Gone Home: The ghost no-one sees

Gone Home opening screenshot

Gone Home, created by The Fullbright Company, will perhaps be looked back on as one of the most critically acclaimed computer games of 2013. Having keenly awaited its release; the game itself proved to include a story line that was entirely unexpected. This is my personal critique examining Terry Greenbriar’s family history.

This post contains detailed spoilers. Any readers who want to experience Gone Home without knowing the story specifics should avoid reading further. There is also a trigger warning under the cut.

[Trigger warning: Discussion of sexual abuse and adult survivor trauma]

Gone Home gives the player the opportunity to discover several different story themes within the Greenbriar family, but it is one which informs Terry Greenbriar’s history and character that struck me as highly problematic and transformed my opinion of the game. (And I do consider it a story-driven exploration game)

The Greenbriar Family. In-game screenshot

Terry Greenbriar seems to be the mostly throughly detailed character after Sam, with many indications to be found about his life and relationships. To recap what is known about Terry:

Early discoveries establish that Terry was a published author in the 1970s, who never had a breakthrough as a bestselling novelist and whose publisher dropped him after two novels due to poor sales. He writes reviews for a home entertainment magazine, which looks like a bumpy working relationship due to the editor losing patience with Terry’s inconsistency and personal musings that have taken over his copy.

Reams of notes, draft ideas and manuscripts also indicate Terry has been working intensely on new novel ideas, repeatedly circling back to November 1963. The date has special significance to Terry, but at this stage it appears as a consuming interest in the events surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

As the exploration continues the picture of a troubled man emerges further; he is emotionally (perhaps physically) distanced from his wife, Jan, and there’s a suggestion he may be developing an alcohol dependence. A book, a defaced portrait and a letter found in the basement show another troubled relationship, this time with his father, Dr. Greenbriar, Ph.D, an English Literature academic and published critic (his book is on James Joyce, no less) who offered a belittling and dismissive attitude towards his son’s first published genre novel.

His parental relationship with Katie and Sam, particularly the latter, looks to be of an inflexible and stern nature, especially when it approaches anything to do with their sexuality. One instance Sam relates is of Terry’s joke about sending Katie to a nunnery when she first started dating. Sam’s fears are, quite correctly as it turns out, that her relationship with Lonnie, her sexual identity as a lesbian, will be part of who she is that Terry, and Jan, won’t be able to accept or support.

And here’s where the vital secret, with its basement location once again, holds the key to understanding Terry’s problems and attitudes. This is how Oscar Masan’s role, as Terry’s Great-uncle and the prior owner of the house, begins to cohere. Terry, as a pre-teen child, was sexually abused by Oscar in the house he and his family now live in.

The primary difficulty I have is not that The Fullbright Company wanted to include a story of abuse but in how it is depicted and presented to players for discovery.

The first point lies with how the storyline is flagged for the player: playing on the ramped-up tension and atmosphere of the house with its supposed presence of Oscar’s malevolent spirit. Sam’s labelling by students at her high school as “The Psycho House Girl”. Sam and Lonnie’s ghost hunting escapades that end in an exorcism ritual. Terry’s height chart on the basement wall that stops being marked off in 1963, close to a safe containing a self-pitying, pleading letter from Oscar to his estranged sister Mary. A forlorn rocking horse toy on the floor of a room which is in total darkness.

For all that these are indirect pointers; depicting abuse doesn’t need an incidental build up of supernatural horror tropes, lightning storms and darkened basements, to have an emotional impact. That abuse exists and the effects it has is the impact.

The second point is what I hoped would be portrayed. That Terry would, by degrees, find support to speak or write openly that he is a survivor of abuse. But he doesn’t and it’s only offered as a possibility that he might be able to in the future. It’s entirely true that real-life survivors may never speak openly, or at all, about their abuse and that should be rightfully acknowledged. Looking on this particular choice about a fictional character; I would have preferred that the discovery was through Terry’s own actions and perspective.

Which leads to the last point; the trail that guides the player is mostly via the person who was his abuser. His letters, Will documentation and the remnants of his actions, the taunts and rumours that Sam experiences and, of course, his Victorian mansion he has left as an inheritance to Terry and his family (with all the posthumous emotional blackmail and manipulation that suggests).

In researching if Terry’s story had been discussed in detail by the developers, I came across Steve Gaynor’s podcast interview with Tom Chick at Quarter to Three. The discussion can be found at around the 37m.30s mark.

Steve Gaynor confirms what is in Austin Walker’s well-written reconstruction of the story events at Clockwork Worlds as; “100% matches my blueprint. As far as I’m concerned it’s totally accurate to what I meant to put in the game… but other interpretations are completely valid.” (My emphasis)

It is possible Mr. Gaynor was referring to other reconstructions of the events leading to Terry’s abuse being considered valid. But, whether it is meant as a view on reconstructions or the story of Terry’s abuse, it does sound a contradictory sentence.

If writers intend to use a story of physical and/or sexual abuse in forming a character’s motivations, background or shaping the narrative, then I believe that’s a decision that requires ownership and transparency. When any writer frames their story with; “Well, I included an abuse theme and I know it did happen to the character, but, it is up to the individual to decide whether it is true or come up with their own explanation” this is not something I see as a positive sign. That the same narrative decision has been widely (mis)used in t.v., film and books doesn’t make it any more of a good reason either.

Why I find it problematic is that it encourages, and reinforces, the idea that physical or sexual abuse is just a matter of personal interpretation and opinion, to the point of disregarding entirely the person who has been abused.

This is something which real-life survivors encounter with beyond depressing regularity. Their knowledge and lived experiences are outright denied or are defined as something they’ve misunderstood. Why, if only they would look at it from another perspective, then it isn’t really abuse at all.

That wasn’t something I was expecting to find associated with this particular game.

While I can respect the positive intentions The Fullbright Company do have, the decisions made about Terry’s abuse story line are definitely not among them.