Games That Make You Read: Gone Home

Gone Home is last on my list of Games That Make You Read. Even though I’m discussing it last, it’s my favourite of all the games I’ve mentioned recently. Fullbright Company, the people who made it, call it a story exploration game. There are other games that are story-driven and also require exploration as part of the game, but Gone Home is unique in that your exploration is what makes the game. It’s how you uncover the story. It’s all you need to do. There are no goals for you to achieve or puzzles you have to solve or bad guys that you need to kill.

You are Kaitlin Greenbriar. You’re in your early 20s and have returned home to the US after travelling in Europe for a year. While you were away your parents and younger sister moved to a new house. The night you arrive back is very stormy. But there is nobody to welcome you, the door is locked and no one is home. Your sister has pinned a note to the door asking you to not worry and to not look for her.

When you get inside you discover that this house your family has moved into is a faded mansion. But there is much more going on than you can see at first or even second glance. Your job now is to explore this strange house and figure out what has happened to your parents and sister. Almost every room has something to tell you and you discover that a lot can happen in a year. You may have been having adventures in London, Paris, Rome and Barcelona but everyone in your family has experienced some sort of upheaval. Especially your sister Sam. And the story waiting for you in this house is mostly hers.

The game is set in 1995. Fullbright Company say they chose this particular year because the story unfolds through the use of notes and letters and answering machine messages. If they’d set it any later, the communication between the characters in the game would have been via emails and text messages. And there is a charm in this analogue communication that is scattered all through the house. And a memory that, oh yes, I used to do that too.

The timing also allows them to use the riot grrrl bands Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile as an essential part of the soundtrack. The riot grrrl movement in the early 1990s was a re-energising of the feminist movement. It was created by and for girls and young women and had a strong practical focus. It encouraged girls to be in bands and write zines and learn self defence. It was about taking back control of our lives and the way our lives are represented within the media.

In fact though, by 1995 riot grrrl was pretty much over. It had been co-opted by the mainstream media. But it lives on in the music that was made and the zines that were written and the practical effects it had on young women’s lives. It lives on too in the spirit of this game and in Sam’s awakening, which is at the centre of the story.

I loved playing this game. I loved that the story was first, last and everything. But also I loved its strong girl focus, its cleverness and its sensibility – Kaitlin has to read private notes and letters in order to find out what’s going on, but she knows when she’s intruded too far into someone else’s privacy and stops reading.

But on a personal level, the game felt bittersweet too. I was a similar age to Kaitlin in 1995. I have no younger sister but I did have riot grrrl. I remember the possibilities that were open to me then, before I had to make decisions and choose certain paths that then closed off others. I have very few regrets about my choices. But I do feel the loss of that young girl that I used to be. She is gone forever but listening to riot grrrl music reminds me of who she was. And so in the middle of this game, I found my ghostly self. A character completely separate to Kaitlin and Sam. It was the music and interactive story working together that did it. Something you can’t get from the printed page.

Can we have more games like this please, games that make you realise that the definition of what a game is is not a static thing, that as a woman your story can be front and centre and real, that a game can reflect your life, that good writing is the best thing of all.

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