S.EXE: Gone Home
The Top Gun Of Videogames
Quentin Tarantino has a monologue about Top Gun in the little-known Hollywood metamovie Sleep With Me. In it, Tarantino discusses in his typical teenage terminology how Top Gun, as well as being a romantic Cold War macho-off, is a film about the main character coming to terms with his own homosexuality. Tarantino names this subtextual narrative 'fucking great' and 'subversive'. But it would probably have been much more subversive had it actually been text and not subtext. In game terms, that narrative probably would have been The Fullbright Company's Gone Home. Yeah I said it. Gone Home is a more explicit Top Gun.
GONE HOME SPOILERS FROM HERE ON~
Well, that's a bit of an extraordinary claim. You can forgive me for wanting to bust through the door drunk, nudge a bystander and declare 'YOU KNOW, GONE HOME IS THE TOP GUN OF VIDEO GAMES', and then proceed to grandstand and pontificate about the State Of The Industry, because, well, what douchey game critic wouldn't want to do that? What game critic wouldn't want to slur their opinions whilst connecting two pop culture icons to each other, understanding that tomorrow this won't all make sense? It's the joy of our gif-patched world, our Youtube-collaged, multicoloured, icon-studded existence to compare one medium's icon to another to see what shows up in the kaleidoscope.
Gone Home has more subtlety than Top Gun, and no smirking Val Kilmer, just a smirking family portrait. And no one talks about riding anyone's tail (or even being anyone's wingman). Maybe you could get DLC Tim Robbins. But the largely ultra-conservative big budget first person game genre is comparable to the ultra-conservative big budget action movie genre. They both love gun violence, the spatter of blood across a carefully-textured wall, the big gestures, the shouts and gesticulating and loud noises. And I love all those goddamn things. I love Top Gun with a sweaty up-all-night passion.
But The Fullbright Company, a company whose co-founders possess the old school AAA machine-gun pedigree, removed those guns and put in a narrative that is explicitly about self-acceptance and self-discovery. Gone Home is about inner lives. It is about coming to terms with your own role, and your role in other people's happiness. It is about belonging, just like Top Gun is in a sort of schlocky, silly way. Both are about coming to terms with who you are, and who you love, only Gone Home thought that trying to tie that around shooty-bang might be less interesting than realising the profundity of suburban lives.
Gone Home felt like a game bigger than me. The room was crowded with other critics who were sitting around pontificating whether a queer girl's coming-of-age story was the thing that was being praised because it hadn't been approached in this way by a game before. Ian Bogost complained that he was not impressed enough by the underwritten 'young adult' narrative, citing Woolf's Orlando as the bar, and Merritt Kopas, whom I interviewed earlier in this series, said that a story about queer girls in love in video games, in this manner, was notable because it was exceptional.
This is all true. There are ways in which Gone Home's narrative is simplistic, not literary enough: the leaving of notes around the house is gaudily contrived (just like the audio logs in Bioshock) and the house feels hollow and empty in ways that after re-examination can feel jarringly spartan. On Twitter we used to joke about the sheer number of 3-ring binders in the house, and whether the Greenbriar family had a penchant for filing.
Having spoken to the developers several times throughout the development process I know the reasons for this, but that doesn't change the criticisms. It's a game that has suffered not from the lack of vision on the developers' part, but from the actual spartan landscape of storytelling in 3D games currently - it's hard to make a game that traverses unexplored territory. When you set out, no one believes you can do it, and there's no proof that it can be done, and consequently, there's no budget for explorers who don't even know if they're coming back. Making any game these days is hard: making one that comes out on time and on budget is even harder. For Fullbright they left big budget games with some savings in a pocket and kicked that gamedevmobile into overdrive so they could survive another day. But you try to do all that without compromising your creative vision, and I think they succeeded. They did well enough. They made something actually new. I think they made what they set out to make and I admire it.
Now that I have some distance on the game, I can reappraise it. I still find it wonderful and surprising. The game not only brought me gently in to explore familiar teenage territory, but it also ended up saying something to me about the state of games, the state of where and who we are. It examines belonging and the relationships between women with the most subtle of tricks.
I never liked other girls, growing up. I was a misogynist. We all were.
The girls were the cruelest. Where boys would do something as simple as call you ugly, unfuckable or just threaten physical violence, the girls could enact sustained, planned psychological warfare on you. This was longer and more agonising. Where boys had short attention spans and would forget any beef with you the next day, girlfeuds would never end in apology and would never melt away. Girls would whisper spitefully to each other when they knew you were looking. They would steal homework from your bag and copy your best ideas, so it looked like you had plagiarised it from them, and you would be punished for it.
