The corpse that wasn’t

We’ve spoken and written a fair amount about how successfully Gone Home incorporates horror tropes into a game and narrative that eventually reveals itself to be quite tame. There are no ghosts or kidnappings, and the knife-wielding psychopath was in none of the closets or dark corners I expected to find him. By the time I reached the room under the stairs with the pentagram, I saw the ritual as teenage fun (been there) rather than anything to be afraid of. However, as I approached the attic stairs I was struck by a much more real, much less indulgently fun kind of fear—I was afraid to find Sam’s body upstairs. From our quick class survey and a bit of forum reading, it seems like this was a fairly common experience. I’m interested in looking at why, for me, that fear was so much more affecting than the earlier creaky-old-house fear that the game constructs.

I was at first tempted to say that Gone Home made me lower my guard—that by nodding towards horror but never approaching it, I felt some kind of implicit pact with the game that it would never get to actual horror. I don’t think that’s quite it.

Gone Home, after all, is not simply a tale of teen romance masquerading half-heartedly as a survival horror game. The two genres are linked in an essential way; the game’s horror is exactly the kind that its teenage heroes love.  As her diaries make clear, Sam is a girl who revels in playing with Ouija boards and would think scaring an older sister with red hair dye in the bathtub is hilarious. Her music and zines are scary and violent and triumphant.

By the time I knew her character well enough to realize this, it was also very clear that Sam was not present. This was when a heavier kind of horror began to grow.  Because, of course, the happy horror is dependent on its laughing subject. Sam, with her red hair and riot grrl cassette tapes, made the psycho house into the setting of a love story.

In its eventual assurances of its mundanity and ordinariness, Gone Home forced me into real ordinary mundane human concern and fear. The realization that the horror is within the world of the game and its characters somehow pulled me into the game. enough so that the ascent into the attic conjured up a very real fear. I felt closer to worrying about an actual sibling than moving through a haunted house.

I don’t mean to condemn first person shooters, but do video games above a certain level of violence or horror relinquish the opportunity to make their players feel actual fear? Is it possible or practical to distinguish real fear from (self-indulgent?) mediated fear? Did anyone have different experience about the level or balance of horror in Gone Home?

P.S. This is too late to matter much, but here’s a bit more food for thought from a forum post:

Hmm, I found the ending very dark. Katie comes home to both her parents gone, eventually finds out that they are camping in one of the areas the weather news reported as severe. I definitely assumed they would not be coming home again. Samantha ran away. Katie is now all alone in the world, her entire family gone. She only has this museum of her family’s past, preserving forever the last few days of her family’s trials and tribulations for good and bad before their death/leaving. Home is family to many people. Katie was going home to see family but now literally is just left with this empty space forever. She can never truly go home again. How much darker do people need than that?

1 thought on “The corpse that wasn’t

  1. I had a very similar experience, but I’m not sure how effective it is to characterize the experience of caring about Sam in Gone Home as “actual fear” and the experience in FPS or survival horror or something as “lesser.” I’ve had (and know people who have had) some pretty scary gameplay experiences with Resident Evil, Silent Hill, etc. It’s probably true that most FPS don’t induce fear, but that’s because, as we talked about in class, those games tend to be goal-oriented and about skill, rather than actually inducing a fear experience, where the jump scares (like the one with the cross) in Silent Hill or RE or any number of games actually do succeed at the same goal.

    Maybe one way of thinking about the difference in the gameplay experiences (and different sorts of fear) is to divide up the objects of terror. In most survival horror games, you’re scared for yourself, or scared of something else that jumps out in the night. This, at least in my mind, tends to produce something that’s more visceral (after all, if you’re sufficiently invested in the game you experience the threats as to *yourself*), but perhaps less gripping or lasting. Games rarely seem to make us scared *for* another character, particularly when we have ourselves to worry about – maybe that’s the unique feature of Gone Home we’re responding to here? I do wonder how different walking up to the attic, worried about discovering Sam’s body, is from reading a novel and gradually growing to fear that one of the characters may not make it out alive. Though superficially those two feelings are pretty similar, there are definitely differences, and teasing them out might say something about the unique features of games.

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