Early on in their career, the good folks of the Manic Pixie Dream Cast presented a great discussion on horror and the use of fear in video games. They also tackled the question of “what is a ‘horror’ video game?” There are lots of games that obviously use and exploit plenty of your standard horror tropes, from scary things generally like zombies and serial killers in masks, to the use of creepy music and unappetizing environments. Games like Slender: The Nine Pages focus on limited fields of vision and jump scares. Sure the game might scare some, but is it a “horror” game?
That’s really a discussion for elsewhere, and probably for someone else entirely, because I don’t like scary video games. Not anymore, anyway. I was much less trepidatious during my DOOM days and willing to take scary things by the horns and run with them. Now-a-days, “scary” equates to “anxiety,” something I don’t like to feel while I’m trying to play a game. Anxiety is the number one reason why I’ve still yet to get through DOOM 3 and why I’m not going to be picking up Slender and Amnesia or anything like that anytime soon.
But this is not to say that I don’t like a game unless it makes me feel all warm and cuddly. I really like games that introduce eeriness without being blatantly gory. A game, say, like Gone Home.
Gone Home by The Fullbright Company topped many a favorites list of 2013. For several months last year, Gone Home was the star of plenty of gaming discussions and blog posts. There popped up questions of genre, storytelling, adventure, and exploration – it seemed Gone Home couldn’t be properly categorized by the pundits. But while degrees of its playability were mixed, everyone beat that MUST PLAY dead horse into the ground.
As you can tell from this writing, I didn’t go unaffected. But Gone Home was a game that I wasn’t sure I wanted to play. Before finally purchasing it on Steam, it had been ages since I played any sort of point-and-click game. (Now I regret that I never made that leap sooner.) Plus, I read somewhere that the game was “scary.” Not BOO scary, but in some way unsettling. However, I also read that the game was pretty short, so even it was scary, at least I wouldn’t have to be submersed in anxiety for hours on end. Once my curiosity had gotten the better of me, I settled in one winter day for what turned out to be a very memorable experience.
And here’s the part where I tell you about the game, right? Well…that’s not happening.
… … … … … ?!
Nope, sorry, I’m not offering up any spoilery tidbits about the game. Surely the Internet has and can spoiled it enough. I’ll say only this: in Gone Home, you play as a college student who’s just come home after being abroad to find that her house is abandoned and no family members are anywhere in sight. It’s 1995, a time when the Internet was just starting to catch on and people still communicated by mail and postcard rather than cell phones and texting. The student has had limited contact with her family for an extended period of time and must figure out what happened to everyone. In order to do that, you, playing as the student, must explore the house.
Frankly, if you think you know Gone Home, then…well…you probably do. Maybe. Its game about discovery, secrets, and surprises, but its story isn’t shocking, though I guess that depends on what one might consider shocking. Personally, I had an idea of the ending in mind by about halfway through playing, but those thoughts didn’t detract from the game. If anything, they just made me want to uncover more secrets. Once the game was over, a steadfast melancholy set in upon completing it because its story was just that good. Sure, I could have turned round and played it again, just as I might immediately start over a really good book, but I needed some time to absorb the game, the story, the ending, and all the unsettling bits before playing it again. (And yeah, I haven’t got back to that second playthrough. It does have achievements that make it enticing to play through it at least twice if not more than.)
So circling back around to the idea of “scary” games, what could be so anxiety-inducing about a simple, story-based, exploration game?
[Cue those misty, water-colored memories…]
When I was on the younger end of middle school, my former stay-at-home-Mom got a new job. It was a fine new job except that it meant that she would no longer be home when we were done with school. Rather than turn us into latch-key kids, she arranged for my siblings and I to stay with a neighbor from the time we got out of school until she came home. When 4:30pm hit, we knew we could head home.
On one particular school day, I was by myself for a reason that I can’t recall. The neighbor’s clock chimed at 4:30, and like always, I walked the block and a bit home. Only on this day, instead of strolling in through the back door like usual, I found that it was locked. I peered inside the door’s segmented glass window panes to find that it was dark inside. All was quiet; there were no signs of life. I went to all the other exterior doors to find that they were all locked too. I ended up on the back porch, unsure of what to do. And the longer I sat, the more afraid I became. All sorts of horrible thoughts about being forgotten and “how could they do this?! and “what if NO ONE comes home!” welled up in my mind. Sure enough, my anxiety soon got the better of me and I started crying, and then the anxiety turned to anger. I started beating on the back door. Nothing – no response. Without warning, my anger flared into unbridled rage and I threw my backpack at the door…at the door’s segmented glass window, that is. It shattered one of the panes. I stood there, red-faced and teary-eyed, and one thought ran through my mind: I AM SO DEAD.
In what could only be described as an act of a very unhappy god, it was in that moment of profound stupidity that my mother came running around the side of the house. She had just driven into the driveway and opened the car door when she heard the breaking glass. Several beats of chaos occurred as my infuriated mother tried to wrap her head around what I did as well as unpack my siblings from the car. I remember lots of crying and sweeping up glass and “you just wait till your father comes home!” and more crying. (Though I’m sure he didn’t like having to replace the glass, I don’t recall my Dad being as upset about the whole affair.)
Since then, I’ve harbored a fear about being forgotten. Not being alone. Not being in an abandoned place. Just being abandoned. When I approached that very first locked door in Gone Home, I was immediately brought back my door and its shattered glass. The glass that I shattered. It was something that I hadn’t thought about in years, and it only took a single moment in a video game, of all things, to make me think of it again.
Gone Home disproves the myth that video games are “mindless.” It’s one of the most thought-provoking and reaction-inducing games I’ve ever played. It’s smart, funny, intriguing, well-made, well-written, on the shorter side in terms of length, and there’s not a single monster. Except for the ones you might, for better or for worse, conjure up on your own.