Micro-Essay: Gone Home

By Alexa Zakaib

Gone Home has recently gotten a lot of attention from gamers all over the world. It has also raised a tremendous amount of controversy concerning its “game” status. Reading over reviews, many gamers were let down by its “interactive storybook” style, for it did not meet their expectations of what the game was going to be[1]. The question then is: What did they think the game was going to be? This question can be answered by looking at Gone Home’s narrative architecture and spatial divides. The game starts with your character, seen in a first player view, standing on the porch of a mansion. The threatening thunder growls through the dark night sky, as the rain beats down the ground. These tropes have all previously served the mansion genre in order to create an uneasy, alarming, and eventually blood-curdling space where our fear and phobia reside. The Resident Evil and the Alone in the Dark franchises have both been game-changers for the genre. Mansions are presented as old and mysterious labyrinths, where isolation is amplified by the grandeur of the space. It is then no wonder that players were willing, and expecting, to submit themselves to virtual danger. However, Gone Home did not continue in that same route. In his article Gone Home, Thief and the Mansion Genre, Robert Yang proposes that what Gone Home and other mansion genre horror games have in common is the sense of “alien”. “The video game mansion starts as an alien place that, through repeated visits and backtracking, becomes YOUR MANSION because you know all the rooms and secret passages and stories inside it.[2]Gone Home’s eerie atmosphere can then be comprehended as a style that evokes the alienation of Sam from society. Furthermore, we can see how the entire family is divide, demonstrated by their absence that thus creates the unsettling feeling of the lack of human presence.

Gone Home’s entire special architecture in turn tells a story. According to Lana Polansky, “by creating a sense of place and of history [we] can use an environment full of various meaningful objects that reflect a pervasive theming”[3]. As we enter the house, we are subject to panoply of objects that the gamer can interact with. Each one brings to light a different aspect of the lives of the given family. Who lives here? What are they like? Who am I in all of this? As Sam’s voice narrates while you explore your surroundings, you visit every room of the house, reading notes, listening to music, or even looking at portraits. Each one of these items helps to demystify where the narration is leading you. Even before entering the house, you see your two packsacks lying by the door. They have tags on them, indicating that you have just returned from a trip. This is know even before you listen to your recording on the telephone, telling your parents you expect to be at the airport at midnight. Another critical object is found in the office. The book A Stanger Under My Roof features two angry-looking parents looking at their child with discontent on the cover. This is another obvious indication that the family has trouble accepting or understanding Sam because of her homosexuality. The narrative architecture of the game therefore opens the player up to “interiority”.

In the A game of One’s Own: Towards a New Gendered Poetics of Digital Space article, authors Tracy Fullerton, Jacquelyn Morie, and Celia Pearce discuss how some spaces breathe gendered symbolism. We can relate their analysis to some critical spaces in Gone Home. We can first analyze the house as a whole, being a domestic space. The authors suggest that “lived domestic space itself is also another important site of play and exploration often portrayed in children’s literature […] depicting and embodying a transitional space between girlhood and womanhood”[4]. Sam is in fact a teenager in a critical transitional state, where she is asserting her sexuality, her life goals, her values, and ambitions. If we look at Van Gennep’s theory on the rite of passage, we count three stages that a child has to go through in order to become their adult self. The first being self-segregation, which Sam does by running away with Lonnie. The second will be her true transformation as she explores the world. The third and final step that Van Gennep suggests is the aggregation of the now adult. This final step is foreshadowed when Sam tells her sister that she will see her again someday. Another female-gendered space discussed in the article is the attic. The authors describe the attics as a “girl-only clubhouse”, where they are free to let their imaginations and dreams take over: “a secret place always has aspects of a ‘removed’ existence, being a place that, physically or mentally, it is created for retreat, intimacy, enclosure, screening, and protection. These often are places of power and control that cannot be known or invaded by ‘outside’ forces (Downing, 2000)[5]”. In Gone Home, the attic is a crucial space that the player finds hidden between the staircase and the bookshelf. We learn that Lonnie and Sam used to go there to escape her parents. The space is small and narrow, where a candle adorned table lies in the middle. The chalk-drawn pentagram symbolizes Sam and Lonnie’s desire to explore unknown worlds.

In conclusion, Gone Home has created a coordinated narrative architecture with many distinct spatial divides. Whether one likes or dislikes the game in itself, we cannot deny the tremendous perfectionist work that went into creating specific environments that complement the story beautifully.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SS5eQmRgBlY, [on line], Comment Section

[2] Yang, Robert. “Gone Home, Thief and the Mansion Genre” PCGamer, September 13 2013

[3] Polansky, Lana. “The Poetry of Created Space.” Bit Creature. 5 October 2012. http://www.bitcreature.com/criticism/the-poetry-of-created-space/

[4] Fullerton, Tracy, Morie, Jacquelyn and Pearce, Celia. “A Game of One’s Own: Towards a New Gendered Poetics of Digital Space.” Proceedings of perthDAC 2007: The 7th International Digital Arts and Culture Conference: The Future of Digital Media Culture. 2007. http://eleven.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-074-a-game-of-one%E2%80%99s-own-towards-a-new-gendered-poetics-of-digital-space/

[5] Ibidem

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