This isn’t the post I wanted to write about The Fullbright Company’s excellent Gone Home, but here it is. What follows are serious spoilers for one of the game’s most nebulous mysteries. Please don’t read ahead until you’re sure you don’t want to put the pieces together yourself.
Trigger warning: Discussion of abuse.
Playing through Gone Home for the first time, I thought I had a pretty good handle on all of the game’s characters. I got Sam and Lonnie—how couldn’t I, given the attention paid to their relationship? I thought Katie was well characterized through the artifacts of her high school career, and through the postcards she’d sent home while in Europe. I wished Janice had been better defined, but I understood her story—a flirtatious relationship with a colleague, a marriage finding its way back towards stability. I saw both of my parents in Terrence—the struggling writer with boxes of books he’d never sold. And then there was Oscar.
What did I know about Oscar? Per an obituary found early on in the game, Oscar died in 1993. It notes that Terrence was his only living relative. Ok, that’s a start, but what came before that? He’d owned and lived in Arbor Hill—the house that Gone Home takes place in—his whole life. A 1972 will found in a locked filing cabinet lists Terrence as the heir—which explains why the Greenbriars have moved in.
What else did I know? I knew that decades prior, Oscar had owned a Pharmacy, which he had mysteriously sold on the cheap. A letter to his sister locked away in a safe begged forgiveness, mentioned a transgression, and noted that he’d sold his business to keep him away from temptation. What was he tempted by? Drugs maybe? Was that why the safe was filled with morphine syrettes? I didn’t really know. I put it aside, continued along Gone Home’s loose path, and happily closed the game when I was done.
But it stuck with me. What about Oscar. What the hell had he done? What was the “transgression”? Why did Sam’s classmates call it “the psycho house?” What’s all that about? I started the game again throughout the night and, bit by bit, it came together for me. I sort of wish it hadn’t.
The key to tying all of Oscar’s loose ends together was filtering them through another character’s perspective: Terrence’s. On paper, Terrence and Oscar cross paths a number of times:
First, there was the aforementioned obituary, plus the will which lists Terrence as Oscar’s only heir.
Then, a letter from Oscar to Terrence from 1972 congratulating the latter on his marriage. Oscar writes that Terry is “always welcome on Arbor Hill,” but that he understands if the invitation goes unaccepted.
Next, there was the writing on the wall in the home’s basement marking Terry’s height over a period of six years, stopping at Age 12, on Thanksgiving of 1963.
Finally, there was the newspaper article dated March of 1959, which identifies young Terry Greenbriar as the first customer at the new soda fountain operated by his uncle, the then “well-loved” Oscar.
Not much here. Not on paper. But the devil is in the details.
Perhaps most important is the year 1963. I knew that the safe which contained Oscar’s plea for forgiveness was locked behind the code 1963—that couldn’t just be a coincidence right? And those height markings were just across from the safe—the last of them was set to November 1963. Why hadn’t there been more after that?
1963. 1963. Where else had I seen 1963?
Terrence’s book series focuses on a spy from the future being sent back in time to stop the John F. Kennedy assassination—which, of course, happened in 1963. In fact, it happened on November 22, just about a week before Thanksgiving. And then it hit me hard. On or around Thanksgiving, 1963, Oscar Masan abused his nephew Terrence Greenbriar.
That’s it. That’s Oscar. He’s a man who committed a truly horrific act, sold his shop in 1965 to “remove himself from all temptation,” listed Terrence as his sole heir, and died alone in 1993. That’s it.
It is to the Fullbright Company’s credit that they don’t loiter on Oscar any further. Instead of focusing on the criminal—as so many stories about abuse do—Gone Home’s developers labor to better characterize Terrence as a survivor. We should never reduce a survivor of abuse—fictional or real—to the crime perpetrated against them: a survivor is more than just a survivor. But the abuse should be recognized, because it is an influence and a weight for many years to follow.
