The outside of your childhood home house is dark, except for the dim flicker of a porch light. Inside, everything your family owns is packed into boxes, and all the remaining furniture is draped in ghostly sheets. But there is one sign of life — a handwritten note from your sister, Samantha, taped to the door, with the explicit instructions: “don't go digging around trying to find out where I am." But of course you’re going to go digging, that’s the whole point — to find things, to feel things, to piece together a story that is both familiar and new. As you control Katie, a college-aged woman and therefore the unlikely hero of the wildly popular video game, Gone Home, the only way to succeed is to see things from a different perspective. There may not be any monsters to battle in Gone Home, but there are certainly plenty of demons that must be confronted.
While Gone Home isn’t a new game (it debuted in 2013), it has set a new standard for role playing video games where the player embodies someone going through a realistic life experience, as opposed to anything fantastical, athletic, or violent. Sometimes maligned by fans of more combat-driven games as as a "walking simulator," the design of Gone Home allows players to explore the childhood home of Katie, a college-aged woman who returns to her family home in Oregon to find all of her family members missing. Through exploring the rooms of the house, players are unable to unwrap the mystery of what happened to her younger sister Samantha. There is no time limit, and there are no levels or suped-up bosses (the term for a video game villain) to defeat. There also aren’t any sci-fi characters, fancy cars, or — most notably — guns. Rather, the game is filled with complicated surprises, and viscerally, there are feelings. Lots and lots of feelings. “Going in, I wasn't sure if it was going to be a ghost story or murder or something,” Jack Setzer, 21, a tech support agent from Orem, Utah tells Bustle. “...but I had one of the most emotional experiences of my life.”
For men in particular, video games have been the source of intense explorations of fantasy that has, at times (like in the most obvious example of Grand Theft Auto) felt like an exacerbation of the worst qualities of our culture — a celebration of rape culture and mindless carnage. However, with a game like Gone Home, where a player embodies a perfectly normal young woman, there’s a different skill set involved. Players like Setzer are practicing empathy — and they are having fun doing it. Setzer, who also plays competitive, violence-driven games like Overwatch, has found Gone Home to be a revelatory experience in an industry that is still heavily dominated by first-person shooters and combat-mission adventures. While there are some slightly supernatural-esque elements to the game (for instance, there's a table in the attic with candles and a pentagram), instead of psyching you out with cheap thrills or bumps in the night, Gone Home uses diary entries and attention to detail to gently push the player to explore their surroundings. "In other games there are usually some other side quests or subplots where I end up empathizing with some characters, but it's not the whole experience, the way ‘Gone Home’ is,” Setzer says. “I think what separated it was that I felt that the character's emotions and motivations, it made it feel very human. It wasn't like their emotions were just plot devices.”
Spoiler alert: Katie’s sister Samantha is in love with a girl named Lonnie, and when Lonnie is forced to leave town to serve in the military (she’s a resistant ROTC student), Samantha runs away to be with her. As Katie, it’s your job to figure out why Samantha was so scared to tell your parents about this relationship, and to understand how they could’ve been so blind to their daughter’s pain in the first place. It’s a story that could very easily be real, and the purposeful design of the game, which borrows heavily from shooter games, helps draw the players deeper and deeper inward as the plot unfolds.
"We made [Gone Home] because it was what we were able to make, and what we were interested in making. We were not like, 'we are going to set our sights on cracking the young male audience',” Karla Zimonja, co-founder of Fullbright Company and co-creator of Gone Home, tells Bustle. In 2012, Zimonja and her fellow co-founder and creator, Steve Gaynor, left their jobs at 2K Marin (which published the game BioShock 2) to work on an indie project together. They say they landed on the plot of Gone Home not to make a point, but because they thought it was the most interesting story to be told, and it hadn’t been done in a game before. When Gone Home first arrived on the market, the only similar game was Dear Esther, a first-person ghost story, but now fans have at least a half dozen others, including popular titles like The Last of Us, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, and Fullbright's second game, Tacoma.
The Fullbright team's motivations for making a game where players just walk around and explore their environment stemmed in part from their backgrounds designing shooter games, she says. They wanted to make something just as “environmentally rich but without people shooting at your head.”
“If a game makes you cry in the end, all the better.”
