The Comic Supplement in the Shadow of No Towers

In the topmost panel of #8 of Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers, the caption reads: “The blast that disintegrated those Lower Manhattan towers also disinterred the ghosts of some Sunday supplement stars born on nearby Park Row. They came back to haunt one denizen of the neighborhood, addled by all that’s happened since.” The panel depicts an angry turbaned goat furiously kicking a number of these “Sunday supplement stars” in a rightward, tumbling arc across its length. Why do these supplement stars from early NYC-based comix history haunt Spiegelman and In the Shadow of No Towers? (The panel described above even forms the inset image on the book’s cover, suggesting these characters’ importance to the totality of In the Shadow.) Is it enough to be told that “right after 9/11/01, while waiting for some other terrorist shoe to drop, many found comfort in poetry [while] others [including, presumably, Spiegelman] searched for solace in old newspaper comics” (#10)?

That question is rhetorical, for it remains to be asked: why would these old newspaper comics offer Spiegelman any solace? Do they represent for him a nostalgic brand of lost American iconicity? By Spiegelman’s own account: “The only cultural artifacts that could get past my defenses to flood my eyes and brain with something other than images of burning towers were old comic strips; vital, unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the 20th century. That they were made with so much skill and verve but never intended to last past the day they appeared in the newspaper gave them poignancy; they were just right for an end-of-the-world moment” (“Comic Supplement”, emphases mine). The language of lost optimism and ended worlds recalls the point I made in an earlier post about the desire for fantasized “old worlds” to persist in the face of an event that signals their end (like 9/11 for Spiegelman, or abolition for the characters in E.P. Jones’ The Known World), even when that old world was never that uncomplicated or utopian to begin with.

Spiegelman, of course, is self-aware about this even in his nostalgic invocations of those Sunday comix stars, as is evident in his highly complex appropriations of them in In the Shadow. Here are two cases, though there are plenty more explorations possible:

The Katzenjammer Kids: Spiegelman uses Rudolph Dirks’ Katzenjammer Kids to anthropomorphize the two towers of the World Trade Center. This first occurs during Spiegelman’s recounting of his wife’s and his experience on the actual day of 9/11 (#2). A panel of the aliased digital reproduction of the towers, as though from their view after having “deigned to turn around,” is followed by a panel with the Kids running away with distressed expressions on their faces. Miniature towers are sticking out of their heads, with one of them smoking as the real towers are. It is nearly as though Spiegelman, unable to bear photographic evidence of the traumatic event, has to dissipate their force by translating the towers into comics (in multiple senses of “comics”). But the allusion is especially complex because the original Comics kids were trouble-making rascals (see Plate IV). As Spiegelman reminds us in the Comic Supplement: “‘Mit dose kids,’ as the strip’s bearded truant officer, the Inspector, succinctly put it, ‘society is nix!'” It is curious, then, that Spiegelman gives the Inspector a turban in #2 as the latter spanks the towered Kids, implying a certain degree of American truancy/nihilism being punished in 9/11 that is not implied by Spiegelman’s rosier language about the American comix icons.

Subsequent appearances of the Kids further suggest that they don’t stand in simplistically for an earlier unspoiled American ideal, or at least are not conflated with other forces such as the American media or state: #4 shows the two Kids crying as vulture-like camera crews (Spiegelman depicts one holding up a vulture) descend upon them, while #5 depicts a caricature of Uncle Sam (as “Uncle Screwloose”) setting the Kids ablaze with a barrel of oil and attacking a Saddam-headed “Iraknid” spider instead of the hornets (implying Al-Qaeda, the actual 9/11 terrorists) that are attacking them all. To say that the Kids are merely standing in for the “Noo York smart aleckers” that Uncle Screwloose leaves to their non-existent defenses at the end of #5 under-describes the dynamics of intra-/transnational scapegoating, blame and escalation activated by Spiegelman’s allusion to the original Kids.

