Turn and Face the Strange: Gone Home
Now that I've basically caught up to the present day (or close enough) with my review of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (2013), I'm going to be breaking away from my more historical approach to video games and focussing instead on more personal aspects; those things that have stuck with me, resonated with me, or reminded me of my own experiences. One such game being 2013's Gone Home.
If you've already played Gone Home, it probably seems like a strange choice of game for a scary game. After all, the supernatural elements in it are rather limited. There's only one ghost, and he might not even exist (he certainly doesn't make any kind physical appearance in the game). That's not really what the game is about, though.
So what is Gone Home about, then? Well, purely from a literal perspective, it's about a 21 year-old high school grad coming home from a backpacking tour of Europe to find her house strangely empty, and piecing together what happened in her absence. From a metaphorical perspective, it's about change.
Change is scary.
Any change, really. It could be very small, like a new hairstyle or a pair of shoes. It could also be very big, like losing a close friend, or moving to a new city. The scale of the change itself isn't the defining factor in the level of fear, though. It's in the scale of what that change meant to you as a person.
What originally attracted me to Gone Home was its setting: your home. That is, your house in Arbor Hill, Oregon, in the role of the protagonist, Kaitlyn Greenbriar. That the player is immediately able to tell something is wrong from the very beginning of Gone Home is partly, I think, a testament to the writing, but also a testament to our expectations of what a home is. Home is a word that implies much more than a house. It implies comfort. Safety. Warmth.
Now upend that home. Take every assumption you had about what you left behind, and shake it up. Pack up your memories and belongings into boxes, and leave cryptic notes telling you not to seek out answers. What is home now?
Confronted with this foreign landscape, you have no choice but to explore. Your path is guided by clues in the form of recorded messages, documents, photographs, and other bits and bobs. Most interestingly, you uncover not only letters to and from various members of your family, but also the postcards you yourself sent back to them. These are perhaps among the most poignant pieces, yet subtly so. These communicate, time and time again, what you remember leaving behind, and contrast it with what you've returned to find.
That personal dissonance extends to every aspect of the game. Highlighting over certain objects occasionally gives you a text description that shows Kaitlyn's own connection to that object: "One of the postcards I sent!" or simply, "Jeez, Sam." It even extends to the map of the house that you can consult: room's are labelled as Kaitlyn labels them: "Sam's Room," "Mom and Dad's Room." There is Kaitlyn's association with what she remembers, and there is the new context that the space has taken on.
This is the effect that change has, and this is why we fear it.
Yet, the more you dig, the more you find out, the more you strive to find the familiar...you discover that everything has fallen into a new order. You learn that the instigator of all this disruption - your sister, Sam - was left in a situation where the alternative to change was to stagnate, and ultimately to dwindle away in misery. She chose instead to face her fear, step through it, and make a change.
Fear of change, like any other fear, can paralyze. We don't know what the change might do to us. It's that unknown, that unfamiliarity, that drives us to just keep the status quo, but change has a way of finding us whether we want it to or not. At one point or another, cliché as it is, we all must change. Whether or not we are bold enough to conquer our fear is up to each of us individually.
And with luck, and a little bit of light to guide the way, we can all find our way home.