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Nicole Carpenter of Polygon a month ago characterized Gone Home and the most important game released this decade. She clarifies that she doesn't mean its objectively the best game released this decade, but that it's impact on gaming as a medium has been especially important. Personally, I'm pretty sure that games like Fortnite, Minecraft, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, and Grand Theft Auto V, all of which have been played by more than 100 million people, have been more culturally impactful than the one million or so virtual units Gone Home has moved so far. Nonetheless, Carpenter makes many good points about how expansive Gone Home's impact has actually been, from, more than any other one game, bringing so-called walking simulators into something resembling the cultural mainstream of gaming to affecting the design of major games outside its genre like that of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End.

Life is Strange was reportedly another example of a major title that drew at least some influence from Gone Home at a certain stage of development. The number of video games centering specifically lesbian characters has likewise undergone a massive expansion since Gone Home's release, fully doubling from one to two in the last six years alone (neither of which was released by a major publisher), so even in terms of thematic material, the game's cultural impact knows no bounds. Anyway, Carpenter's article linked in the first paragraph inspired me to share some of my thoughts on the game today, as it's been one of my personal favorites.

First off, let's just get this out of the way: Gone Home was the first video game to center a lesbian narrative. For doing so, it was frequently accosted by the Gamergate crowd as an "SJW fake game" (actual quote I saw on many occasions) back when GG was a major thing in 2014-15. That's the elephant in the room any time this particular game gets discussed. We all know it. Let's just acknowledge that that episode happened and that it was retarded and move forward.

Anyway, no Gone Home objectively wasn't the best game ever made. Of course not. But it meant a lot to me anyway, first of all because, yeah, it was the first game that was primarily about a lesbian relationship and I'm a lesbian. It was nice to be viewed as important by at least one relatively obscure developer somewhere. The time period that the game takes place in, the summer of 1995, was also a fairly important and formative one in my own life and there are a ton of little period-specific touches here that are definitely nostalgic to me. There are other games that harken back that period, but I can't really think of others that directly acknowledge phenomena like Sassy magazine or specific riot grrl bands, for example. Another thing that I found striking and distinctive about the game though was/is its basic design choices.

Famously, Gone Home distinguished itself by being a narrative-driven title that didn't revolve around per se challenging the player. There are no puzzles or enemies or platforms to jump or anything of that nature. Even the game's collectibles aren't really essential for the most part. It's a relaxing game that's simply about exploration and discovery for its own sake. That remains pretty novel today all in all. I think the fact that three members of developer Fullbright's staff were known for their work on a BioShock 2 expansion is probably a major factor that helped make the game a sales success and also controversial in terms of both themes and design choices because obviously the BioShock crowd may not have been naturally interested in a smaller, exploration-driven story game about high school girls falling in love and their family lives. The player base of the game may have been a mismatch for the goals of the developers, in other words (kind of like how Death Stranding's natural import of Metal Gear fans might have been a mismatch for Hideo Kojima's intentions for the game). I learned about the game by keeping up with BioShock-related news myself. It was marketed like a survival-horror game to boot, so that's what I was expecting. I think the reason I wasn't disappointed as a result had everything to do with the fact that I was also into some of the so-called girl games of the '90s and 2000s.

As Jamin Warren detailed a bit on the PBS Game/Show back when that was running, "girl games" were a minor and often forgotten, but culturally impactful thing that happened and in some ways are still happening. I've authored a thread detailing my love of one of these games in particular here on VGC: Chop Suey. That one especially and Theresa Duncan's other two titles, Smarty and Zero Zero have definitely long been favorites of mine. The Nancy Drew games were another example. Gone Home struck me as a combination of these types of games designed to be enjoyed by people like me that wound up saddled with the wrong player base because of the history of the Fullbright staff working on the BioShock franchise. By this I mean that the game has the attitude and exploration-for-its-own-sake type of design that Theresa Duncan's games used to while also functioning as a kind of "haunted" mansion mystery story with a real ending.


(Warning: Spoilers ahead!)