Krazy Kat/Maus: At the end of the Comic Supplement, Spiegelman writes about the open-ended allegory that George Herriman’s Krazy Kat offers: “The ineffable beauty of Krazy Kat was that it was simply about a Kat getting bonked with a brick. It presented an open-ended metaphor that could contain all stories simultaneously; and after September 11, Ignatz [the mouse] started looking a lot like Osama Bin Laden to me!” But despite this Ignatz/Osama comparison, Spiegelman casts himself (or at least his alterego in Maus) as Ignatz in the last panel of #8, wielding a brick that is a facsimile of one of the Towers! What does it mean that the allusion suggests he is wielding the Towers as a brick to toss in the way of “NYC out of NYC”/Kat, and being threatened in turn by “NYC”/Kop to lose his cigarette (which stands in for Spiegelman’s own death wish, as seen in #3)? Recognizing his place as “obsessive and paranoid” (earlier in #8), he casts himself figurally as congruent with Osama Bin Laden, attempting to shake up a wilfully forgetful/ignorant America in the face of angry attempts to stop him from doing so.

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?

Attention & Distraction in Gone Home

Gone Home plays with the player’s attention and distraction through the formal elements it borrows from the horror genre.  From the get-go, the game makes the player hyper-aware of the surroundings through the establishment of the atmosphere as being mysterious and suspenseful.  We are compelled to, if not forced to, investigate every object with a heightened sense of attention as if doing so would earn us somewhat of an immunity against the impending doom.  In this mode of perception, every little detail of the world becomes monumentally important, and nothing is inconsequential.  In other words, the attention that the game commands from the player in turn shapes the world of the game into a stylized, bracketed space where everything takes on symbolic meaning and therefore everything also loses symbolic meaning.  Distraction almost become a non-existing stimulus in the world, as everything calls for intense attention, and even when the player is “distracted,” they are distracted in a manner that the player is still expending the same kind and sum of attention in attending to the source of distraction.

Specifically, the manner in which the game manipulate the player’s attention mirrors the crux of its narrative: the coming-of-age tale of Sam.  The game already draws a pretty explicit parallel between the entire slew of miscellaneous objects that are littered about in the giant mansion and the scattered and isolated incidents in Sam’s life as are sprinkled sporadically throughout the gameplay experience.  However, we could go further and consider the formal presentation of Sam’s journals as not just a narrative with a deconstructed chronology, but also a formal analog to the life and struggles of the character of Sam.  Much like how the player learns about Sam’s story through connecting the discrete dots and generating constellations, Sam’s story is in fact non-linear and is characterized by isolated events clumping together to birth a renewed sense of significance.

Without making a sweeping generalization about narratives that have to do with queer identity or identity in general even, the narratives of both Gone Home and Dys4ia are quilts of disparate episodes.  Perhaps the lack of a single driving force that organizes the episodes under a unified superstructure has to do with the structuralized oppression that the queer identity suffers from.

The spatial storytelling that the narrative roots in resonates with the spatial logic that Jameson claims postmodern narratives to follow as opposed to temporal logic.  I was worried when I was playing the game that I was discovering Sam’s journals in the “wrong order,” but I gradually realized that there is no set order that I, as the character in the game, is supposed to discover the journals in, but rather, am supposed to interact with the various locations in the house in order to earn the privilege to listen to the journals.  Each location triggering an advent of a piece of information and the relationship between the pieces of information having a horizontal rather than a hierarchical relationship is also, interestingly, a characteristic of locative literature.  Instead of a mimetic representation of Sam’s physical existence telling the story, the entire mansion was serving as testimony to the emotional journey that she has gone through.  And so, once I had intensely meticulously scrutinized the whole house, I felt like I was connecting with the character of Sam on a very intimate, visceral level.

Player Choices in Galatea and Gone Home

One of the interesting parallels that I noticed between our discussions of Galatea and Gone Home was on the topic of choices–not the choices that the player makes, but the sum total of choices available to the player, or, in other words, the amount of interactivity available to the player. In Galatea, for example, Eric expressed frustration at the fact that he could not ask Galatea about certain topics that seemed logical to ask about, yet the player was able to touch every wall in the room, to (seemingly?) no effect. In Gone Home, there was a multitude of (seemingly?) innocuous objects with which the player could interact (e.g. soda cans, pens), whereas with other objects (e.g. Terry’s porn), Kaitlin would actively refuse to interact with the object despite the player’s requests to do so.

