( There are major spoilers regarding the game’s ending in this post. )
I played Gone Home two weeks ago, but I’ve had trouble processing it. At the end of the game, it becomes clear that the player-character’s sister Sam has made a very stupid decision, running away from home to be with her girlfriend Lonnie. I can’t even begin to explain how much the game’s unquestioned celebration of this decision upsets me.
Sam is a gifted writer who has been offered a scholarship to a summer college program in creative writing. Since Sam is eighteen years old, it’s not clear whether she’s graduated from high school or whether this program is just for the summer, but in any case she drops everything to drive off into the sunset with Lonnie.
Lonnie entered the army after graduating from high school, but for some reason she left a few weeks into basic training and called Sam from a payphone. Lonnie seems to be a mess of contradictions regarding her attitude toward the military, and it’s troubling to me that, although Lonnie was quite content to leave Sam, she’s now running back with her tail between her legs.
In other words, Lonnie is emotionally unstable and has no idea what she’s doing, and Sam is giving up a lot to be with her. To make matters worse, I can’t imagine that either of them has any money, and Sam already has a tendency towards shoplifting. I feel like such a bitter spinster grandma when I say this, but this relationship is not going to end well.
Speaking of me being a grandma, I was in high school from 1998 until 2001, and so the events of this game, which occurs during the 1994/95 school year, are a bit before my time. I know that three years may not seem as if it makes a huge difference, but in those three years Al Gore invented the internet, which changed everything. During those three years a slew of foundational anime, manga, and video games were released, which transformed the cultural landscape for kids in my generation. Various technologies changed so rapidly that I have no real memories of cassette tapes, VHS tapes, or not having a cell phone. To me, Sam and Lonnie might as well have been living in a different world.
However, even though they occupy their own specific moment in history, it was still extremely surprising to me that Sam and Lonnie felt comfortable openly identifying as lesbians.
Something that only recently stopped being true is that coming out and being openly gay as a teenager was a sign of incredible privilege. For a lot of kids, coming out would have meant getting kicked out of school and/or getting kicked out of your parents’ house. Being a homeless teenager without a high school degree is obviously not an ideal scenario, so silence was traded for parental and institutional support, the idea being that you could come out once you were able to support yourself. In college, you could be as fabulous and as politically radical as your heart desired, but in high school you kept your head down.
Therefore, when Sam decides to run away from her loving family’s gorgeous house to be with her older girlfriend instead of going to a prestigious college program that’s mostly funded by a merit-based scholarship, I couldn’t help being like, Yes, financially comfortable white lesbians of the world, tell me more about your struggles toward self-actualization and your unironic love of punk music, please, go ahead.
To shift the topic from gay girls to gay men…
There’s something weird going on with Sam’s great-uncle Oscar Masan. He owned the manor house that Sam’s family has recently moved into and that the player-character explores. He seems to have died recently, and there’s still a lot of his junk in the basement. In particular, there’s a safe that contains the artifacts of a morphine addition, as well as a page from a letter written in cursive from Oscar Mason to his sister, who I think is Sam’s grandmother. The handwriting is illegible, and there’s no option for a plain-text overlay, so I’m not really sure what’s going on here, but I think Oscar Mason was gay. Perhaps he was in a relationship that he wasn’t able to keep secret? Regardless of how it happened, the people in his community somehow found out, which is why he closed his pharmacy and retreated to his house to live as a hermit. He seems to have spent a lot of time with Sam’s father Terrence, who stopped visiting when he was still a child. Based on what I was able to glean from his letter, he may have come out to his sister, which is why she stopped allowing Terrence to see him.
For some reason, both the Gone Home entry on Wikipedia and the entry for Terrence on the Gone Home Wikia seem to think that Oscar abused Terrence, but I don’t understand what evidence supports this. Moreover, if Terrence had been sexually violated by his uncle as a child, why would he move his family into his uncle’s house instead of just selling it for the enormous amount of money it must have been worth during the booming 1990s real estate market?
I also didn’t understand the relationship Terrence had with his father, who seems to have been a scholar of James Joyce. From the clues I gathered, which are (confusingly) very close to the clues about Terrence’s uncle in the basement, Terrence’s father didn’t approve of his son’s forays into genre fiction. In a letter to his son, Terrence’s father tells him “You can do better,” which Terrence has tragically taken to heart, posting in in large letters above his writing desk. Terrance’s first two novels didn’t sell well, and boxes of remainder copies are hidden in the house’s library. Nevertheless, Terrence kept writing; and, toward the end of the game, the player learns that his work is going to be reprinted and that he’s already thinking of pitching a new novel to the press.
It’s interesting that there’s a progression from the high literature of James Joyce (Terrence’s father) to masculine-coded spy thriller genre fiction (Terrence) to lesbian fantasy romance and punk zines (Sam), but I’m not sure what to make of it. It would be wonderful this broadening of who gets to speak and be heard were a clear theme in the game, especially since Oscar Mason was driven away from his community and his family because of his sexuality. But then Sam decides not to attend a writing program, and all the copies of her zines are sitting in a box in her basement. The key texts of the game – the journal entries that her sister (the player-character) is tasked with uncovering – are of course written by Sam, but she doesn’t intend for anyone else to ever see them. In a game so thematically concerned with people being able to speak in their authentic voices to tell their own stories, why does Sam reject the opportunity to do so?
I think, in the end, that’s one of the main problems I have with exploration games like Gone Home. In order for the complete story to make sense, the player must be able to carefully examine all of the story fragments, but this is often impossible. First of all, it’s difficult to locate the story fragments – that is the challenge of the game, after all. Second, many of the story fragments disappear as soon as they are read, meaning that the player can’t reference them in light of subsequent information or developments. Finally, I suspect that many people have trouble devoting their full attention to spoken story fragments while they’re engaged in the act of actually playing the game.
None of this is to say that Gone Home is a bad game. I just wish I could be happier for Sam and Lonnie, who I’m not sure actually have a good ending.
I don’t think I’d be so upset with Gone Home if it didn’t cost a full $20 for less than two hours of gameplay. This inflated price feels very Whole Foods to me. Like, you can only enjoy this offbeat story about gay romance if you can afford to pay for it, and people who can’t are shit out of luck, because queerness is apparently some sort of specialty premium product.
( Header image from Best of Steam Reviews )