I just played Gone Home. It’s a fascinating thing, a character study more than a game, a means of exploring a relationship web through the means of a first-person perspective and all the time in the world. There’s something archeological about it. You step slowly through this new, unfamiliar house and discover things you didn’t know about your family after a long time away by examining their notes, the things they felt important enough to write down, the things they couldn’t. There are hidden surprises throughout, and at least ten times I paused and smiled at the game tugging at my heart-strings so effectively.
Spoilers, by the way. Spoilers up in here. Play the game before you read on, if you care about that sort of thing.
The core of the game is, of course, that your family has changed in your absence. Or rather, your family is the same as it ever was but you’ve got perspective on it, now, after you’ve been away for so long. Your little sister grows up too fast, and it’s her sexuality that makes up the meat of the game – exploring this, exploring how she’s expressing herself, the things she’s feeling. Your dad is a failed novelist and a fairly pathetic character, a man trying to sell himself on his glory days that weren’t even all that glorious.
But the mother; oh, the mother.
Let me talk about relics, a little, because this is a game about relics. It is about totems, fetishes, of feeling something so strongly that you can’t bare just to have it in your head. The ring I wear around my neck on a chain is a relic of my best friend, ten thousand miles away. The ID badge I carry around in my bag is a relic of the Panasonic Toughpad Conference. My copy of The Crying of Lot 49 is a relic of my Postmodern Literature course at University and, to a lesser extent, the blistering powerhouse of undergrad sexual tension that is Dr Sarah Churchwell.
And, of course, as a writer, I have a few that I’ve made myself. Whenever I go out dancing I try to distill the feeling down into words so I can remember it, so it can act as a key to a part of memory that the real world will quickly build barriers around. There are other things, good and bad, that I have tried to wring out of my brain and into documents that are either stored under misleading names or swiftly deleted after reading. (Or, the sign of a really bad night, a document that I never save at all; just a box for my brain to expand into, and I never want to show my workings)
This is game about those things. The sense that you need to mark down something important, to keep a physical memory of it. A souvenir, I suppose, of a time and not a place.
Anyway, the mother. I forget her name, which is telling. The mother is silent, for the most part. The other characters write letters to friends, publishers, editors, schools, lovers, each other, but the mother… perhaps I’m forgetting something, here, but it’s very rare that we find something that she’s written past a note in a planner or on a calendar.
You’d probably miss the first sign if you weren’t looking for it – but crouch down under her side of the bed and you’ll find a bookmark. And it says something along these lines: “Enjoy the book! I feel happier knowing it’s in the hands of a discerning reader. Rick.”
You don’t keep that bookmark unless you fancy Rick. You transfer it between your books, because it’s innocuous, because it’s just the bookmark that you’re using. It’s a very quiet form of worship, this. Every night when she finishes reading her book, she thinks of him.
And there are other clues, of course, but none with the weight of this initial discovery. A note from a friend asking all about “Ranger Rick.” (He’s a Ranger, so, you know, that’s an appropriate name.) A letter informing her that he will be possibly permanently assigned to her department at the Forestry Office because he’s so useful. A badly-hidden book in some back room containing tasteful but definitely ranger-themed erotica.
The last one is a little heavy handed, perhaps, but… well, you get the message. Gone Home has to use a shotgun approach to storytelling because there’s no way they’ll know the player will pick up on any of it past the core progression monologues from the player character’s sister.
And then; and then, and then. A calendar in the kitchen. The game is fairly careful to gate off areas from you so you experience story in something approaching the correct order. You find a calendar and check it and it says “Rick’s Wedding,” and another note a little later on that’s a reminder from your mum to respond and say that they won’t be able to make the ceremony.
And that is heartbreaking. This is a woman in a failing marriage with one daughter away in Europe and the other being as… well, as seventeen as possible at her, and she meets this lovely Ranger at work. And he’s good at his job and they like each other and she recommends that he’s transferred to her office and he is and is she having an affair? No, she’s not. She dearly wants to, but she’s not.
(OH) THE HUMANITY
There are other heartbreaking moments, obviously, in good and bad ways. The note from your grandfather admonishing your father’s book. Your sister’s list of scrawled Street Fighter moves, learned from the SNES version, in an attempt to impress a new friend. Pretty much everything Lonnie does. Lonnie is the coolest person I can imagine. I’d want Lonnie to be my friend. There is no way that I could ever talk to Lonnie.
The game is full of these relics, these little shards of humanity pulled out of private and held up naked and vulnerable, all so acutely observed and realised and shining light on parts of the characters and parts of the player that are always kept safely in the dark. But that bookmark is the best. That bookmark is the most human thing in this game.