Unrequited love is painful enough, but a passionate affair that blossoms in the shadows is wrought with many of the same challenges. Would you rather watch your love from afar as they meander through life with someone else by their side, or would you be content to reserve every smile, every kiss, and every tender touch for moments during which you know you won't be judged? What's more, how could this be communicated through a video game? Are video games even capable of exploring meaningful interpersonal relationships?
The answer is a cautiously optimistic yes -- but Gone Home, a deliberately slow-paced, intimate adventure, has done more for the cause than most other titles in recent years. It's accomplished this in an admirable manner, as it explores the tragic longing of two young women reduced to guerrilla lovers unofficiated by parents or outside influences, a tale related through the splintered fragments of journal entries, letters, and the pieces they left behind. It's an adventure in stark contrast to that of mainstream "triple-A" games, exploring relationships previously veiled in secrecy. The fact that Gone Home's flagship pairing is a same-sex couple (Samantha and Lonnie) isn't even the most startling step forward for relationships in gaming, and despite the player's minimal role interactions with either character, it's a powerful case for what can and should be spotlighted in deeply personal narratives.
Without ruining too much of the game for those who have yet to take the plunge, Gone Home is a first-person adventure in which Kaitlin Greenbriar comes home to find her house empty save for some keenly-placed letters and clues as to where the members of her family have gone. It's easy to assume things have taken a violent turn for the worst as you navigate through a darkened house in the middle of a storm, but the true intent behind The Fullbright Company's tale isn't to terrify or weave a suspenseful episode to have you cowering at your computer chair: it's a vehicle to introduce Sam, Kaitlin's little sister, and the secrets she's hidden from her family.
As Kaitlin, you're little more than the silent protagonist. You know virtually little about how Kaitlin feels about the choices and directions her sister has opted for, and instead the player is asked to project themselves onto the eldest Greenbriar sister, who has no doubt been blindsided by the events that seem to have unfolded during her absence. While it would have been an interesting twist to see Kaitlin fill in precious information and weigh in on the undoubtedly startling truths she learned about her sister and her struggles, it's instead palatable for players to draw their own conclusions as Sam grows up a reclusive, shy child who turns to feminism, "riot grrl" bands, and punk stylings to find common ground with someone her age. Lonnie was her salvation of sorts, and even though the bigger sister's slant on what this all meant for Sam and her future would have been entertaining, it was wise to leave that sort of decision-making up to those who would be exploring.
Unsurprisingly, I felt more for Sam and Lonnie's tale of young love than my own "personal" relationship with Tali'Zorah vas Normandy in my Mass Effect 3 playthrough. The only romances we're allowed to kindle within video games are relegated to dialogue choices, which character we want to bed, and which ones will end up becoming assets in the thick of battle. We're treated to conveniently troubled childhoods, cheeky one-liners, and the illusion of desire, but never the rush of what it feels like to be falling in love: how that one special person is always on your mind, and how you're constantly thinking of ways to get them to notice you, even though their eyes have been on you all evening. How you want nothing more than to enjoy their simple embrace and gentle gaze over a perfect career or all the riches in the world. Sam and Lonnie weren't yet Shakespearean-grade lovers, but they were at the cusp of it -- and that is easily expressed through Gone Home's careful storytelling.
This comes as a stark contrast to mainstream games, where there's always a goal you must accomplish, usually ending up with sex -- after sex, what then? Marriage? Childbearing? Why can't we see characters enjoying their life together instead of being goaded to an end? Gone Home does an excellent job of this, where the "goal" in mind isn't for Sam and Lonnie to end up in bed together, but simply together. Their caustic circumstances don't allow for such a neatly-wrapped resolution as sexual relations or a quick and dirty "marriage."
Your goal is to "see" them together, which is implied through Lonnie's hasty decision to run away with Sam. There's time to breathe, for love to grow ever stronger, and for the two girls to discover even more about the other while building a life on their own terms. The time will come for marriage, children, or the other constraints of "polite society" if they choose to see those things through, and there's a sort of comfort in that to me that should permeate any game that decides to examine healthy human relationships. It's a real, palatable coming-of-age tale that could work as a film, but excels as a game because you move at your own pace, just like you would in a regular relationship.
Gone Home isn't perfect, especially given its propensity to rely on tropes seen in queer media as a crutch in some areas (convenient that Sam's parents dismiss her behavior as a phase), but 2013 needed a game that could go beyond the call of duty and fight on its own battlefield for stories that never get a chance to shine: the stories about our neighbors, our friends, and ourselves. We needed a chance to come back "home" to a time where video games weren't just about who we could target and hate, but who we could love, and how we could love them.
I think we're on the right track.