Soft Transgressions

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.

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at