So, I have some concerns about Gone Home. Well, not so much about the game as about the way it's been covered in the gaming press. Well, also somewhat about the game.
Before we get started, let me say: I think the game deserves the vast majority of the praise it's receiving. It's a good game. I liked it. I found it moving. I think everyone should play it. I would like to see more games like it. But...I have some concerns.
(Oh, spoilers, obvs.)
I'm annoyed by the frequency with which both the lead-up coverage and the reviews have included word and phrases like:
- "It’s ordinary, recognisable, relatable. It’s a house, and we’ve been in those."
- "Anyone who was a teen in the period"
- "Universal experience"
- "Those of us who grew up in the 90s"
And I'm especially frustrated by the requency with which reviews declaring that the subject of the game is "ours," something "we" know, or that "you" the reader (i.e., me) have been waiting for.
Less annoying, but still telling, is the frequency with which reviewers describe how much of themselves they see in the story, like:
- "I was exploring something strikingly similar to the house I grew up in."
- "I never expected to see myself — or such a strong reflection of myself and my own life — in a video game."
- " I saw my childhood in there, and my adulthood, too."
Relating the game to personal experience is absolutely the right way to review it -- nothing wrong with that. And it's far better than ascribing universal status to particular cultural experiences. But that so many of the gaming press see so much of themselves in the game speaks at least as much to the homogeneity and insularity of games writers as it does to the relatability of the content of the story.
The family depicted in Gone Home is not a universal family. It's an intensely white, upper-middle-class family, that listens to white-ass music in its giant fucking house. This is not a story set in the 90's. It's a story set in the white 90's. It's is a story about and for the most over-served audience in the history of the fucking world.
So, like I said at the start: it's a good story, mostly. I liked it. I was moved by it. I'd recommend it to anyone. But don't tell me it's everyone's story, okay?
And don't tell me there's nothing off about the the smart, progressive arm of games culture basically declaring: "Finally, a story about an upper-middle-class white family with angst!"
(Note: Compare the reception Gone Home has received to that of Papo & Yo -- which in many ways is a very similar project.)
There's nothing wrong with telling a story about those people. There isn't even anything terribly wrong about telling a story for those people. But if this is a "universal" story in the context of the communities that make and review games, that demonstrates how segregated their demographics are compared to the relatively broad demographics of people who consume games. And that's a serious problem.
Not a surprise, of course. Nor, honestly, is it surprising that so many of the people who rightly agitate for more gender inclusivity would treat the narrow race and class context of Gone Home as the human condition. (Cf. #solidarityisforwhitewomen)
Now, most of what I've said up to here is just concerns about how the game is presented in the press -- not criticism of the game itself.
Let me repeat; I don't think that there's anything intrinsically wrong with telling stories about affluent and very white people. That the group is overrepresented in all media does not mean that I want a moritorium on depictions of it.
But it can be done more or less well. I take issue with class in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, not because the show is set in the suburbs, but because the show is totally clueless about the realities of class, including those which should be visible in its chosen context. Comfortably affluent suburbanites are often very clueless about class -- but if you want to depict them well, you can't be.
Gone Home is certainly not as bad as Buffy in this regard. It's not great, though. It's ambiguous, for example, whether or not the family can afford the house they live in. Are they subsisting primarily on inheritance, or is a mostly-failed writing career (dad) plus a successful career in the forest service (mom) sufficient to maintain this lifestyle? Given how much stuff they have, their previous house can't have been tiny.
Mostly, though, I'm not sure what to make of Lonnie, Sam's love interest. She's the token non-white / less-white character. I'm not sure how similar she's supposed to be in class background to Sam -- there are some indicators that she's more likely to be working-class (she's from a military family, and expects to be a mechanic when she enlists), but her writing voice is basically indistinguishable from Sam's. (When in text overlay mode, I had real trouble figuring out who was who when reading their notes.) Of course, that doesn't mean much -- my writing doesn't sound particularly "poor," for example -- but it contributes to an overall thin impression of that character. She feels more like a version of Sam who's a little bit farther along the curve of self-acceptance than she does like a different person.
(That could be intentional, of course; Sam appears to be profoundly egocentric and a touch oblivious, and we see Lonnie through Sam's perspective -- but if that's the goal, they could have done better with it, especially in the ending.)
There are aspects to the story that are universal, although mostly they're also unremarkable. Blah blah kids blah coming of age blah.
Except for: the two critical themes of (a) a person coming to grips with their sexuality and (b) a family haunted by a history of sexual abuse. These are universal in life (because even if they may not pertain to you, they pertain to someone you know, even if they haven't talked to you about it), but not as universal in art and fiction, and very scarce in games. And the creators of Gone Home absolutely deserve praise for placing them at the center of this game. And they deserve praise for making a game whose narrative is this woman-centric.
It seems like narrative-driven art and semi-art games have become a lote more popular and more commercially viable over the last few years, and I imagine that will continue to be the case. I certainly hope so. I hope we see more games like Gone Home.
But I am skeptical of the speed with which some folks leap to embrace this game specifically as an antidote to the unrealistic worlds of space operas and zombie apocalypses.
Part of the reason I like science fiction and fantasy -- not just in games but also in books, tv, movies, etc. -- is that imagined worlds can belong to everyone who imagines them. The world of Gone Home is a world I did not belong to growing up and do not belong to now. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I've set foot in a house that size. (Or even half that size.) That world is recogniably somone else's.
That's not true of Mass Effect, or even Last of Us. The swashbuckling future of space is everybody's, and so is the zombie apocalpyse. Historically, those genres are pretty pale, on average, but because they are a radical departure from the "real" world -- I have no difficulty laying claim to them, integrating them. I can be at home in them. And hell, Mass Effect is a world of radical equality, wildly utopian. Last of Us is a story that -- while still pretty damn white -- is vastly more relatable to a working class person than Gone Home is.
I will never feel at home in the world of Gone Home.
That's okay. Not everything needs to be for me, and it's not like space operas or zombies are going anywhere. But I'll be sad if the high/low culture split in games gets bigger, or more class-segregated and race-segregated.
Maybe it won't. Maybe for every Gone Home we'll also get a Papo & Yo. That would be nice. But I probably shouldn't hold my breath.