Originally published at the Los Angeles Review of Books
Gone Home is a videogame about releasing secrets, the kind of secrets that you should have known all along. It is set in Oregon circa 1995, and it tells the story of an ordinary family. As the game starts, you find yourself on the porch of an old house. You are Katie Greenbriar, a twenty year-old student who has just returned from a year abroad to the home your family moved into while you were away. The player maneuvers Katie using the controls common in modern games, piloting her around 3d space. There, you discover where Katie’s family has gone, and why, by interacting with artifacts in the home, some of which act as narrative keys to unlock subsequent slices of story.
Tropes from horror fiction are present in Gone Home from the start: you are stuck, at night, in a thunderstorm, in a big, empty mansion. You expect something to go terribly wrong at any moment. The game slowly dismantles this expectation, until you are left with only the embarrassment of having had it in the first place.
Instead, Gone Home methodically reveals details of its characters’ inner lives. Katie’s father Terry is a failed novelist whose own narrative obsessions arise from a terrible secret. Her mother, Jan, is bored and frustrated with her marriage. But it is Katie’s teenage sister, Samantha (“Sam”), who supplies the game’s central plotline, a journey of queer self-discovery. Hardly the usual fare for a videogame.
To understand Gone Home, you must first know something about its creators’ history. The Fullbright Company is a name whose corporate formality betrays the fact that it’s really just four people, Steve Gaynor, Karla Zimonja, Johnnemann Nordhagen, and Kate Craig. All but Craig had worked together on the hit Bioshock series, a frequently cited example of purportedly mature storytelling, at least where “maturity” refers to something more than gruesome violence.
Bioshock sported many of the features of serious narrative media: an auteur figure (creator Ken Levine), a serious subject (freedom and enslavement), a set of apparent moral conflicts (delivered via genetically-modified girls called “little sisters”), a range of cultural intertexts (Atlas Shrugged, Logan’s Run), and a stylish environment (an underwater art deco dystopia called Rapture). The game was an enormous commercial and critical success.
The problem is, Bioshock never really deserved the praise it received. It posed as a serious, hard science fiction take-down of the doomed hubris of technophilic selfishness, but in truth the game was just a spruced-up first-person shooter. Its engagement with morality and politics was window dressing, its apparent critique of Randian Objectivism mostly allegorical hand-waving. Narratively, Bioshock relied on a ham-fisted, fourth-wall breaking parody of a position on free will that’s become unfortunately popular in videogames: attempting to make the player’s choice to play the game in the first place pose as a gesture of complicity. A contrived deus ex machina like this might work once, but even then it’s a precious gimmick, one that hardly deserves the praise reserved for subtler methods.
Gaynor, Zimonja, and Nordhagen had worked together on a downloadable episode for Bioshock 2 called “Minerva’s Den.” The campaign offers a deeper look into Rapture’s operation via its central computing system. The promise and temptation of artificial intelligence takes the place of genetic modification, reiterating the series’ overall one-bit moral klaxon by asserting that technologies are as good or bad as the men who use them.
Buoyed by success, Levine led the creation of another game in the series, Bioshock Infinite, which was released earlier this year. Infinite promised a serious look at racism, religious fundamentalism, and American exceptionalism in another sci-fi secessionist dream world, the floating city of Columbia. But Infinite betrayed its gorgeous and haunting opening sequence with a boring, meaningless onslaught of me-too first-person shooter carnage. On top of it, the game featured an inoculated female sidekick for the player’s hunky alter ego. By now, critics hadbegun to grow impatient.
So had Gaynor, Zimonja, and Nordhagen, who founded the Fullbright Company with the intention of opening the Pandora’s box of narrative gaming that Levine wouldn’t touch, having traded curiosity for commercialism. Fullbright’s design gambit: what would a game like Bioshock be like if you took out all the combat, all the violence, and just left the environment and the story? Dear Esther, a title released last year, had already taken a crack at the problem, but Gone Home aims for a less fragmentary, more traditional narrative experience, something normal people could relate to: a family’s ordinary travails.
Many of Bioshock‘s and Dear Esther‘s approaches to environmental storytelling are retained in Gone Home: the exploration of space as a means for narrative progression, the use of recorded voiceovers activated by the discovery of specific items, a bleak moodiness that sets an overall tone, and a focus on environmental detail for world-building.
Arbor House, the mansion that serves as Gone Home‘s setting, is filled with various trinkets, most of which the player can pick up and investigate. The mid-1990s backdrop—a time before we conducted our lives entirely on computers and smartphones—offers an excuse for leaving material clues around. Some contain hidden clues or narrative threads that help explain the Greenbriar family’s backstory: letters, postcards, files, cassettes. Others offer situational and temporal context: a Pulp Fiction ticket stub, VHS tapes, Magic Eye autostereograms. Others just offer texture, the lived-in details of an ordinary home: tissue boxes, books, foodstuffs.
