Written for Haywire Magazine
I was angry at Gone Home when the credits rolled. Very angry. I remember shouting ‘REALLY?’ as I hit escape, quit the game and uninstalled it, something I wish I could do to League of Legends. Then I wrote some stupid things on a couple of message boards – the outlet for all my immaturity – and brooded. This game advertised a haunted house, I thought, and it didn’t deliver a single scare!
That Gone Home heavily depends on a red herring to string you between its rooms of household items was my initial criticism. It’s a very abused herring, you see. It squaks at you from the very onset with an imposing old manor and its violently rapping shutters in the winds of a vicious thunderstorm. You stand on the porch turning over things in search of the housekey, returning after a long trip abroad to find no family to greet you. There’s just a note from a younger sister, Sam, apologizing for something.
What dark discoveries lie within the house? That’s the uneasiness such an atmosphere tends to convey. Swinging open doors expecting to find a hanging body or something supernatural, I was ready for that psychotic experience. I wanted it. Yet, all there is to find in this house is what you’d expect to find in a normal household: Paperwork, bills, souvenirs from vacations, old records, empty pizza boxes, soda cans and drawers full of not severed heads, but clothes. Clothes!
As the storm raged and floorboards creaked upstairs, I remained convinced something was here to get me. However, as my suspicions became increasingly childish, they were quickly debunked. There were stains of red in the bathtub, yes, but a bottle of similarly colored hair dye right next to it. Hidden passageways behind wall panels lead from laundry rooms to creepy closets, but that’s not inherently frightening, is it? Old houses tend to have these things. Then a used ouija board in my younger sister’s closet and some drawing of pentagrams, but once again, not really anything unusual for a girl with X-Files posters in her room and cassettes of punk rock lying about.
Perhaps I’m spoiling the fact that Gone Home isn’t a horror game, the realization that turned my disappointment into great admiration. In fact, I was ashamed that I needed that sort of lure to give a game like this a shot. But to explore an empty house, look at items on countertops and in cabinets, find simple triggers, keys, and combinations, and that’s it? You couldn’t sell that to me without some kind of kicker.
Yet, what makes Gone Home beautiful is that it is about a haunted house. A peek into the trials of adolescence, a weakening marriage, a man looking for his muse and a woman for a spark of passion. You interact with the ghosts of lives lived, and anyone who has rummaged through the private space of another human being will understand the kind of anxiety and wonder that can instill.