Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Gone Home (Spoilers)

Gone Home is a strangely personal experience. Maybe it’s the nostalgic sense of place: an American family’s home in the mid-90s, which was the golden age of my childhood. A palace full of VHS tapes, music tapes, Nintendo tapes, and gaudy colorful school folders and highlighters. There are references to Harrison Ford, Street Fighter, and those little black label message thingies. Or maybe it’s the way the main character, Sam (not to be confused with the player character, Katie) reminds me of myself. No, I’m not a teenage girl, but I was once a shy kid in high school, who frequently imagined my own characters and stories and who still has old doodles and school assignments scattered around. I also had a high school teacher who encouraged my creative writing and I ended up going to college for it. Maybe it’s other small details: the reference to one of my favorite films, Pulp Fiction, or spotting a host of books I studied in school and have fond memories of in Sam’s bedroom (Frankenstein, Treasure Island, Jane Austen’s Emma…), or that Janice Greenbriar has the same birthdate as my own mother…or perhaps Gone Home would have just felt personal anyway, even without all this, because it’s just an intimate experience by nature. When I first walked into the empty foyer of the Greenbriar home, it was just another location in a video game, but by the time I approached Sam’s journal in the attic, after opening drawers, reading letters, listening to music, picking up crumpled manuscripts, finding secret notes under the bed, looking at newspaper clippings, looking at photos, and otherwise immersing myself in a lived-in, inhabited space, I felt like I knew the Greenbriars intimately and they felt like a family as real as my own. Like Sam could have been someone I went to high school with and I just never knew about everything she was going through.

It’s this sense of discovering a family, of discovering people, via the traces of themselves and their experiences that adorn their home that makes Gone Home special. Not just learning about Sam’s experiences and her relationship with Lonnie, which is the crux of the narrative, but learning about the marital problems of her parents, the affair her mother almost had, and her father’s struggles as an author of a series of bizarre JFK time travel novels. These people feel real, and I feel like I know them personally even though I never actually met any of them face to face in the game. Especially Sam, whose characterization felt so tangible (and the music that accompanies her diary is so perfectly matched) that I couldn’t help but tear up every time she sighed or expressed her frustrations and dreams.

Ironically, the only member of the Greenbriar family I learned next to nothing about is Katie, the one who I literally stepped into the shoes of. I learn she traveled around Europe and she occasionally has some reaction text to certain objects in the house (“Gosh, Sam” she says when discovering her sister’s issue of “Gentleman” magazine, the magazine for men, and “Oh, barf” when finding a condom in her parent’s bedroom dresser), but the only personality trait I really glean from her is that she is the “straightedge” Greenbriar child: the athlete, the scholar, the “responsible” one. In other words, pretty boring. One of the funniest moments in the game comes from discovering a Sex Ed assignment in one of Sam’s school folders in which she took a hilarious amount of creative liberty with a rather simple assignment (“See Me!” was the grade she got from her teacher in bright red letters). Then later on I discovered Katie’s own take on the same assignment, which of course was done perfectly and properly and got a bright red “check plus”. But I suppose it’s unfair to call Katie boring, because I’m sure that if I had the opportunity to rummage through her own stuff (still packed away in boxes in the guest room of the Greenbriar’s new home, which was to be her room when got back from Europe), I would find a three-dimensional person with her own struggles and experiences. Gone Home makes it clear that it’s not about Katie though, but rather her family and principally her younger sister, Sam.

