Aversion to Tragedy: How Gone Home Plies an Underused Genre
What little information we get about Jan, Sam and Katie’s mother, suggests Terry has grown distant after coming back to Arbor Hill. As he struggles with returning to the scene of so devastating an incident in his life, she’s finding herself drawn to a coworker, a forest ranger with whom she almost ignites an affair — but she’s stopped by the fact that he has a serious girlfriend, it seems. Terry and Jan tell Sam they’re going away for a week, but they don’t reveal that they’re spending their anniversary, which coincides with Katie’s return from Europe, at a couple’s counseling retreat.
Of course, the plot points of Gone Home are not all so sad and horrible. There’s hope in the end for Terry and Jan, largely driven, it seems, by renewed interest in Terry’s books from a small publisher. He’s happy and writing again, this time in the enclosed, greenhouse-like back porch, and his latest book seems to suggest that he’s finally worked through his pain, perhaps.
But especially for a video game, it’s remarkable how many hard, controversial and altogether heartbreaking concepts Gone Home works through just by providing bits of evidence for their existence. Despite Oscar’s transgressions — so clearly powerful and painful that they may well have ruined Terry’s life, and at the least profoundly affected it — it’s hard not to take pity on the old man, trapped alone in his giant mansion with his letters unanswered and his penance refused. There’s plenty of pity to be spared for Terry as well, not just because of what he’s suffered, but because the man is, from what evidence is available, a hack. He hates his freelance day job writing reviews of stereos, but though he’s pouring himself into a new novel at the game’s end, one can’t help but think perhaps he’s setting himself up for massive disappointment. The small press that has taken an interest in his stories has told him it isn’t capable of publishing a new book, but he’s rushed headlong into the new work anyway. Even its title, The Accidental Human, is a bit painful to think about as appearing on the desk of an editor for serious consideration.
And of course, despite Terry’s recovery and potentially the saving of his marriage to Jan, the family really has collapsed under the inability of its members to find common ground with one another. At the end of the story, Sam has run away and disappeared. Unaccepted by her parents for her sexuality, she’s left them altogether. What effect will that impact have on the remnants of the family as they fight off its shockwaves? What will it do to Terry and Jan’s marriage, or to Katie, whose own year-long escape to Europe begs questions of whether it was precipitated by her family life?
All these are tough questions and tougher ideas and themes that Gone Home scatters carefully through the hulking, stormy Arbor Hill, and probably what’s most shocking about them is not that they’ve appeared (and been extremely well-handled) in a game, but that it’s surprising to see them in one. Gone Home is the story of a family imploding, of its individual members finding themselves separated from one another even as they live together under the same roof. It’s a story of a father’s failures, a child’s pain, a mother’s longing, and an uncle’s exile. It’s a tragedy, and while some elements might have happy endings, the arc of the stories of people living at Arbor Hill are sad ones about failure and distance. We’re playing through what is likely to be the end of Katie’s family.
Gone Home is remarkable in that it tends to such common and human concepts, which is rare for games, and it’s even more so commendable that the game takes a dark path through lives that feel real. It’s hard to name any games that are true tragedies, and while Gone Home in the end might skirt the edges of that designation, it is most definitely a tragic game.
It’s also a game that doesn’t just suggest that games can do more than they often do in terms of storytelling, it proves it. Games can be not only tragic, but tragedy. They can tell stories that are closer to our world than those of undercover operatives and supersoldiers, and do so in a powerful and effecting way. They don’t always have to have happy endings of worlds saved and players victorious.