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No More Mirrors: Reflecting the Reality of Unreal Lives

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Wednesday, Sep 11, 2013
The oddest detail in a game world that concerns itself with including shampoo bottles, cereal boxes, and VHS tapes is the fact that the house that you occupy in Gone Home is missing one item so common to human experience and so common to domestic spaces. This is a home that contains no mirrors.

On the face of it, Gone Home seems interested in reflecting a rather realistic vision of the world. Set, as the game is, exclusively in a house, it is a small but dense game world because it seems an effort to create a most authentic representation of a home in all its details.


In what video game world is one likely to run into a box of tampons? In Gone Home, you will because it represents a house where women live. It wants to reflect seemingly real lives and real living.


And yet, the oddest detail in a game world that concerns itself with including shampoo bottles, cereal boxes, and neatly labeled VHS tapes is the fact that the house that you occupy in the game is missing one item so common to human experience and so common to domestic spaces. This is a home that contains no mirrors. 
  
Now I have to imagine that the foremost reason for the lack of mirrors in Gone Home is very simply related to the perspective of the game. You, as a protagonist that will explore a somewhat familiar and somewhat unfamiliar home, view the game entirely through a first person perspective. And since there are not any other human beings that you will encounter over the course of the game, it would seem a pretty big hassle to model and animate a single character merely for the sake of that character seeing her own reflection.


That being said, whatever practical motivations may have informed The Fullbright Company to eschew including any reflective surfaces in an otherwise seemingly fully functional house (And, after all, mirrors are rather important and useful tools in a home. How else will you be able to make sure that you look decent when you exit the house into a larger world that will judge you on your face, your appearance, your construction of yourself?), the lack of mirrors in the home does create one of the more clearly strange and unreal qualities of the house and that strangeness actually interacts weirdly with some of the more realistic themes and social critique that much of the game seems interested in exploring (Or more aptly put, in letting you explore, since the game is about discovering people’s lives by essentially practicing a form of archeology on a suburban household. Conclusions about who the Greenbriar family is and has become are all drawn, not on the basis of direct interaction with them, on seeing their faces, but in exploring the objects that they have used, touched, or created and written on to discover the evolution of their lives as a family).


Frankly, no faces are really ever seen or ever recognized in this game besides in static representational form – a family photo hung in the foyer, for example. But consider the family photo for a moment, a seemingly fairly realistic representation of who comprises that family. The Greeks, of course, suggested that the goal of art was to create mimetic representation, to mimic life, or reflect things as they are. Despite the fact that art is in fact artificial, a representation of the real but not the real itself, the goal of the artist it would seem would still be to create accurate reflections of reality. I can think of few other very common representations of people and their lives, though, as unrealistic as a family photo.


The formal family photo is so frightfully orchestrated and constructed. The appointment is made at the photography studio, people are informed to wear clothes that they might wear to church or some other formal occasion but that they probably don’t normally wear, to comb their hair beforehand, to strike erect and unnatural poses, all of which to portray the family “as they are” at a certain moment of time. A completely artificial “realistic” representation of themselves.


Are these really their faces? Or are these merely the faces that they have prepared for the faces that will later view the image? They are controlling future judgments, constructing the ways that others will perceive them. This is no candid shot, no fleeting glimpse of the self as it actually is in a mirror. It is the idealization of the self writ large and hung on a wall for inspection.


Now, this might fly in the face of the other materials that the player views in Gone Home, where a candid vision of family life seems very likely something that can be viewed in a house that you have entered that has not been prepared for outsiders to view (the protagonist, who is a member of the family is returning home to rejoin her family’s lives and the cluttered and often messy spaces suggest that no effort has been made to consider a guest that the home needs to be tidied up for). While there are no mirrors in the Greenbriar home, isn’t this collection of materials all just a candid reflection of some kind of authentic evidence of lives lived and lives in motion? Isn’t everything a mirror of the selves that live here?


And yet, in many of the characters lives that the protagonist explores is evidence of something other than a mirror, something more insistently constructed in the things that represent identity. This is especially true of the materials that represent the protagonist’s younger sister, Sam, the character that the story is, perhaps, most interested in exploring and whose story arc suggests is most struggling with understanding who she is, with “seeing” herself. She might be a person who is most in need of a mirror and yet so much of the objects associated with Sam are artful constructions.


Sam has left behind the remnants of short stories that she has been writing throughout her childhood about two characters named Allegra and the First Mate. Allegra is clearly a heroic and idealized version of herself. The First Mate is likewise clearly her sense of and construction of, first, her childhood buddy, Danny, and then later of her girlfriend, Lonnie. Understanding Sam and the issues that she is having concerning her sexual identity is mediated by idealized, not realistic reflections of herself. These are not mirrors, they are lamps allowing us to reconsider Sam in ways that she wants her reader (who may simply be herself, but then again who usually looks in a mirror at someone else anyway?) to do so, from a new perspective, in a new way. The self is there somewhere underneath some layers of representation, but it is a self that is partially constructed at least for consideration and judgment, much as a formal family photo is. These stories are just one example of idealized, slightly unreal objects that allow Sam to let others consider her or reconsider her. Likewise, we see a Halloween costume that she has made for herself, we hear the punk music on cassettes that she has embraced as some form of representation of herself, the ‘zines that she and Lonnie have penned to house their credos and philosophies to express who they are and what they believe to the world.


We never see the protagonist directly in the game because there are no mirrors in Gone Home, but the truth is that we never see anyone directly. Each of us constructs ourselves for consideration, allowing others to interpret our own idealizations themselves. Gone Home has no mirrors, but really maybe no home does.  Families and the individuals in them costume, rewrite, reconfigure, and sing the songs of themselves, generating unreal images that maybe, sometimes tell the truth more clearly than the “reality” of the mirror can.

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