Terry and Jan Greenbriar get coherent, discernable flaws and backstories, and their characters do change over the course of Katie’s exploratory retelling. But Sam is really the star of Gone Home. Other than two stage-setting, one-line answer machine messages, hers is the voice we hear through the two- to three-hours that it takes to play Gone Home, as she recounts the events that led to her apparent disappearance.
This is a story of self-discovery by way of an adventure-game paean to riot grrrls. Outside Portland in the mid 1990s, Sam listens to Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy with her girlfriend Lonnie. They dye their hair red, pass notes in school, and confide in one another in the big, empty spaces of Arbor House. Over time, they descend into slightly melodramatic but nonetheless charming teen love. As videogames lurch forward toward the questionable goal of narrative maturity, Gone Home would seem like a welcome, even an overdue contribution to the cause. And it is.
But it’s a brittle one. Everything fits together so well in Gone Home that the experience creaks and bends like the old house itself. Environmental storytelling is difficult because anything less than ontological fullness breaks the immersive promise of a lived-in world. And for the most part, Arbor House is empty, furnished to a minimum, the same sideboards and books, the same fixtures and accessories repeating from room to room. Bioshock‘s Rapture drew power mostly from its visual style, its intricate art deco design effectively suggesting that a drugged-out Objectivist civilization once lived within it. But the empty, ruined world has become too common in games, and Gone Home suffers for the sins of its predecessors.
There turn out to be credible reasons that the Greenbriar house is empty, but not enough reasons why the house is so barren. It sits uncomfortably between a theatrical stage on the one hand and a realistic 3d environment on the other. On stage, any prop has a reason to be a gun that goes off in the second act, and a dearth of items never inspires incredulity. But a 3d world requires a surfeit of extraneousness to make any single element’s presence persuasive—not only an expensive feat, but also one that risks occluding the important papers, drawers, and cassette tapes among a sea of incidentals. At best, the result becomes a reasonably plausible setting for a semi-playable story. At worst, it amounts to a complicated menu system for selecting narrative fragments. Arbor House is most alive in its closets—an apt metaphor for the game’s themes.
But more urgently, Gone Home‘s characters are too archetypal to become truly literary. Katie suffers the least for this fault. She mostly functions as a cursor you move to experience the story, so gaps in her exposition are easily sorted out in the player’s head. Perhaps because we are told so little about her, Katie is the most convincingly written character in Gone Home. A postcard from Paris found on a counter reveals Katie to be caring enough to remain connected, but also shows that she’s largely going through the motions, doing what’s expected—just the opposite of her sister: “I am in Paris,” Katie writes. “I have done many Parisian things, including eating le petit dejeuner and wearing a beret.” Writing is an art best cultivated with restraint.
Jan and Terry Greenbriar get short shrift in the game, which devotes the majority of its narrative attention and production effort to Sam. Absent voice acting, the game scatters the parents’ backstories among fragments—letters, notes, post-its, and files. Jan’s doubts about her marriage are assuaged by a letter from a friend, and Terry’s troubled writing career is partly told through rejections from his publisher. As background noise, Jan and Terry are eminently credible, but as characters that comprise half of the cast of Gone Home, the adults are mostly props, bit parts needed to advance Sam’s storyline.
Eventually, the player discovers that Jan might have pondered a fling, and that Terry’s anxiety arises from a terrible secret. These revelations are significant, yet they are hidden in plain sight, a consequence of the game’s commitment to connecting narrative progress with artifactual discovery. But more than that, they feel like pat choices, contrived plot devices that allow the game to appear sophisticated without taking any risks. Just as Bioshock referred to Objectivism without really engaging it, Gone Home evokes marital strife, professional anxiety, and childhood trauma for rhetorical rather than expressive reasons.
As for Sam, things are complicated. On the one hand, it’s hard to justify criticizing a videogame for telling a teenage girl’s queer coming-of-age story. But on the other hand, everything about that story is so neatly put into place, so clear and so paint-by-number, that it rings hollow. Not in its spirit, not in its message, even, but in its artistic achievement.
This is an unpopular opinion. Gone Home has been met with almost universal praise in the gaming community, a world where numerical scores on a ten-point scale mean everything, and where Gone Home has achieved mostly 9s and 10s. After playing, dude-bro game dev celebrity Cliff Bleszinski gushed, “This game moved me in a way that I’ve never been moved by a game before.” Lesbian, queer, and transgender players—an increasingly vocal and welcome counterpoint to traditional straight male voices in game development—penned love letters to the game, expressing how it captured their own teenage disquiet.
