Friday, December 20, 2013

Cry, cry--but don't look back; you had to leave sometime

Yeah yeah, so everyone's already spilled thousands of words about Gone Home--dammit, I just finished it, and now *I* want a turn, and you can't stop me!  Note that I'm not even going to make a cursory effort to avoid spoilers, so let me start by just saying that you should totally play if if you haven't.  Some people complain about the relatively high price-to-gameplay ratio, but that's always struck me as a bizarre way to think about a text.  If a game is worth paying, it's worth paying independent of price, and if it's not it's not even if it's free.  

Gone Home is a first-person exploration/story thing.  You Katie Greenbriar, twenty, have come home after a year in Europe.  It's late at night and your parents and your younger sister Sam are nowhere in evidence.  There's a note on the door from Sam saying not to look for her, she's gone, she'll see you again someday.  WHAT IS HAPPENING?  You must wander around the house, finding various artifacts that tell bits and pieces of the story, accompanied at intervals with audio clips from Sam.

Katie herself is not a significant character here.  All we really know is that she's a sort of conventional, solid citizen, in contrast to her sister.  A really telling thing is the way you find, in different places, two identical health-class worksheets that each of them filled out.  The idea is to copy down sentences about the female reproductive cycle in the correct order.  Katie dutifully follows these instructions and received the requisite check-plus, whereas Sam embeds her sentences in a bizarre, violent war story and receives the ominous "see me."  There could not be a more perfect delineation of their characters.

No, the story is really about Sam, her coming to grips with her sexual identity, and her friendship and subsequent romance with another girl, Lonnie.  Now, I'll admit it: at various points, my eyes were not wholly dry.  I'm not made of stone here.  It's an almost unbearably moving love story.  But the interesting question is: why does it evoke these reactions?  The writing and voice acting are both excellent, but it's not a massively original narrative; I would have little interest in reading a book that told the same story, and if I did, I really don't think I would react so strongly to it.  I think this is one case where the interactivity really helps: wandering around the house, picking up and examining items related to the story, as well as the random detritus that a family's accumulated over the years: it really brings everything home (haha) and makes the story feel powerfully real and tangible.  And make no mistake, the designers were really smart in the way they characterized Sam.  I especially liked the various incarnations of a fantasy story that she'd been hammering out in one form or another since she was a small child, about "Captain Allegra" and "the First Mate," whose identities and relationship shift in reaction to Sam's own.  So smart.  So effective.  None of this is remotely naturalistic--one would never expect all this material to be so conveniently lying around in an actual house--but it evokes a heightened sense of reality nonetheless.  

However, the game isn't exclusively the Ballad of Sam and Lonnie; there are also the parents, Terry and Janice, and this is where the game kind of trips up.  It expends a fair bit of effort including material that contributes to their stories, but the thing is, in stark contrast to Sam, it's impossible for me to care about them even a tiny bit.  So Janice had a brief affair.  DON'T CARE.  So Terry was apparently molested when he was small.  Not to sound insensitive, but DON'T CARE.  Neither of these characters come to life or are present in any way (okay, Terry's weird time travel/JFK conspiracy theory novels are kind of funny, but that's as far as I'll go), so it's impossible to feel much of anything for or about them.  To be effective, I think, their stories would really need to intertwine with Sam's in a way that they never do.  Or else they'd need their own voiceovers.  But then they'd just detract from Sam, and she's so obviously the game's emotional center that it would just be irritating.  And then we see them acting in an unhelpful and insensitive manner to Sam's coming out, which just makes me even less interested in learning anything else about them.  Sorry!  I was so annoyed at that point that, to take revenge, I went into the kitchen, removed every single item from the refrigerator, and put them variously in the trash, the dishwasher, and the oven (yes, this game engine does allow for some unintentional comedy).

I wish also to address the ending.  It's undeniably kind of abrupt, but looking back I'm not quite sure what more I wanted.  For the whole game, I was bracing myself for the whole thing to collapse into tragedy.  I think we're still to some extent programmed, consciously or not, to expect that of "gay" stories.  But in fact, the ending is hopeful, with Sam and Lonnie running off together at the last moment rather than Lonnie joining the army, as she'd been planning.  Now, this has received a certain amount of criticism as unrealistic, or, you know, sure, great, but really, what are the odds of this actually working out?  However, I feel I have to defend the game on those grounds.  Now okay, sure, the odds seem to be against this relationship working out in the long haul in the same sense that the odds are against all teenage relationships working out in the long haul.  I think that people who imagine that their future is anything like assured are fooling themselves.  But really, what this reminds me of--Breaking Bad ending spoilers!--is the way Jesse's escape inspired certain people to criticize the ending on the basis of, oh, sure, but he'll NEVER get anywhere, for reasons X, Y, and Z.  Which strikes me as very decidedly missing the point: no, the odds are not stacked in Jesse's favor, but after being constrained, both figuratively and literally, for so long, there's a rush of euphoria on seeing him get away, and while sure, realistically, things seem hard, from a narrative point of view, it's fair to say that even this limited and doubtful form of escape represents a victory.  Same thing applies with the Gone Home ending, I think, and in Gone Home's case, it would also seem relevant that the particular things constraining the characters are things that are themsemves going away.  The game takes place in the nineties, and since then, thoughtless homophobic tropes have become much less socially acceptable, and DADT (which is mentioned by name at one point) is no more.  Do we have to be huge cynics about everything?  Can't we just accept the story in the ambiguous yet hopeful light in which it was clearly intended?  I say, yes.  Yes we can.


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