Lauren Burr is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Waterloo, studying and creating critical locative and pervasive media. She conducts her research with both the Critical Media Lab and the Games Institute at UWaterloo.
In August of 2013, independent game studio The Fullbright Company released its debut game, Gone Home, to immediate and widespread critical acclaim. With few recognizable game mechanics and virtually no traditional character interaction or plot development, Gone Home is a first-person “story exploration video game,” in the words of its developers. The player is given one task: to investigate the contents of an eerie old house and discover what happened to the family who mysteriously disappeared from it. In a nostalgic Pacific Northwest setting circa Portland 1995, the player must rely on analog media artifacts, such as handwritten letters and cassette tapes rather than a digital information trail, to fill in the blanks of a rich family history with more than its share of ghosts. The primary player action approximates a version of what new media artist and researcher Jeremy Hight calls “narrative archaeology,” or the process of uncovering personal documents and ephemera connected to a specific place and combining them to piece together the most intimate stories of that place. Examining Gone Home from a narrative archaeological perspective in relation to the notion of haunting, I argue that the house on Arbor Hill is a haunted place in the absence of any literal ghosts.
Now, before I get too far into this paper, I should warn you that I’m going to spoil the ending of the game. I don’t like to do this because Gone Home is one of those games where knowing too much about it in advance could ruin the experience of a first play-through. So, if you haven’t yet played the game, you should do so before reading this piece or it won’t really retain the same power. At the beginning of the game, player character Katie Greenbriar arrives home after a year spent in Europe at a new house to which her family has moved in her absence. It’s late at night in the middle of a loud thunderstorm, and the front door is locked. Taped to the door is a foreboding letter from her younger sister Sam, asking Katie not to go looking for evidence of where she has gone or why she has left.
Upon finding the spare key and entering the dark house for the first time, you, as Katie, quickly realize that nobody is home, and the house seems to have been vacated in a hurry. Moving boxes are jammed in every corner and closet, many still unopened. Coffee cups, pop cans, and pizza boxes are strewn all over the house. Several of the rooms, including the kitchen, TV room and bedrooms, appear to have been turned inside out.
As you move through the different rooms, you can pick up objects, examine them, and either put them back where you found them or unceremoniously chuck them on the floor. There’s an assortment of letters, postcards, notebooks, and crumpled pieces of paper hidden in cupboard drawers, stashed under beds, or otherwise left in plain sight for you to find. You can pick up every Kleenex box, coffee mug, toilet paper roll, and pencil in the house, spin them around and read their labels. You can play Sam’s riot grrrl cassette tapes and browse through the family’s home VHS collection.
None of these things provides you with any new information specific to your goal of discovering what happened to the family in your absence. But these seemingly insignificant domestic curiosities actually matter a great deal to any player’s understanding of this family that you only see in photographs and never interact with and will resonate strongly with players who grew up in the same time period, increasing their identification with the protagonist. The only time you even hear any of the family’s voices is when you stumble upon something of Sam’s that triggers an audio journal entry containing insight into her social struggles with high school peers, her newly discovered sexual identity, and her secret lesbian love affair with a rebellious military punk girl named Lonnie.
As you explore this deceptively massive house, going from room to room and unlocking secret passageways that lead to even more rooms (a gatekeeping mechanism used to establish some sense of narrative linearity), you discover the personal domains of each of the family members and get to know their secrets, worries, pleasures, and vices. You stumble upon Dad’s stash of porno magazines, liquor bottles, and rejection letters from book publishers. You find out about Mom’s budding flirtation with a park ranger. You uncover a history of abuse perpetrated by your Great Uncle Oscar who died in this very house, leading Sam’s classmates to call it “the psycho house on Arbor Hill” and convincing her that the house is haunted. By contrast with the rest of the family, you learn very little about Katie’s history, other than her somewhat conventional status as the model daughter who’s mature, good at school and sports, and doesn’t cause trouble for her parents. Curiously, it’s the player character who exhibits the least personality and the fewest defining characteristics out of any of the family members, while her sister Sam, the black sheep of the family, occupies the central focus of the game. Through audio journals, handwritten letters and notes, you learn the beautiful and intimate details of Sam’s relationship with Lonnie, and how she came to embrace her identity and break away from the restrictions of her conservative, religious upbringing. Beyond the explicit narrative developed in the scattered notes and letters, the domestic objects within the Greenbriar house provide deeper context and meaning into the everyday lives of the family members who occupy it.
In The Practice of Everyday Life, spatial theorist Michel de Certeau posits that even the most stable and ordinary of places hide “fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read” (108). He claims that “there is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can ‘invoke’ or not” (ibid.). And he concludes, rather ambiguously, that “Haunted places are the only ones people can live in . . . .” (ibid.). So what exactly does this mean? Well, first of all, we have to expand our definitions of the word “haunted” beyond the supernatural sense. “The word ‘haunt,’” according to Mark Sample, “refers to both a practice and a place. No ghosts are necessary. Any living soul can haunt a place, making that place a haunt. The ghosts appear only when those living souls have departed, making a haunt haunted, a physical space permeated with spectral traces. In other words, a physical space written over with stories, a chorographic space” (74). This notion of a chorographic space being haunted by memories, stories, and other traces of the living rather than the dead, resonates with the practice of narrative archaeology, especially as it’s used in Gone Home. The Greenbriar house is unquestionably haunted, but the constant tension between videogame horror and domestic nostalgia makes it so that the nature of the haunting—whether literal or metaphorical—remains uncertain until the very end.
