Everyone knows that video games can tell a story as well as any book, movie, or TV show. However, video games are only just starting to make their way into the academic arena. It’s about time that that changes-and to put my money where my mouth is, I’m going to analyze the indie game Gone Home by The Fullbright Company, which recently came out for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
There is a lot of stuff to unpack in this game, and I am certain to miss some things, but hopefully this article will provide good conversation fodder. Fair warning, there will be spoilers. I encourage you to check out the game yourself for PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, or Xbox One. It’s pretty affordable and only takes a couple of hours to complete.
Let’s get started!
When I am analyzing a movie or book, the three main elements I like to examine are the plot, the setting, and the characters. However, for a video game you need to add a fourth item to that list: mechanics. The mechanics dictate how you interact with the story, and they are as important as plot or character in determining the final experience for the player.
Remember, spoilers? Okay here we go.
The plot of Gone Home is actually quite simple. You are a 21-year-old woman named Katie Greenbriar. After coming home to an empty house, you try to figure out what happened to your family. Along the way, you discover that your younger sister has run away with her girlfriend and your parents are working on some marital problems at a couple’s retreat.
What’s significant about this plot is the way that it unfolds. There is no single path guiding you through the story, but rather you piece it together yourself largely through the use of physical evidence. This style of storytelling is not unique to video games. A classic example is “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, a short story about a platoon of soldiers. (It’s part of a collection of short stories of the same name.) In the story, O’Brien spends paragraphs listing off all of the things his characters were carrying as they walked through Vietnam. By picturing the items, you learn more and more about the soldiers, about the war, and about the real and metaphorical weight they brought with them.
Gone Home’s style also reminds me of an artistic style of book formatting in which elements of a story are written on a collection of cards that can then be read in any order. The “cards” don’t have to be actual cards. They can be anything: tape cassettes, cigarettes, socks, etc. (If you’re interested in learning about book art, check out this interview.) Many of Sam’s journal entries can be accessed out of order, which gives her story a similar non-linear feeling.
Like I mentioned before, this game is all about collecting evidence. Interestingly, most of the “evidence” you collect is relatively meaningless. Tissue boxes, milk cartons, phone books—things that contribute to the atmosphere but are not individually significant. By choosing to include these items in the game, the designers give you the power to decide what is important and what isn’t. True, some items will set off Sam’s audio journal, but on the whole you have to make the connections on your own (especially when it comes to items related to the parents Jan and Terry). Giving that power to the player goes a long way toward making the discoveries feel significant, because they are earned.
Here’s an example: On the wall in Terry’s study are a collection of Post-it notes that read “You can do better.” In the basement, there is a letter from Terry’s father Richard that criticizes his son’s manuscript. The letter is signed off with those same words: “You can do better.” Drawing that connection feels incredibly powerful because of how unobtrusive (and how comparatively insignificant) those two items are—until they’re put in conversation with one another.
The explorative mechanic also forces you to build a thorough understanding of the setting and its connection to each of the characters.
As you learn early in the game, the Greenbriars very recently moved into their grand old house. Since Katie has never seen it before, it is believable that she wouldn’t know her way around (just like you). The house was inherited from Terry’s uncle Oscar, an old shut-in who built several secret corridors and hiding places that Sam happily takes advantage of. Discovering them is one of the more game-ish aspects to the story, but it also works really well with some of the game’s horror stylings. Gone Home is not a horror game—there are no jump scares and no violence—but it is definitely spooky to be walking through an old creaky house during a storm. That anxiety gives you a feeling of urgency as you try to figure out what happened.
It’s worth noting that although the name of the game is “Gone Home,” Katie is in fact returning to a place she has never been, and to people she hasn’t seen in months. This really challenges the concept of what “home” is. The name works for all of the characters in various ways. Jan’s return to her husband, Terry’s return to his childhood haunt, Sam’s journey to find a new home: In each case, the physical and emotional space of the house plays a role, almost like another character.
Another aspect of the setting, of course, is the time period. The game is set in 1995, and that comes across very strongly. The grunge-punk music, the absence of cell phones, and the social climate around LGBTQ issues each contribute to the story in their own way. They also make the game extra relatable to anyone who was a teenager during that time period.
The characters are the real heart of this game, and they are ultimately why Gone Home has become a classic to so many. One easy way to analyze characters is to compare them to each other.
In literature, the word “foil” is used to describe a secondary character who shares certain traits with a main character. This makes it easy to compare them and to draw conclusions from their differences.
For instance, Sam and Katie have a lot in common, but Katie is obedient and Sam…isn’t. Katie’s personality as an A-student and successful athlete throws Sam’s more rebellious qualities into harsher relief. They also explain some of the pressure put on Sam by her parents and her teachers. One of the moments when this comparison is most obvious is when you find the two versions of the same sex ed. assignment. Katie follows the instructions and gets a perfect score, while Sam writes an elaborate short story that technically follows the instructions but is outside of the norm. Sam is reprimanded for her response.
It’s also interesting to compare Sam to her father, Terry. Both are writers, both have complicated relationships with their parents. When you compare their romantic relationships, things get even more interesting. Sam is a teenager, but her relationship with her girlfriend Lonnie is healthy and loving. Terry’s marriage, on the other hand, is struggling. Their disfunction is proof that following the rules is not a guarantee for success. It also shows off some of the hypocrisy in the way Sam was treated by the adults in her life.
There’s also the matter of Terry’s uncle Oscar, who owned the house before the Greenbriars. There is a good argument to be made that Oscar abused Terry, although that isn’t the reading I got when I first played the game. (My initial takeaway was simply that Oscar, like Sam, was gay and had been ostracized as a result.) Either way, Oscar’s history brings an interesting context to the way Sam’s parents understand—and mistrust—homosexuality.
Another character I am interested in is Daniel, Sam’s old friend that she didn’t want to see anymore. Daniel is described as a “default friend,” and he represents the life that everyone else wanted her to lead. Sam instinctively fights against this default life by being rude to Daniel. It’s hard to know if Daniel deserves this treatment, but it’s easy to understand where Sam’s rage and frustration come from. I don’t believe that Gone Home throws stones at those who do “follow the rules.” Rather, I see it as an exposition of the ways in which life doesn’t go according to plan, no matter how hard you try to force it.
There’s plenty of stuff I didn’t cover here—Jan’s relationship with Rick, Terry’s obsession with JFK, Lonnie’s dedication to ROTC—but hopefully it’s provided some food for thought. I can’t wait to play Tacoma, the next game from Fullbright, when it comes out later this year.