Gone Home, the debut game from Fullbright Studio, hit Steam last month, and now is as good a time as ever too look back at part of what made it so successful: how it managed to be scary, nostalgic, and bittersweet.
At one point while playing Gone Home, I found myself in a secret room hidden behind the master bedroom. It was dark and cramped, and the too-close walls were covered in creepy, yellowed clippings. A single crucifix sat on one of the exposed support beams. Upon picking up the cross to examine it, I heard the tell-tale popping noise of the lightbulb above my head–the room’s only source of light–dying. Later I would remember a note hidden away in a drawer that cited poor electrical wiring in the old house, but that was only after I had raced back up the stairs and into the safety of the master bedroom, careful to shut the secret door behind me in case something tried to follow me up. There was a logical explanation for the lightbulb blowing, but I was too swept up in the mystery to remember at the time. And this wasn’t even the first time I fell for one of Gone Home‘s fake-outs. Earlier, I came across a bathtub that appeared to splattered with blood, as I held my breath and looked around the room, I soon found a bottle of red hair dye. Looking back, I think my susceptibility to Gone Home‘s tricks depended on my approach to the game: as someone who both grew up in the nineties and who is fairly literate in the ways of digital horror games. To this end, I found the artifacts strewn around Gone Home‘s mysterious manor were both markers of nostalgia and horror. All things considered, when it’s at its most successful, Gone Home smartly–sometimes sadistically–plays on horror game conventions in a way that both re-enforces its 1990s setting and revs up the tension for a final, overwhelming release.
Gone Home tips us off to its horror roots early on, dropping us at the front stoop of its large and looming manor on a dark, stormy night. Once the player moves past the cryptic letter that the player-character’s sister, Sam, posted on the front door, they will discover that the house has been abruptly abandoned. If that wasn’t enough, a magazine in the first floor bathroom–the first room I came across upon entering the house–shouts “STEPHEN KING” from its cover. It doesn’t take much to make the paper-thin connection between the plot of King’s The Shining and the struggling author/patriarch of Gone Home‘s family. Did something in this old mansion set him off, I wondered when I first discovered his publisher’s rejection letter? This, like the lightbulb ended up being more mundane than fantastic. The evidence of the player-character’s father’s failed writing career becomes yet another example of despondency in Gone Home’s strikingly unremarkable white, middle class family–members of which have passing interest in the occult.
Reading Sam’s diaries indicate her interest in the occult, and players can discover everything from X-Files VHS tapes to Ouija boards in her wake. This works in part to reinforce the timeframe and the contemporary pop vocabulary. The occult entered 90s popular culture as an outlet for “girl power” (a more tempered version of riot grrl power Sam and and her girlfriend, Lonnie, were into). Shows like The X-Files were popular in part for its pragmatic leading lady; it’s not a coincidence that Buffy the Vampire Slayer would enter the public conscious by repackaging teenage fears and ambitions with a sinister, vampiric coat of paint a few years later. This was running through my head as I uncovered each of Sam’s notes detailing the house’s haunting between each reflection on her newfound relationship with Lonnie. Of course she’s interested in the occult; where else can you find smart women having their own adventures in 90s popular culture? But as I also encountered things that years of gaming told me to interpret as horror, I wondered if the house could be haunted and if that had gotten Sam into trouble.
Gone Home takes its horror cues from games as well. Taken at face value, the secluded manor and antiquated typewriter already evoke one of gaming’s biggest horror franchises, Resident Evil. While we don’t use Gone Home‘s typewriter to save our progress, archaic technologies like the typewriter serve a similar function. Ewan Kirkland has written extensively on the topic of remediation in survival horror games and argues, in part, that representations of older media like the typewriter and the notes created with it found in Resident Evil serve to both to create a kind of physicality for the world through diegetic documentation, and also to invoke an uncanny sense of horror as older technologies seemingly corrode the pristine digital setting. This creates an interesting situation wherein those X-Files VHS tapes and riot grrl mix tapes that enforce the 90s setting so successfully also become unsettling for their presence in a digital game from 2013.
It is because of this strange, unsettling duality that I ran up the stairs after the lights suddenly went out; it’s why I held breath as I approached the final scene of Lonnie and Sam’s exorcism. It is also why I felt an overwhelming, almost cathartic sense of relief when I found that Lonnie and Sam had not only not come to harm at the hands of a ghost, but had decided to run away together. This is still not a happy conclusion, as the road for Lonnie and Sam will still be difficult, but it speaks to Gone Home‘s strengths, and its ability to manipulate through an exceptional knowledge of both 90s popular culture and its medium.