I wasn’t going to write about Gone Home, but I laid awake thinking about it, and I was sort of compelled to. I won’t talk a whole lot about the gameplay. It bears a lot of resemblance to Myst except the entire game takes place in an old house. I purchased the game because a review I read talked about how accurately it reflected the life of a teenage girl. And I was curious to see myself reflected in a game (something which never happens). I didn’t expect to be reflected so well, and I wasn’t prepared for how it would make me feel.
You are Katie Greenbriar, a 20-year-old girl, returning home from a trip of traveling around Europe, only to find that the new house your parents have recently moved into is empty. And there’s a note on the door from your 17-year-old sister, Sam, saying only that she is away, and that she is sorry she can’t see you “but it is impossible.” The game takes place in 1995, ten years before I would have anything in common with Sam. Swap out Riot grrrl for Harry Potter and that was more my scene (I was not as hard core). But “impossible” was a word that I would say a lot.
The found items tell a complete story. As you wander around the house, you realize that during the time that you’ve been away, Sam has begun a romantic relationship with a friend of hers named Lonnie. One of the things the game got right (at least from my experience) is how this sort of relationship, at this age starts. Up until I was 16, I was mostly concerned with Pokemon and not failing math classes, so I had only the vaguest idea of same sex relationships, through slash fanfic and that one lesbian wedding my parents took us to where the brides were both in pantsuits.
Sam and Lonnie’s relationship was borne out of an incredibly close friendship. It starts with proximity, hanging out all the time, creating a multitude of adventures and inside jokes. You walk through the deserted house, picking up passed notes from between the two of them, finding diagrams from sleepovers from when they went ghost hunting and took notes. You stumble under the stairs where there was evidence of a seance. You find 8-track tapes of punk rock with **For Sam** lovingly scrawled across the label.
The relationship grows so steadily you can barely see the changes. This is how it actually happens. It’s not really sexual, but to call it puppy love would be trivializing it. It’s more of an awe or an admiration of the other person, whom you see as so strong and so smart, and beautiful, but in a way that makes guys so intimidated by her that they’d rather pick on her or tease her because it will be years before they learn to keep their heads down and act like adults. That was another thing Gone Home got right. The awe. It’s mutual and undeniable from what you hear from Sam’s diary entries. Like the one where she watches Lonnie performing lead vocals with their friends’ band and feels overwhelmingly proud of her. Or when she helps Lonnie dye her roots and Lonnie looks at Sam’s reflection in the mirror and says, “You’re so beautiful,” like she can’t even believe it.
Which leads me to the last thing Gone Home got right. The trepidation. Like when after receiving the compliment, Sam writes that she just stared into the mirror, unsure of what to say, and trying to communicate her own feelings, but not understanding that she can be 100% honest, because she’s too busy wondering: “Is this okay? Did we cross a line?” And before long, the moment has passed. But they keep hanging out, they keep seeing each other, they keep fostering the friendship that has become something much more, but which perhaps they’re afraid to name. In another entry, Sam reveals that their parents have discovered her relationship with Lonnie. She writes that she expected anger—screaming and crying. What she gets instead is denial. Lonnie is just “a really GOOD FRIEND,” they insist. I think of my mother telling me, when I was 16, “I think you just really admire women,” in that reassuring tone that showed that she hadn’t been listening to me, or hadn’t understood the effort it takes to draw words together into an admission like mine. I think of how I silently resolved to never bring it up with her again.
One of the diary entries you come across reveals that Sam has run off to meet Lonnie, who has abandoned her bus on the way to basic training, and is stranded in Salem. Lonnie asks her: “Sam, I want you to pack up everything you can get in your car and come and find me and let’s just DRIVE…until we find somewhere…for us.” Sam continues with her own account: “She asked me if I could do that. And I said yes. Yes!”
Gone Home ends happily…and sadly. Sadly, because you are Sam’s sister, coming home to a strange and empty house, only to discover that she has fled. Sad because you stand there, among her things, her ransacked room, thinking that you would have understood, you would have supported her. That she didn’t have to leave, and that you want her to know that you love her. You have spent 40 minutes with her belongings, and you feel like you’ve known her for years. But you are happy—happy because you know why she left, happy because she was fearless, and because she too is happy, though perhaps still afraid.
Sam must say yes at the cost of leaving everything else behind because somehow they are both still aware that their relationship is forbidden. If not by their parents, or their school, by the standards of every social more ever. I did not end things as happily. I did not say yes. Quite the contrary, I said NO, HELL NO. I had the option, and the superpower, of passing, and so I chose to pass. And now I think of passing as this terrible tradeoff because on the one hand it provides sweet relief when you don’t have to watch someone adjust the way they think of you. On the other hand, it makes me angry and invisible. Because of that, Gone Home was weird and cathartic. While I feel honest and true to myself now, it took for fucking ever to get here. I think of Sam as brave. And while I am proud of myself, content, and endlessly grateful, Gone Home made me stay up wondering who I would have become if I, like her, had said YES. Would I have been more honest? Would I have upset fewer people? Would I be better at standing up for myself? Would I be happy? I wish I knew the answers to all these questions, but it is impossible.