Masking the Horror: Light & Music in ‘Gone Home’

When I was young (I’m talking like 6 or 7), I was absolutely terrified of the Carmen Sandiego video games, which I’m quite sure were not supposed to be actually terrifying. These were educational adventure mysteries designed to teach geography, math, history, etc. with a very low (to nonexistent) level of horror intensity, but I could never play beyond the first level or so due to my own expectation that Carmen might appear and I would be unable to catch her. Similarly, I played the Barbie Detective game series, which was a more sophisticated 3D point and click mystery that involved finding clues and chasing a shadowy figure that would spontaneously appear. That was also too terrifying for me, and I would frequently hand the controls over to my friends and watch as they chased those shadowy figures.

While playing Gone Home, I felt that same urge to duck and cover or just hand over the controls to a friend, even though I’m 21-years-old now and this game’s potential horrors never actually emerged. I needed to play through my own irrational fears, though, in order to experience the gameplay, so I found myself inventing ways to put myself at ease throughout the game. Initially, this meant playing the Turn On Every Light game. I’m calling it a sub-game, because that’s very much how I treated it: with each new light turned on, I achieved a new level of safeness. I suspect I wasn’t the only person who had this experience.

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The cassette tapes (and the record player) also factored heavily into this kind of distraction-based gameplay. Each time I entered a room with a music player, I immediately turned the music on, and to the best of my ability, I replayed the songs soon after they ended. This served to drown out the (beautiful! but) occasionally creepy ambient score and the frankly unwelcome thunderstorm, allowing me to dwell in Sam’s teen space.

This strategy of masking the ambience of the “Psycho House” with Sam’s riot grrrl aesthetics was ultimately very effective, and I think it allowed me to better connect with both Sam’s character and the larger ~purpose~ of the game. The ouija board, pentagram, and blood-red hair dye became un-frightening to me as soon as Sam was brought into the picture. Just as I tried to ease my personal fears and brighten the tone of the game by turning on lamps and listening to Sam’s energetic music, I-Kaitlin came to realize that her family was gone from home not because of something terrible but because of something really touching.

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4 thoughts on “Masking the Horror: Light & Music in ‘Gone Home’

  1. I did the same things as you did with the tapes and the lights, and I even took things one step further, since you do have to eventually leave the rooms with cassettes, and go into new places with insufficient lighting. I would go to the menu and replay Sam’s narrations and explore things while she talked, for the same reasons you listed. Whenever Sam was talking, I felt like nothing bad could possibly happen. I came up with the idea over halfway through the game, so I already had a substantial number of the journal entries. It was by listening to these recordings again that I started to realize that the game might not be as frightening as its premise suggested. They made me begin to feel almost nostalgic, as if Sam’s voice were bringing me home, and the feeling of being alienated from the environment faded. So in addition to the light and music, I think the voiceovers can also add to the atmosphere of the game in a different way than maybe the creators intended (assuming they put the replay feature in there for the purpose of going back over things you missed, and not for comfort tactics).

  2. I’m glad you brought up that stop-leaving-the-lights-on note—though a very small detail, it stuck out to me too. Here, I felt more aware that I was acting as Katie than anywhere else in the game: I read “you’re as bad as your sister” and immediately had a moment of “oh right, that’s me.” The creators of Gone Home set you up to interact with the space in a certain way, and then build those behaviors into Katie’s (admittedly limited) characterization. Going through the game, you end up acting like Katie without realizing it, eventually coming to that “aha” moment and seeing the connection between player and avatar in a new light (ha).

    (On another note, it’s good to hear that I wasn’t the only person who thought of the Detective Barbie games while playing Gone Home. Was half expecting to have to chase a mysterious kidnapper down an improbably complicated waterslide the whole time.)

  3. I also felt paranoid and scared while I was exploring, but I coped with this in the opposite way. I turned off the lights whenever I left rooms, and meticulously placed things back where I took them from. I found it comforting interacting with the house like I belonged there, so I tried to act like I would behave in a real house. I think this is because if you think of yourself as Katie, you are really not being that creepy. Your whole family is missing and you are just trying to put together the puzzle pieces. However, you are not Katie, and in the end you are an outsider aggressively prying into the private lives of a family you have no connection to. I didn’t want to get caught.

  4. Pingback: Gone Home | Spoiler Alert

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