Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of friends who are always out experiencing the best of entertainment. Be it plays, films, concerts, exhibits, or games, they’ve learned that the arts are best when experienced together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls discussed the 2013 “walking simulator” game that took Steam by storm, and scared countless players. Let’s listen in on their conversation…
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Part of the appeal of Gone Home is its excellent story structure, which is best experienced with as little context as possible. In order to get the full experience, I recommend you stop reading after Dania exits her room the first time. Enjoy.
“I hate that,” Dania said. “You could at least tell me a little about the story or something.”
“I promise,” Eleanor assured her. “You have to go in completely blind. We shouldn’t discuss it until you’ve played through the entire thing.”
“Okay, sure,” Dania said. She glanced down at the Steam listings, and the bar at the bottom, slowly filling as the game downloaded. There was a moment’s pause as Dania tried to estimate how much longer it would be, before she turned back to Eleanor.
“But,” she insisted. “Could you at least tell me what it is? Like, am I fighting zombies or solving a mystery or saving a princess, or…some clue?”
“You can’t fight,” Eleanor said. “I told you, it’s a walking sim. The only controls are walking around and picking stuff up. You’ll quickly figure out what you have to do to advance in the game.”
“So there is a goal, then?” Dania said. “Like, an ending. A point where it ends.”
“I mean it’s not like Minecraft or something where you eventually just stop playing when you get bored.”
“No, definitely not.” Eleanor shook her head. “But you have to play all the way to the end.”
“It only takes, like, two hours to get through all of it. It’s not a long game. You’ll get invested quickly and the time will go fast.”
“Is…” Dania said. She glared at Eleanor. “Is that a clue? Is there…time manipulation in the game or something?”
“I don’t want to say anything,” Eleanor said. The game had finished downloading, and Steam now waited expectantly on the screen, waiting for Dania to enter the world of Gone Home.
“It’s time,” Eleanor said, foreboding.
Dania groaned, and carried her laptop to her room. She stopped outside the door.
“But it’s scary, right?” she asked. “Like, all the marketing and stuff is saying that it’s basically a horror game. Is that right?”
“It’s spooky, Dania,” Eleanor said. “But you can get through it, I’m sure of that.”
“Fine,” Dania said. With one final glare towards her friend, Dania shut the door.
Eleanor leaned back on the couch. She was supremely confident that Dania would enjoy Gone Home, the first game by The Fullbright Company – and it pained Eleanor that she couldn’t tell her why. But it was true; the game did an expert job of establishing a fantastic atmosphere from the title screen onwards, and it would cheapen Dania’s experience to be giving context she would receive later in the game anyway. Still, Eleanor had thoroughly enjoyed the game, playing it through multiple times to catch all the tiny details worked into the game that you’d never catch the first time.
It was probably the characters that had pulled her through her first nerve-wracked playthrough. The wavering narration from Sarah Grayson and Sarah Elmaleh as Sam and Katie, respectively, had immediately thrust her into the plot, desperate to find out why she was even thrust into the spooky house in the first place. And as the game went on, she found it even harder to hold reservations about going into the next dark room, if only for the hope that it would reveal more about Sam – and Lonnie.
Eleanor wanted to know what Dania was thinking as she played it. Ever so carefully, Eleanor crept over to the door, putting an ear at the crack. She listened intently, but heard nothing but the clicking of keys on Dania’s keyboard. It’s been two minutes, Eleanor thought. She should be entering the front door right about––
“What are you doing?”
Eleanor shot a look to Gwen, who stared back with a cryptic look from the open entryway.
Sneaking back from the door, Eleanor added, “You’re home from work!”
“Of course,” Gwen said. “It’s 5:30. What’s happening in Dania’s room?”
“I was trying to listen to see if––”
A shriek came from the other room. Eleanor laughed.
“There’s a thunderclap,” she mused.
“What’s going on?”
“Oh, she’s playing Gone Home for the first time.”
“Ah,” Gwen said, taking off her bag and collapsing into the chair. “I get it.”
“I didn’t tell her anything,” Eleanor beamed. “She’s getting the full experience.”
“Such a weird game,” Gwen said. “Good story, to be sure. But can you even really call it a video game?”
