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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Gibson and Female Characters

As we’ve now read through two of William Gibson’s novels, Neuromancer and The Difference Engine, there seems to be a trend in his writing as far as female characters go. Molly and Sybil are both tough, fearless women who are able to keep up with and adapt to the dynamic and corrupt worlds they live in. They are also both prostitutes.

These women both live in technologically advanced societies centuries apart. Nevertheless, the way they make a living is exactly the same. Molly rents her body out as a meat puppet and unconsciously does “whatever a customer wants to pay for.” She starts experiencing horrible things, but despite this, keeps going. “I needed the money,” she explains. “The dreams got worse and worse, and I’d just tell myself that at least some of them were just dreams, but by then I’d started to figure that the boss had a whole little clientele going for me.” She wakes up during one meeting with a client and finds that she and her John “were both covered in blood. We weren’t alone. She was all… Dead.” It’s clear that Molly had experienced some horrible things up until this point, but still chose to continue selling herself.

As for Sybil, she lives in the seedy Whitechapel neighborhood and makes her living as a dollymopper. In addition to Mick Radley, she also has two bimonthly clients—Mr. Chadwick and Mr. Kingsley. She considers whether it’s wise for her to go to Paris with Radley because she will miss her cat, Toby, but more importantly, her “steady tin” from the two men. She seems to be awfully suspicious of Radley’s advances, but when he promises her a new life in Paris where she could start fresh, she tells him she could be “really and specially sweet to a fellow who could do me such a great service.”

The fact that this sort of character is repeated in both Gibson’s novels is troubling. Why are both Sybil and Molly employed as prostitutes, and is it all that necessary for them to be? Granted, the “punk” in the cyberpunk and steampunk genres is supposed to have an element of grime and ugliness to it, but is it necessary that the ugliness in these female characters be represented through the connotations of filth associated with prostitution, and effectively, their bodies? Does their work as a prostitute function as an effective tool in the narrative, or could they have had a different profession? Does Gibson know what he’s doing, or is this representative of the author having a very problematic view of women in society?