When the game was released nearly five years ago, it quickly lit up the online message boards that indie gamers have come to rely on for recommendations. While many players shared Setzer’s initial confusion over whether the game was supposed to be scary or not, many of those same players reported having an emotionally-driven response. "[The game] gives you that ‘I'm home alone, in an unfamiliar house, I'm finding out all this private shit about my sister and my parents, I'm worried they did something stupid, and WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT NOISE’ feeling. The game just makes you feel that all the time, and I loved it," wrote one player in the popular online forum, GiantBomb. Half a decade later, the fandom for the game is still going strong. It has over 10,000 reviews on the gaming platform Steam and its own dedicated subreddit where, even over four years after the game was released, players still regularly post fan-art, like songs they've written about the game.
"Reading and hearing those very personal things, even though they were fictional, almost gave me the feeling of being an intruder.”
Josh Kamowitz, a 32-year-old marketing consultant from Brooklyn, has seen Gone Home and games like it catch on within his group of married, male gamer friends. While Kamowitz also enjoys games like Assassin’s Creed, which is more about "checking boxes" and allowing him to "turn his brain off," he tells Bustle that Gone Home provides a more cathartic experience — and that’s the main reason he and his friends love it so much. “I'd never played a solely narrativ-based game before,” Kamowitz says. “That one represents the best. If a game makes you cry in the end, all the better.”
Thomas Spitzer, a 31 year-old software developer in Austria, was also surprised by how much he enjoyed playing an emotion-driven game. "I loved the love story although I am not the super romantic type," he told Bustle. "The unfolding love and discovery of the girls' mutual affection was a bit surprising, since I knew almost nothing about the game I was playing, but it also was sweet and a bit enthralling."
For Spitzer, being able to read and hear Sam's private thoughts gave the game a level of intimacy that was rewarding and also a little uncomfortable. "Reading and hearing those very personal things, even though they were fictional, almost gave me the feeling of being an intruder, and of... reading stuff that was none of my business."
To help make sure the game was authentic as possible, Zimonja and Gaynor interviewed queer women about their experience growing up in the 1990s. These women included Kate Craig, a game designer who they eventually brought on as their environment artist, and her wife. Craig had done scene work for a variety of small Facebook games, most notably Margaritaville Online, and she was excited by the challenge of designing a realistic home and all of its intricacies. She heavily drew from her own experience as a teenager, modeling Sam’s white iron framed bed after her own.
Narrowing in on blind-spots, however small they might seem, was an integral part of what made Gone Home such an overnight success. Katie’s perspective wasn’t sanitized for male players — it was just presented as normal — as reality. “I remember saying to Steven [Gaynor}, ‘You’re making a game about a teenage girl but you don't have any tampons or pads in your bathroom,’” Craig says. It turns out, these details didn’t just make female players feel more welcome — they had a major impact on the male players, too. Players of all ages and genders are able to see what it’s like to be a girl in a girl’s bedroom, and have it not be a fantasy.
According to the Pew Research Center, four in 10 women play video games compared to seven in 10 men, but industry experts who spoke with Bustle for this article cited the number as closer to 50 percent or more (especially when you take into account the fact that mobile games are primarily played by women). Both Zimonja and Craig told Bustle how meaningful it’s been to hear from players who identify with the characters and haven’t seen themselves in games before. Craig says that the user-friendly nature of the game has attracted all sorts of players, even especially unexpected folks, like mothers in their 40s. But they weren’t expecting its popularity among cis-male fans or their effusive positive feedback. "We were extremely taken by surprise. It's sort of incomprehensible,” Zimonja says.
For Craig, compliments around the eye-opening experience of the game were particularly meaningful, as the story somewhat mirrored her own life as a queer woman. "I was really happy a lot of emails and Twitter messages we got that were like, ‘I wouldn't have normally played a game like this, but I feel like I got a perspective I wouldn't have normally have gotten,” she says. “It's nice when someone is like, ‘I wasn't expecting this, but I'm a little more empathetic.’"
While Gone Home wasn't designed with the intent of creating empathy, the medium of gaming is increasingly being deployed by a number of educators and nonprofits to bring awareness to their causes, including gender relations. The game Bystander has been used in Chicago high schools to teach students about sexual harassment and consent, for instance. UNESCO issued a report in 2016 describing how video games might build awareness for world peace.
