Friday, August 16, 2013

Notes on Gone Home


1. As the credits rolled on Gone Home I felt happy, sad, and old.

2. Gone Home is a game you don't want to read about before you play. All you want to know about it first is that it is lovely, that is is beautiful, that it will take maybe 2-3 hours to play, and that you should wait until you can give it your undivided and uninterrupted attention so that you can let it all sink in in one playthrough. That is all you want to know before you play it. So stop reading now if you haven't played it yet.

3. I think Cameron Kunzelman has already sad everything I will say about the game here far more succinctly.

4. Gone Home is a scary game. The things that scare you are the things that scare you as a teenager. Childish fears that you are old enough to know are silly but not old enough to completely disbelieve. Ghosts, dark rooms, absent parents, eery answering phone messages. When you're a teenager, the world is so dramatic. Everything that could go wrong will go wrong. Playing through Gone Home, I was certain from the start that everything was going wrong (but surely it wouldn't). There would be ghosts (but surely not, right?). Something would move in a dark room (but it wouldn't, surely (but I should leave all the lights on just in case)). My entirely family was going to be dead (well probably not, but surely). Lots of things made me nostalgic and melancholy in Gone Home, but its defining sensation was one of dread amplified by a hyperbolic, adolescent imagination.

5. Which, now that I write that, makes me think back to when I talked to Walt Williams at GDC and we discussed how videogames aren't a 'young' medium but an adolescent medium in the way they think they are being all dark and serious in really immature ways. Gone Home plays to the strengths of an adolescent medium, feeding on my juvenile fears that something terrible is surely going to happen eventually because this is a videogame.

6. I love the way Gone Home plays on Horror tropes to build that sense of trepidation and forewarning. The stormy night in the woods, the eerie old mansion, the missing family, those (at first) messed up answering machine messages. I was terrified for most of the game, just waiting for the inevitable ghost. When the lightbulb burst as I picked up the crucifix, I almost had to stop playing. When I found a room in the basement where the light wouldn't turn on, I refused to enter. My mind turned the shapes of curtains and shadows into people staring at me. The tropes of the Horror genre reverted me back to being a terrified teenager who should probably know better but really doesn't. Like the time I freaked out when I was 15 because there was a guy getting out of a car in front of the house and it was just dad's friend dropping by. Something about being a teenager means you always expect the worst. Because being a teenager is dramatic, right? It's a time of constant change and impermanence and everything new that you discover you want to hold onto but it's going to be lost the moment you finish high school or move to a new town or enter puberty or whatever. Until the closing moments of Gone Home, I expected the worst.

7. But then it all makes sense. My parents are away at a counselling retreat (for reasons I understand based on the objects scattered around the house). My sister hasn't killed herself like some TV-trope depressed gay teenager. She has run off with the love of her life. Of course the house is a mess, then. Of course! it makes sense now. Like the shadow of a terrifying monster turning into a coatrack, everything makes sense in hindsight. How silly was I! Everything that was scary wasn't actually scary. It was just my imagination, moulded like clay by this masterful game and its genius creators. This is why you want to play the game not knowing anything about it. To feel that trepidation. To not be sure if there are ghosts or not but surely there aren't but maybe there are. To bring in your expectations from other media that the gay teenager surely killed herself and have that expectation shattered.

8. Gone Home is yet another indie game that proves that videogames do not need to be packed with action and violence to maintain the player's attention. A space to move through and things to look at. Those elements alone will carry a game far. Gone Home, Dear Esther, Proteus, Journey. I hope the creators of AAA games start to realise this. I want more big blockbuster games that are not afraid of downtime or a slow pace. Last Of Us was a step in the right direction, to be sure, but you can carry a game so much further with so much less action and I hope we finally begin to see more of this in the AAA space. Maybe.

