I didn’t expect to spend several hours this weekend playing a video game, but the buzz around Gone Home was too much to ignore. The premise is incredibly simple yet breathtakingly elegant: during a dark and stormy night in the mid-1990s you arrive home from a trip overseas to an empty house. You aren’t sure what happened, but everyone is gone.
The rest of this post will give spoilers for the game. Download it. Play it. Come back when you are finished.
Amidst the growing clamor around the treatment of women online and the (still!) incessant hounding of Anita Sarkeesian by trolls for daring to turn a critical gaze onto video games, Fulbright Games has dropped a subtle, wonderful video game with fully developed (though absent) female characters. There are three (arguably 3.5) storylines that you explore as you move through exploring the contents and structure of the very large (!) house that your parents moved into while you were overseas.
There are already several reviews that describe how intimate the storyline is and the “ludonarrative harmony” that Gone Home uses to “exploit gamic expectations, gamic tropes.” Beyond the fantastic storyline (setting the game in the mid-90s, featuring riot grrl music and zines left me nearly immobile with nostalgia), the way the game uses found objects, assemblages, and a domestic structure to connect the player with missing people deserves some attention from archaeologists and others who are interested in digital materiality.
The setting of Gone Home is, from the perspective of a western gamer used to deep space and fantasy realms, hopelessly mundane. The house, while incredibly large, is not unfamiliar to anyone who has been to suburban America. Its contents are a little jumbled, as your parents have just moved in, but it is completely full of glasses, tissue boxes, coasters, televisions, and empty pizza boxes. Yet these contents are not randomly scattered through the house. In time, through your exploration and increased understanding of the family members, you associate these objects with individuals and can “see” which rooms each of them frequented.
Personal letters, tickets, receipts, calendars and photos help the narrative along, and you assemble this detritus into an intricately detailed picture of what happened in the house while you were overseas. Gone Home is deeply about context–did your mother cheat or not? What was the relationship between your father and his uncle? Even some of the “meaningless” objects, the objects that do not directly advance a storyline, help build both the context and add depth to the characterizations.
There is also a measure of respect for these objects–unlike most video games, you do not have to smash everything you see so that you can look inside. You are invited to put cassette tapes into players and put things back in the right place after you examine them. I admit that I took a certain amount of joy in throwing tampons all over the bathroom, but this may mean I’m just a little more Sam than Katie. In an interview with the Fullbright Company, Steve Gaynor explicitly cites haikyo, or urban exploration, finding a story “through voyeurism and exploration” as one of the main sources of inspiration for the game.
The objects fill us with a sense of unease–as a family member, you (as Katie) are, in theory, allowed to go through the house, even though your sister asks you not to try to find out where she is. Yet you feel a voyeurism as you sort through the domestic detritus, and find out uncomfortable details of your family’s life. This ambiguity is intriguing–the only way to finish the game is to use the objects to learn, yet the objects do not always tell a comfortable story. The mundane details of life in Gone Home are hopelessly enchanting.
As an archaeologist, I am thrilled to see a game that tells such an intimate narrative about a household through objects. How much of our story is in what we leave behind? How can we convey meaning through objects without a didactic label? Can we ever hope to make a story about the (more distant) past as vibrant as Gone Home? Mostly importantly, am I so hopelessly old that it breaks my heart that Sam did not end up going to Reed for creative writing?
8 thoughts on “Gone Home: Materiality & the Enchantment of the Mundane”
A wonderful, clever piece, there are some really cool possibilities to an archaeology of a handful of games, this is a fabulous little example.
I never expected that my two favourite worlds would collide like this. I’d been waiting to play this game for months, reading (cautiously) about it, then putting the reading aside to go back to archaeology. I never expected to find Gone Home here, but I was delighted to.
Now that I’ve actually played the game (and only then allowed myself to read your piece), a couple thoughts…
That Sam implores you not to try to figure out where she’s gone, but that you of course do—what else would you do?—is not a very important aspect of the game. But it did make me wonder: do we often do archaeology of people who would prefer not to be ‘found’? (And, ok, perhaps Sam does in the end want to be found). Perhaps some of the internal conflicts of indigenous archaeology gets closest to this. And does the fact that we, the player, feel compelled to solve the mystery owe more to human curiosity, the degree to which we empathize with our role as caring sister, or the way in which the game essentially mechanically limits us to that route and/or plays on our familiarity with games-as-goal-sets? I feel as if these are all questions that could easily translate to the field.
Relatedly, it seems that we all play this game as a certain kind of archaeologist. Because—perhaps against what I’ve just said—I do believe our primary motivation in Gone Home is to assemble a compelling story. We want to find the resonance in the detritus that Sam’s relationship has left behind, not the narrative noise of the Kleenex boxes and telephones that litter every room. We approach the game as phenomenologists and interested in the ideational, not so much as quantitative researchers interested in aggregate social behaviour.
PS. Don’t you think Sam will end up in creative writing in the long run? Like a child ‘running away from home’, here the act of leaving seems like the most important part, not the staying on the road. She’ll eventually write that novel. I think too of that notion that any individual writer has essentially only one story to tell, and they spend their whole careers re-telling it. The way the makers of this game placed so many iterations of her captain’s tale around the home makes me wonder if they weren’t poking fun at this idea.