For the uninitiated, The Lawless Perspective is an infrequent series of articles dealing with selected games. It is not designed as a review, or a second opinion, but as an analysis of the literary aspects of the game in question and, as such, the articles often delve deeply into spoiler territory. Consider yourself warned. This entry takes a look at Gone Home, the debut title from indie studio, The Fullbright Company.
After hours upon hours of travel, you close your eyes, take a deep breath and open them again, and there, the house you grew up in stands before you—every quirk and cranny intimately familiar—but you get the strangest feeling that you don’t belong here. Although the brick and wood edifice is unchanged—aside from maybe the paint peeling a little more than you remember—you know that other things have changed. Your dogs are little older, your cat’s looking more haggard, and your parents have changed, too, with their greying hair and lined faces. Arriving home after a period away is not what you expect it to be.
A message on an answering machine plays beneath the opening credits of Gone Home, offering some context. A young woman tells her mother that her Pan-European tour has drawn to an end and that she will be home near midnight on a particular date. The message ends, the title card fades away and it is suddenly 1:15 a.m. on the 7th of June, 1995. You can hear the rain tumbling down, its perpetuity punctuated occasionally by an unnerving rumble of thunder. As promised, Katie stands in the patio of her home, bags at her side and the front door before her. Pinned to it is a handwritten message written by Katie’s—your—sister, Sam, begging you not to try to find out what has happened to her.
The curiosity that this inspires is enough to overwhelm the sense of foreboding imbued by the atmosphere. The door swings open at a touch, the lights in the entrance hall flicker off and on creepily, and suddenly, you are sucked into one of the most minimalistic, emotive and engaging video game experiences I have had the good fortune to partake of.
This isn’t a feel-good story about coming home; it is more complex and touching than that. Far from being central to the plot, Katie is an audience substitute and this is the story of the changes that her family has been through during her absence. In particular, this is the tale of Sam—the central character and narrator.
Told primarily through audio logs, the core directed narrative follows Sam as she grows from an uncertain girl, worried about her first day at a new school, into someone who is much more self-confident and rebellious inspired by love. The Greenbriar family inherited the house from their uncle—who it is implied descended into madness—which has since come to be known as the ‘Psycho House’, at least within the school community. This is something that Sam struggles to face early on, but it also forms one of the cornerstones of her relationship as it develops.
While most games include a poorly executed subplot in an attempt to humanise their characters, Gone Home is a love story first and foremost. In saying that, the relationship between Sam and Lonnie is, rightly, one of the most intriguing aspects of it. Although it follows a common literary model in the construction and portrayal of its lifespan, a point of difference is added by virtue of the fact that it is a lesbian relationship.
Though homosexuality is more accepted within society nowadays, that really wasn’t the case twenty years ago. This provides The Fullbright Company with a foundation of the inevitable disapproval of Sam and Katie’s parents in regards to this relationship. But that issue doesn’t rear its ugly head until later on in the narrative, so I’ll come back to it.
The way that Sam initially agonises over finding a reason to talk to Lonnie is handled well, and should resonate with anyone who has ever felt that they are not good enough for the object of their affection. As is always the case though, where there is a will, there is a way. A shared love of Street Fighter II is what Sam uses as an excuse to talk to Lonnie, but it would not have gone further if Sam didn’t live in the ‘Psycho House’. In Sam’s notes it is implied that Lonnie is interested in the Occult and has harboured a desire to take a look around the house. Understandably, Sam leaps upon the idea.
Written by less deft hands, and portrayed with less subtlety, it is easy to imagine this beginning feeling hammy, casting a dark cloud over the rest of the narrative, but The Fullbright Company makes the burgeoning of this friendship seem natural with apparent ease.
From this auspicious beginning, matters progress slowly but surely. Sam and Lonnie hang out more. They hug. One tells the other that she is beautiful. They kiss. The build-up to the confirmation of their relationship is orchestrated with considerable nuance and grace—traits exemplified in the voicework found in those audio logs. This journey into the past is amplified by Katie’s exploration of this sprawling, empty house. The audio logs are prompted by the examination of certain items within the environment, but you get additional insight into the character of the occupants of the house—Sam and her parents—by the visual storytelling and notes that you find dotted around.
Indeed, Gone Home made me feel something that I had never felt before in any entertainment medium. As I slowly made my way through this house, reading what I could find, interacting with many of the objects and absorbing the surroundings, I felt like an intruder in the lives of these people. Intimate isn’t a word that one can usually associate with video games, but I grew to feel a real connection with the tribulations of this family.
The parents are going through a low period in their marriage and—as is revealed towards the end—are away on a couples retreat to invigorate their relationship. Katie’s father, Terence, is a struggling writer. In the past, he successfully published two novels only to have them fail to gain traction in the marketplace, resulting in him being dropped by the firm. He took to writing product reviews for a music magazine, but even this has fallen apart as you find evidence that his work is no longer up to a desired standard. It is a distressing thing to be witness to, made all the worse by the presence of unfinished manuscripts, uninspired snippets of his writings and a whole lot of liquor bottles in rooms frequented by him.
Jan, Katie’s mother, on the other hand, is a rather successful forestry ranger who appears to be feeling the lack in the marriage more than her husband. She appears to have been fantasising about her latest recruit, Rick, and has even gone on a date with him. In spite of this, Rick is unavailable to her—which is made clear towards the end when you find a wedding invitation from him.
Though Sam’s story is the most immediate and affecting of all those found in Gone Home, it is these ancillary ones that take the most advantage of the unique properties of video games. You are much more immersed in the world and can take greater note of the surroundings when playing a game when compared to either a novel or film. This is a growing realisation among developers that environmental storytelling is becoming just as important to many as the directed narrative, if not more so. While it is a more prevalent practise within the indie realm, where storytelling in general is of greater importance, it is bleeding into AAA development with the BioShock series and The Last of Us being exemplary examples. Gone Home uses it to great effect by injecting so much history into this playspace.