The house on Arbor Hill persists in a liminal space where its inhabitants haven’t fully unpacked their belongings or made themselves entirely at home yet. Katie’s return isn’t exactly a homecoming (despite the game’s title) because her family moved there in her absence. Instead, she and the player share the experience of recognizing familiar objects in a profoundly unfamiliar and uncanny—or unhomely—space. Sigmund Freud defines the uncanny as “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (3676). He relates the uncanny to the resurfacing of repressed childhood memories and the confirmation of previously disproven superstitions. Both of these elements are crucial to the narrative and player experience of Gone Home. In order to make this sense of familiarity and childhood recognition resonate with the player’s exploration of an unfamiliar space, The Fullbright Company relies on a heaping dose of 1990s nostalgia—X-Files posters, grunge magazines, Nintendo cartridges, Lisa Frank binders—and enriches the objects littered throughout the house with surprising detail.
Gone Home insists on the mundane alongside the supernatural: teenage girls holding a candlelit séance in the basement, documenting supposed communications with Uncle Oscar’s ghost as well as potential sightings, and scaring themselves into thinking that flickering lights and creepy noises are signs of a ghost hiding just out of sight. There’s a voyeuristic pleasure involved in opening every cupboard drawer, examining every domestic item, and reading about the private lives of characters you’ve never met and never will. But there’s also an intense anxiety that accompanies the first play-through of Gone Home, as the setting, tone, and first-person perspective firmly situate the game within the horror genre. You’re probably less worried about putting everything back exactly as you found it than you are with turning on every light switch as soon as you enter a room. The nighttime thunderstorm, the dark and unfamiliar house, the possible presence of a ghost, and the mysterious disappearance of your family members, are all common horror tropes that establish a certain sense of caution in the first-time player. The desperate answering machine messages, the numerous notes from Sam begging you not to go looking for her, the occasional creaks and rattling noises, and the menacing red lights surrounding the locked attic door all point to a grisly end for your family, and possibly yourself as well. On top of all of this, an early prototype of Gone Home was created using the Amnesia engine, and much of the game still retains the same look and feel as the player progresses through the house, defenseless and isolated.
There’s a lovely meta moment when you’re exploring the second floor of the house and you find a note from your father tacked to a cork board in the upstairs hallway. It reads: “Sam! Stop leaving every damn light in the house on! You’re as bad as your sister!” Of course, that’s probably exactly what you’ve been doing—turning on all the lights and leaving them on . . . just in case. As Brendan Keogh succinctly puts it: “Gone Home is a scary game. The things that scare you are the things that scare you as a teenager. . . . Gone Home plays to the strengths of an adolescent medium, feeding on . . . juvenile fears that something terrible is surely going to happen eventually because this is a videogame.” By manipulating players’ pre-established genre expectations, Gone Home dredges up old childhood fears and superstitions about things that go bump in the night.
In the end, it turns out that these fears and superstitions were mostly misguided right from the start. As you’ve probably gathered by this point, there’s no ghost lurking in the basement of this haunted house. The family has not been killed or otherwise hurt. The flickering lights are explained away by a note concerning faulty electric circuits. The red stains in the bathtub were made by hair dye and not blood. After digging through their personal belongings, you learn that Mom and Dad have gone on a couple’s retreat to try and rekindle a little romance in their marriage. Despite their evident religious conservatism, homophobia, and general misunderstanding of their youngest daughter, they have not sent her away, nor harmed her physically. And when you finally make it up to the attic, perhaps expecting one of several possible—and, unfortunately, predictable—worst-case traumatic endings for the teenage lesbian lovers, you discover that Sam and Lonnie have run away together instead.
Thematically established within the horror genre, Gone Home subverts our expectations by telling a very different story than the one it promises in the beginning, and one that makes a welcome and radical departure from the narratives of mainstream videogame culture. The house is haunted by the absence of the recently departed but still living, by memories both traumatic and beautiful rather than the expected paranormal spirits. In the end, the ghosts that haunt Gone Home are defiantly and profoundly ordinary.
De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1984. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” Freud – Complete Works. 1919. Ed. Ivan Smith. n.p., 2000. 3675-3700. Web. 29 May 2015.
Gone Home. The Fullbright Company. 2013. Video game.
Hight, Jeremy. “Narrative Archaeology.” XCP Streetnotes (Summer 2003): n. pag. Web 29 May 2015.
Keogh, Brendan. “Notes on Gone Home.” Critical Damage. 16 Aug. 2013. Web. 29 May 2015.
Sample, Mark. “Location Is Not Compelling (Until It Is Haunted).” The Mobile Story: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies. Ed. Jason Farman. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.