In some of these cases, the choices or limitations seem to make sense, whereas in other cases, they might seem like arbitrary or artificial choices made by the creator(s) of the game. I briefly mentioned this point in our class discussions, but I think that these issues inform an interesting dilemma that game creators (and interactive fiction writers) face: striking a balance between telling a cohesive narrative that explores the themes that the creator considers important, and giving the player enough choice that they do not become frustrated. This dilemma is by no means restricted to these two works. The producer of Final Fantasy XIII, Yoshinori Kitase, responded to criticisms that the game was too linear by saying, “[…]we’ve got a story to tell, and it’s important the player can engage with the characters and the world they inhabit before letting them loose.” Roger Ebert’s notorious claim that video games could never be art was based, in part, on the interactivity of the medium.

Furthermore, the examples of Gone Home and Galatea exemplify the issue of not only how many choices the player should be given, but what specific choices the player should be given. Should the player be allowed to touch the walls? To talk about certain topics? To push past the playable character’s discomfort and look at her father’s porn? To pick up every single soda can in the house? What does the ability, or inability, to complete a given action communicate to the player, and how effective is that communication? Is there value in making the player frustrated at not being able to complete an action they believe they should be able to complete?

These questions are probably more valuable to game creators than they are to gamers, and their answers most likely vary from game to game, but I still think the issue is worth pondering for “readers” of games and of interactive fiction, because they may help us better understand our frustration and bewilderment at being able to complete certain actions and being unable to complete others, and perhaps sympathize a bit with the creator. Personally, I’m still on the fence as to how well these works struck the right balance between narrative and interactivity. What are your thoughts?

frustration in Galatea

In class and on the blog, several people have mentioned the frustration that seems inherent to the experience of playing Galatea. I really loved the game (I’m calling it a game here mostly for convenience, not to make an argument about the distinction between interactive fictions and games), but, especially during the first few plays, I also felt that frustration. A lot of the time, I think that the game was resistant in a useful way, but I could also see how it might prevent a player from playing through more than once or twice. I want to think about this frustration as a product of the tension between the content/mode of engagement that the game requires and the formal elements that it delivers. 

I’m particularly interested in the way that the objectives of Galatea (what we might get out of it) do or don’t match up with the ways of achieving them that the form seems to propose. “Objectives” are obviously difficult to talk about in this game, even after playing it a few times or reading potential endings (both of which actually make things murkier in terms of “objective”). But this matters on a really basic level — when you start playing you don’t know what sorts of things you might be aiming for, so it’s hard to know what actions to take. So your initial actions, and maybe all of your actions, have to be kind of shots in the dark. You undertake them not to move toward some specific goal, usually, but with the hope that performing them will give you a better idea of what that goal could be. 

But also the interactions that the game seems to formally suggest aren’t really conducive to getting to anything meaningful. The potential routes for investigating things or achieving objectives that are suggested to us either by the text-based format are generally unproductive. In the form of a more traditional text-adventure game, it makes sense to begin to move around the space, find objects, and understand your options. But in Galatea, this leads to blank walls, and ultimately to the game ending. 

Interacting with Galatea herself doesn’t really resolve this problem — you are bound get a bunch of “your question cannot be formed into words,” which imply that you are failing to understand the basic conventions of gameplay, not that you are starting down the path that leads you to the more interesting endings. Even when you can form your questions into words, Galatea starts out as cold and difficult to engage. This is really necessary to the plot(s) and the potential payoff(s), but it also makes the game particularly frustrating. This could be an asset — not having much of a guide allows the game to be open-ended and reflective of what the player puts into it. I think that the game’s formal elements, especially the ambiguity and lack of visual representation, are a great way to get at the problem of making meaning out of an interaction with another being. But the frustration sometimes seems to go beyond this function in ways that aren’t useful.

I wonder if there would be a way for Galetea to ease the player into a new way of interacting with the traditional text-adventure format. As we discussed, Braid does this wonderfully — it forces us to reconsider the conventions of a platformer, but at the same time it uses our familiarity with them as a baseline from which to move. Galatea’s form also brings to mind a specific type of gameplay, but it doesn’t seem to use its player’s familiarity as effectively. I think that Galatea might provoke a meaningful experience more consistently if it could use the gameplay cues implied by its formal structure as a means to better teach the reader how to play it.

