About Jennifer Dou

Mostly poetry and original fiction. Occasional thoughts on politics, race, gender, etc., and ponderous navel-gazing.

on triumph & expectation

Many, many words have been written about the love story in Gone Home. I know a lot of people found it unrealistic and dippy, particularly the ending–and I can’t argue with that; I found myself kind of concerned about what on earth two penniless teenagers who’d known each other for less than a year were going to do with the rest of their lives. A lot of reviewers also seemed to think the story was flat or cliched, not really treading any new ground. That may also be so. But I don’t have a lot of experience with queer media (at least, not enough to make any kind of blanket statements), and as I was playing, personally, what I felt was mostly surprise, and then a little bit of delight, at every turn of the game. I was afraid, at first, that Lonnie might be cruel to Sam, or be pretending to be her friend as a kind of prank; or, later, that we might have an unrequited love story on our hands–or that Lonnie was ultimately going to be a damaging influence on Sam, through her behavior (“my friend encourages me to cut school and smoke” usually isn’t a good sign) or her curiosity about the ghosts in Sam’s house. And at every turn, as soon as I’d thought of something to be afraid of, the game slipped right past my fear, often without acknowledging it at all. Lonnie was clearly as engaged with Sam as Sam was with her. They fell in love and started dating simply and uncomplicatedly. No one got possessed by evil ghosts. And as the credits rolled, despite the flagrant lack of realism, I realized that I was relieved and–triumphant, even. That it was so good. That it had always been so good. That there had been nothing to worry about after all, not ever.

We did talk about the use of horror tropes in Gone Home, and how the game developers knowingly played with, and then averted them, when the game turned out not to be horror after all. I wonder if, ultimately, that wasn’t just one piece of the same great ploy. I expected the game to be horror, at least at first. I expected life to bat around the cute outcast kid more. I expected, or feared, that the crushing weight of reality would descend upon the queer characters’ heads, and that their story would become something sad and difficult and tragic. It never happened, not quite, not the way I thought it would.

They had a stupid, reckless, unrealistic happy ending, the same way any pair of impulsive straight teenagers might have. (And had they been straight I don’t think we would have questioned them driving into the sunset quite so much.) I think that’s what I’m getting at here.


Narrative Complicity & The Function of the Avatar

I wanted to talk about the function of the game avatar in relation to the player. I think in a lot of genres it’s the implicit assumption that you do or should feel like that avatar, the figure you’re controlling and making move across the screen, is you. And that’s often true! Think of all the casual games where you operate a customized avatar that is literally supposed to be you, or an idealized version of yourself–the Mii, or customizable avatars in MMOs, for example. But I think as a consequence of that, the 1:1 player:avatar correspondence gets written into our minds as a tenet when it really isn’t, and applied where it frankly doesn’t fit.

A lot of the discourse about games and particularly games-as-art revolves around this idea of identification and complicity: because games are interactive, because we’re playing games, we are or feel responsible for the decisions we make in them, and the actions we take, in a way that is not true for other genres. (Think of a game like Passage, where the way we approach the unknown game is a metaphor for the way we approach ~life~) But–I don’t know if it’s because I’m coning at this from an RPG perspective or what, but I’m a little skeptical of that perspective. There are plenty of games where you play and are represented by defined characters, with defined backstories and personalities, which are often not really like the backstories and personalities of people who play video games.

Specifically with regards to Braid, a lot of our discussion has revolved around our (single-minded, goal-oriented) gameplay and how that mirrors Tim’s quest and his ultimate lack of self-awareness about his own nature. It’s easy to postulate that we are supposed to feel complicit, “like Tim” in advancing the game just because “that’s how it works,” ignorant of the fact that “we” were the villains all along–that’s a seductive idea in some ways, and I can see where it’s coming from, but I admit that I never really bought it. I never felt complicit in Tim’s villainy because I never identified or felt sympathetic to Tim. Actually, I was kind of suspicious of him from the very beginning, and I would say that the game almost seemed to encourage that idea. If you read the text bits before each world, you learn that Tim:

  • is resentful that someone he has wronged cannot forgive him perfectly and instantly
  • idealizes a state of being where everything is perfect forever and nothing ever changes
  • whines about how he doesn’t belong at home because his parents don’t understand him

and I could go on, but the point is–the narrative paints a picture of someone who is not a great guy, someone who is immature, self-centered, and a little bit entitled.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, he was someone who I instinctively separated myself from, from the very beginning. It made me wonder if the game might not be doing something different with the avatar, but I’m curious as to what you think, and how you related to Tim as your avatar–did you feel that same sense of separation, or did you approach it from a default position of “this guy I’m controlling is me”?