Gone Home: Sibling Love

In lieu of Gone Home's many, many awards and nominations, I feel it's a good time to present my view on Gone Home.

Gone Home is a love story, but not just between two girls who are romantically interested in each other. As one-sided as it's presented (through a silent first-person protagonist controlled by the player), sibling love also came into play strongly. As an older sister, I related to Katie, the player-controlled character. I also left the United States for some time as I explored Europe. At least I didn't come home to an abandoned house with notes from my sister left behind.

The house in Gone Home immediately felt eerie. I heard Katie leave a voicemail for her family announcing when she would be returning home. So why was the house empty? Some lights flickered, and a couple TVs were left on as if something terrible had happened. The tone of the game never let me feel at ease despite how much I loved exploring the empty house. This is Katie's first time in this large house as her family acquired it from her uncle; it was both of our first experiences trying to find clues in various rooms. A lot of it felt familiar, though -- notes from the parents to Katie's sister, Sam, calling out her behavior, reminders for calendar events, entries from diaries. In the time Katie was away, Sam has been attending high school, meeting new people, falling in love, and had to deal with her parents' disapproval. She keeps a diary the whole time, writing directly to Katie. The player isn't given much information to go on concerning their relationship before Katie left home, but judging by Sam's frankness through her writing to Katie, I can only imagine they trusted each other even if they weren't spilling out their feelings in person.

Seeing Sam grapple with her classmates' comments made me want to pummel them for picking on my sister. Seeing the first sparks of attraction and admiration for her crush brought a smile to my face. Hearing her talk about the person she kept falling harder for had me rooting for her all the way. And more than anything getting to be her confidant made me feel special. You have a kind of history with a sibling that you don't get with anyone else, and in some ways they know you better than anyone else. (They certainly know your faults better than anyone else -- and they won't let you forget it.)

My sister and I are three years apart. Three years feels colossal when you're young, but by the time you're both in college, three years seems so minimal. We've both had some similar experiences that most people around the world have -- struggling in school, finding our own talents, making friends, losing friends, developing crushes on people, confessing and getting shot down. Sometimes I don't know what she's been up to in her personal life until a year has passed and it just comes up in conversation. More often than not, we talk about personal things through texts or online conversations. There's something weird about doing it in person, face-to-face. And that's why I can see Sam easily writing a diary to Katie rather than telling Katie all about it in person. We never see the two interact face-to-face in the game, but Sam seems like the kind of person who's unlikely to tell her big sister about this girl she fell in love with -- at least not in person.

After having spent two hours in the game learning all about what Sam's been up to, I was clearly going to be apprehensive upon reaching the end of the game. Many of Sam's notes were happy, but there was this nagging sensation that lingered in the back of my mind when I first encountered the locked attic. Sam's bolded instructions were for no one to come into the attic as this was her space. The closer I got to finding the key to the attic, the more desperate Sam sounded in her notes to Katie. She was likely never going to see her girlfriend again, and she felt lonely elsewhere. She was still developing an identity, and for the time it was undeniably linked to this woman she was dating, a woman who had shown her new kinds of music and played video games with her. Red marks in the bathtub turned out to be red hair dye and a funny momentary misdirection in how the player would receive the game's tone, but what if it was a warning for what could be waiting in the attic? Along with the ghost story vibe still in the background of the story, I was worried about what would be waiting for me.

So as I ascended the attic stairs, I was prepared for the worst, and I was terrified.

After I did a quick look around in the small space, I was relieved to see nothing ghastly about. It was just a few developed photographs hanging to dry. Sam's diary lay at the end of the hall. The credits ran shortly afterward. In this time, I imagined Katie sitting down with the diary, reading everything that Sam wanted to tell her sister, and upon reaching the end and reading that Sam was running away to be with her girlfriend, Lonnie, I wasn't happy. "What the hell are you thinking?" I wanted to yell. "You can't just run off and survive on junk food and pawn off VCRs to get some spare cash and then just drive around until you two have nowhere safe to go!" I imagined Katie running out the door in the middle of the night to find Sam before something terrible happened.

Gone Home isn't a game for everybody. It takes no more than two hours to complete, and it's much more about exploration than influencing the direction of a story. More than anything else, it's about emotion. Any game that makes me feel something beyond what was presented in the game is a piece of art.

On Revolutions: Papers, Please and The Republia Times

A much younger Carly Smith bought into the romanticized idea of revolutions. The underdog vs. the bully. The just vs. unjust. Vive la revolution!

In reality, revolutions can't be tied neatly into a bow. The French Revolution's Maximillion Robespierre led a movement of terror. Those in power should be held responsible when their actions hurt the people, but this does not mean the people leading a charge against the corrupt leaders are heroes. They're frequently cut from the same degrading cloth.

Shortly after watching my significant other play Papers, Please and lending my powers of observation to the task of checking passports, I discovered Lucas Pope's The Republia Times, a short browser game he made before Papers, Please. The first thing I thought of when starting my task of assembling propaganda was 1984's protagonist Winston Smith. A part of Winston's job is painting the Party and Big Brother in a positive light through the news. A large revolution never takes place in 1984, but in more modern literature the majority of dystopian fiction offers a glimmer of hope through a revolution. A revolution fought in blood may offer no change besides the face of the people in power.

During The Republia Times, a group will secretly contact you with instructions on joining their revolutionary efforts. Their goal is to take down the government, and so you must start printing stories that paint the government in a negative light. In hindsight, I don't know which stories were true. It's possible none of them got the facts right, and the media was only used to further a political cause. Once the coup d'etat has succeeded, the revolutionaries form the state of Democria, and they keep you on in media to work at the Democria Times.

The mechanics stay the same. The stories are the same. Another revolutionary will contact you for help at some point, and if you help them, Democria is replaced by Republia again. How many times has this gone on in a cycle? Dystopian politics see leaders switching sides as if nothing had ever happened. Winston in 1984 is the only one shocked when the target of the country's attacks switch mid-sentence. Once something has changed, it is supposed to have been that way forever and will always be that way in a process of doublethink, a term Orwell coined in 1984. I couldn't help laughing when I saw nothing change from Republia to Democria.

That brings me to Papers, Please, where you get to decide whether to provide assistance to a revolutionary group that claims it's trying to restore Arstotzka to the way it was before the current government took power. If you assist EZIC the whole way and survive to the end, the group takes down the wall at the border checkpoint, and hundreds of people make their way from West Grestin to East Grestin to visit their friends and families in a moment reminiscent of the destruction of the Berlin Wall. To get to that point, you help EZIC poison someone they claim is an assassin in a classic situation of "who can kill the other first?" Toward the end of the month, EZIC asks the player to kill the assassin.

In the playthrough where we assisted EZIC and overthrew the corrupt Arstotzkan leaders, I couldn't help wondering to myself where Arstotzka would go from here. The game ends, so there's no way to know for sure, but I firmly felt the Arstotzkan people were not safe under EZIC either.