One of the best things about thoughtful game criticism and analysis is that it engenders more of the same. I’ve been writing a lot on game design lately (though not for public consumption… yet) and my thoughts and reactions are even more spurred on when I read a response to a game that’s as heartfelt and personal as Merritt Kopas’ writing on Gone Home. It gave me something more to write about, and in writing on this game I’ll hopefully keep my gears turning as I finish up other writing projects, and the perpetual motion machine of negentropic creativity will roll on.
Merritt’s piece was sincerely personal, like listening to someone describe the sensation of slipping on a glove. I could write a lot about Gone Home‘s setting and themes, since I’m the same age as the protagonists (right between the two sisters) and grew up in the same area, listening to the same kinds of music. I had some similar-but-different experiences around being a queer teen in the 90s, some of which hurt to remember. All that resonance left me feeling full of jumbled feelings and flashbacks that don’t feel super-relevant to the present or this game, honestly. What my mind snagged on instead was a single moment in the game, where you direct Kaitlin Greenbriar to pick up a piece of paper that’s sitting under a table in the basement servants’ quarters of her family mansion. Like so many other notes and letters and diary pages littered around the house, it’s something written by her sister Sam — a description of the first time she and her girlfriend Lonnie have sex. Unlike all the other epistolary fragments of story, the game actually prevents you from reading this account for more than a few seconds — Kaitlin interrupts you, a bold move for a character who’s mostly just been walking around, poking walls, and picking everything up to show you whatever you feel like staring at.
Games are always resisting players’ impulses and desires in one way or another: “Nope, cant do that.” The limits of a world are structured by the rules and the where those rules fall away into nothingness: you can’t move onto that space because there’s a wall in the way, you can’t jump down to see what’s below the screen because there’s nothing there but death. When these limits intersect with stories and fictional worlds, the results are hand-waved a little or a lot. You can’t swim into the ocean because your character becomes mysteriously fatigued! The bridge between Staunton Island and Portland is under construction, buddy. Your ancestor didn’t walk into this neighborhood of Renaissance Venice, so our detailed computer simulation will break down if you walk through that archway! The point is not so much what excuse a guard or construction worker gives you: players all know that the game itself is trying to say something. Nope, this is not the way to go at this point, try something else. The same thing happens in dialogue between characters; nobody actually thinks that the mayor of a RPG town is actually supposed to be repeating “I hope those kids make it back safely!” over and over ad infinitum after the third time you speak to him; it’s just the game telling you that it’s time to move on.
Through “nope, not this way” messages of various kinds, creators of games can also make subtle statements about the kinds of actions they want to guide players towards. Parser-based interactive fiction games have tons of these, in part because the parser is open to so many different commands that it’s practically polite to point players towards the ones they should be thinking about. Long-time players of these games are very familiar with canned “Nope” responses such as “Violence isn’t the answer to this one,” which is the default message for any violent action in the Inform system. That line is a choice, perhaps a non-deliberate one, that happened at some point to steer an entire platform away from the well-sailed waters of “well if that doesn’t work, try shooting it” and towards the more introspective, conversational, and puzzley dilemmas favored by IF aficionados.
What struck me about this single page of Sam’s Diary in Gone Home is that it’s an exception to a rule — not part of a consistent fabric of showing the player what kind of thing they can and can’t do. It’s the only time Katie refuses to execute an action; the rest of the time, as Merritt points out, she acts like a camera, your lens into the world. As such, she’s a fairly cipher-like character who you can inhabit almost unconsciously. Unlike her sister, it doesn’t seem like she got in trouble in school or bucked the system; her assignment to write about the female reproductive system is a perfectly boring correct answer, while Sam chose to tell a hilariously horrifying story about a woman menstruating during a doomed romance during the 1937 Nazi blitzkrieg of Poland. Less of a tomboy in family photos, bringing an appropriately-gendered date home to the parents, and winning some track awards along the way, Katie feels like a generic “everywoman” to inhabit; even her postcards from Europe are the most boring things you’ll read in the whole game. She’s the good, boring sister, the Elizabeth to Sam’s Jessica, her relationships with her family members so innocuous that we barely catch a whiff of them as we pore over family history and recent events. We mostly know that her little sister trusts her enough to be the family ally to talk to. And it’s in her sister’s private life that there’s one moment where she stops cold: she doesn’t want to be involved in reading about her sister’s experiences with sex.
You could chalk this up to prudishness, since Katie is also squicked out by signs that her parents have sex (who isn’t, really) and has an “oh, my” reaction to finding a lad magazine in Sam’s bedroom. There’s more of a hint of “I shouldn’t” in her reactions, though. Katie’s sole resistance ends up operating on three levels: first, it says something about the character’s feelings towards prying into Sam’s sex life. It also stands out as a moment in the game where the character suddenly divorces herself from being the willing servant of the player, a refusal to act that more fully defines her as an agential entity in the world of this story. This is not entirely new territory for games, either; there are plenty of avatar-characters who refuse to follow commands, either because they’re too tired or depressed, because the player pushed their alignment in the opposite direction through a series of choices, or simply because they’re stubborn. Stephen Bond’s Rameses is entirely constructed around such a character, who doesn’t want to do ANYTHING you say, mostly because he’s a dissatisfied and cowardly sadsack. Doing what the player suggests is very much in Katie’s “nature” as an avatar, however, which makes her system-hiccuping refusal stand out all the more.
There’s one other interesting form of resistance going on here: resistance to the voyeuristic curiosity of the player, who’s reading about the sex life of two teenage girls. Gone Home deals with subjects that are still fairly novel in games. Even if it’s the kind of story that’s been making regular appearances in film festivals for decades, I’m more glad than I can really express to see these stories being told in the ways that only games can accomplish. Still, Gone Home is on Steam and making the indie-game circuits, and a lot of its players are straight guys, and a lot of its players exist in a context where lesbian sex feels nearly as titillatingly voyeuristic as the “Girl on Girl” section of an adult video store. Katie’s refusal to let the player read more than a snippet of a written account of teen-girl-sex (speed-readers aside) feels like a deliberate resistance to this kind of gaze. Of course, putting that single page in the game and then whisking it away was a deliberate choice on the part of Steve Gaynor, Johnnemann Nordhagen, Karla Zimonja, and Kate Craig. It didn’t have to be in there at all, although that would have meant excising the depth of Katie’s teenage feelings about being touched by the girl she loves. The Fullbright Company has made a point of refusing to participate in misogynist gaming culture, and Katie’s “not gonna happen” feels like part and parcel of that stance.
The internet, naturally, is such that it is gonna happen anyway, and already has. The game had only been out hours before someone had posted a screenshot of the page in question, which now sits on a web page for anyone to read at their leisure. Forum posters are asking what it said, and links to the screenshot being handed out. There’s no resisting the spread of information; there’s only the statement that Gone Home‘s creators made in the original context of their game. I thought about not linking to that screenshot myself, but it’s not as if anyone who’s curious couldn’t find it in seconds. So I’ll just pose a question and a choice here at the end: do you really want to invade the privacy of a fictional teenage girl’s thoughts about her first lesbian sexual encounter? Even though her sister, obligingly guiding you on a tour of their family’s recent history, would rather you didn’t? Well, go ahead. I can’t stop that choice; this isn’t a game.