The point of the game is concentrated in its title. All of the game's family members are heading home in their own way by the end of the narrative. The question posed to us is, in essence, what "home" actually means. The game's answer is that home is a state of mind. It's wherever those who love us the most are, and love has understanding at its core. Of course Sam's parents love her in their own way and want what they think is best for her, but ultimately they don't really know her because they don't want to. Or at least not like Lonnie understands her. Her parents, and Lonnie's it appears, are too wrapped up in their own problems and prejudices to be bothered even when the truth is plainly revealed to them.

Speaking of the parents, Terry, meanwhile, is struggling with his writing because he's being re-traumatized by having to live in the same place where he was sexually abused by his uncle, who's spirit does, in a (non-literal) sense, haunt him and therefore the house. He can't move forward until he can address these long-concealed demons that he can't bear to share with others. And by not sharing what's wrong with him, he alienates his wife, Janice (as does Sam in different ways), causing her, in turn, to feel alone and unvalued in her own household, whereupon she toys around with the idea of having an affair with an attractive guy at her work.

A frequent refrain in all of this is that various characters in the narrative don't feel as though they're being treated as human. Sam offers such a remark to her parents in a note left outside her room. Oscar remarks about his wish to be treated as human by his family and find forgiveness. Terry's final, redemptive work of literature focuses thematically on its protagonist finding his humanity. One can't help but notice the pattern.

When finally someone appreciates his long-forgotten books, which by metaphor seem to reflect on the aforementioned abuse he suffered at the hands of his uncle, Terry not only finds the acceptance he's been looking for his entire life, but also, more importantly, the sense that someone is listening and cares. This gives him the courage he needs to get himself together. Together with helpful nudges from her college pen pal Carol, Janice takes notice of the positive change in her husband and the two begin the hard work of putting their marriage back together again. And Sam finds the acceptance of her for who she is fully, as an aspiring writer and music lover, as a tomboy, as a lesbian, and just as one who above all seeks the truth about the world and in others, in the person of Lonnie. There is no resolve for their dilemma of impending, likely permanent separation from one-another aside from running away together. In a more conventional video game teen story playing on the themes of The Catcher in the Rye (e.g. Oxenfree, Life is Strange, Night in the Woods), this might force the two of them to "mature" by accepting the inevitability of adulthood and the parting of ways that often goes along with that. Being a romance though, instead the two of them run away together. Meanwhile, Katie, our player character and Sam's sister, is revealed to be Sam's closet confidant outside of Lonnie, all of it stressing the centrality of understanding to different forms of love. Understanding and acceptance. Where those things are is where home is.

(Incidentally, running away really isn't the most uncommon solution to non-acceptance that gay youth opt for. In this sense, Gone Home's conclusion isn't as wholly unrealistic as you may think. It's kind of a romanticized version of a real phenomenon.)

It's a simple, sweet, well-written, well-acted, and sincere story that I can't help but love. It's also pretty funny much of the time. Especially Sam and Lonnie's writings to one-another, whether it's about gaming, pretend ghost-hunting, speculations about teachers, bullshit plots against parents, the two of them really do talk like teens would have back then. The speculation that a teacher might secretly love cats and 90210 on the basis of nothing really is, for example, exactly the kind of "gossipy" convo I might've had with a friend back then. And then there is the famous sex ed assignment. Appropriately, humanity shows in every element of this game. It's for that thematically important reason that there so few concessions to conventional game design that doesn't reflect how life works. I especially love how much Gone Home draws from the 1994-95 TV show My So-Called Life in that connection. I have never stopped missing that show.

I also want to play Adventurous the Cat Returns, Journey of Crystal, and Super Spitfire, and demand that these be made into real Super NES-style games!

I shared this game with my mom not too long before she passed away. She was never too adept at conventional games, but something like this that's a danger-free adventure revolving around solving a kind of mystery was right up her alley. My parents never fully accepted me as a lesbian, but being able to share this game with my mom helped us talk more. Honestly, that's probably the thing about it that's meant the most to me. Everything else above is details.

Okay, I guess that's all I really had to say. Just felt like explaining why I always rank this game so highly on my personal favorites lists. It's the humor, the memories, the message, the love I associate with it, all of it. That is all. (And also, yes I can be a sap. That helps too.)

Last edited by Jaicee - on 14 December 2019