Gone Home is worth your time, and $20. Spoilers are going to follow, and it might be better to go in without knowing any, so I suggest you get it from Steam and play it now.
Hannah Arendt writes of the public realm in “The Human Condition”, noting that “for us, appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves – constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life – the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses – lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance.” She identifies a basic truth of human life – that in order to transmit an experience, we must reduce it for transmission, and its impact will necessarily be less significant to those experiencing the communication of the experience than to those who underwent the initial experience. The private is home to our most intense, most powerful experiences.
Gone Home offered me a fantastic ground for meditation on this process, specifically the relative importance of the private to my young self (and the inability to determine what was appropriate for public transmission) and how my life has been both forced to become more public, and that I now guard the private more jealously that I ever did before. That’s what I want to look at in this piece – my relationship to the private and the public within the confines of my own family, and how Gone Home offered a mirror to examine my own secrets and transgressions.
As a story, Gone Home is itself a transmission of the private into the public, and its internal structure mirrors the experience of the player – we travel with Katie as she transgresses into the private realms of her parents and sister, thus piecing together photographs, letters, journals and so on into a cohesive and rewarding narrative that explores the last year of Terry, Jan and Sam’s lives.
Sam’s story is the center of Gone Home; she is allowed to narrate her own story, which is recorded in a journal that is almost intended for the player’s avatar, Katie. Sam writes in her journal that it is meant to mimic the conversations she would have with her older sister, and so there’s really little guilt in the reading of those specific letters, but it remains a transgression. The rest of Katie’s activities are explicitly more transgressive – the player is drawn to rifle through desks and boxes for information (we have, after all, been endlessly trained for it), and so foist ourselves onto the private experiences of our virtual family members without their permission or knowledge. Because our sister is narrating her journal for us. She explains and withholds, and the game is ultimately her story, so she maintains an agency that our parents don’t have. When I was traipsing through my parents’ room, opening every drawer and looking at the back of every bookmark, I felt guiltier and more snoopy.
Since Sam is so central, I initially found myself empathizing with her. I laughed with recognition when I read her grade-school story about Allegra and the First Mate (mine was about time-traveling dinosaurs), and my heart sang and I cried when I saw the developed continuation of the story written by High School Sam in the closet (partially because the hair dye in the tub threw me and I was sure I was going to find her dead in the attic). I giggled at the TV room and remembered reading science fiction in a pillow fort. I recalled sitting, nervous and sweaty, as I explained to my pastor/father and mother that I kind of no longer believed in God, and, despite my Master’s in Theological Research, religion still isn’t something I talk about with either of them. I doubt I’ll ever show them my thesis.
But I’m much more Katie than Sam. I’m the older child, the golden child, the good kid with the good grades that did everything right, so much so that, on the rare occasion I did get in trouble at school, I’d be devastated and my father would encourage me to get in trouble more often. We probably write the same sort of post-cards. My younger brother didn’t run off with a forbidden love, but he did take a couple years off college, and he drank in high school, and he certainly fought with my parents much more frequently than I did. Sounds carries well in my house, and I definitely heard a lot of “But Matt is allowed to do that,” in discussions I wasn’t invited to. It’s possible that I might have some voyeur in me as well; high five, Katie.
I was twenty, like Katie is, when I started to become privy to the intricacies of my parents’ relationship. Within one week I found myself in a private conversation with each about the other. My father was concerned about my mother’s future, and said her fears about going back to school were unfounded and holding her back from a better career. My mother was frustrated with my father’s need to always be right, his inability to admit to mistakes. The illusion of a calm, equal, perfect partnership evaporated – it was bizarre, my parents treating me like an equal and not as somebody that needed to be protected from their reality. Their private discourse was made shockingly public, and I felt like I had transgressed. I imagine that’s just a part of growing up.
In Sam, I saw a lack of privacy that closely resembled what I experienced in my childhood. My house was always a safe place, and for the first fifteen or so years of my life I had no secrets to keep. My private became public with only the barriers of common sense and manners to stop me from blurting out my feelings. The home is safe, and its geography is laden with the intense, powerful feelings of childhood. My parents still live in the Missouri house I grew up in, though I live in Massachusetts. I go back there about once a year now, and though the re-awakening of old memories is always comforting, it also grows more alien each time I visit. It has stopped feeling like home to me. I can empathize with Katie’s (my) raw curiosity – so much life has been lived in the place that I return to; there is a story being told that I was once part of, but am no longer.
In that light, the transgression seems acceptable to me, I suppose. I do much the same thing when I come “home.” I know my parents better as a voice on the phone now. It’s nice to have that, it’s worthwhile, but our lives are so separate now. So when I’m home, I get as much information as possible. I ask bold questions too, and snoop around, and basically continue to feel pretty transgressive as I shove my way back into their lives for a week’s time. But I never bring up religion.
I find the difference between Sam’s story and Jan and Terry’s stories fascinating, and wonder if there’s an actual statement there about the nature of age and proper discourse. We don’t actually encounter much writing directly from Jan or Terry, and certainly nothing personal; we see responses to their actions, and the play between their social ties and efforts, but nothing that they record for their own sake. Terry is a writer, but we only read one of his technology reviews and a letter to a company urging them to publish one of his new books. I don’t think we see anything penned by Jan at all. Every part of their stories is found in letters sent to them, or newspaper clippings about their role in the community. In the “present” of Gone Home, they are on a counseling retreat; we find a book about rekindling the spark of romance in their bathroom. Their private experiences occur at a greater distance from us than Sam’s experiences; they have taken pains to keep their lives secret, not only from us but, to an extent, from each other. Even small, mundane instances, such as finding a skin mag in Terry’s library, enforce this distance.
The design of the house accentuates the sense of people leading their own secret lives within the same house. There are quite a few secret passages – we find a basement tunnel that leads to Sam’s zine workshop, a secret room beneath the stairs, a locked attic turned into a dark-room. The few locked doors serve not only to funnel the player down a particular path and ensure that we consume Sam’s story in rough chronological order, but also to enhance the implied barriers between the people that live in this place. The final picture is of familial misunderstanding – three people with intimate relationships who, at the same time, clutch their private lives tightly to themselves in a way that has generated such friction that Sam has run away and Terry and Jan’s marriage is on the verge of collapse.
Though I was delighted with the end of Sam’s story, the snapshot that Gone Home offers is not necessarily a happy one. Sam’s coming out has been criticized as unrealistic in its overwhelming positivity, and that is perhaps accurate. As for me, I find myself remaining with Katie – Katie, who has returned to an empty house, who has had a revelation of the true state of her parent’s relationship, who is alone in the storm.