Collecting Sam: What is the Real Horror in “Gone Home”?

GoneHome

  • Class: ENGL 797 — Feminist & Gender Critique in Critical Video Game Theory
  • Assignment: Weekly reading/game play responses, 1-2 pg length requirement, 1 scholarly source included
  • Week 13

Before I get technical and critical, I just have to say that I loved this game. It’s not a multi-million dollar artistic AAA game. It’s not the product of years of Bioware or Blizzard mastery.  But it is SO VERY important.  After dozens of games that casually include queer characters just to say “hey, look, we’re being diverse! Applaud us!” (and usually shunting these characters to the side or killing them off), Gone Home provides a game that both builds a positive, female character and honors the beauty and difficulty in exploring her sexuality.  I ached with relief and hope at the end.  I also began to wonder if, perhaps, even the “faults” of the game were intentional, useful tools in building the game as opposed to detracting from it.

Clever Genre Blending

I admit, when the game began “on a dark and stormy night,” in the middle of the woods, in freaking Portland, I groaned.  Another coming-of-age game on the West Coast.  Another semi-thriller game with storms and eerie forests.  But Gone Home quickly used my assumptions against me and used the air of mystery and looming danger to propel me through a rather simple gameplay.

Is Gone Home a drama? Is it a thriller? Does its narrative belong entirely to queer stories or coming-of-age?

Why not all of the above? But as you play through the game, the unknown and the lack of definitive cues towards one, clear genre keeps plays on their toes.  The stormy weather,  ominous notes, the weeping girl on the answering machine,  ransacked rooms, hidden panels — nearly everything you discover as you explore adds to the fear of the final discovery.  What happened to Sam? Did she leave willingly? Where are the parents? Who is Oscar?  You’re afraid of Sam’s fate, but then there’s the possibility of ghosts, so suddenly the supernatural haunts you too.  Now you’re not safe either.

And then, running contingent to this sense of calamity is Sam’s journals, documenting the growth of a teenager and her relationship with Lonnie.  Anxiousness, fear, and the heartwarming mundane are equally intertwined and clashing.  Because there is no certainty of genre, there is no certainty of the ending. Players can’t guess the ending or assume tropes because the genre in and of itself is atypical.

Cultural Value — Gone Home is a Mainstream & Indie Cocktail

Samantha Allen, a writer for Polygon, praises Gone Home‘s unique achievement of staying true to its story and simultaneously crafting it in a way that placed the game in public spotlight. She says:

Even in the wake of the queer games renaissance, the gaming landscape can still feel dichotomous for queer gamers: We have a choice between short form, single-author queer games or long form works that are developed by a team but weighed down by the trappings of dominant culture. I cried when I finished Gone Home because it didn’t force me to make that choice. The game doesn’t sacrifice its queer storyline in a bid for mainstream appeal. Gone Home closes the gap between the queer and the mainstream. (“Closing the Gap Between Queer and Mainstream Games”)

That’s high praise, and I couldn’t agree more. Gone Home proves that games about marginalized people do not have to only be cult classics.  Breaking this game into the public eye not only puts the social value of indie games on equal footing as AAA-games but also breaks the trend of treating queer stories (or any marginalized stories) as fetishes or atypical trends.  In the same article, Allen quotes “queer games scholar Todd Harper [who] said at a GDC panel this year, ‘Like it or not, games are culture. If we’re making games, we’re making culture'” (“Closing the Gap…”).  The arts, products of people of culture, reflect the culture in some shape or form, and video games are no different.  The interactivity of games uniquely provides a space for game designers to immerse players into worlds and stories.  The immersion is central, especially to persuading gamers to want more–story, challenge, etc…  But the reflection of culture is not complete without the opportunity for multiple voices and interactions.  Honestly, cultural reflection will never and should never be complete in reflecting the arts, because people within cultures are ever-changing.  But I digress… Gone Home is not only providing a voice unique to gaming–a well-developed, non-trope-based queer teen–but also doing it through an atypical mix of genres and audiences.

Sam: The Actual Protagonist

Gone Home is clever. Not only does its genre-mix keep you guessing but also its means for interaction–the older sister, Katie–I would argue is not even the actual protagonist.  She acts more as an avatar or a vehicle for the gamer to absorb Sam’s story. Not enough information is given about Katie to really form a gamer-character connection.  We know she just went on a trip to Europe, and that’s about it.  We assume, since the journals and letters are all addressed to Katie, that Sam has a good relationship with her.  But as for her character, we don’t know anything else.  Initially, this bothered me, since tons of games have female avatars without purpose or identity.  But halfway through the game, I realized I didn’t care about Katie, not in a malicious way, but I wanted to know about Sam.  And I think that the emphasis (or lack of it) was a very important, intentional decision on the designer’s part.