Subversion of Expectation in Gone Home

Looking at the Metacritic scores for Gone Home, there is a huge divergence between the critic reviews, which give the game an 86, and the user reviews, which give it a 53. From one particularly harsh example: “Arguably, a book has more interactivity and skill involved, since you need to possess the motor skills necessary to turn the pages.” Most of the negative user reviews seemed to stem from disappointment in actually experiencing a “game” that they felt was overhyped, while the positive reviews seem to appreciate being exposed to what they felt was something different. From this and what we discussed in class, much of Gone Home seems to hinge upon one’s expectations. There is the expectation of a survival horror that is brought up and then gradually dissipated. This goes hand in hand with the revelations in Sam’s story, as we are shown that it is a love story rather than one of psychological abuse. Gone Home plays with your expectations regarding video games. In your menu, you have the inventory system on the first page, the archive of collected journal entries on the second, and a map of the house on the third, and this primes the player to expect an adventure/exploration game in which items are stored in the inventory and are used to navigate a “dungeon” as displayed on the map.

However, it turns out that this is really not the case. There are many items in the game that you can interact with but have no significance whatsoever. Personally, when I was still under the impression that this was a ghost story, I found myself scrutinizing the leaf coasters, thinking that put together they would unlock a portal to an alternate dimension. Or something like that. And there there were the tapes and TV’s. Playing on this expectation of Gone Home as a conventional puzzle game, I felt that the difference in the combination locks in Terry’s office and Sam’s bedroom was a demonstration of the shift in mindset that was demanded of the player. Unlocking the safe in the study required going into the next room and finding a folder that was conspicuously hidden in the back corner, and within was a four digit number that, as someone used to playing adventure games has been taught to think, unlocked the file cabinet. When we encounter the locker in Sam’s room, the instinct is to do the exact same thing again: look around the room to try to find any four digit number, because that number would be the code to the locker. Obviously. Because we are in a game, obviously. And we find a collar with the old address on it in Sam’s closet, so the instinct is to think that that would be the combination. But it’s not. Instead, to open Sam’s locker, we are sent across the house, looking behind hidden panels to try to piece it out. The failure to open the door using the number from the collar may be an attempt to send the message that this is not the same as before, that the developers know what you’re thinking, and its wrong. This could also be perhaps a metaphor: Sam’s situation is much more complex than Terry’s, so unlocking it, getting to the bottom of it, will not be so straightforward.

I was wondering how well this worked, the creators designing the game as to be one step ahead. It is expected that you go down the hallway on the left first, and consequently get exposed to the haunted mansion dimension first. However, as we raised in class, there is the question: what if you went up the stairs first? Once I got in, I blew by the front door, dismissing it as unimportant, and immediately set forth with the mindset of exploring the house. As a result, the first journal entry was actually one of the last ones that I found when I was stuck and doubling back to see what I may have missed. By placing this story in an interactive medium, the developers lose some control over how the story is told and the experience that is conveyed, by they can still try to guide players by design. So the question with Gone Home becomes, how long can they stay ahead of the player for? At a certain point, the player catches on, and it is not so easy to subvert their expectations, so what then? There comes a point at which the player decides that this experience is not novel, but merely “different.” If Gone Home’s “newness” comes from this subversion of established expectations, can it be sustained once my harsh Metacritic user has realized this? Does this actually meet the threshold of what we might consider “new?”

First person and possibility

The thing I found most frustrating about Galatea was the fact that I was unable to control my tone on a sentence by sentence basis. Although I’m sure there were many stats I did not know how to keep track of impacting the extent to which I sounded unimpressed or patronizing, I felt my conversational intentions undermined by “my own” words practically any time I posed a question. The thing I found must frustrating about Gone Home was the fact that I was looking through Katie’s eyes, but I couldn’t really tell who she was. Her blankness, which we talked about in class, did sometimes make me feel as though I was finding a Walt Whitman book under my own parents’ bed, having those same excited followed by disappointed feelings I’d probably get in real life were I to look through someone I know’s stuff and find nothing really unexpected (which, obviously, I would never do). But for the most part, I felt like something was missing: what did Katie think about most of the stuff she was picking up? At least in Galatea, I could test to see if my character thought something about certain topics, or wanted to say anything about others. In Gone Home, I waited for her to react to objects, and when she did in a way that was (often, not always) predictable, I felt like I was not being given enough of a person to hold on to.

