For the most part I am agnostic, if not outright hostile, to the idea of spoilers in the traditional sense — for television shows, films, books, comics, even videogames. My usual point in this regard is that knowing what happens in a narrative does not in any way decrease the workings of that narrative. Any story worth its salt stands up to readings that do not pivot on you not knowing what’s going to happen next.
Gone Home from the Fulbright Company, available online now, makes me eat my hat in this regard, at least a little bit. The gist of the game is that you play a college-aged student returning home to her family after a yearlong trip in Europe, only to find the house apparently abandoned and in a state of disarray. With a storm rolling in and all lines of communication cut, you begin searching the home for signs of your father, mother, and most especially, your younger sister.
I would argue that, at least on a first run-through (and certainly the game can handle more), it is imperative that you know almost nothing more than what I’ve just told you, for reasons I will regrettably have to explain later on, in ways that will ruin the effects I want to document. This is my way of saying:
SPOILER WARNING. Do not read beyond this point if you have not played Gone Home.
There is a certain type of narrative irony — dramatic irony — that occurs when characters in a story operate on information the viewer or reader knows to be incomplete or incorrect. In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, for instance, a young woman named Catherine Morland, absolutely in love with Gothic novels and their spooky demenses, visits the titular estate and, because she expects skeletons and dark secrets around every corner, ends up making a huge fool of herself and embarrassing everyone. The comedy of the novel relies on the reader’s necessary disjunction from Catherine’s mindset — ie, you realize, always, that she’s being a bit of a loon.
To make a very important point very messily and quickly: Gone Home makes you, the player, Catherine Morland.
To explain: Gone Home has a happy ending, after a sense. A beautiful, wonderful ending. It is not a supernatural game, nor a horror game in the strictest sense, though one can make the argument that it is very much a ghost story. As you wander your empty family house in the middle of the night, the storm raging outside, your familiarity with narrative tropes — with videogame tropes — begins to eat away at you.
“What happened here?” is a question posed by videogames like System Shock or Bioshock, necessitating you poke around an environment for clues before said environment eventually tries to kill you. Gone Home‘s story begins with the same question, but carries it to a distinctly different end. But on the way there the intrusions of these other narrative elements distorts what you expect the game to do — will I see a shadow on the wall ahead, hear footsteps one room over, find a corpse ragdolled on the floor of the bathroom?
But what has happened is this: because you waited until the last minute to book your flight home, your parents have gone to a couples’ counseling retreat they had planned in advance, and your sister has run away with her girlfriend in the hope of finding a better, more understanding life somewhere else.
There is more weight to these revelations than I can possibly describe. The dramatic irony of Gone Home — and I suspect that may not even be what it can be precisely called in this instance — relies on a slowly building stress that couples with the player’s imaginative reconstruction of the events in the house, a stress which is borne not from anything explicit in the game itself, but rather a skillful manipulation of narrative and gaming premises. Your sister Sam and her girlfriend Lonnie have held their own playful ghosthunts and seances in the mansion, all which lead into their blossoming romance. For you, however — you the player, who have for so long come to expect these sorts of stories, these sorts of setups, to eventually wrap around and explain something grand about You the Character, why You are the only person who can Save the World — find out that not only are you not all that important, you are kind of silly, too, for expecting something so terrible to have happened.
When I discovered my father and mother were not descending, respectively, into alcoholism and extramarital affairs — as the scraps of letters and other documents I had found suggested — but were merely out of town at a marriage retreat, the sense of relief I felt was more incredibly palpable than anything incited by non-Twine games in the few years.
Even more excited I was when I found out my sister was simply up in the attic in her darkroom, waiting out the storm — I knew she was upset about her girlfriend leaving, but I could find her there, and tell her it would be okay, that I was here now, that things would be okay…
I had completely forgotten all of the evidence I’d noticed before that suggested Sam was gone. I had forgotten entirely the point some two hours before when I thought to myself, “I bet the sister character ran away from home with her girlfriend.”
I went from room to room in the house and shut off all the lights I had left on, because I was so fucking happy that I was home, and everything was going to be okay.
My sister was gone when I got to the attic. Of course she was. I knew very well, from the detention notices from school I’d found, from the diary entries I’d uncovered, that though my parents loved her, they did not understand what she had discovered about herself. Her final letter told me I had to understand.
And I did.
I cried for this game. Not in the way I suspected one might cry for Bioshock Infinite, or for The Last of Us — the manner of “this is sad, because Big Important Things are happening in Big Important Ways” that certain blockbuster films use in an attempt to elicit emotion.
I cried because I realized all of this would have to be explained to my parents, who weren’t going to take it well, but at least they weren’t getting a divorce. I cried because my sister was gone, because I had missed her, just missed her, and I had never really known her. I cried because my only available form of support to her was staying where I was, of letting her have her life.
You are left alone at the end of Gone Home. Your family has moved on quite a bit in the year you were abroad. Their lives did not stop at your convenience, and they won’t do that now.
Gone Home did something I have wanted a videogame to do for a long time: it made me feel like a goddamned human being.