Gone Home does the classic in-media-res plot device.  When you begin, all you know is that Sam is your sister and she’s gone, and the degrees of connection between you and either of those facts is what you have to discover.  But because Katie is a relatively blank slate, I believe gamers not only have an easier time assuming her identity but also the game’s true purpose–to discover Sam, as a person, her motives, and where she is–is given the spotlight it needs.  If Katie had been given a more solid identity, it might have overshadowed or colored gamers’ interpretations or opinions of Sam. We would be seeing Sam through Katie’s game-designer-created-and-influenced eyes.  Also, the importance of Sam’s story would be cut back to include our concern for Katie and her reactions and development.  By giving gamer’s a sort of avatar to fill, we are concerned with all that matters–Sam.  We are equally solving the narrative puzzle and discovering our sister’s identity at the same time.

For that reason, I believe Sam is the true protagonist. Her story and actions drive the game.  We as Katie are just following in her footsteps, gathering the narrative as it relates to her.

And speaking of Sam…she’s a wonderful character.  I related to her and loved that there was so much I needed to learn about her (she wasn’t one-dimensional).  First, let me talk about what I loved that she wasn’t. She wasn’t hyper-sexualized, male-eye candy masquerading as a well-developed lesbian character. She wasn’t boxed in by a lesbian trope or even solely defined by her sexuality.  Her story and development weren’t framed in a mocking or non-serious manner. Danielle Rindeleau says in her Polygon article, “But the game treats Samantha’s feelings as valid and real, not just something to be ridiculed. When you are that young, and going through a fundamental shift in your identity, it does feel that dramatic. And the power of that emotion bleeds into everything you do, whether it’s playing Street Fighter 2 or writing elaborate stories about a badass pirate couple or trying to come out to your mom… Coming of age is universal” (“Finding someone like me in Gone Home).   Gone Home is about Sam exploring her sexual identity, but it’s also about the importance and impact of the teenage years in general. Much like YAF tries to relate to and empower younger readers, Gone Home allows its players the same comfort and understanding.

But what was Sam? She was a wonderfully-awkward and spirited teenager.  She didn’t know what group she belonged to, in any social arena, but she knew what she loved–adventure games, rock-n-roll music, loyal friends, and discovering new things.  She was looking for connection, with someone who “got her.”  She, like anyone but especially like teenagers, awkwardly tried to figure out what she and Lonnie were, but no matter what, Lonnie was what was most important, not the label or level of their relationship. And that’s freaking love, and I thought that that was beautiful.

Interacting with the House — The Game’s Blessing and Curse

The actual action you take in the game is boring as hell. Not gonna sugar-coat it… without the creepy music, the booming thunder, the ominous visuals, and Sam’s voiceover, I would not enjoy this game.  You walk, slowly, from room to room, picking up everything in sight, hoping that it leads to Sam.  Is that bad? Not necessarily.  As Katie, the sister dropped into this situation with no leads and no outside contact, all you can do is look.  The limited action makes sense.

I wish there was more though.  More visuals to ponder over, more voiceovers, more narrative-connected objects.  At least three significant mysteries are implied by your explorations: Sam, the parents, and Oscar.  The unknowns in the three stories pepper your search, driving you to connect your discoveries to their stories.  Enough ambiguous-ness is given, especially for the parents and Oscar, to leave room for interpretation, but I wanted more.  The game certainly presents Sam and her story well.  There’s suspense at every corner and journal entry.  But something…something still felt lacking in this game.

At first, I thought that the gap had something to do with the overwhelming amount of useless objects you could interact with.  However, I easily argued myself out of that: you have to search everything, and you should, to discover what happened to Sam. An older sister would do that, and the gamer needs to advance the narrative by discovering Sam’s traces around the house.  So what’s missing? Maybe nothing. Maybe my need for something more has to do with primarily playing games that are over-saturated with multiple means of input and feedback.  Maybe I’m just adverse to simplicity because I’ve been trained to want more.

Inserting Voices in History

I was born in the 90s, but most of the significant cultural and historical events during those years didn’t have meaning to me until I looked back on them a decade or two later.  The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Policy didn’t mean anything to me until I was old enough to process more about politics, and the taboo nature of sexuality in the 90s became more obvious the closer I looked at the intersection of politics and media.  Lonnie is a side-character, but we learn so much about her world through Sam.  There’s a clash between Lonnie’s riot-grrl, punk, third-wave feminism aura and the rigid, homophobic future in the military.  Lonnie and Sam both explore their identities, frustrations and questions through music, games, and comic books, but the closer they (and especially Lonnie) get to “the real world” and living out their identities in public, the more they realize how their down-with-the-patriarchy posters haven’t altered their society one bit.

