In our discussion of Ready Player One’s cheesy ending, we all pretty much agreed that is was a bit heavyhanded and overly cloying. As one of my fellow classmates noted “ It’s a nice sentiment” but its sentimentality felt forced, empty and unrewarding. Gone Home’s ending which could also be critiqued as sentimental on the other hand rings through with more depth and although disjointed from the misleadingly tense horror motifs, its tenderness resonates through its impression by osmosis rather than a direct handout like in Ready Player One. Also the overwhelmingly intricate amount of irrelevant detail that as Professor Clayton noted is characteristic of contemporary realism further helped create a more subtle effect in its emotional impact.
It also works for me because it literally hit close to home. The deep emotional resonance with this game for me at least worked in part because it eerily felt like The Fullbright company had digitally reconstructed my own childhood. Set in rural Oregon, the game surreally references real life places close to where I grew up like the location of a wedding the family is invited to where I spent many childhood summers in, or in the brochure for Reed College that Sam’s teacher had given her, a real quirky and bohemian school across the city and “the gorge” where the parents have gone to for their couple’s retreat, a scenic spot only an hour out from the city that I frequently visited growing up.
It was only a year and a half ago that I myself came back to a house that was disjointingly familiar yet also changed in my time away after a time abroad in Europe. The rising guilt for leaving a sister who you’re incredibly close to and looks up to right when she’s about to start high school and a whole new vulnerable stage of her life, tasted faintly familiar. Don’t even get me started with the cracks and tension in the parent’s marriage.
Theres a further sense of bittersweet nostalgia that rose in me as I flipped through Sam’s teenage odds and ends. That’s where the difference between Sam and my sister stopped. Where as just like Sam I had a wall covered in photo collages cut from magazine and polaroids of my friends, my sister has Pinterest boards and Instagram picstitches. Instead of doodled upon composition notebook diaries, my sister has a tumblr and livejournal in which she types away her angsty teenage thoughts. Instead of a collection of cassette tapes, she has a favorite Pandora station or Spotify playlist to blast. The nostalgia I know must have been shared by everyone else in the class, in seeing a collection of artifacts that probably weren’t so different from the odds and ends scattered around our teenage bedrooms.
While I think there’s a unique coincidence in the alignment of the game’s narrative with my own life. I do think that the game makers have intentionally placed this game in the 90’s and not contempory times for a reason. I imagine (perhaps wrongly) that the audience for this game is narrower than the typical demographics of popular AAA games, clustering instead around the college aged or older educated and slightly more intellectual crowd that this story-centric game would appeal to. Many of us grew up or came of age in the 90’s and I think the game must resonate in this deeply nostalgic and personal way for others too. It makes a universal call back to the lost analog physicality within which we constructed our identities that is no longer true of the younger generations.
If I had walked into my own house with my family gone and my sister missing, it wouldn’t take more than a few clicks through her Instagram, texts and Facebook (that I’d have to hack into, analogous to finding the combination for sam’s locker) making a much less personal narrative for the game. The world the game recreates is one of a more romantic past where we left bits and pieces of ourselves through physical evidence scattered around us in the physical world. The irony is this memento of a game memorializing an analog past is done through a digital virtual reality. I can only wonder if this interpretation comes only from my coincidental similarity of the game to my own life. Either way, while playing this game I truly felt like I had gone home.