9. I love Gone Home's characters. I love that Katie is a real person, fleshed out by her own postcards and her voice on the answering machine. I love how she is situated for the player: someone who has been away for a year while her family moved homes. It's the perfect setup for the character being disorientated in this big, bizarre house, feeling as out-of-place as the player even as all the objects that fill up this space are familiar to her. Familiar memories in an alien environment. Like some kind of dissonant memory palace.

10. BUT! I love that this game isn't about Katie. Kind of like the way Metal Gear Solid 2 isn't about Raiden. The main character in this story is not the playable character. Katie is unearthing the story of Sam, her sister, about which Gone Home's story is based. We follow in Sam's footsteps unearthing her story and her feelings and her memories (almost like Raiden follows in Snake's footsteps but let's not do a Gone Home/Metal Gear Solid 2 comparative essay just now). We make predictions (mostly negative) about how her life has played out and why she isn't here now. We feel jubilant when the game ends and we realise her ending was a happy one (if not bittersweet). I smiled and wanted to cry for a character that I had never seen or directly engaged with throughout the game.

11. Perhaps Gone Home feels so melancholy even at the end because I never got to hug my younger sister.

12. I miss the 90s. Like, I really miss the 90s. To be certain, the 90s I miss is probably not the same 90s as those just a bit older than me miss. I was born in 1986. I was not old enough for half the 90s to really appreciate it at the time, but I built up a storage of memories of things that I saw and heard and, in more recent years, have made sense of those memories. Now I feel this strange, aching loss for the decade that I lived out for most of my childhood (if not my adolescence).

It's something I've been struggling with for maybe a year now, this strange kind of late-20s crisis of being old enough to contextualise my existence within a much broader history of humanity to realise just how small and fleeting I am. I remember my dad listen to 70s music in the 90s, music from a decade back in some pre-history of humankind. The 70s were as far back in time then as the 90s are now. I was born in the 80s. The 80s are as far away from now as the 50s were from the 80s. The Pub Trivia I go to plays 'old' songs by The Cranberries and Garbage and Hole. I know adults who remember September 11 about as poorly as I remember the Berlin War falling down.

This is not to say I am old. Everyone older than me would scoff at such a statement. I am saying that I am old enough for time to feel like it is moving pretty fucking fast and my childhood is something that doesn't exist anymore. It's a memory that's trapped back in the 90s, locked up with Sega Megadrives and Riot Grrls and Marilyn Manson and purple Hang Ten t-shirts. I'm pretty happy with my present life, but that realisation that the past is, well, past, hits pretty hard.

So Gone Home was nostalgic for me in the most literal possible sense. Nostalgia is derived from the Greek nostos ("homecoming") + algos ("pain, grief, distress") (thanks, Google). Gone Home was a painful homecoming. For Katie, to be sure, but also for me. And also for a lot of people my age and a bit older, I imagine. Not because it says "Hey, remember Super Nintendo?" which is the extent of most game's use of nostalgia. But because it teleported me back to a time and decade in my life that I am just now coming to terms with being over. Gone Home isn't a memory palace; it's a memory museum.

To be sure, I wasn't a riot grrrl struggling with having to come out to my parents. But I was a kid in the 90s, and all the minutiae things around this house created a painful homecoming for me. Or maybe this was more like leaving home. Of having to accept that the 90s were the 90s and that's where they have to stay. I dunno. It's an emotion that I still don't really have the words for. All I know is that this is the first contemporary creative work (with one vague exception) that helped me come to terms with my already-here-but-not-quite-accepted adulthood in a weird way that I don't quite have the words for, and it was an incredibly powerful experience.

13. Courtney Stanton mentioned on Twitter that Gone Home has replaced Portal for her game-to-show-people-who-don't-like-games-what-videogames-are-capable-of (I'm paraphrasing). I could not agree more.

14. Ben Abraham wrote a really interesting piece on how the game plays off tropes to create a ludonarrative harmony (oh no he didn't (oh yes he did)).

