Gone Home and the tradition of silent protagonists

In her nuclear family, Katie comes off as probably the most “normal.” Her parents and her sister all have their arguably token demons or issues: Terry’s childhood abuse, Jan’s wandering eye, and Sam’s homosexuality. Katie, in contrast, seems a model daughter. We see her trophies for high school Track and Field, a charmingly generic memento from kindergarten with her name as an acronym, and her sweet and witty postcards. Everything that would make her particular, like her room, is boxed up.

The way that Katie interacts with her family’s possessions makes it clear that she’s legitimately a good kid, like when she says “ew” upon seeing a condom and refuses to read about Sam and Lonnie’s sexual experiences together. Katie is alone, so we know she’s not affecting her prudishness/discretion, although it’s such a minor ethic that it doesn’t disturb my ability to “possess” Katie as an avatar.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Katie’s strange lack of baggage compared to Gone Home’s other characters. Maybe we’re being asked to think about what we’re hiding behind impressive veneers, or to better feel compassion from a feeling of superiority. Maybe Katie is the neutral option amid the smorgasbord of personal issues catalogued in Gone Home.

I do want, though, to try to situate Katie within games’ broader tradition of silent or near-silent protagonists, who are usually quite bland. The first video games necessarily were light on dialogue, so characters like Mario, Pac-Man, and the spaceship from Space Invaders spoke with actions instead of words. Samus Aran is an example of a character who doesn’t speak because of her profound solitude, and Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman an example of a mostly silent protagonist whose rectitude feels almost a source of disquiet.

Speech is an incredibly complicated endeavor, and in shooters and other games that tell their stories through interactions or through found text, dialogue can inhibit the player’s ability to project onto or into the protagonist. For example, Uncharted’s Nathan Drake and Metal Gear Solid’s Solid Snake very much do not belong to the player. Games like Fallout that offer extensive conversation trees try to ameliorate this by letting the player decide on their avatar’s personality through a series of finite options, but that’s another conversation.

Point being: as a formal element, having a silent player-character usually leaves a lot of space for the player. In Gone Home, the choices afforded the player are minor, or matters of degree: there are the sandbox elements of the game, and then the constant question of how far the player wants to take their voyeurism, how long to linger on each textual object.  The mission forced upon Katie and therefore the player is less obtrusive than a hunt for a princess: it’s a series of sensible questions and answers about her family and her sister. There’s not much to alienate the player; but maybe at the same time, there’s not much in Katie to provoke, either.

2 thoughts on “Gone Home and the tradition of silent protagonists

  1. I think the varied levels of speech between video game protagonists definitely depends on what kind of experience that the developers are trying to craft. Metal Gear Solid’s Snake does not belong to the player because it’s more about the story of Snake (at least from what I’ve recently experienced playing Metal Gear Solid 4; I know nothing about the rest of the series) and he is the protagonist that holds the narrative of the game and backstory together. Snake has character development and he has dialogue. MGS is ultimately about Snake and his history as a soldier and a clone, and the conflation of the two with his humanity.

    With this rationale, I almost would argue that Katie isn’t even really a character, like Snake is. She’s almost more of a vessel for discovery. Also, unlike Metal Gear Solid, Gone Home isn’t about Katie as a protagonist–it’s about Sam, who incidentally does have a lot of dialogue. Gone Home gives you Katie as a relationship and a reason to care about the family, otherwise there’s no reason to explore the house and find out what happened to Sam and the parents. Beyond providing the initial relationship, I sort of think Katie doesn’t really matter at all. At first when I played the game, I looked at Katie’s bags and tried to find Katie’s reflection in the window. But as I played more, the character of Katie was no longer important. I used Katie’s boarding passes not to learn about Katie, but to compare journal dates to the things Sam had written. I found myself referring to Sam and the parents as my own. “What happened to MY parents?” “Where is MY sister?” I was heavily involved in the game as if I was playing and exploring myself, not as if I was playing through Katie, because she was such a nonentity.

    Katie has these sort of Every-Girl good kid reactions in order to make her a generic vessel for the player. That’s also why she’s played through first person. She has no speech because the developers want you create your own experience and involvement through Katie’s life.

  2. Your post was cut off, I think. I should have read this before completing my own post – both of your reactions address how game-players used to shooters might experience Katie’s silence as something liberating, which is one good explanation of why someone who is not used to shooters (such as myself) might experience the silence differently. Do you guys think this has to do with the fact that you’ve played similar games where you’ve felt more distanced from the characters? Did either of you feel weirded out by the fact that you couldn’t see her hands when she was picking things up? Also, it seems like (but I might be wrong) a lot of (at least the more recent) first-person shooters take place outside or at least in larger spaces — did you experience the house as at all claustrophobic?

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