Good old Christmas Duck
Last week, I went home. I flew back to my hometown for American Thanksgiving, the penultimate holiday worth celebrating. Between work, school, and the time-change, I was practically operating on a 12-hour difference. I split my time between cleaning out the respective attics of two separate houses and just Generally Poking Around. I found my grandfather’s lone porn mag, circa 2004. I found three sealed Lord of the Rings Blu-rays and some rare toys I forgot I owned. And I found my mom’s day planner from her teenage years, illuminating a lot about how she became the person I know. While my family slept, I poked around. More often than not, I exclusively uncovered mundanities that supported larger narratives. For example, the increased amount of frozen food in the house indicated a higher level of stress; nobody has any time to cook.
Oh boy, this sure is a roundabout way of saying that I have a newfound affection for Gone Home, huh? Sure, I liked the game when it first came out, as you might expect from Mike Cosimano: snooping’s #1 fan. Gone Home is essentially Audio Logs: The Video Game, where the player spends their time piecing together multiple emotionally satisfying character-driven stories through ambient storytelling (the kind I so often crave).
That hasn’t changed since I first played the game back in August 2013 (!!!) during my college freshman orientation. Now, as the second worst year of my life and a banner year for death, hatred, and general disaster crawls to the finish line, I keep thinking about Gone Home, and how it’s served as a 90-minute oasis; a very particular kind of salve for my wounds.
I feel like I’m really underselling my love of snooping, so let me make this as explicit as possible: I love figuring shit out. I adore poking my nose where it doesn’t belong. I love picking up bits of juicy information and matching it against what I already know to see if it’s the missing piece of a larger puzzle. If a friend is having relationship troubles, I will ask literally everyone who could possibly know anything until I have the complete story or enough to make a logical conclusion. Sometimes I end up knowing more than either person in the relationship!
That’s not to say my love of snooping is the most healthy thing I could be doing with my time — rather, I want you all to understand one of the reasons I find Gone Home so magnetizing. Being able to poke around a house without any consequence? Uncovering deep, dark family secrets? It’s the thing I wish I could do in real life were it not for these accursed societal norms — my personal equivalent of shooting pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t only like the game because it speaks to my inquisitive nature. I think the writing is naturalistic without being dull, what little voice acting there is really works, and I appreciate the many parallel stories being told within the house. Katie could maybe pick up the pace a little bit, but that’s just me. It’s a very well-made game!
However, I don’t think that’s why I came back to Gone Home at the tail end of this very bleak year — I think there’s another reason beyond quality, and it might be the same reason why I had a hard time making my way through Infinite Warfare or Battlefield 1. It’s not a tonal thing, I actually really liked Battlefield 1‘s depiction of the Great War. I think it’s a matter of scope. For as great as globalization can be, it’s never been easier to hear about horrors overseas. And in a normal year, that would be a fine thing! The heightened level of awareness fosters empathy, and makes relief efforts easier.
But in 2016, where it felt like every corner of the world was actively on fire (literally, in some cases) I appreciated a smaller story that felt big relative to the characters. Sam Greenbriar, the young lesbian at the center of Gone Home that so many Metacritic users seem to despise, is in the middle of her first genuine love. She’s probably not going to marry her high school sweetheart, as is so often the case, but this love is monumental to her. The only thing at stake is the heart of a high schooler — a likable one, but a young person nonetheless.
That’s the case with every story thread in Gone Home. Greenbriar patriarch Terrence struggles with his writing career, his wife is feeling unhappy in her marriage, and the house is hiding a very unpleasant decades-old secret. At its core, the game is a story about people I can recognize, told in a manner I can very much appreciate. It’s a kind of white noise; a game that shuts out 2016’s whirling torrent of nightmares in favor of something intimate. I wouldn’t even mind if the game had been a tear-jerking depress-a-thon — so long as I didn’t have to worry about the fate of the entire god damn planet. I do that in my day-to-day life now! Why would I want that in my escapism?
I think there’s something funny about the way the pendulum has swung; for me, I would hop into games like Skyrim to feel like I was an unstoppable badass who could save the world. But now that the world actually feels like it needs saving (David Bowie is still dead!), I want to find relief in the minute, the intimate, and the personal. Gone Home is all of those things, plus an engaging yarn in its own right. I’m happy I returned to it. Putting the Christmas Duck back in its nest was just what I needed.