The initial read one gets from the descriptions of Gone Home, a video game released by developers The Fullbright Company in 2013 for PC (it came to other consoles eventually, where I encountered it on PS4) is that a young woman comes home after a year away to discover an empty home and a mystery during a dark and stormy night. Where is everyone? What happened to her family while she was away? And so, on a dark and stormy night in a house she’s never actually been in, she explores it to solve the mystery.
What you think might happen in the game brings to mind a house where you’re supposed to breathlessly find clues to help free a ghost, or possibly even a killer who is hiding somewhere, stalking you as you try to stalk them. It’s a big space to wander through with blocked pathways and closets you could hide in if you wanted, long hallways and rooms full of furniture. The anticipation of jump-scare thrills and the implications of supernatural spookiness from an early clue identifying the house as “the psycho house” make you think “horror,” which is true, but also not. After all, what is horror arguably, if not a type of mystery? Gone Home very much gives the idea that the house is old and therefore haunted, and that while you’re alone in a dark house on a stormy night you’re not REALLY alone, hint-hint, like a ghost or something. But no, you are actually alone, wondering where your parents and kid sister went. Simon Rankin at IndieHaven.com wrote about Gone Home and referred to the game as “quiet horror,” due to how the atmosphere ultimately builds a feeling of suspense that builds and builds and builds before giving us not a terrifying and scary ending that jumps out at you, but instead, it’s something tragic.
The game takes place in rural Oregon in 1995, providing a nostalgic twist to the game as well as also adding additional layers of limitations to help move the mystery along, since there’s no cell phones, no internet, and interaction with older forms of communication and media hardware as clues (you can pick up and play music tapes from a variety of 90’s riot grrl punk bands for added effect and for making one of the story points even richer).
It’s revealed through the clues that your sister struggled with her new school as your parents struggled in their marriage in this house, which they inherited just recently from a distant deceased family member:Your sister, Samantha, struggles with feelings of loneliness and her own coming-out story thanks to her relationship with another girl at school involved in 1990’s indie riot grrl and punk music in the Pacific Northwest at the time. Sam and Lonnie can’t find acceptance at home, though Samantha tried and Lonnie thought that the Army could provide that through ROTC. Only in leaving, running away together (literally the night before you get home, you figure out) in a mixture of happiness and fear and frustration could they hope to maybe find someplace that their lives could work, and we’re left hanging.
Your mother, a park ranger, gossips with old friends via letters about an attractive and younger new male coworker she has working for her at her new job. She’s unhappy in her marriage, with a teenage daughter being so unlike the older and more successful daughter (you) who’s off travelling through Europe. No, she doesn’t stray, (there’s an invitation to that coworker’s marriage to his longtime girlfriend on the fridge) but the marriage is in trouble and the reason your parents are gone when you arrive home is that they’re on a couples’ counseling retreat, disguised as a camping vacation.
Your father is a failed writer (interesting to note compared to your sister’s winemaking) with two underselling novels under his belt and a middling career writing copy and reviews of stereo equipment, harboring a deep secret. Terry, your father, is implied to have been molested as a young boy by his uncle Oscar, who owned the home they now living, as revealed through several clues through the home. The weight of it has tainted almost everything he’s done, with novels obsessed with the past, and a poor relationship with his own father . Alex Meer at RockPaperShotgun.Com writes that Terry is supposed to be trying to express his own feelings of whether he knew that his brother-in-law molested his son and struggles with how to communicate with his own son, man to man, writer to writer.
It’s a fascinating point that overall about fathers and sons and the limitations of masculinity, and one could argue that that’s part of the larger noir narrative in how it challenges how men discuss things with each other and how we view introspection as inherently un-masculine, another mystery connection here.
How do we learn all this? Through clues, obviously. Like all good mysteries, the clues are scattered, sometimes obviously for the ease of playing the game, but also realistically, in the way that a year’s worth of living, a year’s worth of clues as to how that life is going, can be scattered about through a lived-in house. Gone Home feels lived-in, in the best and most realistic way that a middle-class American home in the 1990’s can. It’s lived-in with mail left everywhere, with the bed unmade and the one stain from hair dye (bright bloody-red) left in the one bathroom to permanently mark the tub. The unwanted secrets are hidden in the basement, but not destroyed, just put aside and ignored in a quiet and non-dramatic fashion. Clearly the family is in some sort of literal and metaphorical transition, because even now as you walk in, a year later, there are unpacked boxes, partially-unfinished rooms that haven’t fully been adapted to yet. Plates for eating pizza are scattered all over because the dining room is just a place to put paperwork. The kitchen is a semi-abandoned renovation project.
You wander at your own pace, poking around. You can figure out the mystery simply by playing through a bare minimum of clues, but the entirety of the story of this family requires more work to discover more and more clues. Sam’s mystery is directly unraveled through pages of her diary, but the stories of the father and mother are a little more subtle, a little more difficult to figure out, and since they’re not directly required to advance the progression/narrative of the game, they’re not “needed.” Still, Gone Home is a game that has proven to be great for replaying, similar to the re-readability of good mystery novels where the end result is already known.
The adage “its’ the journey not the destination” is in full effect here, because through those multiple re-reads/re-plays, we can explore in different ways and focus on different clues to garner more and more from the narrative mystery.
In one way Gone Home embodies both a twist on a very traditional and old-fashioned “locked room/haunted house” mystery simply because, thanks to being a video game, you’re stuck inside the house. You’re locked in metaphorically, trapped in there and “forced” to have to maneuver the home’s variety of mysteries and secrets. The home on the hill even has an ancient history and secret passages that conceal multiple old and hidden lives. However, it’s also a much more modern mystery, because the initial things that we feel are threatening us or providing some type of conflict to overcome are not the be-all/end-all where things are resolved.
If anything, the lack of solid ending and the purposeful ambiguity that can be found in a lack of resolution is indicative of the story of GONE HOME being less horror and more noir, stylistically and thematically. Ultimately there are no real winners here. Sam and Lonnie do end up together but it’s at the cost of their family connections. Terry does seem to be on track to find himself and his self-worth, but it’s been at the cost of his daughter, and a history of abuse is not something to easily ever come to terms with, much less “shrug off” through a weekend couples-building retreat with your wife. Instead of a haunted house, what we’re left with for a mystery is even scarier, precisely because it isn’t scary.
The house on the hill doesn’t hide a treasure or a haunting or a curse, it hides a type of mystery that cannot be solved or fixed through escaping or fixing something or defeating someone. At best it can be avoided, but at worse it must be faced and dealt with in a long and complex process of thought, learning, healing, and self-acceptance.
There is a mystery at the heart of GONE HOME, but it’s not a violent one, or a supernatural one. It’s a sad one, though there’s a light of hope at the end of it. It’s a light that manages to shine on the homophobia and shame of a teenage girl’s life and her coming-of-age, the truth of the nostalgia that initially meets us warmly when we first encounter this house on the hill. IT’s a light that also manages to shine on a father struggling to overcome the shadow of abuse and lost potential that have made him, in his eyes, a disappointment.
Whether Sam finds the happiness she wants with Lonnie, and if Terry ever feels like he’s got some value of his own as a writer, a father, and a partner, we’ll never know. The game’s end leaves us less with an “end” to the mysteries of this family, rather ending the story of discovering what happened that year. But like a lot of good mysteries, we should recognize that it’s less about “fixing” something and more about learning just how mysterious the inner workings of a family can be. It’s not a mystery to solve, but one to be aware of, and to constantly work at, no matter where that road takes you.
Up to the hill to the old house where your childhood was broken, or the gas station outside of town, where a potential future awaits.