It’s been a few days since I’ve completed Gone Home. Although many would argue that this point-and-click title isn’t much of a game, there’s no denying it breathes full of heart-warming life.
I won’t lie; when I first started the game, I had no idea what I was walking into; no clue as to the genre of the game, what it was about, nothing. I was just handed the game and told to “have fun!” I was hesitant – the opening scenes were a bit too unsettling for my tastes, especially since I still had haunting thoughts about Outlast. But after cursing for a bit and psyching myself out over thoughts that the evening and rain setting were signals for a horror title, I became engulfed in the story that was unraveling before me.
I soon came to realize that this wasn’t one of those room escape games that I find myself playing in the middle of the night or even one where spooky naked prisoners try to kill me; no, it was something more, something unexpected, and has left me thinking about it since I finished the indie-title.
Spoilers ahead, beware.
The game follows the story of Katie returning home after a yearlong trip abroad. Unbeknownst to her, she returns to an empty house and is greeted with a letter taped to the front door. It’s from her younger sister, Sam, who urges Katie to not go searching for her… but as gamers, we can’t help but look. The game isn’t too difficult to maneuver through, however, and just requires a bit of patience, intrigue, and reading.
Upon opening the door, I was struck with a bit of sensory overload as the lights of the foyer began to flicker while thunder and lightning occurred almost simultaneously. Although a couple of lights were on within the house, it still felt so dark and haunted that I was compelled with urgency to turn on as many lights as possible! My mind wanted to run to the next light switch, but the game’s mechanics wouldn’t allow me to and my character’s slow-trotting footsteps were as loud as my heartbeat.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
I came across the phone’s answering machine… three messages. I hit play and a voice started to speak, “Sam… Sammm! SAM!!!” Message two belonged to the same voice, this time distraught, pained, and in need of help. The third message was my character’s voice. It was the message she left for her mom at the beginning of the game. Somehow, hearing my character’s voice again, followed by the perfectly timed thunder and lightning, unnerved me so much that I almost wanted to stop playing, but intrigued pulled me in. Who was crying out for Sam, if not my character?
That was my first experience with the game.
I moved slowly throughout the first level, turning on lights, exploring everything that I could for clues on where my sister went, moreover, where my whole family was, and whose voice it was on the answering machine. I opened up closets, drawers, explored shelves and even trash cans for clues. Luckily for me, as I interacted with certain objects, “audio journals” spoken by Sam would play. Sam’s voice was very gentle; at times excited, worrisome, but all the more defiant. Truth be told, her voiced helped to interject the moments that spooked me.
Through her journal entries and my exploration, I discovered that Katie’s family moved into a new home while she was away in Europe. It had belonged to her dad’s uncle who passed away. Many townsfolk who knew of the house dubbed the place “Psycho House.” That didn’t really help my nerves. I kept waiting to find dead bodies and see ghosts walking about. However, after hearing each one of Sam’s audio journals, I calmed down and began to tune out the creaks the floor made as I walked, wavering lights, and the thunder’s roar.
It wasn’t long before I realized that this game wasn’t about my character’s search for her family, but of Sam’s life and her relationship with Lonnie, the stranger’s voice on the answering machine. My fear dissipated; what replaced it was this giddy school girl feeling that Sam was going to experience her first love and here I was getting a glimpse of it.
As I made my way upstairs, I noticed that the rooms were in disarray, that things that should have been in certain places weren’t there, such as VCRs not next to VCR tapes. I, subsequently, starting noticing the thunder, my own footsteps, and flickering lights again. This wasn’t a good sign, but Sam’s journal entries about her first meeting with Lonnie, their rivalry in Street Fighter, Sam’s intimate experience with helping Lonnie dye her hair, and their first kiss, made things alright. Even when Sam’s parents found out about their relationship and chalked it all up to a “phase,” it didn’t stop them; hope. But as quickly as happiness flooded Sam’s voice at this newfound relationship, it broke down just as fast and fear began to enter my mind… but it was a different fear than I experienced before. We learned that Lonnie has been part of the high school’s ROTC program since she was a freshman and is to ship off to basic training as soon as she graduates. It was one of those “awww oh no!” moments for me.
At this moment, I moved quickly as the game allowed me to, trying to figure out what happened to the two of them. By this time I had discovered that Katie and Sam’s parents were at a couples’ therapy retreat, alluding to their failing marriage and possible infidelity by their mom… but their story didn’t matter much to me. In the back of my head, I kept thinking about the movie Lost and Delirious and Piper Parabo’s character jumping off the school’s building after losing the love of her life. The same sort of thing was going to happen in this game; I was so sure that it was bound to happen.
Lonnie stayed with Sam the night before she was to take a bus to basic training. When Sam awoke, Lonnie was gone and Sam was heartbroken… it was at this moment I thought, oh gawd they hung themselves or something in the attic didn’t they, the last place in the house you could explore.
The game ultimately leads up to Sam’s last hideout you haven’t explored, the attic, which also doubled as her photography dark room. There you trigger another of Sam’s entries about the voice messages we encountered at the start of the game. Sam’s voice was vibrant and explained that Lonnie had gotten off the bus and was waiting for Sam, that she should take as much stuff as she can from the house and just find her and for the two of them to just drive off to where the road takes them.
As I slowly continued exploring the attic, I found a room with a journal atop a desk. I interacted with it and Sam’s voice began to apologize to Katie for not being there when she got home, but that Sam is where she needs to be. I breathe a sigh of relief. I didn’t find any dead bodies.
I finished the game in less than two hours, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Although the game may have ended on a seemingly happy note, a real sense of fear began in my mind. I know you’re probably yelling at me about the other side of the coin — what if they made an escape and are living a life of bliss? I won’t lie, a part of me believes that even though this is a video game, that it’s set in the past, many people like Sam and Lonnie are out there living the same struggle, and essentially, are just looking for a home. But honestly, life really sucked for kids like Sam and Lonnie in the 1990s. The United States was still under the whole “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law and social media wasn’t around to help ease the pain of those who suffered. In fact, just a few months before the game took place, a man shot his coworker after the latter admitted to having a crush on him. This was the world Sam and Lonnie were escaping into.
Even if the duo escaped to live a life of whatever they choose to do, there’s still the “what will happen now” sort of effect that lingers on. The things Sam took to pawn, that money won’t last long and then what? This is where the real adventure game begins, in the afterthought of the prologue, in the unknowns of a burgeoning horror tale.
This is the fear that hasn’t left me since I finished the game.