It’s impossible and undesirable to question these reactions, to undermine them with haughty disregard. But it’s also not unreasonable to ask how these players could have been so easily satisfied. For readers of contemporary fiction or even viewers of serious television, it’s hard for me to imagine that Gone Home would elicit much of any reaction, let alone the reports of full-bore weeping and breathless panegyrics this game has enjoyed. I felt charmed upon completing Gone Home, but then I felt ashamed for failing to meet the emotional bar set by my videogame-playing brethren.
Compared to classic and contemporary works of literature on the challenges and implications of queer love (Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, or Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour,” or Pamela Moore’s Chocolates for Breakfast or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, or Bertha Harris’s Lover, or Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, to name but a few of the most obvious candidates) Gone Home would seem amateurish, forced, heavy-handed. Even Gary D. Wilson’s “Sweet Sixteen,” a five-hundred word microfiction about teenage love and its midlife aftermath, makes Gone Home feel trite and boilerplate. For a literary audience,Gone Home will certainly be more appealing than Bioshock—but less appealing than, say, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, a book Bioshock players have no more heard of than readers of Winterson have heard of Ken Levine.
Maybe we are not meant to weigh Gone Home against time-tested works of narrative accomplishment. But if not, then by what measure shall we judge it? Gone Home gets the praise one would associate with Alfonso Cuarón-does-7th Guest or Sarah Waters-does-Myst, when in reality it’s more like John Hughes-does-7th Guest or Judy Blume-does-Myst. It’s a literary work on the level of young adult fiction.
And you know, that’s not bad! Hughes’s movies and Blume’s books have a place in the world, and that place is not necessarily better or worse than Jim Jarmusch films or Roberto Bolaño novels. But it is different, and that difference makes a difference.
There is an idea among the game playing and development communities that games can be stories with interactivity, and that such new types of stories are going to “broaden the audience” for games. But this is a flawed idea, because a broadened audience would mean an audience amenable to such new material in the context of their existing tastes. If that gap is not acknowledged and addressed, then we end up with games as bad television shows and novels—bad television shows and novels with button pressing.
Then again, what if Gone Home teaches us that videogames need only grow up enough to meet the expectations other narrative media have reset in the meantime? After all, we’re living in an age in which the literary mainstream is dominated by young adult fiction anyway. Adults read series like Harry Potter and Twilight and The Hunger Games with unabashed glee. Comic book film adaptations have overtaken the cinema. What if games haven’t failed to mature so much as all other media have degenerated, such that the model of the young adult novel is really the highest (and most commercially viable) success one can achieve in narrative?
As the designer Merritt Kopas said of Gone Home, “This is a videogame. About girls in love. That shouldn’t be exceptional in and of itself, but it is.” And there’s the rub. Because Kopas is right: the fact of the game’s very existence becomes more important than its aesthetic ambitions. Such is the remaining not-so-hidden secret of Gone Home, a game about not-so-hidden secrets: that media must struggle against increasingly strong rhetorical currents to have even a chance at spawning a modicum of expression before dying off.
If Gone Home is meant to introduce the gamer community to a representational possibility space that includes girls in love, listless wives, and dispirited writers, then we must fess up to an inconvenient truth: that even a game that looks beyond one kind of adolescence still does so through the lens of another. A game set among the riot grrrl 1990s shames games for how late they are to the party: third-wave feminism is over twenty years old, born just after videogames had abandoned their first, now-forgotten drive toward the cultural mainstream via political simulations and adventure games to settle on a steady diet of obliterating hell-spawn and saving kidnapped princesses. Perhaps the coming-of-age story told in Gone Home is not just Sam’s, but that of videogames themselves. The very idea that the very idea of a game about a lesbian girl could surprise us should also embarrass us.
Adolescence is videogame culture’s greatest fear. That we will forever be stuck with juvenile power fantasies: fast cars, Big Fucking Guns, and boob physics. That videogames will be lost to adulthood like comic books once were. Just as Katie Greenbriar comes home to a home that isn’t a home for anyone, so Gone Home reveals a secret that turns out to be an obvious one, and one much bigger than videogames: today, narrative writ large is mired in a permanent adolescence that videogames can now easily equal, the modest, subtle pleasures of the literary arts melting under Iron Man’s turbines, impaled by Katniss Everdeen’s arrow.
Eventually adolescence ends, and we leave it. Unless it has fixed itself as our greatest aspiration. After all, comic books aren’t a ghetto, at all; they are bigger and more mainstream than ever. What if escaping one kind of adolescence entails embracing a different one, from the other direction? The promise of Gone Home is also its hazard: not just that if offers a well-needed alternative to videogames’ immaturity, but also that it offers enough of one to satisfy us. That pubescence’s salve is more pubescence, but inverted. That coming-of-age has arrived, and that its arrival is sufficient.