Content warning: This article discusses a fictitious incident of child abuse.

It’s been a few years since the release of Gone Home, and the first person narrative from The Fullbright Company remains an important video game. It confidently asserted that games have the potential to tell alternative stories. Recently released on current gen consoles, the neo-classic is still as captivating as it was upon release.

Gone Home tells the story of Sam, a disaffected teenager who’s been uprooted from her home and moved to Arbour Hill, Portland. She meets Lonnie and is immediately drawn to her. Sam is enamoured with Lonnie’s world of post-punk teenage rebellion, and their connection deepens quickly. Together they battle against Sam’s concerned parents and other authority figures to stay together – it’s them versus the world. Sam soon realises that her feelings for Lonnie are deeper than friendship – she’s in love. Despite veering towards fantasy in its final act, it’s an endearing tale where young love can conquer all, and it serves as an honest and relatable depiction of what it was like growing up queer in the nineties.

Because of that, the game drew an adverse reaction from those who saw it as a slight against traditional video games. Some felt they were mislead into playing Gone Home by the promise of a horror game, only to find a coming-of-age queer love story in its place. While the unnerving setting of a deserted family home on a stormy night provided moments of tension, it isn’t a horror story. But it is a game that quietly tells a story of horror.

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When I talk to people about Gone Home, I mostly find that a darker narrative went unnoticed, even by those who cherish the game. That’s understandable, because it’s told with such subtlety that it never becomes the focus. Even after all of the disparate parts are discovered, it isn’t immediately clear. I didn’t fully realise the underlying themes myself until I read this incredibly insightful post from ClockworkWorlds. Then it was abundantly clear.

It’s heavy subject matter is worthy of discussion not only because of the issues it presents, but because it adds another layer of depth to an already rich experience, and shows how Fullbright managed to weave a dynamic story without ever being explicit in its telling.

It’s the story of Terry Greenbriar, Sam and Katie’s father. Terry is a writer; a science fiction novelist who’s had two books published. The first sold poorly, the second even worse. Terry’s publisher rejected his pitch for a third instalment and parted ways with him. To keep a regular paycheck, he took a mundane job reviewing home stereo systems for a tech magazine. Unsettled and professionally dissatisfied, he began to drink. His state of mind became evident in his work as he turned in incoherent essays about his childhood rather than the latest laser disc player, resulting in a stern, final warning from his editor. His marriage to Janice was disintegrating. Terry had become withdrawn, and Janice, desperate for intimacy, entered into a flirtatious relationship with a co-worker.

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Terry’s office had a board filled with ideas for his next book. Different angles are considered, but they all hinge upon one concept – his protagonist, John Russell, must go back in time to stop the assassination of president Kennedy, an incident that occurred a few days before Thanksgiving in 1963. A centerpiece for the idea is a reminder: YOU CAN DO BETTER. These are the words of his father. In a letter to Terry following the publication of his first novel, his cursory congratulation precedes a cold critique of Terry’s work. He acknowledges that Terry uses writing to work through his problems, but finds the allegorical fiction derivative. He farewells his son with that most backhanded compliment.

Terry is creatively and emotionally stifled, that much is clear, but there’s more to this story than that of a washed up author.

Oscar Masan, Terry’s uncle, lived in the Arbor Hill mansion and owned the local pharmacy. He died a recluse before the events of the game. Oscar’s will and last testament is found in Terry’s office, locked in the top drawer of a filing cabinet. Oscar left everything to Terry, including the house. Why is a document regarding an inheritance worthy of locking away? The answer is found in the basement.

In a corridor of the basement is a safe, and a room storing timber at its end. There are markings of Terry’s childhood height on the wall. The first was taken when Terry was six, the last when he was twelve, on Thanksgiving, 1963.

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The safe opens when that date is entered. 1-9-6-3. Inside, buried among syringes and morphine, is a letter from Oscar to his sister, Terry’s mother. The letter speaks of a transgression, and of Oscar’s decision to sell his pharmacy to avoid temptation. He expresses self hatred and begs for forgiveness, knowing he won’t receive it. The letter has been returned to the sender. What was the transgression? The drug paraphernalia suggests addiction, but the transgression he speaks of deserves no forgiveness.

