Published on August 15th, 2013 | by Nich Maragos0
Gone Home: Quiet Grrrl
There’s a ghost in Gone Home. There are a lot of them. You may or may not hear them in the sounds of the Greenbriar mansion settling or the wind and rain howling outside, but you’ll feel their presence as you explore the empty hallways and piece together the history, recent and otherwise, of the people who’ve called this house home.
One of them is the ghost of 1995. The Fullbright Company has expertly channeled this shade, recreating the minutiae of the period down to the smallest detail. At the risk of sounding like a “You Know You’re a 90s Kid If” meme, it’s hard for players of a certain age not to smile at the rightness a stack of VHS tapes with movie titles and X-Files episodes labeled in black marker. It goes further than pop culture references: the documents that clearly came from a dot matrix printer, the typewriters instead of computers in the home office of the 40-something father, and the period-correct fashion you can glimpse in the occasional photograph.
One of them is the ghost of the headlines. In Gone Home, you play as Katie Greenbriar, abruptly home from a year-long trip to Europe when your travel allowance runs out. When the shuttle brings you home from the airport, you discover that the front door is locked, the lights are all out, and neither your parents nor younger sister appear to be home. Finding out where they went is the major mystery driving the game. In the back of my mind, though, there was always one simple potential explanation: a home invasion. That possibility colored my wanderings with a deep sense of dread, and finding myself unable to do anything mechanically within the game in the event my fears came true made for one of the most truly terrifying experiences I’ve ever had with a game.
One of them is the ghost of games past. It didn’t help my mindset to round a corner on the upper floor, just after reading one of the more alarming notes left behind, and come across the most diabolical bit of environment design since Silent Hill 2. It takes a special touch to craft a visual that is completely innocuous bare of its context, but taken in after being set up in just the right way can cause your throat to constrict. The last time I recall that happening in a game was when I saw the number “204” on a hotel doorway and knew at once that I would inevitably go through that door, and also that I never, ever wanted to go through that door.
(Even now, ten years down the line, I didn’t have to look up that number. That ghost will always haunt me, just as, I suspect, the scene from Gone Home will.)
One of them is the ghost of the Riot Grrrl scene, and this one is a friendly ghost, like Casper. The bands of that specific time and place and philosophy have their part to play in the story, of course. You could hardly tell the tale of a young woman in Portland 1995 in which they don’t have at least a cameo role. But Gone Home does something with songs like “Cool Schmool” and “Role Model” that I didn’t expect: these songs are the game’s power-ups. When you find a cassette and press play, it’s a talisman against the emptiness and the dark. Whatever you were afraid of, whatever dire fate you had envisioned for the Greenbriar family or yourself, seems toothless before their sneer. Discovering the way this kind of music can make you feel safe and secure may be a minor revelation in itself.
One of them is a ghost I shouldn’t name. There are some parts of Gone Home you should experience for yourself. But you’ll feel its icy grip in the most unexpected places: a TV Guide listing here, the crabbed handwriting of a letter there, and although there isn’t an actual ghost (it’s probably time I admit that, sorry) the chill down your spine will be real.
It’s possible that I see all these things because Gone Home is just a mirror and I brought them with me to the game. But I think it’s more accurate to call Gone Home a precious stone with all these facets already carefully honed and shaped. As much as it might seem like I’m revealing, there’s a lot more going on in the game than I’m covering, most of which is conveyed with more economy, subtlety, and style than I can bring to bear when talking about it. Part of me worries that any discussion of the game prior to playing it will become its own ghost hovering over the player’s shoulder. “Is this the part he was talking about? Is this it?” Try to banish that one and simply go and play.