Gone Home : A Tragic Search for Love
Proceed at your own risk, spoilers below
Recently I finished “Gone Home”–a video game that has been quite the buzz of the industry since its release in 2013. Much of it’s success has been propelled by it’s unconventional subject matter and play style. There are no baddies to shoot, no races to win, no escort missions(whew) no enemies to defeat. Instead, perhaps the closest game that I can relate it to is Myst–an exploration game where you may need to solve puzzles to progress to the next room.
The game is all about the story and your experience in uncovering its secrets–so rather than being an adrenaline driven experience, the game is much more akin to reading a novel or watching a movie.
In the story you play the role of Kaitlin Greenbriar–a recent high school graduate.The year is 1995, and you have just returned home from a year-long backpacking style trip to Europe. While you were away, your family moved to a new house. But when you walk through the front door, no one is there to greet you. Rather, the house is mysteriously empty.
As a player, you will spend the next 2-4 hours exploring every nook and cranny, reading your sister’s diary entries and parents’ personal correspondence to not only discover where they may be today, but also look into the deep secrets of each of their recent and past stories.
Exploring the large, creepy house is exhilarating–and as you uncover your family’s secrets you learn to understand and empathize little by little with each of your family members. This is where the game truly shines. However, by the end of the story a disturbing family history emerges–one that shows how generations of disfunction, neglect, and secrecy have led to a broken, lonely existence for each one on the family.
Mom is the least developed character in the story. We know that she works for the Forestry Department and that she has had difficulty connecting with her husband both emotionally and sexually. In desperation she reaches out to her long-time pen pal (which we so conveniently stumble upon) to fantasize about a new coworker–a man named Ranger Rick. The game indicates that Mom at least has an emotional affair (probably a sexual one as well), but is ultimately brought back to reality when Rick marries his distant girlfriend.
Sam is your younger sister–and is the most obvious main story-line in the game. She is a teenager struggling for identity–finding herself lonely in a new school and with lame, unempathetic parents. She begins the story appearing to feel deserted even by you, her sister. Quickly, however, Sam befriends a girl at school, Lonnie–who has died hair, sings in a punk rock band, and is planning on joining the military upon graduation later this year. Sam develops romantic feelings for Lonnie, becomes her girlfriend, disobeys her parents to repeatedly sneak off with her and engage in a sexual relationship. This story line has undoubtably led to the games success as a homosexual romance is increasingly a hip theme in gaming today–appearing to be as cool, rebellious, and mind opening as punk rock in the 90’s. We are led to believe that the relationship is ending because Lonnie is shipping off to the military–and are even led to believe that Sam may commit suicide in her grief–but alas all is well when Lonnie skips basic training to run off with Sam.
All of this may seem relevant and heartwarming to our current millennial mindset, but with a little thought and contemplation (even by a secular mindset) begins to see the twisted reality. Sam is clearly seeking attention from a stronger, independent older special someone who preys on her vulnerability. Lonnie is 18, Sam perhaps 17–and sexual intercourse between them would be considered statutory rape–especially because of her parents disapproval. Then, Lonnie runs off with Sam, again against the parents’ wishes–which accounts to kidnapping.
Kaitlin is the older sister who you embody in the game. At first glance, you appear to be a place-holder, one dimensional character. However as the story progresses you come to understand your story bit by bit. You are the achiever in the family. You have first place trophies, A+ assignments (Sam was not and also suspended from school). Even your big trip to Europe appears to be an attempt to show the world how special you are.
I suspect Kaitlin has a story much like my own–a desperate desire to be someone, to capture the praise of your parents (most particularly your father). However, Dad still seems distant in his relationships with both you and Sam. You tried to win his favor by being the perfect daughter, and Sam by acting out. Sadly, Dad is so obsessed with his own problems that he gives neither of you the love you so desperately desire. This leads you to try more radical things like going to Europe, and pushes Sam away from acceptable friendships (such as with a boy named Daniel) to a girl that brings the scorn of her father.
Dad is the real main character of the game in my opinion. However, a casual play through may miss this. However, each of the plotlines all happen to orbit around Dad’s actions, or more rightfully his distance and inaction. As you explore the house, you learn that Dad is a B-list quality Sci-Fi author who has produced campy books that neither earn the respect of readers or, more importantly, his father. In the basement you find a letter from Dad’s father (a PHD. in literature) that emotionlessly tears apart Dad’s work academically and finishes by saying “You can do better.” Next to the letter you find a portrait of Dad’s father with his face ripped out. Dad, like the rest of his family has male or daddy issues. A player with close attention to detail also finds evidence that Dad was sexually abused during his childhood by his Uncle. Who, in fact used to live in the very house you are now exploring. The uncle was never truly confronted, and the whole matter was pushed under the rug.
Gone Home is a story that will stick with me as I continue to ponder its characters and their circumstances. Their family is broken to the core. Yet, this family is imaginary. They are only people in a video game. Unfortunately their stories are not unique. The reason that the game has so much power is that we can see bits of our lives in the characters–and that the family next door probably looks very similar.
Unfortunately, the game ends on a false positive note. In fact, the ending is what nearly ruins the game for me. I find both truth and despair with Mom and Dad’s ending. They jet off to a couples marriage retreat to try to rekindle their flames. Yet, they left their struggling daughter Sam with only a note in the garage explaining their disappearance. I guess they also left $20 on the kitchen counter to buy some food, but really. What parents do that with a child such as Sam?
The game tries to sell Sam’s disappearance with Lonnie as a positive end. They juked you into thinking that you would find Sam’s dead body in the last room as a result of a passionate-suicide. Rather, Sam runs off with an older girl who shows no responsibility and exhibits disturbing criminal behavior. In an attempt to find meaning and attention Sam has been misled to feel emotions for a girl who abuses her and likely will break her heart in just a manner of weeks when she realizes that her real future is not with Sam, but with the military.
While the ending may be all to often a truthful scenario, it certainly is not one that solves any problems or offers any hope. As a Christian, I believe that if these people were in fact real people, they are not without redemption. However, true love, purpose, and salvation will come not from daddy’s approval, or an edgy relationship, but through a walk with Jesus Christ.
Would I recommend this game? Yes, but only to a mature individual who is able to see the story for what it truly is: a tragedy and not a comedy.