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.


M. Joshua Cauller

 
M. Joshua Cauller is an interactive designer who has spent far too much time trying to dodge a calling to the videogame industry. You can follow him on Twitter @mjoshua or check out his blog, Love Subverts: http://lovesubverts.com/