In recognizing Oscar’s abuse of Terrence, so many small things come into focus. So many small characteristics and little anecdotes take on new meaning: Terry’s stories about a hero going back in time to change how things happened in the fall of 1963; a noteboard covered in conspiracy theory ideas for his novels—”What if JFK wasn’t JFK?”; the letter from his father admonishing him for utilizing cliché genre tropes, but congratulating him on using fiction to work through personal issues; the torn portrait of his father; the ripped invitation to Arbor Hill from Oscar; the toy horse at the end of the basement hall, where the light won’t turn on anymore.
Even Terry’s nonfiction ends up orbiting around the transgression. Before he moved to Arbor Hill, Terry wrote clear, concise copy about home electronics. But when the family relocated, his style changed. “The readers of Home Theater Aficionado,” his editor writes in a stern letter, “want to hear about the quality and value of the hardware, not ruminations on your childhood!” A childhood spent in Arbor Hill. Arbor Hill where Terrence was abused. Arbor Hill which he inherited from the man who abused him. Arbor Hill where he now sits writing reviews of VCRs and trying to raise a family.
Stacks of novels, in a box, in a closet, above a basement. That’s Terrance, but it’s not all there is.
One of the things I like most about Gone Home—one of the things I wanted to write about before I felt I had to write about this instead—is the way that the house seems divided according to person. Real homes feel like this to me too. Even the common areas bear the mark of who uses them most.
Arbor Hill’s basement remains Oscar’s, but Sam has begun taking back his secret compartments and hidden passages. She dominates the upstairs too, as her things show up in rooms not hers (and the property of others winds up in her own hidden drawers. Downstairs, the house is split. Half of the first floor belongs to Terrence—its where his plot unfolds in earnest, where his office is, his files, the will, his unsold novels, his library, his records, his bar. The other half belongs to Janice, with her plants in the garden room, her discarded concert tickets and the rest of the hints about a possible dalliance in the hallways and kitchen.
But Gone Home is also a linear game, with a narrative that unfolds chronologically as the player unlocks new sections of Arbor HIll to explore. And that means that Terry gets to have resolution, because above the basement, away from his office and his liquor, over in his wife’s quarter of the house, Terry’s started writing a new book. And this time special agent John Russel isn’t being sent back in time to save JFK, he’s being sent back to save himself.
This isn’t the post I wanted to write about Gone Home.
I wanted to maybe talk a bit about voyeurism. I wanted to write about how Katie chucks away her sister’s private thoughts on sex, even though the player is content to keep reading. I wanted to write about how the increase in visual and interface fidelity made me felt like I was violating privacy in a way I didn’t back when I was opening space lockers in Mass Effect or the perusing private bookshelves in every JRPG ever.
I didn’t want to write about the two male characters in a game filled with well realized female ones.
I wanted to write about inhabiting these spaces, these sounds (Fuck! The music!) About growing fond of these people—learning their mannerisms even though they’re never on screen. But when I first put it all together, for just the briefest moment, all of that fondness fell in on itself, and I dreaded having to face Katie’s dad—my dad, I thought—after knowing what had happened to him. And then, having to tell Sam. And then, I caught hold of myself and felt guilty—I know people who have been abused, not people in games. Still, it was frustrating, painful, and just plain difficult to write this—and it should be. How do you write about a (fictional) abuse you uncovered without glorifying either the abuse or the uncovering, but while still praising the way it was handled?
I didn’t want to write about something this actually terrifying, I wanted to write about the one clever jump scare.
I wanted to write about all the little questions Gone Home lets the player find answers to, that so many other games would sideline. Nearly all of the doors open. And then about all of the little questions left unanswered, the ones about reconciliation and Lonnie’s parents and that strange bootlegging receipt and about Katie’s trip to Europe, they all fall away and none of them matter.
I didn’t want to write about abuse in a game so filled with love.
But still. It is so, so filled with love.
Special thanks to Janine Hawkins who helped me work through this one even though it was like 5 AM.