Learning from ‘Gone Home’

It’s been a fair amount of time since I finished Gone Home and I’ve been meaning to write something about it. It’s a coming of age story that’s both poignant and inspiring. Others more talented than I have already written thousands of words about how Gone Home captures a certain type of emotional nostalgia in a broad range of people. I certainly felt this, and I’ve never had to come out of the closet, see my parents’ marriage strained, or had to come home to an empty house.

I have, however, had my fair share of early-life epiphanies. I’ve also played a fair number of video games. More than a month after finishing it, Gone Home has stuck with me as a game full of lessons about how to create mechanical and storytelling experiences that make a lasting impression.

Gone Home is the type of game that makes people wade into the morass of the “What is a game?” discussion. Regardless of how you feel about it, there are plenty of specific design decisions that other games (or interactive stories or non-games or whatever) would benefit from. Plenty of games let you pick up items in the world to inspect them, but I don’t know if I can recall another game with a “put back” mechanic. The simple option to place an object in its original spot prevents the weird physics disasters and the dissonance you feel when your in-game avatar seems unable to place an object down like a normal human being. Of course, you can always stack things and mess with the physics in Gone Home/ It’s just that you can also act like a real person thanks to a clever mechanic. Look for that one popping up in future games.

This attention to small scale detail pervades the rest of the game. We still live in a world where huge, open world games like Skyrim and GTA seek to wow us with their sheer mass. Gone Home takes the opposite path and makes its world extremely dense. The whole game takes place in a single house, but it functions like an actual house with cupboards, drawers, and closets that all add to the overall picture of the family who supposedly inhabit it.

This kind of environmental storytelling has precedents, but The Fullbright Company goes beyond its BioShock roots by letting you interact with the mise en scene. It may seem simplistic, but knowing that you can pick up a glass or re-arrange a stack of magazines gives the world depth. Pretty as it is, Rapture’s set dressing is ultimately a textured, non-interactive blob, whereas Gone Home is populated with props. You don’t have to inspect everything, but the idea that you could makes the game feel like it is about real people rather than video game heroes.

This dedication to real people comes through in Gone Home’s story. There aren’t any super powers, magic, or spaceships. You play as a 20-something woman, Katilin, and the crux of the story revolves around her teenage sister, Sam. They’re not spectacular people, but their normalcy sets them apart from pretty much every other mainstream game character.

Despite their mundane lives, their stories are compelling. How will Sam deal with coming out to parents that don’t want to accept her? How has the abuse her father suffered shaped his life and career? Will Katie’s parents’ marriage survive? Is there even a “home” for Kaitlin to come back to? These questions are explored throughout the game. Some are answered, while others remain ambiguous.

Their stories are probably similar to ones you’ve heard and seen before. Some, like Ian Bogost, argue that the characters and their arcs can feel contrived and that “everything about that story is so neatly put into place, so clear and so paint-by-number, that it rings hollow”. Perhaps it doesn’t “say” anything revelatory and perhaps some of the characters are familiar. Then again, that’s part of what makes them relatable.

Zoom out just a bit, add just a bit of blur to the lens, and people’s lives begin to look similar to one another. I’ll go so far as to say parts of my life were downright stereotypical: rebellion against parental involvement, discovering subversive music, obsessing over video games. It’s all part of my story, but it’s one that I share with plenty of other people. On a more serious note, the struggles of closeted teens all have certain sad similarities, as do the cracked foundations of strained marriages. The details are certainly different, but certain core truths foster empathy, even if these truths are well known and easily recognized.

Gone Home reminds us that normal people are interesting. They might also be stereotypical and boring in some respects, but they capture our attention on a more personal level than a super-soldier tasked with saving the universe. Mundane places are the entire universe for their seemingly ordinary inhabitants. Gone Home shows that a rich world and relatable characters don’t have to exist on a grand scale. It’s more about the context than the sheer amount of content.

The actions in Gone Home matter, not because they are spectacular but because they are grounded in such a way that makes the game feel like a place meant to be inhabited. Its story, full of characters that are both unique and archetypal, are a refreshing departure from most mainstream games as well as a welcome cast most everyone can empathize with. Therein lies the biggest lesson that Gone Home offers. There’s value in making games about ordinary people, for ordinary people.