PLAY THE DAMN GAME BEFORE YOU READ THIS
Without hyperbole, I can say that Gone Home is one of the most unsettling games I’ve ever played. The two or three hours I spent walking around the house at Arbor Hill, my skin was crawling. It wasn’t all the reference to ghosts and seances and the “psycho house,” though the “ghost hunter” diaries you found of Sam’s were somewhat chill-inducing in the “12-year-old scaring yourself with your imagination” kind of way; the kind of way where you make yourself jump at every shadow and then retreat to your bedroom and collapse in your blanket fort in a fit of laughter and popcorn. It would have been very easy, or course, for the game to spiral into the realm of ghostly apparitions, whispered voices, and jump scares; we’ve seen all of these things so many times before that they’re commonplace. But while it constantly seems to skirt the line, subtly suggesting some popular horror tropes, Gone Home is clear about its rejection of the supernatural in favor of the mundane.
It is from this strict adherence to the mundane, the hyper-mundane even, that Gone Home derives its unsettling nature. While it could be argued that nothing “happens” in Gone Home, in the traditional gamey sense, Gone Home makes very creative use of both motion and time to great effect in order to implicitly convey the nuances of its narrative.
Criticism of Gone Home centers on it being a linear game. It’s not; Gone Home is atemporal. Arbor Hill and everything in it comprises a microcosm that exists independently of time, as though it were yanked clear out of it and preserved for your perusal. The letters and scraps you find are snapshots, themselves situated within the larger “snapshot” that is the game as a whole. Just like Sam’s mix tapes or Terry’s letters, Arbor Hill itself is just another artifact that has been preserved for your investigation.
This is where Gone Home’s game-ness makes itself most apparent in asserting itself as more than a vessel for conveying a narrative. The more time you spend walking through the mansion, the more apparent it becomes that you are trapped in a tableau, as though the clock was stopped and the house’s residents were whisked away so that you could walk through and decode their lives. The evidence is in the little details, like the fact that the raging thunderstorm never dies down or even tapers off. Or the fact that the telephone never rings. It’s subtle, but none of the typical indicia that time is actually passing are present, and you begin to feel like a ghost, stalking the halls of Arbor Hill unseen and out of time. It feels voyeuristic.
Short of “breaking immersion,” this atemporality actually works for Gone Home. There are three separate and distinct time periods represented within the walls of Arbor Hill: there is Oscar’s time (the late-60s and 70s), Terry, Sam, and Janice’s time of the early- to mid-90s, and there is Katie’s time, the moment you inhabit as you explore the halls. In removing the player, the house, and the experiences within it from time, Gone Home is able to fully inhabit all three time periods simultaneously. It’s not like Katie’s time represents “real time,” with Oscar or Sam’s serving as mere memories or allusions (or any combination thereof, for that matter). Rather, within Arbor Hill, there is no “real time”; exploring Sam’s diary entries or reading Oscar’s letters effectively brings those events to the forefront, and they occupy the whole of the space they inhabit.
Each of the character’s respective “wings” of the house is dominated by their respective era. Terry’s office is covered with his notes, still fresh enough that the post-its haven’t even fallen down yet. The music room is home to a collection of shot glasses, not yet cleaned up, while the TV is even still on in the family room. The basement belongs to the past, with Oscar’s documents still locked in the safe and the defaced portrait of Terry’s father stashed away (even the height markings from Terry’s childhood on the doorframe appear shockingly well-preserved). Upstairs is Sam’s domain, with errant SNES carts strewn around the room, and her still-developing photos hanging from the line in the attic (with the red darkroom lights still turned on). Even the kitchen exists in a transitional state of mid-renovation. Everything about the house’s inhabitants, past or present, has a certain “just as they left it” quality to it; you could almost believe that Terry could round the corner any minute, returning from the bathroom.
Gone Home also makes efficient use of motion and space. Again, Arbor Hill is deserted upon Katie’s arrival. Aside from whatever objects she herself physically manipulates, the world within the mansion is eerily still. This idea of a totally still gameworld is unusual for a game, but here it has the unique effect: the game can draw our attention to how still the house is through the one or two items in Arbor Hill that do move.
One of the scenes in Gone Home that stuck with me takes place in Terry’s office, where a copy of one of his novels is sitting on his desk chair. Upon picking it up, inspecting it, and selecting the “put back” option, Katie drops the book back onto the chair, and the weight of the book causes the chair to start spinning. It was then that I realized that up to this point, the house I was exploring was totally motionless, as if frozen.
I doubt that the choice to bestow life to this specific piece of furniture was random. Situated in Terry’s office, overlooked by a bulletin board filled with his notes, the small office is ostensibly inhabited by Terry. As his workspace, that room is the epicenter around which his branch of the narrative unfolds; a disaffected writer who never quite actualized, overwhelmed with criticism from publishers and even his own father that his ideas just weren’t quite good enough. Terry has spent the last twenty years of his life frozen (just like the rest of the house is frozen) in this specific state, spinning his proverbial wheels just as his desk chair sits spinning in front of me, almost pacing in a deliberate and telling circular manner. It’s no accident that Terry’s redemption story—the revitalization of his writing career and the beginning of his reconciliation with his wife—is situated in the opposite wing of the house, as far away from the cluttered, claustrophobic office that characterizes his past (his new book is, by contrast, being written in a greenhouse, surrounded by flowers and overlooking the open space of the yard).
The other big criticism of Gone Home is that it is primarily a narrative wrapped up in gamey clothing; that it doesn’t need to be a game. However, its use of both time and motion fly in the face of this criticism. Were Gone Home to be transplanted into, say, a novel, a huge portion of its narrative and characterization would be lost. Its subtle and effective use of motion I talked about would be impossible to convey through words; it is only through actually walking through the corridors of Arbor Hill that these singular blips of activity can so vividly accentuate the house’s eerie stillness. Similarly, the temporal ambiguity that seems inherent to books (books are often unclear on just how much time has passed in its scenes, and there is often tension between the speed at which actions are carried out, the speed at which characters process their thoughts through internal monologue, and the speed at which the reader actually reads the words) would eclipse the game’s explicit sense of time, and thus the fact that the game seems to freeze the world in its place would be lost.
Gone Home is far more than a compelling narrative; in fact, held alongside other narrative forms, its story is commonplace. Where Gone Home truly excels is as a masterful execution of implicit narrative—conveying key story and character information using subtle environmental elements instead of explicit dialogue. It is only as a game that Gone Home is able to so effectively convey the subtle nuances of character that give it its deep emotional impact, and as such it represents a huge leap forward for narrative videogames. It may not tell an incredible story, but it certainly tells it in an incredible way.Tweet