Gone Home: Forms of Subversive Creation
By Joel Jordon
Creation in the content of Gone Home (the “story”) often comes in a form that echoes the form taken by the game as a whole. Centrally, Sam’s struggle to assert her identity in a culture hostile to her is a struggle to create herself. The parents create, too, although not as effectively. The protagonist in Terry’s bad novels is a time traveler who saves JFK again and again. This almost obsessive return to the year 1963 implies Terry’s own inability to move beyond the tragedies of his past. Jan is a forest ranger in charge of “controlled burns”—evocative language that suggests how she lives her life. Her dull marriage leads her to feel passion for a fellow forest ranger, but the flames are put out soon enough: the forest ranger marries someone else, and Jan and her husband go on a retreat for couples counseling. Then there is the character you control, Katie, who has been called “boring” and whose postcards from Europe—among the very few objects belonging to her that you can find in the house—have been called “vapid.” These evoke little more than her family’s upper-middle-class status.
Katie’s and the parents’ creations, constrained and conservative, stand in contrast to Sam’s and Lonnie’s—their zines collect the world around them in order to transform it into something new. Gone Home itself uses this primary technique of the girls’ DIY punk aesthetic. They have put their zines and mixtapes together in the same way as this house has been put together and filled with objects. Each object on its own, once picked up and closely examined, suggests documentary realism, but since none of the characters are present, the details are filled in impressionistically by the player.* This is a ghost story in the truest sense. A real ghost (Oscar) lies beneath the surface—the two main characters attempt to contact him from the dead—but everyone else is a ghost as well for not appearing at all except as objects.
So Gone Home is a new kind of ghost story. This game might be nostalgic for the nineties, the decade in which Looking Glass Studios designed Thief and System Shock, igniting the genre of immersive sims that Gone Home takes after; but Gone Home is new—a work of art belonging to this moment—for being conceived without the immediate and often violent feedback and choice players have come to expect from videogames. Its creators once worked on the BioShock series, the most obvious successor to Looking Glass’s immersive sims but a disappointment if their successors were meant to further contextualize your actions in the environment provided. When the use key is not being generalized to the extent that all meaning is lost, you are typically doing what you have always done in videogames: running around and shooting at enemies. The latest in this series, BioShock Infinite, was released earlier this year and called a masterpiece, but here is Gone Home, a game in which agency and choice are relegated mainly to your mind. The narrative is conveyed in three-dimensional hypertext, where each object is a link to follow. Meaning is fragmented and only begins to pull together as you think about and choose how the details connect. “Formalists” have been inclined to say this isn’t choice at all, but it is the kind of choice you make constantly while playing a Twine game or, more broadly, reading literature. This choice is absolutely valuable and can in fact carry even more meaning because it has subtlety and requires thought more than just behavioral response.
Gone Home subverts traditional videogame design in this way and others. Several posts have been written about the game’s pastiche of horror clichés—the dark and stormy night, the mansion, and the flickering lights. These lead players to expect certain outcomes, suicide usually among them. The game plays a visual joke on you when it presents what looks like blood in a bathtub but is actually hair dye. So when Gone Home turns out to have an ending that could be described as happy, this is yet another self-conscious subversion.
It is perfectly appropriate that a game filled with such subversions should come at a time when many designers, critics, and players are desperate to revise this toxic videogame culture. The mansion in Gone Home, with its history tying it to an abusive man and its luxuriant size except for the tiny servant’s room in the basement, is the guard of patriarchal and class power. The story of Sam’s struggle, which took place here while you were gone, shows how new creation can occur in this kind of environment. It forges the path ahead for more art that challenges what has been.
* This is supported aesthetically by the impressionistic paintings hung throughout the house as well as by the house itself, which looks real but is clearly not striving for photorealism. The textures, the lighting, and the models are fuzzier and less precise than in reality.