However, we can assume that Lonnie and Sam still took control of their lives somehow in their escape together.  And in any case, the power of female voice and story is so present that Hélène Cixous would be proud.  Lonnie’s music tapes, her singing, Sam’s letters, her stories, the journals — the girls assert themselves and their voices. They reject the silence that others –their classmates, parents, the military–try to force on them.  Through art and story, they keep their identities and refuse to let them be remolded by cultural norms. Even this game, although two decades after its story timeline, does a powerful action of inserting the voices of the many silenced, especially due to their non-heterosexual identities.

Like the multi-genre nature of the game itself, the characters—through the pieces of their art we find—present, again, the kind of real woman Hélène Cixous endorsed and promoted. She, in her (in)famous article, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” says that “I have been amazed more than once by a description a woman gave me of a world all her own which she had been secretly haunting since early childhood. A world of searching, the elaboration of a knowledge, on the basis of a systematic experimentation with the bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of her erotogeneity” (876). Certainly, this sounds like Sam. Throughout the game, we are essentially collecting pieces of the family—particularly Sam though—through fragments of voice, writing, music, art, and keepsakes. Like the comic book collages Sam makes, we are piecing together the parts of the family. This fusion of character and narrative building is particularly significant when we consider Sam and Lonnie as female characters.  They are not bound by linear, expected narrative or character development; in other words, we are learning about them and they are learning about themselves both outside of and (rebelliously) within patriarchal limits.  Both the narrative progression and character development in Gone Home rejects the male-catered, patriarchal-created-binary limits of past games.

While searching for articles and reviews on Gone Home, I found a curious title called “Why Gone Home is a Horror Game” by Armi Dimaranan.  Quite contrary to my expectations, Dimaranan said that the game wasn’t “horror” because of the flickering lights or ransacked rooms; the horror was in the real world. She says:

I won’t lie, a part of me believes that even though this is a video game, that it’s set in the past, many people like Sam and Lonnie are out there living the same struggle, and essentially, are just looking for a home. But honestly, life really sucked for kids like Sam and Lonnie in the 1990s. The United States was still under the whole “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law and social media wasn’t around to help ease the pain of those who suffered. In fact, just a few months before the game took place, a man shot his coworker after the latter admitted to having a crush on him. This was the world Sam and Lonnie were escaping into.  Even if the duo escaped to live a life of whatever they choose to do, there’s still the “what will happen now” sort of effect that lingers on… This is where the real adventure game begins, in the afterthought of the prologue, in the unknowns of a burgeoning horror tale.  This is the fear that hasn’t left me since I finished the game. (Dimaranan)

And if that perspective doesn’t change the whole game for you, I don’t know what will. Like I said before, this game is clever. It lulls us into thinking that it’s just a thriller, and the worst that could happen is we see a ghost in the corner. On the contrary, the worst that could happen happens, and we don’t even see it in the game.  While we cheer for Sam and Lonnie’s character growth and eventual bold get-away, there isn’t and shouldn’t be a sense of total peace at the end. This isn’t a fairy tale.  Lesbian couples, especially teens, don’t get a free pass from prejudice and hate, especially in the 90s.  The horror is the world they’ve escaped into.  I don’t know if that’s the message the game designers were going for, but the possibility certainly does make you think about all of the Sam-and-Lonnie stories in real life.  If the game helps its players ponder more on the US’s history of prejudice and empathize more with the LGBT+ community, then that’s a game worth playing to me.

I’ll end with a quote from Mattie Brice, a writer criticizing both geek culture and Kotaku.  She explains that games like Gone Home, that treat non-heterosexual characters with respect, are not just a critique on past decades but scathing rebuke for how culture is still painfully homophobic now. She says that “How the LGBT community is still the elephant in the room. We haven’t thought of what a gamer community that assumes diversity instead of homophobic adolescent dudes looks like. There are plenty of stats of who the ‘average’ gamer is, what the actual demographics are. However, the image in our mind hasn’t changed in decades… The games I play now won’t let me be myself. No game dares to feature a transgender character that isn’t on the wrong end of a joke” (“Why I Don’t Feel Welcome at Kotaku”).  Games like Gone Home need to enter the public eye more, not just because it presents LGBT+ characters but truly because it presents them well and honestly.  Gone Home isn’t using Sam or Lonnie to market to “the average” gamer guy. It isn’t just throwing them in the plot so the white, heterosexual male hero can live while they die. This game tells their story–a very realistic, relatable story–and the horror is matching the respect this game has for its characters to the prejudice reality around it.

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