Riot Grrrls!

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.

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3 Responses to Riot Grrrls!

  1. tanuvein says:

    I agree that in a genre full of strong female characters – such as in Syberia, or my favorite, The Longest Journey series of games – Gone Home doesn’t quite take it to a new level, but I disagree that it doesn’t create realistic characters. Maybe its because I actually lived and went to school in the same period the game takes place (albeit not in high school), but the characters felt so very real to me, and not archetypal at all. I find it hard to even be able to call these roles archetypal, that of the rebellious, punk lesbian, since other than the 90s that idea has been abandoned as mediated representation. Regardless, though other games, especially in the RPG genre, have dealt with homosexual characters, playable and otherwise, I can’t think of a game that deals with a gay character AS gay, and making that the focus of her internal conflict explores areas other games only mention at best.

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    • tanuvein says:

      I forgot to mention this and can’t find an edit button, but I also think that the Riot Grrl obsession was something that was wholly unique to that time. It is the only instance I can think of in the long history of feminist movements where being angry, aggressive and openly gay was not only accepted, but preferable. Even in the more recent decade where feminism seems to be struggling for more of an identity, the Riot Grrl movement still stands out as the moment where it seemed a strong, radical voice wasn’t just speaking on the behalf of lesbians but actually speaking WITH them. It is easy to see why a character such as Sam would champion such ideas, and given a game rife with mediated motivations it seems thematically appropriate.

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  2. charlenejo says:

    I perhaps misrepresented what I meant in my post. The Riot Grrrl scene was certainly unique to the time period of the game, and while I was literally born the year it really started to pick up steam, I have researched a good bit about it. (Not that research is a stand in for lived experience, just giving myself some credibility.) That being said, what I meant by “archetypal,” is that the pieces of her story fit together too well. There are few games, certainly few (if any?) mainstream games, out there that feature well-developed female protagonists, let alone a teenage lesbian. You said “I can’t think of a game that deals with a gay character AS gay, and making that the focus of her internal conflict explores areas other games only mention at best.” That was something I celebrated about the game, as well. I was thrilled at the inclusion of a queer main-character; and we get her story first-hand! The problem I had is that, if I’m being very critical (I know that’s not always a good thing; I was trying to push myself away from gushing about how much I loved this game), that her story fit together too well. It’s not that it’s not realistic (that’s where my word-choice went awry.) My point I guess was, of course Sam would champion the ideas and adopt the aesthetic of the Riot Grrrl. Of course, her love interest is in the military when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was first put into affect, effectively raising the stakes of their relationship even more, and conveniently placing a more political backdrop to the moment. Of course, her parents misunderstood her struggle with sexuality (what with their 900 crosses littering the house and preoccupation with their jobs/own failing relationship.) And I think a big part of that reason I feel this way is a result of other aspects of the story, ie: the horror-mystery house, the failing marriage, Katie as the “good” daughter, etc. I wanted something that wasn’t so easily digested, something that I had to wrestle with a little more.

    I don’t know if I’m digging myself deeper or not!

    Ian Bogost probably says what I wanted to much better than I did: “As for Sam, things are complicated. On the one hand, it’s hard to justify criticizing a videogame for telling a teenage girl’s queer coming-of-age story. But on the other hand, everything about that story is so neatly put into place, so clear and so paint-by-number, that it rings hollow. Not in its spirit, not in its message, even, but in its artistic achievement.” (Full article here: http://bogost.com/writing/perpetual_adolescence/)

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