“The definitions are more broad now for games,” Eleanor said. “It’s more about being interactive than it is about, you know, having a really clear endgoal. I mean, could Gone Home be any other medium than a video game?”
Gwen considered this.
“Probably,” she answered. “When you get to the heart of it, it’s basically piecing together a story with distractions in the middle. You could say the same of a book with sideplots.”
“But it’s first-person,” Eleanor said. “It’s not a character going through it, it’s you.”
“As a character.”
“But it’s still an individual thing,” Eleanor continued. “Stories in games are different to movies or plays, or even books, really. Since you’re the one making decisions, it’s a more singular experience. Besides, you could definitely play Gone Home and figure out the story in the wrong order, right?”
“I suppose so,” Gwen said.
“Even though it’s designed to help you not do that,” Eleanor admitted.
Another shriek, followed by a loud whimper came from Dania’s door.
Gwen smiled. “You know, the horror elements don’t really have much to do with the story.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s scary, sure, but…I don’t know, it feels a little ‘stream-focused?'”
“What’s that mean?”
“When a new game comes out and everyone streams themselves playing it,” Gwen explained. “You’re familiar. The game is designed so whenever there’s a lull in the story, there are shock! moments so the streamers can react to it. I felt that when playing it, the feeling of ‘oh, this is here for shock alone.'”
“I’d say that’s still part of the atmosphere,” Eleanor said. “It’s an obstacle. If you could just waltz through the house and get all the information, it’d be a boring game.”
A smaller shriek followed this, and as Eleanor chuckled, Dania exited her room.
“Okay, are there any jumpscares in this game?”
“Are. There. Jumpscares?” Dania said. “I can’t play this game if it keeps acting like it’s gonna scare me and there’s nothing there. I get that it’s horror and it’s scary, I can deal with that. But is anything actually going to jump out at me?”
“I can’t tell you tha––”
“I know, Elenaor!” Dania said. “But that doesn’t help me!”
“There are no jumpscares,” Gwen said. “Nothing will jump out at you.”
Dania breathed a sigh of relief as Eleanor stared down Gwen. “Okay, good,” Dania said. “I can live with that. I’m gonna finish this thing.”
Dania went back into her room. Eleanor reached over and slapped Gwen’s leg.
“What the hell?”
“I said we weren’t going to tell her anything about the game!” Eleanor whispered.
“Oh, deal with it,” Gwen said. “If we kept telling her nothing she was going to stop playing. I get it, nerves are real.”
“You can waltz through the house, by the way.”
“You mentioned that you can’t just go straight through the house,” Gwen said. “But you can. If you wanted to and weren’t afraid.”
“You mean if, oh, random example, you thought there were no jumpscares?”
“She doesn’t need to be expecting jumpscares to get creeped out,” Gwen said. “Besides, you find out about Lonnie in the third Journal entry, or thereabouts. It’s not a long leadup before the tone is broken.”
“The tone is still scary throughout,” Eleanor said. “Or at least spooky. The attic is at the very end and it’s certainly not inviting or anything.”
“True, the attic is unknown, and dark.”
“But by then, you’re invested in discovering the love story, so you want to go there,” Eleanor explained. “Because you’ve pushed through.”
“I’m still not certain it’s a game, though,” Gwen admitted. “Maybe more of a ‘digital experience,’ or some new term for it. But ‘game’ implies ‘victory’ or ‘challenge’ for me, and there’s no real challenge in walking around and discovering you don’t need to pick up any of the pens or decks of cards.”
“Or three-ring binders.”
“Why are there so many?” Gwen asked. “Why are there so many three-ring binders? You can’t open them!”
“It’s a red herring,” Eleanor said. “In a game full of red herrings.”
“It certainly takes Rule of Conservation of Detail and chucks it out the window,” Gwen grumbled. “There’s no end to the random assortment of details and facts that have no bearing on the story. You only need to read about five of the letters to get all the relevant details.”
“Relevant to the plot, maybe,” Eleanor countered. “But it’s not always about plot. It’s about experience, emotional experience. You play it for the tension, which makes the payoff all the more satisfying. It’s meander-y, but you still feel richer for the meander in the end.”
“Perhaps,” Gwen said. Dania shrieked in the other room.
Eleanor smiled. “She should be finding the first of the cassette tapes right about now.”
Image Credit: The Fullbright Company