Aversion to Tragedy: How Gone Home Plies an Underused Genre
Storytime is a recurring series in which we analyze the storytelling found in video games by looking at the elements that form those stories, the messages they deliver, and the people who create them.
Warning! This feature includes spoilers to the plot, such as it is, of Gone Home. Read on at your own risk.
Gone Home is not a happy game.
Others critics have noted the way The Fullbright Company’s exploration-based title makes use of the tropes of horror, although it never really becomes a horror game. Throughout the title, a thunderstorm rages in the darkness outside Arbor Hill, the game’s only setting. Lights flicker; there are a few slightly jumpy moments, when static plays over a TV unexpectedly, or a light cuts out unexpectedly. The house looks not just empty, but utterly abandoned in a moment, with appliances left on and food sitting out. It’s a palpable sense of danger that the developers cultivate, but which doesn’t really seem to apply to the narrative of the game.
But the sense of darkness and foreboding plays into other aspects of the story Gone Home tells. It’s one of the few games out there that might actually be a functioning tragedy — not a horror story, or a story in which the hero’s love interest is murdered along the way to drive him or her toward the epic final battle, but a true tragedy in which the characters in the story are worse off for the events that happen to them, and that they create through their actions. We see throughout Gone Home evidence of the lives of the characters who live (and lived) in Arbor Hill falling apart because of forces outside of their control, as well as within it.
Around the middle of Gone Home, while exploring the basement of Arbor Hill, it’s possible to come upon some disturbing information. The basement is mostly home to elements of the story relating to Terry, the father of player character Katie and the story’s protagonist-apparent, Sam. Up to this point, we’ve been uncovering all sorts of information about Terry — he rivals Sam in how much narrative detritus scattered throughout Arbor Hill is devoted to him, his personality, and the story of his decline as a father and husband.
By this point, we know that Terry is a struggling author, who wrote two novels about time travel and the assassination of JFK, which garnered meager sales. We also know that Arbor Hill was left to Terry and his family by his uncle, Oscar, with whom Terry spent much of his childhood. Earlier, we discovered that there was some sort of falling out between uncle and nephew upon finding a letter from Oscar that Terry had destroyed (but then apparently reassembled). In the basement, evidence mounts that the event that drove them apart occurred in 1963 — the same year JFK was assassinated. As Terry seems obsessed with returning to that year and preventing awful things from happening.
Though it’s never really spelled out, the implications come to a head in the basement. In a letter attached to one of Terry’s novels, his father congratulates him on the success of being published — before gently pushing him to do better literary work now that he’s used his story to work through his past. Letters discovered in a hidden safe, written by Oscar, beg his sister (Terry’s mother, one assumes) to be readmitted into the family and forgiven for his transgression. (Also in the safe: all the paraphernalia associated with injecting drugs, along with an ample supply of morphine syrettes.)
With all the evidence in hand, it becomes pretty apparent what happened: Oscar’s transgression with Terry seems to have been a sexual one. Oscar was ostracized from the family, grew depressed, and eventually died alone, despite attempts to atone over the years. One hidden room Katie discovers through the course of exploring is filled with crosses and pictures; its hanging light burns out before the room can be closely examined, but its contents suggest it was here that Oscar tried so adamantly to banish the deplorable things he’d done, and perhaps still wanted to do.
Terry seems to have spent much of his life trying to work through Oscar’s abuse, with no success, and the feelings from his past have returned powerfully with his return to Arbor Hill. His failings as a writer drive him to drink excessively (and his depression seems to keep him from cleaning up after himself), and it seems that under the weight of Terry’s emotional baggage, his marriage is beginning to crumble.