I didn’t expect Gone Home to resonate with me so much. The unanimous praise from critics seemed like them trying to uplift an independent game that otherwise wouldn’t get much traction. I shouldn’t have doubted them. While playing Gone Home, I tried and failed to hold back tears multiple times. After only 88 minutes of play time, I felt like I got more than my money’s worth.
Gone Home is another example of how perfect games are for eliciting empathy in their audience. In a movie, play or book, the audience is a passive observer and more easily able to distance themselves from the events unfolding in front of them. But a game places you right in another person’s mind. You experience what they experience and sometimes, they become you and your window into this world.
Gone Home wasn’t specifically made for me. I am a straight, white middle-class young man in California. Genetics and luck gave me an unfair leg-up on everybody. And I can’t relate to experiences that are exclusively female or homosexual. And Gone Home is about a teenage girl’s sexual awakening in the mid-1990s. I was born in 1992. At first glance, this game would seem to be prohibitively niche.
But the skilled team at The Fullbright Company knew that some experiences are universal. Through Katie, the player character who acts as a cipher, we discover her sister Sam’s feelings of isolation, first love and teenage rebellion. Damn near everybody can relate to that. But while the universality of those themes allows them to resonate with anybody, the specificity of Sam’s personality allowed the rest of the game to hit me especially hard.
Sam and I are both wannabe-writers. We both wrote fictional stories that reflected our beliefs and personal issues in high school. We both felt isolated and alone. And we both had a short relationship that, under their respective circumstances, just couldn’t last. Not for me, at least.
The love story hit me hardest. As I heard Sam describe her feelings about Lonnie, her girlfriend, I couldn’t help but feel like I could have said those words to somebody in my own life.
Gone Home is inclusive simply by being empathetic to its characters. Even the conservative parents Sam rebels against have some understandable struggles going on. The genius of this game is to treat its characters like honest, real human beings. And by doing so, The Fullbright Company managed to craft story with characters I could relate to. They didn’t have to pander shamelessly to me; they just had to tell me a good story.