The field of research about the effects of gaming, however, is still nascent. Research indicating that violent video games cause violence has been long debunked, though the idea continues to be perpetuated by the media and things like the White House's summit on violence and video games. A 2017 study from researchers in Germany found that there was no link between violent media and violent actions or long term effects on the brain when it came to the ability to feel empathy. What little research has been done draws unclear conclusions on whether video games exacerbate mental health disorders, like depression, or if increased play is simply a result of them.
“It can be like a book or movie but in the interactive scenario you can sift through someone's belongings and reflect.”
Nonetheless, it's not out of the question that some gamers might have that experience, Katherine Isbister, professor of computational media at the University of California, Santa Cruz tells Bustle. But there are some things about the medium of video games in particular that would seem to make it ripe for that kind of experience.
"What I've seen is, it's a fusion of some of the techniques you've seen in older media. What the computational aspect brings to it is [it] brings the player the sense of agency and the consequences of choices,” says Isbister, who is also a researcher at the UC-Santa Cruz Center for Games and author of How Games Move Us.
She says that a game like Gone Home, which encourages the player to spend time reflecting on the characters and occupy their space in a meaningful way, can absolutely heighten emotions.
“You can evoke really powerful experiences from humans. It can be like a book or movie but in the interactive scenario you can sift through someone's belongings and reflect,” Isbister says.
"It's actually really problematic if you played something for 12 minutes and you thought you could understand half or even one percent of what it's like to go through a [gender] transition."
Video games also have something else movies and books lack: consequences.
"You can still make choices you feel good about or feel bad about. There's almost a moral component," says Bonnie Ruberg, professor of informatics at University of California, Irvine and a scholar of queer video games.
This is something Setzer experienced when he played the game Life Is Strange, an episodic adventure game where protagonist Max must grapple with the consequences of her ability to rewind time. "You have to make the genuinely more wrenching decisions than I've had to make in a [traditional] game," he says.
Ruberg cautions that if players do come into games like Gone Home with the best intentions, they run the risk of appropriating the identities being portrayed by the game — an idea that has been debated on gaming forums in recent years.
"It's actually really problematic if you played something for 12 minutes and you thought you could understand half or even one percent of what it's like to go through a [gender] transition," she says, pointing to the example of the game Dys4ia by transgender gamemaker Anna Anthropy.
She suggests instead that games should be seen as a vehicle for “compassion or even companionship" instead of "empathy."
Part of why the success of games like Gone Home has come as such a surprise is because of the sexism and homophobia of more mainstream games and, often, the gamers who play them. Only a few months after Gone Home took home awards at the Spike Video Game Awards (now just the Game Awards), the gaming world’s deep-seated sexism bubbled to the surface in a controversy known as #GamerGate. Launched as a harassment campaign against developer Zoe Quinn by a disgruntled ex, the scandal set off a flood of doxxing and threats by online misogynists against both Quinn and women who came to her defense.
While the scandal forced many conversations about sexism and harassment in both gaming and internet culture to the fore, its lasting repercussions are just one example of how toxic gaming can be for players who don't fit the white, cis-male mold.
"I would love if a bunch of whole dude bro gamers started playing games [like Gone Home], even if they weren't in their comfort zones," Ruberg says. "But in my experience, those gamers often get ahold of these queer games, and either they're really dismissive or troll their games or do a lot of homophobic things with it [in online walkthroughs]." It should also be noted that Gone Home and similar, emotionally driven games are often created by smaller, independent producers, so their politics have only started to have an influence on the mainstream gaming community.
There's another factor to consider when asking why Gone Home, or its successors, like What Remains Of Edith Finch, has been such a hit with gamers at the same time that sexism and homophobia continue to flourish in the community: some gamers are just more emotionally open than others. After all, men, like women, are not a monolith — each character is unique. Kamowitz and Setzer both cited healthy relationships with women, including female gamers, in their interviews with Bustle, and Isbister says that it's hard to say why gamers are attracted to certain games since everyone comes in with different levels of emotional complexity.
"The only thing I can say to why people who aren't exactly like the characters in the game are interested in it is that hopefully we did an okay job telling the story, and they could be interested in it like any story," Zimonja says. Games like Gone Home might not be a cure for toxic masculinity, but the very real tears shed over it’s storyline show its grip may be weakening.