In the dank cell that houses timber, the light doesn’t work. There, the most unsettling item is found amongst firewood. A wooden horse, a child’s toy. Its placement anywhere else would be benign, but here in the darkness it screams. The sad truth becomes evident.

Oscar was a child abuser, and Terry was the victim.

Terry is consumed by the year 1963. His book’s protagonist travels back to that time to prevent a tragedy. The Kennedy assassination occurred just days before Terry was coerced into the basement on Thanksgiving Day. It became the analogue for the abuse. Terry’s mother found out on that day and the torment ceased, but the repercussions hadn’t yet begun to take hold.

The hiding of Oscar’s will reflected the shame he felt about living in a home inherited from the predator, and for bringing his family there. He used alcohol to dull the pain. The frustrated introspections that infiltrated his reviews were cries for help. He’s unable to confide in Janice, so he pulls away from her. His father never knew how to address the abuse of his son, so he kept him at a distance to avoid confronting his feelings of failure. The toy was still in the dank cellar.

 

Terry’s struggles are cast in a new light, and it’s heartbreaking, but Gone Home doesn’t dwell on the abuse itself, so neither will I. What could have manifested as a sad statement on the powerlessness of abuse victims instead becomes a story of Terry’s transition from victim to survivor.

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Oscar was a monster. Terry didn’t become one. Without suggesting whatsoever that victims become perpetrators, the so called “cycle of abuse” did not continue. There’s no stigma surrounding Terry’s parenting, he’s a loving father. He isn’t perfect; he struggles with Sam’s rebellion and her sexuality, but he tries to understand her. He buys her lame self-help books about how to make friends. He even allows Lonnie to continue visiting the family’s home after suspecting their intimate relationship, provided Sam keeps her door open. By 1995 parenting standards, that’s fucking revolutionary. Katie adores him. In the many postcards she sent home while on sabbatical, she often mentions places or events her father would enjoy. Despite their strained marriage, Janice shows unwavering support. Scrawled on an abandoned draft is a note from Janice, urging him not to give up. She knows he can do better, but unlike Terry’s father, she expresses her belief in him and his ability.

Jan and Terry’s absence in the game is veiled as an anniversary getaway, but the two are actually at Strong Pines – a couples’ counseling retreat. Together they set out to mend the rift between them, a rift that grew from Terry’s silence about the abuse. I like to believe he broke that silence on the retreat and finally began to heal, with Janice by his side.

Terry received a letter from Unknown Dimensions – a publishing house that specialises in obscure cult-fiction. They sought to reprint his books and market them directly to their audience. The new, vividly illustrated editions of Terry’s novels are found in plain sight, not shamefully boxed up like the first print. The renewed interest in his series revives his creative passion, and he pitches a new instalment to his publisher. His letter is filled with a sense of purpose; he sounds alive. And this time, he has a new angle.

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Terry is no longer a victim. He knows what he must do to move on. He’s still using fiction to deal with his trauma, but is no longer obsessed with a tragedy that already happened, no longer consumed by the year 1963 or the president. His writing will explore what he’s able to influence now, and it ceases to be defined by the things that happened to him.

This is where Terry’s story ends, and begins. We don’t know what happened from here. We don’t know if his manuscript was accepted and lead to a successful novel. We don’t know if his efforts to save his marriage worked. But the results aren’t important. What matters is that Terry was ready overcome the transgression. He stopped living in the shadows of a dank basement and a dead tormentor. Aided by the love and support of his family, he changed the trajectory of his life.

Of course it’s not that simple. Terry faced a formidable journey, but his story is one of resilience, and I hope it uplifted those who’ve been affected by abuse. The story is a credit to The Fullbright Company, who showed endless empathy and sensitivity while bravely engaging with a subject that few games have.

Gone Home is not only about the stories found in drawers and cupboards, but the stories we keep locked in that most impenetrable fortress – ourselves. Some stories are of the impossibly perfect romances of youth. Others are not. But all of Gone Home’s stories tell us that even in the darkest corners of the family home, love and salvation can be found there.

 

About The Author

As an Australian, Simon enjoys paying slightly more for games, and occasionally isn't allowed to have the really naughty ones. When he isn't writing about video games, he studies journalism so he can actually one day be good at it. He also experienced an existential crisis after writing in the third person.