Both games involved first-person perspectives which players are meant to inhabit — we’re sort of in control, but we’re also pushed along a path (even if it’s one of many possible ones). I’m not sure why, but it seems to me that the type of agency I felt I had in Galatea – choice of topic, the opportunity to imagine the way the room looked, maybe even the fact that I was typing – was somehow more gratifying than the powers I was given in Gone Home – ability to move, to set the tone by playing music, to turn on lights and see, to glance at a map, to pick things up, Katie’s being sufficiently open-ended for me to imagine myself into her. I don’t know if this has to do with the fact that most of my favorite books involve first-person narrators, and also maybe because I don’t play video games that often, but for some reason the “world” of Gone Home just felt very flat in comparison to the “world” of Galatea, and I think that had a lot to do with my experience of the characters whose perspective I was inhabiting.

I think I’m associating a world’s flatness (if I can put it that way) with an experience in which I feel like there are not many possibilities. I’m curious to know whether people who often play first-person shooters experienced Gone Home as having more possibilities than I did, in the same way that people more familiar with Super Mario appreciated the gameplay mechanics of Braid in a way that I could not. In both cases, I think that maybe the structure’s being pretty much totally foreign to me encouraged me to focus on the things I am more used to “getting”, like characters and story, and only superficially understanding what makes these games special in the universe of game to which they belong.

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.


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.

Your Sister Is In Another Castle: Gender, Gaze, and Gone Home

At the heart of their narratives, Gone Home and Braid (like Super Mario before it) are both driven by a missing girl. More generally, of course, this device comes up all the time, across media: the protagonist loves a woman, the woman is in peril, and everything else follows from there.

But what happens to this formula when the story is told from a female point-of-view? What happens when the girl-in-trouble is not a wife or a girlfriend but a sister?

I bring up this comparison as a way in to a larger conversation about what Gone Home is doing with gender. It would be nice if women and female relationships were so widely represented in the media that a game like this could be no big deal, but as things stand now, Gone Home is set apart just by its characters’ demographics. Writes one reviewer who strongly identified with Sam: “It feels embarrassing to say, but I could cry—did cry—with the relief of knowing a game like this even exists.”

The femaleness of Gone Home is particularly interesting in that this is essentially a game about looking. Occasionally you’ll come across images of and references to your avatar, and in small ways you interact with the objects throughout the home, but for the most part, your role is to observe, sometimes voyeuristically. That this observing occurs through the eyes of a girl upsets the traditional gender dynamics of looking, as put forth by Laura Mulvey et al. In one room in the house, you find a Sassy-esque teen magazine bearing the cover line “THE MALE GAZE: How to Subvert It”; on one level, this is a throwaway gag about nineties pop feminism, but on another, it could serve as a winking nod toward what the Fullbright Company might actually be going for.

Sam’s characterization also strays from what we might expect from the missing-girl archetype: she is the driver of the plot rather than a device thereof. Women in fiction so often exist as motivators for other (male) characters’ development and actions, while Sam is the one doing this most developing and acting in Gone Home. In a game like Braid or Super Mario, the pursued princess exists only in the context of her relationship to the player’s avatar, but Katie is largely beside the point in thinking about Sam. It wasn’t until the final scene, when Sam apologizes for not saying goodbye to Katie in person, that I became conscious she in any way belonged to me, and vice versa. (Let’s all pause and take a second to call our IRL sisters, just to check in.) It’s also worth noting that through all these letters to Katie, Sam exerts control over her own narrative—we learn about her inner life as she herself chooses to portray it.

Were you all as struck as I was by the gender dynamics of the game? For the guys in the class, what was it like being asked to step into the shoes of a female avatar (a task that surely happens less often than the other way around)?