This is my blog post 4!
The expressive force of Gone Home arises from Katie’s passivity as a protagonist. I’ve mentioned several times in class that her neutrality minimizes the distance between player and character; not only is Katie the house for the first time, virtually her only trait is that she does what is expected of her. The developers made it so that there is as little friction as possible between the player’s persona and Katie’s. Thus, an immersive and deeply affective experience is achieved. But there is another, perhaps more important dimension to Katie’s passivity that I only realized once Dr. Fest listed what he considered to be five of the most prominent themes in the game: memory, nostalgia, history, loss and trauma.
As the game begins, a major, year-long event in Katie’s life is drawing to a close. At the same time, everyone in her immediate family is finally engaging with and trusting their feelings, embarking on new and hopeful projects, processes of healing that cast their memories, nostalgias, histories, losses and traumas behind them: into the house and on to Katie. Even the vessel for their histories is yet another artifact of history; the house is not only an emblem of the father’s traumatic childhood but also an abandonment of everything Katie grew up with. It would appear that Katie’s history has been reduced to year-old flight itinerary and an unmade guest room. We can’t even definitively state whether or not her trip to Europe was a positive or negative experience. The only thing we ever hear from Katie is her selfless but vacuous voicemail set to the ominously nostalgic tones of tape hiss and Chris Remo’s new-agey score. Some point after this voicemail, but before the end of the game, the player must come to a realization: that Katie has no past to take solace in. This both frees the player from the cliché of the readymade emotional position and encourages them to explore and ravenously consume the pasts of others. This is the moment of the game where the emotional mechanic is revealed. It is a supreme passivity: a character who never speaks, never questions, and has no past or future. Thus, the Katie/player complex must process as much information as possible, thrust as much of other people’s emotional baggage onto herself, and bear the weight of these cast-aside traumas is if they were her own in order to create some semblance of a narrative.
First, she must confront the loss of childhood amid all Sam’s markers of adolescence (i.e the fake radiation warning sign on her bedroom door, the lined-paper notes passed during class, the pillow forts and Ouija boards, not to mention the thrill of first love.) She must also confront Sam’s fear of being misunderstood, and the player may then contemplate if Katie ever asked to be understood at all. The fear of a failing marriage, the trauma of Terrence’s childhood, the alien surroundings, all the way down to the tedious stressors of work, school and personal finance, these things are forced upon the Katie/player complex, and the game’s emotional drive comes from the desire to reason through all the memory, nostalgia, history, loss and trauma that is strewn about the house. Worse, Katie’s turn to do what Sam refers to as “gallivanting around who-knows-where” is over, and between Sam’s running away and her parent’s couples retreat which justify the uninhabited house, Katie is found in an awkward transitional phase of her uneventful life, abandoned by her family and left only with documents of their trauma to concern herself with. This, I argue, is the primary source of Gone Home’s emotional power.