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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