They would grab your most prized possession and file it down in technical class and put it neatly back in your bag. They would choose fine details of your face and personality to deconstruct and make nicknames up for you comprised of these painful details you knew were ugly. They would deliberately make it known that you were not invited to things. They would point out that you had never been kissed and never would be. They would tell you that you would die a virgin. They would tell you that they are glad that you have no boyfriend and the reason that you have no boyfriend is that no one wants you, and no one ever will.
This is when the boys would join in, dumbly copying, not yet socially smart enough to think of insults that were half as incisive, laceratingly hurtful. It was like being in a Saw movie, but the torture traps were made of passed notes, whispers, ugly half-caught thoughts from across-room stares, watching the cold hatred of someone you had never so much as wished ill towards brutally batter your inner self until you lay in bed every night with a wet face under the latest Pratchett novel. You were unaware that you could be admired, wanted, or loved by other women.
One girl picked up my notebook once, looked at a story I was writing (I think I was reading Anne Rice at the time so it was probably long, flowery sentences about aloof men I was yet to meet and fall in love with) and she scored it all out and wrote 'GROSS' on it, whereby another psychological terrorism campaign was probably launched. It took me eight years of constant secret writing after that to show anyone what I'd written ever again. I still write long, flowery sentences about men, only now people seek me out and pay me for the privilege of publishing them. If no one had ever acted this way towards me, I would have published stories at seventeen. If I'd had an ounce of confidence left by the time I left school, I'd have at least shown an adult something I had written.
All of these psychological tortures are tortures that society itself still enacts upon women as fully grown adults. The bullies become everyone - advertising, randos on the internet, and media especially - apart from the people who can see the Matrix, those who sometimes deign to make a kind effort to pull you out of it and show you the code. Once upon a time it was probably put in place by an accidental patriarchy, but now this machine just rumbles on by itself, and women as well as men enforce the idea that a woman's appearance is fair game to constantly police, that her sexual status is incredibly important (Mrs vs Miss until Ms) to speculate on and ridicule her about, to use it to undermine her ability to be thought a professional at any stage. Some women are still trapped in the high school maliciousness of competition, so much so that they might always hate those women who are content with themselves.
I never liked girls growing up. I had a little brother and no sisters, my brother was my best friend, and the girls at school treated me with contempt. I wanted to be a boy, because everyone admired boys, and everyone let them do what they liked. I had to learn to inhabit my body and like it. I had to learn to forgive women. I had to learn to forgive myself for being born a woman.
Gone Home opens with a girl's voice. You quickly come to understand that you are inhabiting Katie Greenbriar's body, and from the note on the front door, you are home and your sister is missing.
You find the key and open the door, and as you start to rumble about the house, mouse-clicking to pick up things and investigate them to find out where everyone has gone, it becomes apparent to you that you are 'putting back' the objects you are looking at.
The 'put back' option in Gone Home is a function The Fullbright Company told me that they implemented, because early players said that they felt wrong dropping objects on the floor in the house. They said they wanted to put objects back where they found them.
Why? Because this is Katie's own house. She is not an impostor. She is not an investigator. She belongs here. It's her house.
Katie belongs in the house. She would put back the objects that she had picked up.
When I said before that Gone Home is about belonging, it is about belonging in many ways. In a way Sam belongs to the house, which is why you are searching for her. The objects in the house belong to the house, so you put them back. Katie belongs to the house, so she Goes Home.
I never had a sister, and there never was a feeling, when I was a teenager, that any other girl could have moved me or made me sympathetic towards them. Girls didn't like games, and I liked games. Therefore I was not like other girls. I was a better sort of girl. I was special to the nerd boys. I liked cool stuff. I liked Street Fighter II and I could beat everyone with Chun Li and boys whooped and cheered when I did it. They admired me. That's who I was. That was my identity.
But Katie and Sam in Gone Home like each other. They are young women who like each other. Katie sends a silly postcard from Paris home; it is warm, funny.
Slowly you understand that Sam is falling in love with a girl called Lonnie. She talks about the intimacy of having another woman touch her hair when she is dying it. She writes about her uncertainties that Lonnie feels the same way as her. It is obvious, by the end of the game, that Sam is deeply in love with Lonnie, and that Lonnie returns her feelings.
And the thing about the young women that inhabit this house: they are just like I used to be, only they aren't alone. There's a whole essay Sam wrote about periods, the ovulation process, that is just an elaborate troll, a deliberate attempt to mess with the dry tone of science essays. Sam talks about going to see Pulp Fiction, the family has VHS tapes full of cult movies I used to watch. Sam talks about these things with Lonnie.
