If these walls could speak: a series of Gone Home letters.
When Oliver Balaam and Hattie Grünewald strike up a correspondence, they aim to analyse Gone Home in the context of their own lives. An exploration videogame set in 1995 Oregon, our players take control of Katie Greenbriar, a young woman who upon returning from a trip around Europe, finds her family home deserted.
To: Hattie Grünewald
From: Oliver Balaam
Subject: Gone Home
I’ve been pacing these corridors for hours now. It’s not my home, and it’s unlike any house that I’ve ever seen in a videogame, but at the same time, there’s something profoundly familiar about it. I wasn’t a teenaged lesbian in 1995 but I’m telling you, this is uncanny.
It’s the way the house creaks and hums. It’s the cluttered desks and the crumpled notes. It’s the anaemic glow of the TV and the knotted cables under the rugs. It’s the anxious, secret and tangled lives that I absolutely believe are lived here, even though there’s no discernible sign of life. Most of all, it’s feeling like Katie, an outsider looking in.
As a recent graduate returning home, I’ve been made to see my family, really see them, for the first time. They’re overworked, disenchanted and imperfect people, and they exist on uneven footing, even in their own home. It turns out that it takes more than four walls, double glazing and good intentions to keep patriarchy at bay.
Familiarity and privilege made me blind to this, and it still blinkers me, but you’ve always been a bit worldlier than me. What did you make of this place, and what of the marks these people have left on it?
To: Hattie Grünewald
From: Oliver Balaam
Subject: Re: Gone Home
I’ve been thinking about what you said about real lives being lived in this house. I’m not sure I agree. It’s been at least six months that the Greenbriars have been living here, and there are boxes everywhere. Most of the cupboards and drawers are empty; there’s room to put things away, but there just hasn’t been the time. All these lives are being lived somewhere else, in schools and forests and libraries and nightclubs, and we’re only seeing scraps of them, squirreled away in desk drawers and secret passages.
I’m sitting in Katie’s bedroom, thinking about the note on the floor that apologises for not having the room ready. I’m thinking about the unmade bed, the taped up boxes with Katie’s name scribbled on the side, the empty echoing house.
As you know, my mother and stepfather have moved house in the past year, so my experience of “going home” is somewhat different to yours; perhaps more similar to Katie’s. The house she returns to is unknown to her, and there is no one to greet her, hug her, show her around or explain. This house is no more Katie’s home than it is yours, or mine.
I’ve been wondering lately what it means to “go home”, now that the house where my family lives is not one I’ve ever lived in myself. Returning home means a guest room with my books and clothes all in boxes in the attic, in a house that, on weeknights, none of my blood relatives actually live in.
Who, in this story, has really gone home? My gut feeling is, it’s not Katie.
To: Hattie Grünewald
From: Oliver Balaam
Subject: Re: Re: Gone Home
You’re right about the Greenbriars living their lives outside of these walls. I’m so used to videogames as sterile spaces — battlefields and racetracks and cities without interiors — that when they convey intimate, affecting stories, I’m liable to get a bit hyperbolic.
It takes time to make a house a home, and given their terse relationships with this house, its previous tenant, and with each other, it’s no surprise that the Greenbriars haven’t unpacked. Leaving it all boxed up can feel more honest, but it can also formalise and fortify familial dysfunction. Juggling friends, family, my career and my long term partner, I’ve slept on the floor and lived out of suitcases for about a year now. I could buy a bed frame, but I honestly wouldn’t know where to put it.
I see elements of my own life inGone Home, but so, it seems, does everyone else. The game articulates a lot of jumbled feelings: the secrets and desires that we hide when we’re young, our fear of alienation and our need for acceptance, and in expressing these feelings so honestly, it reminds us that they’re felt universally. Comfortingly, it tells us that we don’t carry these burdens alone.
Of course, Gone Home’s uncanny familiarity isn’t just the result of sharp semi-autobiographical writing and lifelike detail; it expertly employs a number of recognisable tropes, and wears its cultural influences on its sleeves (and its VHS spines). The house’s atrium is an almost a direct lift from Resident Evil, and the dimly lit passageways recall the slow dread of countless 90s slashers. If they’d gone all in with the horror tropes and called it Lesbian Labyrinth it might have sold better, but wisely, they’re used reservedly, conjuring a disquieting atmosphere but stopping short of any actual poltergeists.
The strongest intertextual association that remains in my mind is between Chris Remo’s haunting score, and David Lynch’s score for Twin Peaks. Both are achieved using the unsettling and ethereal chords of Rhodes electric pianos, but the tonal connections run far deeper than that. Both stories work to puncture the ironic and remove and the stoicism that their creators perceived in their childhood. They remember unflinchingly what it’s like to be young, naive and full of passion. They fondly remember saying things like we’ll sleep when we’re dead, and actually meaning it.
P.S: Sorry I never got around to answering your question about who has really gone home, I’m not convinced that the idea of home as a place is helpful anymore.
To: Oliver Balaam
From: Hattie Grünewald
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Gone Home
I’ll have to take your word for it on the intertextual references. Still, I recognise nostalgia when I see it. This is a story that’s continually looking back over its shoulder. Katie’s trying to piece together the diary pages to fill in the gaps to her family’s history, but we have no idea what’s happening at the present moment. Are her parents working things out on the marriage retreat, or is it all too little too late? Are Terry’s books going to sell as well as he hopes? Has Sam found Lonnie, and what are they going to do now? I’m not sure it matters.
Since our graduation, I’ve been tying myself in knots trying to rope down my future, not knowing whether, in six months’ time, I’ll be in the same job, or the same house, or where any of my friends will be. I feel like I’m living on a fault line — I can build the structures of my life, but at any minute the ground could shift and I’ll be left sifting through the rubble again. And of course, like Sam, I had an impending disaster on the horizon that there was no way to prepare for — the person I loved most in the world flying to America and out of my life.
I’ve just read Sam’s college acceptance letter. She is going to do creative writing at college, just like I did, so I’m already brimming with joy and empathy. Just as I put it down I hear her voice. I am so stupid sometimes. It’s such a clever contrast, this academic achievement juxtaposed with this lightning strike of ignorance. Of course Lonnie is shipping out. Hadn’t Sam always known that?
It’s more a reality check than a bolt from the blue, but I know that feeling, Sam, and listening to your diary entry, I’m winded all over again.
So what’s the stupid thing? Is it blindly ignoring the future, holding on to what you have for dear life? Or is it hope, that forward-looking oh-so-human glimmer that obscures the fact that, right in front of you, there is another human being: concrete, autonomous, with hopes and desires that could be completely different to yours?
Let’s just have fun while we can. That’s what I’m supposed to take away, I guess. Right now, my job contract is extended another six months, I have enough money to get by and, since your last letter, I’ve moved into a lovely house with you, my friend. I’m writing this letter just down the hall from you, and in this moment, I’m happy. Isn’t that what Sam and Lonnie’s story should teach us? Carpe diem?
Sorry, I know you hate it when I quote Latin.
This piece was originally published in Abstract Magazine, it was written in collaboration with Hattie Grünewald.