Gone Home: Exploring Fear

(Originally posted on Megan Lee Prose.)

A look at the Steam store page for Gone Home will show you a game with “mostly positive” reviews – but when you look at the “most helpful” reviews at the bottom of the page, most of them are negative. What’s going on here?

Warning: the rest of this post may contain spoilers. If you haven’t played the game yet, I strongly advise doing so before reading the rest. It often goes on sale for a low price on Steam, and it doesn’t take very long to beat.

The game description says it is an “interactive exploration simulator.” It’s a game where you explore an abandoned house, trying to figure out what happened to the people who live there (your family) and where they are. At no point does it advertise itself as a horror game, although it does promise a spooky ambiance with a thunderstorm in the background – yet most of the negative reviews seem to be complaining of a “bait and switch”, feeling that they were promised something frightening or supernatural that never appeared.

But why were they expecting this in the first place? Why is the ending of the story so disappointing to so many people?

Gone Home has earned a reputation for being a scary game, if not a straight horror game. And having finally played through it myself, I can confirm that it is, indeed, very scary. The house is quiet and empty, and you don’t know why. There’s a thunderstorm raging outside. And the house is filled with references to an unsettling history. One of your relatives went crazy here, and your sister keeps leaving notes about supernatural occurrences. What’s worse, the huge old house creaks and moans during the storm, and the old wiring causes the lights to flicker or even go out suddenly. As you slowly walk through the building, collecting details and bits of information, you can’t help but expect a monster to jump out at any moment.

But – spoiler alert! – there are no monsters. It’s just a house. Your sisters ideas about the paranormal are just the ideas of a teenage girl who lives in a big old house. Early on, you find an inspection notice describing how the old wiring of the house causes the lights to flicker or go out unexpectedly, but it’s not being fixed because it’s not dangerous (and it would be too expensive). Your crazy relative was just a random crazy relative.

Where is everyone? Your parents are away on a trip together trying to repair their relationship. Your sister, having been rejected by your parents for being a lesbian, has run off with her girlfriend. You came home unexpectedly, so no one was there to meet you. Your parents will be back soon. Your sister will be in touch eventually.

The story and the characterization is excellent. It’s rare to see female characters fleshed out so accurately and in such depth. The story unfolds through tiny details and bits of information. It’s brilliantly done.

So why are people so angry? Why were they expecting monsters or aliens?

I think it’s an expectation people have developed when it comes to games. This game is scary, people think, and therefore it should have a scary ending. There should be a monster, or at least a bad guy. They’ve set the scene for a great horror story – where is my movie monster?

But the game is only scary because the situation is scary. In fact, I believe that although it’s not billed as a horror game, it does horror better than most others. This isn’t a game about fighting monsters or escaping evil. The only thing we’re afraid of is the little voice in our heads telling us something isn’t right here, and something bad is going to happen.

We’ve all grown up with films and television and games telling us that a dark and stormy night is the scene for a horror story. The darkness is where the monsters hide. When it’s quiet and still and you hear a noise, that’s the bad guys coming to get you! Just about everyone must have at least one memory of being home alone, as a child or even as an adult, during a thunderstorm, and suddenly feeling afraid. After all, that’s the standard backdrop for all the scary stuff we’ve ever seen!

And so as you find yourself in this situation in Gone Home, alone in a big, creaky house with faulty wiring, trying to figure out where your parents and sister are, your mind starts to play tricks on you. You don’t want to walk into a dark room before you’ve found and hit the light switch. You expect a murderer or a monster to be hiding around every corner. Even though you know there’s not going to be anything there. The game description on the store page even says nothing like that happens during the game. You find yourself putting in tapes with punk rock music to play while you explore, just to make the house feel less scary – just like you might wake up after a nightmare and put on the TV to chase away that nightmare feeling.

Gone Home is scary because it simulates a real-life situation that just about all of us have been in: being afraid, even though we know there’s nothing to fear. And that’s a very intense experience – one that I’ve never seen a game pull off. It challenges the assumption that if a situation scares us, that must mean there is something to be afraid of. There has to be a bad guy for us to fight and defeat at the end, so we can make the world safe again.

But the real world will never feel safe. Sometimes the bad guy is truly just a figment of our imagination. And there will always be moments when we find ourselves afraid of the dark.


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