The characters go to see girl bands, the sort I never knew existed. Riot Grrl music populates the house in tape form: you put a tape into the tape player and Heavens To Betsy drifts through the house, glances off 3-ring binders.
Women's voices are the only voices you hear in the Gone Home house. Isn't that unusual? I mean yes, for a video game. But when is the last time you watched a film or saw a TV show where the only voices in it are women's?
When I was growing up I never knew women could be in punk rock bands. I thought women were uncool. And I didn't know about 'sisterhood'. I disliked other girls. I didn't trust them. But the Gone Home house feels safe. A space that exists in which women love and appreciate each other.
Sam trusts Katie. Notes are left to that effect all through the house. Sam likes Katie and is in love with Lonnie.
When it came to the end and Sam makes the decision to elope with Lonnie I felt relief and sadness. I cried a little, but it wasn't because they were in love. It was because Sam knew who she was, and she was happy about it. Sam loves women, and teenage me did not. Sam never gave herself a reason to hate herself, and she never gave herself a reason to hate other women either.
In the Gone Home house, the only evidence of 'patriarchy' existing is in her stories about Allegra she leaves around the house, and the calls from the boy next door-type threatening to come over.
In a way this is the fantasy house I always wanted to inhabit. The Gone Home house is a place where it's okay, maybe even normal, even cool, to be a girl.
Ian Bogost notices that this is written like a 'young adult' novel. But this is an almost utopian vision of sisterhood: this an adult vision of what teenage girldom was like in the 90s. It is still high fantasy, there are just less elves.
Gone Home offers me a girlhood I never had, and it recognises I am an adult woman who needs that fantasy too.
Is it possible that the Greenbriar's house is just a museum of girlhood? Objects in the house demonstrate ways that girls are funny, silly, interesting. It displays a version of girlhood that people conveniently ignore because it is assumed it isn't interesting. I walk through the Greenbriar house and I know that a version of the film Stand By Me would be possible with just girls.
I don't think I'd ever seen a bottle of nail polish in a video game until Gone Home. I stared at it for a good five minutes when I saw it, wondering about all the open world environments I'd traversed, all the fancy worlds, all the adventure games I'd played where the elements of being a woman were strangely absent in the environment. I had the same experience looking at a discarded bra on the floor of a woman's bedroom in Dishonored. I looked at that discarded bra shocked, and thought, yes. I'd leave my bra on the floor if I lived in this room. Someone who has seen this happen before made this game.
It is almost as if women are not invisible. They might be leaving a trail of their existence.
It's strange because games were such boys' territory, and because it seemed like it was boys' territory I had to pretend to be one of the boys. Or to be the girl the boys thought I should be. I always had to try and 'prove' myself to them by listing my pedigree. 'What was your first game' or 'what is your favourite game' or 'what is your top five'. It wasn't until Tomb Raider that I started to understand: you are not a boy and you never can be treated like a boy.
Perhaps women can be characters in games. Perhaps they can be the only characters in some games.
I chose to do a module in my degree called 20th Century Feminist Fictions. I chose it primarily because I was on an English Literature major and this module included film: Thelma and Louise, and the Alien Quadrilogy. I was always the first person to try and find a shortcut at university. I liked getting drunk and playing video games with my male friends more than studying. Getting away with watching a film instead of reading more books or poetry seemed like a good idea. I wasn't particularly enamoured with feminism (I liked Medieval Total War and pints. PINTS.) but if these great movies were feminism, well, I'd coast along with their weird 'agenda' just to watch them.
I left that module having read bell hooks and Adrienne Rich and Margaret Atwood. I watched a lot of Ridley Scott films. By the time I left that module, I liked women. I had argued constructively, amiably with other women. I had made friends with them. I wanted to be around women. I sought out more women. I understood why I hated myself. I understood why men acted the way they did towards me and I forgave them. I understood everything better. I was ready to have the relationship Katie and Sam have. I was ready to have sisters.
I finally felt like I belonged.
I was ready to be Top. Gun.
Sometimes I think of games as a space where I want to exist. Sometimes that space is hostile to you: Sometimes that space is the Call of Duty battlefield, sometimes that space is Super Hexagon's eternal spinning shapes waiting to trap your cursor. Sometimes they're the narrow corridors of the murky, suffocating, malicious Teleglitch.
Sometimes though, games are a space where you just... belong. Just hold on, we're going home.
The previous S.EXE columns are here.
P.S. RPS co-founder 'Kieron' 'Gillen', who now writes these like, comics, for Marvel and Image, told me this week that a fan mocked up one of his comics into a dating sim interface. It's real cute. (I really like The Wicked And The Divine by the way. It is sexy, like me.)