Arguably, the most shocking moment of the game comes from an adherence to this ideal. No matter how well things seem to be going with Sam’s story, the sense of melancholy inspired by the darkness and storm raging outside never dissipates. It is, ultimately, a red herring, but it occurs before the sense of unease provoked by the message on the front door has passed, and is all the more impactful because of it. The sense of timing displayed by The Fullbright Company in placing this moment is utterly brilliant and it is just a shame that it is never again matched within the two hour timeframe of this game.
Shortly after this, the game begins to take on a more mysterious bent, as Sam and Lonnie—and subsequently Katie—begin to uncover the secrets of the house. Small compartments built into the walls—where the lovers have hidden certain small items—are revealed and following the trail of breadcrumbs leads you into the basement where the tone of the narrative turns away from the days of sunshine. Their relationship is threatened by their divergent futures and other factors beyond their control, but they forge on regardless.
The basement is a refuge for the couple—a place where they can let loose all their repressed urges and embody rebellion—and it does that in fine fashion with a series of revelations that serve to further increase the emotional bond that the player, by then, has firmly formed with the girls, as well as granting more weight to the events that take place afterwards. But the idea of the basement as an avenue of repression goes beyond just Sam and Lonnie. It seems that all of the characters are hiding some disliked facet of their pasts.
The discoveries that take place regarding Terence and Jan aren’t nearly as involving as those you find above, but it does provide some small insight into the characters. By far the most compelling thing to be found in the basement pertains to Uncle Oscar, the house’s former owner. References are made to his oddities earlier on, but only if you unlock the safe in the basement do questions really begin to arise in your mind in regards to the unexplained past of this enigmatic figure. If there is one part of the story that feels incomplete, it is Oscar’s arc.
You make your way back up to the surface levels to a part of the house that was previously blocked off, and the pace picks up considerably. It is here, at long last, that The Fullbright Company allows themselves to dive fully into exploration of the core themes that they have striven to highlight in this game. The evolving nature of friendships over time is highlighted by the appearance of Daniel — Sam’s childhood friend who is mentioned several times in her notes. Although they were once close, time and circumstance has seen them draw apart, leaving Sam unable to say some of the things that she, perhaps, should have.
Society’s response to homosexuality is explored by Sam’s ‘coming out’. By Sam’s admission, her parents refused to understand, deeming it “a phase” and denying that such a thing is possible, though you do later uncover hints that they intend to find a way to remove such deviant urges.
There is room for improvement and expansion in the way that the developers have gone into these—and other—themes, but in a game that seems to parade minimalism as one of its core ethics, you really can’t fault them for not taking a more in-depth approach.
In contrast to the positivity portrayed, in the continuance of the individual stories of her parents, Sam becomes ever more melancholy as the final days of her and Lonnie’s relationship come upon them. Some of the audio logs that play in these final rooms give grand cause for pause and you find yourself almost unwilling to progress, fearful of what you will find as Sam becomes depressed by the imminence of their parting. It must be said that in these moments, more than at any other part of the game, The Fullbright Company reveal that they truly are masters of the art of video game storytelling. There have been other games in which I have fully understood the sentiment that the developers are trying to create, but never has the intended emotion struck me quite so strongly as the sense of foreboding that arises so suddenly in those closing moments after laying dormant since the mid-game scene mentioned above.
When all is said and done, Gone Home is a tribute to love and its ability to conquer any adversity. It presents a powerful, emotive directed narrative, backed up with an incredible amount of environmental storytelling that adds layers to the subtlety and nuance by presenting, not a house, but a home. The sense of place that you get as you make your way through this 19th century mansion is almost unparalleled in gaming and it sucks you into the experience better than even the most spectacular and bombastic setpieces could ever hope to.
Audio logs and diary entries are usually implemented into games in a rather artless fashion—being dropped about randomly and, in some ways, breaking that wall of believability—though Gone Home explains its inclusion of these aspects. It is, without a doubt, a triumph and a shining example of exactly what can be achieved when a developer turns their talents to creating a story. There is a caveat to all of this praise, however.
I wrote earlier that it takes advantage of the unique properties of the immersion provided by the gaming medium, and I stand by that statement. At the same time, it fails to capitalise fully on the interactivity. Yes, you can examine a wide array of objects in minute detail, and you have the freedom to play songs at your discretion whenever there is a cassette and player in the room, but a few more simple puzzles would not have gone amiss, though it is difficult to imagine how they could be slotted into the game as it stands. It also would have benefitted, I feel, were the secret compartments and staircases not signposted on the in-game map once you learned of their existence, but instead had their locations only hinted at.
In reality though, these are small complaints when placed against the achievement of the actual layout of the house. The locked doors, multiple floors and secret passages direct your progress without you ever really being fully aware of it, in spite of the fact that the audio logs are being played out in a roughly chronological order. Unlike many game spaces which offer little sense in their layouts, the arrangement of the house at 1 Arbor Hill is utterly and inarguably crucial to the cogency of the story, and it is crafted with such awareness and intelligence that it puts almost all else to shame.
Gone Home won’t appeal to those who claim that everything else in a game should be subservient to fun gameplay, but that takes nothing away from the strength and fearlessness of the game. By tackling homosexuality as a core topic, and casting it in the light that it is simply another form of love, The Fullbright Company have shown that they are entirely willing to take on controversial subjects and present an honest opinion and that, in an era where sensitivity and political correctness are used as compelling evidence in favour of censorship, is a great thing.
Emotional, intelligent, evocative and engaging, there isn’t much else out there like Gone Home, and there are lessons within its structure that just about every other developer could learn from.