Women characters have long been underrepresented in mainstream games; many games are heavily misogynistic. AAA game studios, armed with the ability to create literally anything, continue to put out games with the same protagonist: dark haired, scruffy, heterosexual white male. When developing these and other characters in their games, studios refer to the same set of tired tropes and narratives, many of which perpetuate damaging stereotypes of women.
The women of Gone Home are not objectified, sexualized or flat characters. They aren’t scenery, femme-fatals, or damsels. Rather, they are feminine (because they want to be) and they have agency in their decisions. Even the various pornographic magazines we find (one in the father’s den and the other in Sam’s locker) aren’t gawked at, or featured. In fact, Katie laments having found them, with something “Gosh, Sam/Dad.” The mother is not berated for her affair–we are not made to hate her for it (as in other media: think of Lori in The Walking Dead, for example.) Sam’s hair dye, the nail polish, the riot grrrl zines and music, the costumes and Ouija-board-playing are all understood in very human terms of humans expressing themselves through the means that are most culturally available to them, not “women are vain” or “lady art is craft and therefore frivolous.”
This sense of agency, DIY crafting and embracing of all facets of femininity as powerful was largely indicative of the goals of early third-wave feminist Riot Grrrls. Aside from whatever objects she herself physically manipulates, the world within the mansion is eerily quiet. The only sound that we get in the entire game, aside from the mundane noises of creaking floor board, white noise, the weather and a fan, are Sam’s voice and the punk/garage rock Riot Grrrl bands of Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile. (You can check out the full soundtrack here!) Flipping through Sam’s areas of the house we also get zines and notes to Lonnie about upcoming shows.
Being that the Riot Grrrl movement was one of female empowerment, it is appropriate that the cassette tapes are the only media that you can engage with in the house. I wonder how the game’s reception would have turned out if the music theme was deemed “uncool.” Would the game be as popular if the characters listened to Aaron Carter un-ironically? Would it feel as genuine or still be viewed as progressive? If Sam wasn’t a lesbian, if her first love was with Johnny, a popular boy at school (basically any other high school love story), would this game have the same affect? I think the answer to many of these questions is, no.
The narrative of this game, at Sam’s narrative, fit together too well for me. As Ian Bogost mentions in his review of the game”…Gone Home‘s characters are too archetypal to become truly literary.” She is a angsty, lesbian, high school Riot Grrrl who grew up in a white, evangelical, middle-class household with parents who were having marital issues. Arbor Hill is a quiet, creepy house once inhabited by an abusive Uncle; there’s a thunderstorm outside; the hair dye in Sam’s bathtub looks like blood; the attic is locked and lined with ominous red lights. There are so many typical bate and switch moments, coupled with a found story whose pieces fit together so perfectly, that in the end I found the narrative a little hollow. Sam and Lonnie’s relationship is romanticized, she accepted by the one person (Daniel, I think his name is) who she comes out to. Her parents ultimately fail her and they’ve forgotten about Katie almost entirely, but they don’t seem to have any insidious intent.
It is still an important game featuring developed female and queer characters? Yes. It passes the Bechdel test and then some, but for story that tries to take a realistic look at the mundanity of a family in the 1990’s, it didn’t leave enough room for reality.