[Warning: spoilers for Gone Home throughout this.]
Let’s get right to the point here, shall we? Sure, yes, it’s exciting that there is a game that is more or less about lesbians in love. This is a good thing. It doesn’t happen much and, in a genre where the plots are mostly about shooting things the most times, it is a noticeable departure from the norm. It’s a rare gift to come across a game like this.
However, and here is where I disappoint everyone I’m sure, I didn’t really like the game itself. Gone Home, well, it’s a neat game. I’ll agree to that. It expands on what others like The Stanley Parable, Thirty Flights of Loving, Dear Esther, and even Proteus increasing show that is possible: you can have a first-person perspective and remove the violence. The possibility space is wide open to story-telling options without shedding a drop of blood. It’s a lesson that Myst taught us and too many within the industry and greater community have forgotten.
But my problem doesn’t really have to do with the relationship between Sam and Lonnie, which I’m thrilled exists, but that of how the story and other information is set forth. In fact, my issues with Gone Home deal directly with the delivery system — the mechanics. It’s to do with how objects are handled, viewed, and generally understood within the ruleset of the game. Or, more correctly put, how Katie as a character is understood via the objects the game.
It’s an idea I’ve floated with a few people now. That, in investigating the degree to which Katie is embodied in the game, I have questioned if her very existence is an effect of the objects in the world. All of her attributes, in other words, seem to arrive as reflections from how she is mirrored in the world via the postcards, description of items, and in footsteps in an empty house. Her lack of physicality creates a vacuum in which she pulls at and is subjected to the objects of this house.
What we know of Katie comes not from her crying over her sister’s troubles, or lack of breath from kneeling down frequently or even walking all over the house. No, we know of her from primary textual spaces. Her letters. The postcards. We come into contact with her thinking at people. And so, we adopt this model too. The objects speak to us, name us as ‘Kaitlin.’
It’s what lead me, in my round-about way of investigating rule-sets through absurdity, to thinking that Katie might not be as we think her to be, as the developers say she is, but is more of a “pervy ghost.” There is no transgression too far, no space too secret to explore. Player-Katie floats in, rummages through the debris of lived lives, and moves on to other things.
Objects in Gone Home, unlike Katie herself, have weight and substance though. They collide with each other and hold meaning. Some are even keys to unlocking other parts of the house. Yet, Katie is this floating non-thing; she is if not erased from the world of Gone Home, then silenced at best. Named and then unacknowledged.
Is, then, I have tried to answer, the game masculine in this approach? Because so much of the experience is in manipulating objects, of expressing mastery over them, it easily raises questions of dominance of the visual space. As the player, you must disrupt to learn. Objects must be moved, private spaces invaded. To “find” Sam, you must first discern all of her secrets.
And it is in this that the game becomes conflicted about itself, I suggest. If the culmination of the experience is in descending into the recent past of this place, of excavating who Sam has become while Katie was away, then how much is traded away from Katie into the person of Sam? What is lost when Katie is found?
Because, as the player learns soon after starting, it is Sam who speaks. It is her who has a full life. She finds — and fights — for love. Katie, well, she searches too, it could be said, but not purposefully. She wanders and explores. She is voyeur to another life, a constant detached camera. Always trapped in the past.
Who is Katie? Is she a camera, possibly even male listening, as it were? We do that in Gone Home, listen and take pleasure in Sam’s subject position. We smile with her, find joy in her escape from the house and its rules. But what then of Katie? How does she escape — or is she forever trapped? She has come home, remember; Sam is the one who has gone.
I do not have the answers. All I am left with are the artifacts and all of my own moments while playing. Much like Katie, I know the narrative through its objects. I have learned of these people just stepped out by what they have left behind. I have been, like her, a scavenger of other’s dreams and messages. I am a subject of them as much as she is, learning about myself as her through others and not my own ability to express in and through her body. Pervy ghost that I am.