Reforming the Conquistador in Gone Home

By M. Joshua Cauller

Videogames have taught me two things: that Indian burial grounds are things you raid, and houses are for looting when no one is looking. I’ve learned to approach games thinking like a conquistador who tries to get in the game designer’s head: “How is this room rigged to challenge my progress?” Gone Home starts in similar suit with an escape-the-room puzzle. But then it handed me something that altered my thinking: an environment that made me value the people who live there.

I stopped wanting to conquer. Instead I wanted to just listen.

Storming the Greenbriar’s home as if I had a morion on my head, I marched towards each door, trying to set a perimeter to define the progress gates where I might later need a key.

"I had finished my perimeter and could focus entirely on picking-through each room. Yet I didn’t want to do so callously."
I found an unlikely obstacle: a young woman’s vocal appeal to her big sister. It stopped me in my tracks. Like Odysseus and the sirens, I let go of the helm and gave my full attention.

This happened every time I heard Sam’s voice, but it wasn’t magic. She simply told her story.

My mental cartography came under threat. I found myself getting more and more distracted. Hand-written letters would catch my eye. Closets became an unexpected fascination. And crumpled up papers on the floor completely derailed me. I wanted to take the time to read everything I came across – even though I was trying to focus on “more important things” before digging into the house’s treasures.

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Fallout and Bioshock taught me that residential nooks and crannies yield sweet loot: be it money, experience points, or items to sell. But so far, the Greenbriars didn’t seem to leave even one cent behind. Then I found my first combination code for a safe. I knew there was gold in there. I just knew it.

After cracking my chest open, there was no cash. Or keys. Or even something important-enough to trigger another one of Sam’s journal entries. Instead, all I discovered was how this middle-class family came to own such a huge house.

I stepped back and questioned my approach. Apparently, I was approaching things all wrong. I had finished my perimeter and could focus entirely on picking-through each room. Yet I didn’t want to do so callously. It was like somebody turned the light on in my mind: somebody really lived here. The “distractions” I came across suggested to me that this wasn’t a videogame house: it was somebody’s real life experience housed in a game.

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The rest of my playthrough was patient and careful. I wanted to hear more of Sam’s story. But I also became fascinated by her parents – especially her dad. I stuffed my ears and eyes with relevant concerns for the family. I unearthed rejection letters from family members, classmates, and business associates. I pondered the trials of marital fidelity through a concert stub hidden in a vent near a particular parent’s side of the house. And through a letter found in a secret compartment, I found hints of a demon that still haunts Sam’s father, Terry Greenbriar.

No longer was I the great videogame conquistador. Instead, I was the empathetic eavesdropper, the one who wanted to know where this family got to – not for anthropological study, dibs on their house, or for any kind of personal gain. But because I felt like I was invited into their lives and came to care about them.