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Walking simulators get a bad rap. People have accused them of being boring or, most heinously, of not being games at all. The first charge only stands if you like your story delivered by bullet or bomb. The second is just plain false. While it’s true that the original walking simulator this decade, Gone Home, didn’t have a whole lot of interactivity beyond picking up objects and looking at them others like The Stanley Parable, Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch moved forward with this basic template to create an entire genre.
Gone Home had a simple premise with a deceptive story at its center. What first starts out as a possible mystery or ghost story slowly reveals itself as a tale of queer liberation centered around a fragmented family all set in a rambling, empty house. 21 year-old Katie Greenbriar has just returned home from a year in Europe. She arrives at the family’s new home in Boon County, Oregon only to find it totally empty with neither her parents or her sister Sam to be found. As Katie explores the house in search of what happened the mystery morphs from haunting gone wrong to the detonation of a nuclear family.
The stories told by walking simulators are almost always heartbreaking. A family breaking up like an Arctic ice floe. A man fleeing into the forests of Wyoming to avoid his wife’s fatal diagnosis. A pregnant woman investigating the supposed curse that has killed every member of her family but her. But Gone Home was unique not just because it was the first of the walking simulators but because it dealt with issues a lot of games would never have touched back in 2013.
*Spoilers for Gone Home begin below.*
Being gay back in 2013 wasn’t easy and it’s still pretty difficult now but small improvements have been made. With that said it was a lot more difficult to be anything other than straight, white and cis in 1995 the year Gone Home is set. It’s why Gone Home hits so hard. It was a vindication for a great many queer gamers and a wake-up call for heterosexual gamers. But of course all that is only hinted at until the final part of the game.
If players went in blind to Gone Home there appeared to be no goal to this unique and altogether special game. The game offers players little direction instead presenting them the opportunity to explore the house at a (very) leisurely pace. Opening drawers and reading notes and letters reveal Sam’s changing identity as both a young woman and as a recently out lesbian. This eventually becomes the main crux of the story with various sub-plots relating to the ghost of Great Uncle Oscar Masan – the house’s previous owner – and Katie and Sam’s parents’ marital troubles. Players are left to find these out for themselves. Gone Home offers no explicit story-telling beyond the notes narrated by Sam, voiced wistfully by Sarah Grayson, but it leaves all the elements required to build the story in plain enough sight so that the vast majority of players won’t gloss over them.
Gone Home didn’t come out of a vacuum. The influence of the likes of BioShock and The Elder Scrolls loom large over it. But where these games presented players with a story and offered them the chance to flesh it out Gone Home requires the player to do most of the work themselves and the game feels rewarding for it. Like finding a clue in a detective game or hitting on the right item in a point-and-click adventure building Gone Home’s story feels rewarding and helps it feel more like a game.
The argument of whether Gone Home was a game or not felt redundant right from the jump. Some called it an interactive animation which is, in essence, a game. It’s like calling Twin Peaks: The Return a movie. Sure, it might have been a cinematic achievement like nothing else before or since but it was still divvied up into 18 parts that aired at a weekly time slot. Physical definitions don’t lie in media. Still that didn’t stop some insecure people seeing Gone Home as an attack on everything gaming stood for, you know big men with big guns.
It’s not wrong to say that GamerGate changed everything. It was the proto-alt-right after all. For all the many, many negative effects GamerGate had on gaming and politics and culture there were a fair few positives too. Gone Home was seen as an infringement on what gaming was supposed to be. The thing is not everyone wants to play Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. There is space in the market for everyone and it’s important that we represent everyone especially considering that nearly two billion people play games. So while Gone Home may have angered a lot of hentai enthusiasts and fans of Manhunt 2 it made a lot of other, saner people very happy.
Gone Home defied expectations in every way. A lot of players expected a kind of Twin Peaks or Eerie, Indiana mystery and what they got was a progressive bottle episode of Dawson’s Creek. The game went on to sell 700,000 copies making it a runaway success in indie game terms but more than its commercial success Gone Home opened the door for other kinds of stories to be told.
What Remains of Edith Finch gave players the chance to play as a cat, a pregnant woman, a little girl and a sea monster. It also told a heartrending story about love, loss and the people and places we leave behind. Fire Watch had you investigate a mystery as a fire lookout in Wyoming that, much like Gone Home, turned to introspection rather than kneeling to pulpy temptation. Others like The Stanley Parable and walking simulator-adjacent horror games such as Outlast or Visage have come and gone since but there’s only one Gone Home.
Gone Home is a rare game in that it conjures an intense feeling of nostalgic deja vú. The sense that you’ve left somewhere, not just a place but a time, and that upon your return nothing can or ever will be the same again. Gone Home is as much about Katie as it is about Sam. It’s about the stomping forward march of adulthood crushing the remnants of your childhood and adolescence into memory dust. It just happens to one sister faster than it does the other. Nothing will ever be the same again but, even if it’s just in the gold-tinted halls of our memory, we can always go home.