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  • Wow… I had no idea about this… I just didn’t pick up on it at all when playing and wow… this just makes a great game/experience even better. Like you said it’s incredible what Fullbright achieved here, especially when tackling such a difficult issue. “Gone Home” is definitely one of those games/experiences that stays with you… makes you think… reflect… just… incredible. Thanks for bringing this to light. It was a great read! 🙂

    • Simon Rankin

      Thank you, I’m glad you found it worthwhile!

  • This was fun to read (and I’ve read something like it before about this game) but I worry it won’t be the same moving around through the house with a clunky FPS like interface, snooping around, with no one to interact with. This medium worries me, you can have an interesting story to tell, but the medium itself can easily get in the way, reducing it to a task that tries an unreceptive audience (my real worry is I feel like it’s right to be unreceptive under these conditions.)

    • Simon Rankin

      I’m glad you enjoyed reading it, Stormbringer. I think Gone Home’s first person interaction is very intuitive, and it has so much environmental detail that it’s far from a vacant house. It feels lived in. You get to know these characters without ever interacting with them directly. It really is one of the best examples of the medium’s ability to tell a story through a space and its contents.

      • I think we all have different and relative standards. It still looks and feels very clumsy to me. Like a repurposed “FPS”. I am very skeptical and doubtful about the medium, even though I work full-time on a walking-simulator platform (based on From Software’s maker software) with the intention of making everything like it obsolete 🙂

        I am unconvinced this medium has anything realistic to offer, but it seems like the next logical leap for media, even if it is a very unsure one. And if we pursue it it will eventually as a side effect lead to complete digitization of media: so everyone everywhere can create movies or dreamscapes or whatever this evolves into on their own time–and not for a dime. So I think it’s worthwhile and important. I am impressed by That Dragon, Cancer of late, but its arrangement makes me seriously question if I really would rather have the controller in my own hands, or have someone play it for me so I can watch, like a chauffeur. It makes me wish I was illiterate or really enjoyed manipulating colorful virtual toys on a screen, but I’m not and I don’t.

  • J Otto

    Great article. The first sentence in your concluding paragraph sent chills down my spine (probably from a bit of introspective acknowledgment). Your article is a great companion to Walker’s “Transgression” piece you referenced.

    As a fellow games writer, this is the kind of material I love reading. Thought provoking opinion that resonates and retroactively adds to the experience with a game. Well done.

  • Jay Demetrick

    It’s interesting to see different interpretations of the same clues. There is just one major clue that doesn’t fit your interpretation. The pin-ups in the hallway. They are catalog pages of men’s underwear ads and women’s fashion. If uncle Oscar was a pedophile, why would he have pin-ups of men in underwear and fully clothed women when he could easily have clipped out pictures of children from the same catalogs? Did the writers make him a stereotypical all around pervert? Let’s examine that closer and ask why, in a game that is otherwise quite positive of Sam’s coming out storyline, why would they include a pedophile? I think the writers are challenging people’s perception of homosexuality. Let’s explore this further.

    If Oscar was gay and a crossdresser in 1963 and his nephew was exploring the basement and found out his uncle’s hidden pin-ups in the secret stairway… what would happen? If Terry told his mother, she would have probably jumped to the conclusion that her brother was gay and therefore would molest her son. She’d have confronted Oscar, told him he to never contact her again and to stay away from her son and all children or she’d report him to the police.

    You can see what that would do to Oscar’s life. In 1963 gay men were still sent to prison for committing “sodomy”. In fact the last of the US Sodomy laws wasn’t repealed until 2003. Seeing the cross with the pictures still there in the stairwell… why would he keep those if he’d been molesting his nephew in the cellar? I think the broken light switch and the toy horse in the wood pile are red herrings to see if people would come to the pedophile conclusion.

    Let’s look at Terry’s life. If his parents told him he could never see or even speak of his uncle again, an uncle he might have been fond of, after he betrayed his uncle’s secret, what would that do to him? I’m sure it must have punched a big confusing hole in his life. Make him a bit homophobic. It makes you ask, why did Terry move his family into the house if he was molested there? Wouldn’t he just sell it, take the money and move elsewhere?

