I didn’t expect to spend several hours this weekend playing a video game, but the buzz around Gone Home was too much to ignore. The premise is incredibly simple yet breathtakingly elegant: during a dark and stormy night in the mid-1990s you arrive home from a trip overseas to an empty house. You aren’t sure what happened, but everyone is gone.
The rest of this post will give spoilers for the game. Download it. Play it. Come back when you are finished.
Amidst the growing clamor around the treatment of women online and the (still!) incessant hounding of Anita Sarkeesian by trolls for daring to turn a critical gaze onto video games, Fulbright Games has dropped a subtle, wonderful video game with fully developed (though absent) female characters. There are three (arguably 3.5) storylines that you explore as you move through exploring the contents and structure of the very large (!) house that your parents moved into while you were overseas.
There are already several reviews that describe how intimate the storyline is and the “ludonarrative harmony” that Gone Home uses to “exploit gamic expectations, gamic tropes.” Beyond the fantastic storyline (setting the game in the mid-90s, featuring riot grrl music and zines left me nearly immobile with nostalgia), the way the game uses found objects, assemblages, and a domestic structure to connect the player with missing people deserves some attention from archaeologists and others who are interested in digital materiality.
The setting of Gone Home is, from the perspective of a western gamer used to deep space and fantasy realms, hopelessly mundane. The house, while incredibly large, is not unfamiliar to anyone who has been to suburban America. Its contents are a little jumbled, as your parents have just moved in, but it is completely full of glasses, tissue boxes, coasters, televisions, and empty pizza boxes. Yet these contents are not randomly scattered through the house. In time, through your exploration and increased understanding of the family members, you associate these objects with individuals and can “see” which rooms each of them frequented.
Personal letters, tickets, receipts, calendars and photos help the narrative along, and you assemble this detritus into an intricately detailed picture of what happened in the house while you were overseas. Gone Home is deeply about context–did your mother cheat or not? What was the relationship between your father and his uncle? Even some of the “meaningless” objects, the objects that do not directly advance a storyline, help build both the context and add depth to the characterizations.
There is also a measure of respect for these objects–unlike most video games, you do not have to smash everything you see so that you can look inside. You are invited to put cassette tapes into players and put things back in the right place after you examine them. I admit that I took a certain amount of joy in throwing tampons all over the bathroom, but this may mean I’m just a little more Sam than Katie. In an interview with the Fullbright Company, Steve Gaynor explicitly cites haikyo, or urban exploration, finding a story “through voyeurism and exploration” as one of the main sources of inspiration for the game.
The objects fill us with a sense of unease–as a family member, you (as Katie) are, in theory, allowed to go through the house, even though your sister asks you not to try to find out where she is. Yet you feel a voyeurism as you sort through the domestic detritus, and find out uncomfortable details of your family’s life. This ambiguity is intriguing–the only way to finish the game is to use the objects to learn, yet the objects do not always tell a comfortable story. The mundane details of life in Gone Home are hopelessly enchanting.
As an archaeologist, I am thrilled to see a game that tells such an intimate narrative about a household through objects. How much of our story is in what we leave behind? How can we convey meaning through objects without a didactic label? Can we ever hope to make a story about the (more distant) past as vibrant as Gone Home? Mostly importantly, am I so hopelessly old that it breaks my heart that Sam did not end up going to Reed for creative writing?