Gone Home as Melodrama and Gothic Fiction

Group project summary, by leader Counti McCutchen

Gone Home utilizes several of the themes that serve in melodramas and gothic fiction. The staples of melodramas include, well, drama—exciting characters and events that play on the viewer’s emotions. Gone Home delivers on that perfectly. The characters have secrets, even characters other than Sam. The mother is showing concern about Sam and might be getting too close to her coworker, Rick. The father is struggling with his books and potentially alcohol. Both parents are struggling in their marriage. These are familiar tropes in drama that Gone Home makes its own through the lens of the player and how Sam reacts. Historically, melodramas also have interspliced songs, which Gone Home has with cassette tapes that can be played throughout the house. Unlike most melodramas, however, there is not hammy or unrealistic acting. Since no actual actors are present, this would be hard to deliver on anyway. Sam’s diary readings come off as sincere and realistic, hinting more toward drama rather than melodrama. However, they are emotional, especially with their culmination at the end.

Now, it is time for the wieldier subject of Gothic fiction. The basic elements of gothic fiction are haunted settings or castles with secret passageways, supernatural beings, curses, damsels in distress, heroes, romance, and intense emotions. Gone Home certainly encompasses most of this list. While it is set in relatively present day, castles are out of the options. However, the large mansion serves this atmospherically, complete with secret panels, passageways, and hiding spots. There is the constant sounds of the thunderstorm outside, adding to a frightful setting. The old and weathered nature of the mansion (peeling wallpaper as an example) only accentuates the gloomy nature.

For the supernatural parts, the video game finds a way to incorporate them without losing its grip in reality. The house is labeled the “psycho house” and vaguely rumored to be cursed, as no one wants to associate with Sam, joking that maybe she will go crazy as well. There is also the ghost of her father’s uncle, who Sam and Lonnie play with exorcising or brining back. This adds to the atmosphere without subtracting from being rooted in the real world.

As for damsels in distress, Sam party fits that roll. Although the notion is outdated, Sam is clearly in distress—friendless and grappling with her sexuality. This blends with the part of the heroine, which is Sam’s title to bear, not Kate. Kate is not the protagonist as it might first seem. “In the castle, you can have the merging and the otherness, along with the threat of annihilation. There life exists on the boundary” (Holland and Sherman 283). Walking through the house, Kate is a ghost. She could throw objects, snoop, turn on lights, but she wasn’t really present because she was sifting through remnants of the past. It was a recent past, but a past nonetheless. Even though Kate is the playable character, the story revolves around Sam instead. Sam is the heroine. Therefore, the player/Kate acts as the reader. Sam is the hero, although Lonnie has heroic traits in befriending Sam and taking the courage to leave before shipping out. The difference between these two—Kate’s interactivity and Sam’s narrative—play in with Jenkins’s article about game design as narrative architecture.

The part of the romance is fairly self-explanatory. However, it has some variations from the normal gothic fiction element. Gone Home’s display of romance subverts the normal gothic fiction’s take on the subject. Holland and Sherman remarks that “women have largely defined themselves and their aspirations through a love relationship with a man” (Holland an Sherman 288). Here instead, Sam’s romance is with another woman, turning that facet of gothic fiction on its head. However, it continues with the focus on sexuality, as it is the driving force behind Sam’s plot.

Now, I wish to talk about specific facets of the readings, the majority from Holland and Sherman. Holland and Sherman write: “Yet gothic novels offer the material for certain kinds of experience and not others. Each novelent has the human freedom to ignore the text, critics, common sense, and everything else in making a gothic experience. Yet psychological laws say each literent creates an experience within his own identity or character. There are also regularities (but not laws) beyond the individual’s psychology: gothic novels appeal strongly to some novelents (women of a certain age and society) and scarcely at all to others (adolescent boys of whatever culture” (Holland and Sherman 281). As discussed earlier, the “reader” is the player/Kate. Kate is a close fit to this demographic that Holland and Sherman mention. Kate is not an older brother or uncle. She is someone Sam trusts enough to divulge her deepest secrets; someone Sam knows will appreciate the secrets and her thoughts. It would be interesting to see what the age and gender breakdown of who enjoyed Gone Home, and if it follows the book trend of gothic fiction.

Holland and Sherman continue to remark that “A gothic novel combines the heroine’s fantasies about the castle with her fears that her body will be violated. The novel thus makes it possible for literents to interpret body by means of castle and castle by means of body, but it does not force us to do so nor does it fix the terms in which the two of us will do it” (Holland and Sherman 281-282). For Gone Home, this is treated a little different. The house serves as Sam’s body, or more precisely, her mind. With every room Kate as the player discovers, we discover more about Sam and who she is. Sam writes a note for Kate on the door in the beginning, asking Kate not to go digging around to where she is. She does not want that part of her to be violated, even though she is disclosing her notes in the attic for Kate to eventually find.

The game is strongest with its atmosphere. Like the Jenkins article notes: “Game designers don’t simply tell stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces” (Jenkins 6). They know that a game is more than just a script, and that is how to utilize the video game media over a book. Holland and Sherman write, “The castle is a nighttime house-it admits all we can imagine into it of the dark, frightening, and unknown […] same time, the gothic novel usually says that the castle contains some family secret, so that the castle can also become the core for fantasies based on a childish desire that adulthood be an exactly defined secret one can discover and possess”(Holland and Sherman 282). Gone Home mimics this to the core. Kate arrives home in the middle of the dark night, a storm that the television threatens will be dangerous beating against every pane. From the beginning note from Sam and the fact that no one is home, we know something is not right, that there is some secret. As we delve further into the house, we uncover several family secrets, along with Sam’s fantasies and desires. Furthermore, Holland writes, “I associate the castle not only with an idealized past epoch of social history (a nostalgia for romance, chivalry, Christian goodness, and divine order) but with my own personal history of fantasies and fears” (Holland and Sherman 282). The player assigns their own reading to the house. When I started playing this, I associated the house with horror. I took the atmosphere close to heart and was worried with every step that I would have to run from a ghost. Once I realized that was far from the truth, other fears set in. What had happened to Sam? Was this going to be another game to fall to the “killing your gays” trope and lead me to a body in the attic? Thankfully, that fear was assuaged by the end of the game, but the sentiment continues that one’s own personal history impacts the media they consume. And, the already present atmosphere is amplified with the gaming experience: “Games, in turn, may more fully realize the spatiality of these stories, giving a much more immersive and compelling representation of their narrative worlds” (Jenkins 7) and when quoting Carson: “The story element is infused into the physical space a guest walks or dies through. It is the physical space that does much of the work conveying the story the designers are trying to tell…armed only with their knowledge of the world, and those visions collected from movies and books, the audience is ripe to be dropped into your adventure. The trick is to play on those memories and expectations to heighten the thrill of venturing into your created universe” (Jenkins 8). Gone Home knows and appreciates that its setting is the most important part of the story. From the title to the game cover, “home” is at the front and center. While not set in a Victorian Mansion or castle, the old mansion it is set in is created well. It is not a modern apartment or dingy shack. The designers were conscious of each choice they made in creating a setting that accentuated the gothic themes and heightening the enjoyment of the game.


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