At first, Katie and the player exist in a horror story. A thunderstorm welcomes them to a mansion where lights flicker and the floorboards above them creak heavily. As the two timidly make their way through the game’s scares, the circumstances around Gone Home’s story begin to shift. Drama steps into horror’s place with sensational tropes, then mystery takes over until, finally, the clues are collected and the many questions of the narrative are answered. Katie and the player are no longer submerged in a harrowing murder tale or a whodunit crime, but progress through the game to ultimately find themselves in an uplifting and edifying coming-of-age story.
The presence of so many disparate, darker genres initially seems unlikely to yield such a seamless and optimistic resolution. But Steve Gaynor’s Gone Home employs the video game medium and manipulates the parochial habits associated with genre to construct an innovative and immersive coming-of-age narrative. Gone Home’s manipulation of hackneyed genre conventions paves the way for a clear narrative progression. This progression is integral to rejecting the assumption that the usage of tropes is categorically formulaic and unoriginal in storytelling. What results is a coming-of-age story for both Katie and the player, as Gone Home crafts a meaningful transformation for Katie’s character, but also promotes the player’s own evolution—one where they are made more thoughtful of the uses and nuances of genre.
The game opens to a dimly lit front patio of a mansion where a hastily scribbled letter is taped onto the locked front door. “Don’t look for me,” it reads, “from, Sam.” Most of the porch is nested in the dark, and many of the artifacts, including the key to the door, hide in the shadows for the player to find. Meanwhile, thunder booms and lightning flashes across the game’s screen. The absence of light, the “dark and stormy night” backdrop, and the ominous letter all fall under the horror genre’s most typical clichés. Gone Home’s decisive choice to include immediate and unavoidable horror tropes in the start of the narrative is pivotal to establishing the genre and the player’s predictions and expectations.
If it Looks Like Blood…
As the narrative proceeds, the visual graphics of Gone Home continue to feed into the conventions of the horror genre. Some of the rooms in the mansion are immersed in total darkness, while some, barely-lit, flicker without explanation or pattern. Especially disconcerting is the lurid, blue screen of a television set left playing for a long-gone audience. The player quickly learns that the scary mansion is Katie’s home, but no answers are provided to the questions of her missing family members. Upstairs, a bathtub is splattered with red, viscous liquid. With so many of its signatures present, the player’s mindset and actions are conditioned for the horror genre. What else could the liquid be, the player determines, if not blood?
Internal and external noises support the horror genre and confine the player’s limited outlook. In a different setting, for example, the rainfall outside might induce a feeling of relaxation. To the player, the creaking noises seem more likely to originate from a murderer’s footsteps than from the building’s aching infrastructure. These emotions permeate the player’s thought process, as they process innocuous noises and graphics as objects of terror. Distanced from the game, the player’s mindset may appear to be illogical, but their thinking is neither without reason nor historical precedent. The “blood” in the bathtub, the flickering lights, and the droning of the television set adhere to the specific set of conventions that readers of the horror genre have come to expect, if not demand (Bishop and Starkey 2006, 96).
The recognition of these tropes within the horror genre creates what is called the “genre effect.” Players identify the patterns in Gone Home and connect them to the other tales they have read or seen before. They grow complacent in their imagination, and their idea of a horror story becomes typified to the point of being formulaic (Bastian 2010, 36). As a result, their actions and logic are largely prescribed. While flickering lights in the dark room terrify the player, past horror stories suggest that the source of terror can be found in such places, and so the player feels compelled to go. Likewise, the liquid in the bathtub must be blood, as that is determined by genre convention to be the most reasonable explanation in this narrative.
Growth Behind Every Corner
The player’s dutiful ventures into the most unsettling corners of the mansion are rewarded with the accumulation of clues and the accomplishment of fully investigating parts of Katie’s home. With the exploration of certain rooms thoroughly completed, the game gives the player new access to previously restricted areas.
By continuing to make sense of the mansion’s artifacts and their relevant tidbits of information, the player eventually gains access to the final areas of the home: the greenhouse and the kitchen. Nestled between two refrigerator magnets is a small calendar with today’s date circled in red. “Couple’s Counseling Retreat,” the day reads. In the greenhouse, the player finds encouraging signs of reconciliation between Katie’s parents. The two are working together on their garden, bringing new life and a new sense of hope to their marriage. Finally, the player learns that Sam’s note on the front door should not be read as a harbinger, but as a momentous act of love—she has run away with her girlfriend to start a new life together.
To arrive at the resolutions of Gone Home necessitates the presence and the exploration genre tropes. Through their clichés, they imbue the player’s mind with formulaic expectations and actions, and these actions are exactly what drive the player, and hence the narrative, forward. If not for our culturally ingrained sense to tip-toe towards trouble, or our unwavering desire to solve the mysteries in front of us, the game would lack the catalysts needed for narrative progression, and the truth of the story would remain hidden deep within the contents of Gone Home.
Bastian, Heather. 2010. “The Genre Effect: Exploring the Unfamiliar.” Composition Studies 38 (1): 29-51. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43501794.
Bishop, Wendy and David Starkey. 2006. “Genre.” In Keywords in Creative Writing. Logan: Utah State University Press.
Goldman, Alan. 2001. “The Appeal of the Mystery.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 69 (3): 261-272. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23883662.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. 2006. New York: Penguin Publishing Group.
Hristic, Jovan and Maria Shoup. 1977. “The Problem of Realism in Modern Drama.” New Literary History 9 (2): 311-318. http://www.jstor.org/stable/468524.
Title Image and Gone Home screenshots from The Fullbright Company