by the standards of video games, but it’s a happy ending by the standards of Real Life.

The thing is, if you’re above a certain age, or below a different age, or if you grew up someplace other than 90’s suburbia, then this stuff might not mean anything to you. If the house in Gone Home doesn’t feel like the sort of house you visited in your youth, if you didn’t go through the rapid (by the standards of cultural change) transformation that changed the way we understood the homosexuals in our lives (like, that they existed) then there might not be any emotional impact for you.

While the love story in Gone Home has been done a thousand times before (forbidden love is one of the oldest tropes out there) the details in the game give it a sense of grounded reality that no degree of photorealistic graphics could ever achieve.

Sometimes what you get out of art depends on what you bring into it. If you went into Gone Home with the right background, then it provided a powerful, thought-provoking, and emotionally resonant experience. While games have pretty much nailed the concept of “fun”, they still struggle to connect with us emotionally, so it’s worth celebrating when they succeed.

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank. You can read more of his work here.

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