Sam is one of the most richly drawn people I’ve seen in a video game (or, sorry, I guess I should say in an “interactive exploration finding and reading stuff emotion story simulation experience”). I hesitate to call her a “character” because she seems so real and authentic. Her voice actress does an excellent job but Sam’s personality also shines through in the pieces of herself she’s left lying around her house: in the scattered chapters in the ongoing tale of Captain Allegra and her First Mate, in her Street Fighter cheat codes lying on her bedroom floor (repeatedly crossed-out and revised), in her angry note to her parents chastising them for not letting her go out with Lonnie in the city, in her aforementioned unique take on schoolwork and the various scraps and doodles and letters that all in all paint a very vivid portrait of a human being. Gone Home does a wonderful job of setting up a series of mini-narratives that get told through pieces of the Greenbriar’s life around their home (would Danny ever get his Nintendo tape back??) and I enjoyed following all of these, but of course the narrative I was most invested in was that of Sam and Lonnie. This is where Gone Home is also just a sweet story of young romance, one that treats Sam’s homosexuality not like a twist or a discovery, but rather a given, natural fact of her life, while still managing to address the very real issues of what it means to be a gay teenager in high school (especially in the mid-90s). This is a story that moves, but also aims to inspire empathy for a life experience that some might regard as foreign and strange. A story that might make some people realize that a gay relationship is in fact not these things, but just as relatable and human as any other romance.

That is the key word: Gone Home struck me in how human it felt. It shines a lens on one family’s, and one girl’s, personal struggles, it promotes empathy for our neighbors, for our friends, for complete strangers, for those we might regard as pariahs; it reminds us that we are all human and that we all go through shit. Speaking more personally, it allowed me, a straight man, to empathize with a gay young woman and the pain of dealing with disrespectful parents and peers; the fact that I have so much in common with Sam made it all the more easy to relate to her. I can relate to being shy around people I like (seeing that “gold star” around someone but not knowing how to talk to them), and so much of what Sam experiences and says and writes and does reminds me of myself and my own experiences, I can’t help but easily put myself in her shoes. Perhaps it is because of all this that I really did not want to enter the attic at the end of game. I felt a connection with Sam and I wanted her story to have a happy ending, but the more the game went on, the more I got the idea that the diary that I’d been hearing throughout the experience was Sam’s last words, and I was afraid of what I’d find up there. When all I found was an empty sleeping bag accompanied by a final, joyful diary entry from Sam about how Lonnie decided she couldn’t live without her and the two ran off together, I was ecstatic. A surprise happy ending, a joyful outcome when I expected a grim one, is one of my favorite discoveries in fiction, and Gone Home’s conclusion left me in happy tears.

Gone Home is the kind of experience I’ve been wanting to play for a long time. It’s simple and really nothing extraordinary, but that’s exactly what makes it special for a video game in a medium where interactive experiences so often feel the need to couple extraordinary circumstances with their pathos. In Gone Home, there are no monsters (or more specifically, no ghosts), no combat, no big dire mystery or circumstance. Why is the Greenbriar home mysteriously empty and seemingly abandoned and what happened to Sam? The big, dark, earth-shattering answer: Mrs. and Mr. Greenbriar are off at couples counseling and Sam ran off with the love of her life. I’ve played a lot of games before where much of what I do is walk around and read stuff that fleshes out a world or a narrative, but I respect Gone Home’s restraint in not shoehorning unnecessary violence or fantasy elements into its plot, and still managing to keep me interested in its characters and story through compelling writing, voice acting, and world building. This is just a patient, grounded, human experience and I appreciate it for that. There is still much room for growth when it comes to interactive narrative, and Gone Home is only one of many unique ways in which the interactive medium can deliver an interesting experience, but for now I wouldn’t mind seeing more games like Gone Home. Relaxed experiences where a character simply walks around, talks to people, look at objects, perhaps finds clues and solves a mystery…or maybe just talks to a friend, buys a hot dog, watches a sunset…stuff besides slaying monsters, going on adventures, and saving the world, stuff that doesn’t need violence or combat or even esoteric puzzle solving (as compelling, and often emotional in their own right, as those experiences can be). Of course, this kind of experience can still involve an intriguing mystery or something fantastical, but the point is that a video game can still be something compelling without shoving ten hours of gunplay in-between low-key narrative exploration sections (leers slowly in the direction of BioShock Infinite). I don’t blame someone for criticizing Gone Home’s narrative as being too small, but I think that the game is quite revolutionary for being a video game that is just about exploring a family’s home and learning about their lives. I also think it’s just wonderful that something like Gone Home and something like Shovel Knight can both exist in the same medium, or at least under the hazy umbrella term of “interactive experiences”, and I think this is a testament to the power, potential, and overall amazingness of this medium.

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