15. Merritt Kopas's personal thoughts on the game and her own childhood are really moving.

16. Some thoughts by Mattie Brice about her relationship with the 90s and indie games and nostalgia and Gone Home.

17. Anna Anthropy's thoughts on the game.

18. Kim Delicious's thoughts on the game.

19. At the risk of sounding like some privileged cisdude exoticising queer experiences, I'm really fascinated and moved by the various reactions queer writers are having to Gone Home. Some are melancholically remembering when they were queer teenage girls in the 90s; others are lamenting that they weren't teenage girls in the 90s (be it because of age or of gender). There are so many different emotional responses to Gone Home, so many different people being reminded of something they either never had or have since lost by the game. I think there's something really special about that.

20. Naomi Clarke wrote a really in-depth analysis of a single piece of paper in the game world and what the player's limited interactions with it say about the game.

21. Cameron Kunzelman is putting together a post of writings about Gone Home, so I will stop updating this notes post now with my favourite posts about it since they are all already there.

5 comments:

Adrian Forest said...

Weirdly enough, I've been feeling a lot of similar things watching Star Trek: The Next Generation for the first time recently. It's such an artifact of a particular time in the late 80s/early 90s, and the way people, particularly Americans, thought about the world then. All of its approaches to race, gender, sexuality, politics, etc. are sort of weirdly out-of-joint with my sense of prevailing beliefs today. It's not old enough to feel archaic, but it's old enough to notice the difference.

And it's interesting that you mention Metal Gear Solid, because I've written before about how those games seem perpetually rooted in a particular worldview that surely made a whole lot of sense at the time, and if you played those games on release, but feels weirdly out of touch now.

jama said...

Seriously, it wasn't all that good and the scares were really cheap.

Gone Home is actually the cyclops that rules over the blind. In this era of horrible writing in games, it stands out just for being decent.

Brendan Keogh said...

jama,

While I disagree that the scares were 'cheap' (largely for the reasons above about subverting the horror trope), you do have a point that Gone Home stands out for being decent. This game could've existed at any time in the last twenty years, as people have said on Twitter. But it didn't!. It's remarkable because someone actually, finally made it. Saying it isn't remarkabe because it could've been made before is like walking into an art gallery and scoffing at a piece of modern art saying, "What's so special about that? Anyone could've done it!"

I guess, too, I am far more interested in judging games by the games that already exist, not the games that 'could' potentially exist. If everybody else is blind, then a cyclops is truly a remarkable creature.

Old Rusty Gamer said...

Brendan,


I just played through Gone Home with my wife by my side last night and put "pen to paper" and put some thoughts down at
http://oldrustygamer.blogspot.com/2013/12/gone-home.html

She found your blog after reading mine as a good segue for her emotions as mine is fine to be read by those that haven't played the game, but yours is good for opening discussion about the experiences we just shared.

Cyclops or not, we enjoyed our playthrough, and had so many dark thoughts and concerns for the interested parties.

I am going to doing a playthrough and discussion on Twitch.TV tomorrow night, curious to see if we'll have anyone who hasn't played it tune in :B

pyri said...

I didn't play this expecting a ghost story, but for the sake of getting thrown into a Bourgeois environment and being confronted with the feelings of supposed "normal" people, especially towards the other "weirdos". Therefore I'm kinda disappointed when there's not only a supposed to be taboo-breaking same-sex coming-of-age of the little sister - in the end the game plays out in parallels to the short-lived but well-remembered television series "My So-Called Life" - but also a (family) ghost story.
Yet at first and foremost, this game is about normality and the supposed pleasures of traditional family values. And in that regard, this is probably the most voyeuristic video game ever made. "Gone Home" would be really embarrassing, if they didn't place obscure letters in the most absurd places trying to reenact a certain atmosphere of the Mid-Nineties. And these stereotypical feelings about what a "video game" would be, or how "immature" they regularly were, are also such "tropes" full of pride and prejudice - "Gone Home" may not be a "young" video game, but it certainly is a new one on very old American subject matters.