It’s that retrospective time of the year. “Best of” lists have cropped up everywhere; anything released in the month of December is critically irrelevant. As I look back on the media I’ve put in front of my face and/or ears during 2013, I see a sort of drifting. Didn’t catch too many movies, most of my TV shows ended or were cancelled, and as far as music? Blew it. I let a lot of new albums slip past me. I’m totally unqualified to make any respectable 2013 superlatives. I kept my head above water with podcasts and video games (of the admittedly casual variety), though, and as far as those go (through keeping up with Giant Bombcast and The Indoor Kids) one hand fed the other.
This year was something of a swan song for the previous generation of consoles, and it was a particularly good one for the Playstation 3. Multiplatform games like Bioshock Infinite, Grand Theft Auto V, and Tomb Raider were all phenomenal, but the PS3-exclusive The Last of Us was what really stood out for me. By placing the player in the middle of a hostile environment full of infected (for lack of a better word) zombies with extremely limited resources and agonizingly long self-healing animations, it created one of the most stressful gaming experiences I’ve gone through. What will resonate with me, though, are the character moments and the ending. Characters and relationships are developed very well throughout the game, and the payoff is incredibly rewarding if also morally ambiguous.
The Last of Us and the other mentioned titles were all blockbusters, but the most unique game I played was a small, independently developed one for the PC called Gone Home. These indie games are perfect for my current lot in life: they’re cheap, short, and stylistically and/or mechanically artsy-fartsy enough to keep me interested. The premise of Gone Home is that the main character Kaitlin returns to her family’s home after a year spent in Europe. The house is seemingly empty, and on the front door is a note from Kaitlin’s sister Samantha implying that she’s run away. The house is empty; the player must explore it and find out what’s happened to the family.
In its own way, Gone Home is as tense as The Last of Us. The house is empty and there’s a storm outside. Samantha has left Kaitlin diary notes that are spread throughout the various rooms building up to whatever revelation awaits. There are various implications in these notes that the game could turn into a survival horror exercise at any moment. The silence of the home is punctured by thunder every so often; with the ambiguous and potentially horrifying information being fed to the player, each bolt scares.
Through the notes and other tchotchkes left around the house, Kaitlin and the player piece together the reasons why Samantha as well as the parents are gone. Without giving away the ending, there are a couple of thematic takeaways worth noting from playing through the game. In terms of gameplay, there is a definite subversion of expectations; the prevalent theme of the game is not totally consistent with its tone. That prevalent theme, as far as I can tell, is about how secretive people are–even within their own families. In Gone Home, matters of infidelity, career insecurity, and sexual orientation are all kept secret until they comprise the series of circumstances that lead to an empty house.
This is not a game about the mysteries of a house; it’s about the private love and devastation, daily or accrued, that we keep from the people closest to us. The house is empty because the family, each member in his or her own way, is elsewhere trying to hang on to the life and the love that they’ve built. This song from one of Corin Tucker’s earlier bands plays over the game’s closing credits. Its lyrics of desperately trying to fix a relationship that’s slipping away line up perfectly with how the game leaves each of the family members.
It seems to be a conscious decision on the part of the developers to have the player assume the role of family member as Kaitlin. Physical distance as well as emotional distance make the family secrets as revelatory to her as they are to the player. As we rapidly approach another holiday where many of us will see some family members that we interact with a few times a year but never truly get to know, this game’s themes resonate especially.
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