It’s a normal door. Not the gateway into some terrifying hell dimension, or the entrance to the villain’s secret lair, just a wooden door with non-threatening stained glass insets and a hand-written note taped on one side. The note contains no revelations about alien body snatchers, dark rituals in the basement or unsolved murders. It’s simply an apology between sisters, and a request for privacy.
This is where Gone Home begins, fading onto the Greenbriar’s porch and offering little context to the player. You are Kaitlin Greenbriar, returning to the family home after a year abroad. The situation is mundane to the point of being suspicious, and there’s a curious sensation one finds when standing outside the house for the first time. A kind of confused hesitation is present, largely because the game never really steps into the light. Most games practically fall over themselves telling you what to expect in the coming hours. Menu tutorials pointing you down the path of grand strategy or fantasy RPG, bombastic cold opens where a plethora of terrorists and explosions plant your virtual feet firmly on the soil of war simulation. Gone Home does nothing, save for telling you which button looks and does, and that creates a gnawing void in the player’s mind.
From a traditional storytelling perspective, there’s nothing notable about Gone Home‘s porch. It’s a location in a video game, however, which weighs it down with a surprising amount of baggage. As players, we’ve been conditioned to sort doors into three categories: a challenge, the entrance to a challenge, or non-interactible decoration. While there is a puzzle of sorts, the main purpose of the door is more akin to that of real doors; it obscures — temporarily — our view of what lies beyond. Both the contents of the Greenbriar house and the contents and direction of the game itself are intentionally obfuscated. As players, we see a lack of information and a closed door as mysterious, troubling, maybe even a little frightening. What sort of game lies beyond? Will something leap out at me if I turn the handle? It’s all purposefully crafted with sinister intent, as your mind scans the note for clues to your coming adventure. There’s an urgency and pleading tone to Sam’s message which suggests investigating could lead to Very Bad Things. The familiar and comfortable act of discovering the Christmas duck that hides the front door key is immediately juxtaposed with the slow realisation that you’re probably all alone in this big, spooky house that’s supposed to be home sweet home.
And the storm rages outside, natural, but claustrophobic. You’re not trying to leave, but maybe you couldn’t do that anyway.
Lack of awareness binds the player to Kaitlin. She is the sister and daughter, coming to a place that should be familiar and finding it curiously alien; things are out of place, people are not where they should be. Her home has changed — both figuratively and literally, as the family moved to their current home in Kaitlin’s absence — while she was away exploring the world; she’s changed as well, because we all do, given time and experience. The discomfort you experience while wandering around the empty house isn’t merely a product of the flickering lights and ominous junk piles, it’s the character and the player sharing a common feeling that they do not belong. Years of gaming have trained the average person to expect certain things; guidance and instruction on how to conduct yourself inside a game world, environments, scenes and objects that suggest a particular type of experience. Yet here you are, in this house filled with cryptic notes and seemingly irrelevant soda cans, searching without knowing what to look for.
A ghost story which runs quietly through the centre of Gone Home is a particularly useful example. Exploration reveals to the player that the Arbor Hill home was known as the ‘Psycho House’ locally, named so thanks to Great Uncle Oscar, who willed the home to his nephew Terrance and family. We also learn that Sam and her girlfriend Lonnie began playfully hunting the spirit of Oscar, even going so far as to try performing an exorcism. Scribbled notes and diagrams discuss this malevolent and mysterious uncle, who died in the home. Scary. Deeply troubling. But wait, says our proactive brain, sensing, at last, something to latch onto amid all these forgotten rooms and 90s paraphernalia, this is more like it. A ghost means a task, a challenge; something to throw ourselves against to prove our worth — or perhaps simply to prove we can rattle some cages. As the game progresses and more information emerges, it becomes clear that this isn’t actually a ghost story. Or rather, it’s a real ghost story from the real world, where ghosts don’t exist and looking for them leads to disappointment. Uncle Oscar isn’t an angry spirit waiting to jump out of the closet; he was old man who died alone and estranged from his loved ones, a child abuser, and his spirit lingers only in the sense that it defines much of how Sam and Kaitlin’s father — the victim of said abuse — lived his life.
Oscar’s ghost is emblematic of the game’s position in the mind of a given player. Much like the ghost, Gone Home is defined more by its effects on things around it than its literal content. There is no ghost, yet it manages to deepen the relationship between Sam and Lonnie, weigh heavily on all aspects of Terrance’s daily life, and create strong feelings of unease and anticipation in players, regardless of how convinced we are objectively in the mundane safety of the empty house. In the same way, the game uses the expectations of players to create a version of itself that doesn’t exist — say, a tragic family murder, or a horror story. In a far more directed way that most games, Gone Home leaves much of itself in the hands of player experience. Not knowing what Arbor Hill has in store for me is part of the game, as are my wandering thoughts about supernatural beings or any other interpretations that come and go before the end of the narrative. If the average game is a painting, Gone Home is a relief carving, described by what is missing, inferred and unspoken.
Such deliberate trickery perhaps goes some way to explaining why the game stirred up a hornet’s nest of angry players that still hasn’t died down. Anywhere the game is subjected to public comment you’ll find people spitting acid and claiming injustice, stating the game is, in fact, not a game at all, and that people were fooled into buying some sort of ‘walking simulator’. The claims themselves could generously be described as “extremely dubious”, but there’s no doubt that the developers wanted people to go into the experience with a certain amount of incorrect information — even if that just meant an absence of the correct details. The surprisingly strong negative reaction to the game — one not at all connected to its quality, but inadvertently focused on its meaning, purpose and value — ironically serves to further cement it as something important and worthwhile. Another piece of the ghost story.
Appropriately, Gone Home ends with one last knowing nod to player expectations. Strong evidence, clever emotional manipulation and player experience suggest that Sam has ended her life in the attic of the Greenbriar home. As players move up to check what may be a very traumatic scene, thoughts return to the ominous note on the front door; Sam’s pleading with her sister not to look for her, her desire not to be found. In a rather depressing way, we’re satisfied to have solved the mystery. But Sam isn’t dead, her final note talks about a last minute phone call which led to her leaving with Lonnie. We get tricked again, and it feels good. Different.
Like most adventure games, Gone Home doesn’t necessarily lend itself to multiple playthroughs. Once you know how the haunted house ride works the experience is never the same. Just like Kaitlin Greenbriar, you can’t really go home again.