    A game very much worth reinvestigating.

    • Jane St. Valentine


      Wow. I mean… WOW.

      THAT is an impressive interpretation. Hats off to you. 😉

      (Permission to accept this as headcanon?)

    • dlewisnash

      I thought about this briefly, in the context of the pharmacy sale. Masan’s assistant may have gotten the shop for a song because they were lovers. But I don’t think that’s the case.

      There’s one more piece of evidence to suggest Masan was a child molester, and it’s a letter hidden in Terry’s desk. It’s hard to find — not many people online have mentioned it and I would have missed it on my first-time playthrough today if a corner of paper hadn’t revealed a false bottom. The 1973 letter, torn up and taped back together, is from Oscar to Terry, and expresses thoughts about “what happened” a decade earlier, Oscar’s concern about Terry’s development, and his happiness that Terry’s family might be evidence of positive development.

      Both men are clearly conflicted in their feelings about each other in a way I think would be consistent with abuse — family sentimentality rended by an act of violence. Righteous hate that can’t be made pure because it’s tainted by love.

      Regarding the catalogue images, consider that the hallway also contains a small crucifix. Oscar may have tried to pray/will away his predilections and focus, instead, on adult bodies.

      I don’t think it would be inconsistent of the developers to depict both a positive LGBTQ relationship and an act of predation. It adds to my sense that Terry could have fuel for homophobia, no matter how in the wrong he would be. The “pray the gay away” clipping in the east hallway and the Bible in Terry’s night stand also made a nice parallel to Oscar’s creepy crucifix.

  • dlewisnash

    I just played through the game today and I loved this article. I feel like I found most everything, but I admit I missed the rocking horse and the hallway height marks (I got the safe combination from a scrap of paper wedged under the secret door to the guest room). I did, however, find evidence of the molestation early on from something I’m surprised few people online have mentioned. In Terry’s left hand desk drawer, under one of the game’s (many, many useless) three-ring binders, there’s a piece of paper peeking from beneath a false bottom. Remove the bottom, and you find a torn up and retaped letter from Oscar to Terry, circa ’73, discussing worry about his development since they last saw each other a decade before, but relief that he had apparently moved on and started a family. That letter set off so many alarms in my first 20 minutes of play.

  • Reasonablecash

    This is interesting but I disagree. I found all the evidence the others did, but came to the conclusion that Oscar was a closet homosexual, and Terry (whom he had had a close relationship with, given how cold of a man Terry’s father seemed to be. Why would Terry keep all of Oscars things, the letter and the will, yet cut the face out of his fathers portrait in the basement?) caught him in the act or otherwise discovered his secret. That theory fits the narrative of the game much better, right up to the end when Sam and Lonnie give him an exorcism and release him of his sins, freeing him right before they themselves become free of their guilt and fears.
    Also, the hidden letter speaks of a man who was terrified he’d scarred his beloved nephew for life, but was relieved to see that wasn’t so given his seemingly happy heterosexual life. That Terry first tore it up but then taped it back together speaks of his budding forgiveness and understanding of his uncle.
    Being accepted for who we are is a theme that comes up over and over again throughout the game, and “being human.” Oscar pleads with his sister in his final letter to her for forgiveness, commenting on how he just wants to feel human again. I think he and Terry are both the “Accidental Pariah” and the “Accidental Human.”
    Anyway, I’m sure it could be argued either way, but that was my take on things.

  • Carl Reifsteck

    I completely agree, but I don’t believe that it is all happy in the end, I found a few other details to add onto it. I don’t think Terry is the only victim of the abuse, I believe that the children at the soda fountain were part of the “temptation” and that Terry wasn’t the only victim of Oscar’s abuse. Also when looking into the “Accidental” series, I believe that in a way Terry is JFK and his father is the savior. Somebody who had the chance to save him, but never did and eventually when finally publishing the third book once things started looking up Terry was finally the one saving himself. In a way I got the sense that Terry was angrier at his father for what Oscar did than Oscar himself. Terry’s father doesn’t seem to understand him and is quite critical of him (note on one of the accidental books from his father with backhanded comments), Terry and Oscar were quite close despite the abuse and all Terry’s father did was take him away from the problem instead of doing something to stop the problem. