Gone Home: Console Edition
I loved Dear Esther, but I hated Virginia. I recently had a go at Firewatch and uninstalled it without completing it first. So how will Gone Home fare in my estimations? It actually fared very, very well. I loved it even. It’s a nice little story, that’s well told and gave me feelings. It’s hard to actually talk about Gone Home in a refreshing way. Its loveliness is already well documented online and then some. So I am approaching this piece in two main ways: why this Walking Simulator functions so well compared to others and why it made me so emotional playing it.
What is a Dreaded Backlog?
I didn’t like Virginia because it pushed idea of “the player makes up their own ending” so far that it made the text meaningless through having no core theme of its own beyond homage to ‘90s genre TV set in creepy small towns. I stopped playing Firewatch because whilst it was clearly written from a place of genuine and sincere emotion, it was written as all surface. The writers clearly had their own experiences of loss, which makes me feel a little crass saying this, but the game can’t manage discussing it in terms more complex than a melodramatic afternoon radio play. I loved Dear Esther because it allowed for player interpretation about what might be happening specifically with the player character and their identity, but still told the same core story about the same people. It allowed you to explore the story in the geographical order you preferred too.
Dear Esther is the oldest of these respective titles and thus arguably an influence on the others. Firewatch and Virginia both showed that you can have gorgeous visuals in the Walking Simulator genre, but with little to offer beyond that. Virginia introduced hard cuts into the toolbox, but ultimately this ended up forcing one onto a limited set of options than even the most conservative of Walking Simulators by having the player actively searching for a “next scene” prompt rather than ‘live’ inside any particular moment. Originally coming out a year after Dear Esther, Gone Home is the true successor that pushes the strongest formula further into better territory.
Dear Esther has you choose where to walk to first before you hear some narration or dialogue. But in Gone Home you have to pick up and inspect clues, work out what they mean and then create your own order of priority of what clue to approach first. You even have to think logically about what objects are worth picking up if you don’t want to waste your time. Dear Esther uses ambiguity to imbue a melancholic and reflective mood and mindset. On the other hand Gone Home’s ambiguous narrative implications dovetails with its game play, specifically the openness of your investigation and how it can imply different possibilities in the narrative and tone, to create an emotional whiplash gauntlet. You honestly don’t know if you’re exploring a romantic drama or a haunted house style situation at first. Which in a way is the ultimate verisimilitude: characters in fiction don’t know or think of themselves as being in a “genre” when they’re approaching a mystery, just as people don’t in real life. This is what allows Gone Home to be an “emotional whiplash gauntlet” without risking the dreaded “tonal whiplash” that can plague some audience reactions in other media. Life isn’t just all sad or all comedy or all romance. Gone Home knows we experience a cacophony of emotions even with our lives generally arc towards good times or bad.
The story is of Katie Greenbriar’s return home from University to her family home to discover her parents and sister are all missing without explanation. As the player pieces together what’s happening there are a litany of scary possibilities unfolding. These range from just a severe family breaking argument all the way to possible abusive behaviour. I’d love to list what the game hints at and also actually explains, but if you’ve not played this game I don’t want to take the discoveries away from you. So I’ll just say that the game is set in 1995 and deals with topics such as: being a failson, the temptations of adultery, the legacies of abuse, the corrosive nature of homophobia, controlling parenting, the difficulties of reconciliation, the clash of youthful idealism and the cynicism of being middle aged. It also makes it clear just how creepy family houses are when they’re empty and lifeless. There are also healthy doses of references to punk rock and riot grrrls. Every character has strengths, weaknesses, hopes and dreams, moral failings and varied hobbies. These are real people brought to life. The game also gives the player insert character Katie similar treatment, but not excessively so as to risk dissonance. The writers understand the underlying psychology that underlines what people like about music and video games and what they like sharing with others, regardless of individual taste. Gone Home has you recognise yourself in someone completely different to you. Clearly the writers of Gone Home have based much of Katie and her family in their own lived experiences, but they’ve managed to make you feel included in these experiences rather than excluded. We all know what it’s like to be a teenager that’s lost. We all know what it’s like to be an adult who has grown past their teenage interests, but still holds a sense of nostalgia for that era of their lives.
Imagination is a powerful tool and Gone Home understands that. Dear Esther leaves the nature of the people in the story just vague enough that your imagination will bring them to life. Gone Home pushes this further by telling you exactly who these people are on every level, but still allowing your imagination to construct your own mental picture. We mostly read more private internalised expressions of the characters who’ll remind us of people we know. I guarantee every person who plays this game will imagine different versions of the characters in how they precisely externalise themselves. You will, consciously or not, build these fictional people out of the people in real life you actually know and care about. And Gone Home uses all these techniques to do something very different from the other Walking Simulators I’ve discussed: its narrative has a definitive and unambiguous ending.
Walking Simulators generally encourage the player to “fill in the gaps” for several obvious reasons I’ve already hinted at. The first is that making a game with player characters in requires expensive production resources and whatever is created will never live up to the player’s imagination. This is why in Virginia, a game where people actually appear, they’re depicted in an abstract animation style and don’t speak. You still have to imagine how they actually sound, looking and act. The other main reason for the ‘filling the gaps’ approach is to have the player bring their own experiences. You hint around a particular trauma so the player, who may not have experienced that particular trauma, will associate with memories of other tragic things in their life. For example not everyone has lost their wife in car crash, but they’ve maybe lost a grandparent to cancer. The exact nuances how these situations affect people are obviously different, but you can make the player connect the emotions when “vague sadness” is all that’s needed. What Gone Home does is have you fill in the gaps with very detailed characters. So this way when the game has a definitive ending with no ambiguity even if the player has no exact equating life experiences to what happens, it doesn’t matter: we care about the characters and it feels like we actually know them because we’ve built them out of people we know.
Gone Home is arguably a masterpiece of the Walking Simulator genre. It involves significantly more player interaction that most other titles in the genre, so it’s even an unambiguously good “video game” too. It uses that first person perspective not only to make you feel like yourself in this story, but to feel how Katie Greenbriar would feel, or at least how you feel she would feel. FEELINGS ARE EVERYWHERE. I didn’t consciously know who in my life I was building the Greenbriar family out of as I played. Upon reflecting post-completion I was able to put together my process and influences. I can honestly say that no one that I brought into Gone Home with me has the lives of the Greenbriar family, but that doesn’t matter, because for a time I became a Greenbriar. I didn’t even really get into how well the environment of the game is built and how well that helps develop and reflect the characters. So I’ll just say that I did cry at the end, which is rare and thus neat. FEELINGS.
Played on Xbox One X