Experienced Points

Experienced Points
What Made Gone Home Such a Powerful Game?

Shamus Young | 9 Sep 2014 15:00
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Gone Home

It's probably really hard for millennials to grasp just how much the world has changed since 1995. Back then, we didn't quite "get" homosexuality yet. We thought it was a kind of kink, like furries or people into BDSM. (Not that it's okay to make fun of those people, either. I'm just trying to give you a frame of reference.) The thinking at the time was that gay individuals were incredibly rare and very screwed up. (The outrageous stereotypes of the day probably didn't help.) It was common for people to think the homosexuality was a condition that needed to be treated with therapy.

That sounds daft now, but keep in mind that most homosexuals were still in the closet. We didn't understand homosexuals because we didn't talk about our sexuality openly. We didn't talk about it openly because the subject was taboo. It was taboo because of religious norms, but also because it made people uneasy to think about. (Even non-religious people.) The taboo kept people in the closet, which prevented open discussion, etc. It takes time to unwind nasty feedback loops like that.

(Obviously what I've said above doesn't apply to everywhere in the United States, much less the world. Attitudes towards homosexuality vary by region, but the portrayal in Gone Home stuck me as being appropriate for suburban communities in 1995.)

Now, it would be really, really easy for a writer in 2013 to want to paint the people of 1995 as a bunch of ugly, bigoted, narrow-minded, villains. We love stories where we can smugly look down on the people of the past, and bigotry makes for easy drama.

But instead Gone Home takes a more honest approach and shows Sam's parents as typical for the time period: Basically good folks who love their daughter but don't understand what she's going through and don't know how to talk to her about it. Yes, it was tough being gay in small-town America in 1995. But it was even tougher in 1975 and harder still in 1955. Cultural snapshots like the kind we find in Gone Home are invaluable for letting us understand the past as it really was.

This context made the end of the game thought-provoking and bittersweet. Yes, Sam had a rough time of it, and her parents didn't quite get it yet. But if they followed the trajectory of the rest of middle America then things were probably going to get a lot better for Sam in the next few years, and her family would most likely come around eventually. That's not a happy ending by the standards of video games, but it's a happy ending by the standards of Real Life.

The thing is, if you're above a certain age, or below a different age, or if you grew up someplace other than 90's suburbia, then this stuff might not mean anything to you. If the house in Gone Home doesn't feel like the sort of house you visited in your youth, if you didn't go through the rapid (by the standards of cultural change) transformation that changed the way we understood the homosexuals in our lives (like, that they existed) then there might not be any emotional impact for you.

While the love story in Gone Home has been done a thousand times before (forbidden love is one of the oldest tropes out there) the details in the game give it a sense of grounded reality that no degree of photorealistic graphics could ever achieve.

Sometimes what you get out of art depends on what you bring into it. If you went into Gone Home with the right background, then it provided a powerful, thought-provoking, and emotionally resonant experience. While games have pretty much nailed the concept of "fun", they still struggle to connect with us emotionally, so it's worth celebrating when they succeed.

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank. You can read more of his work here.

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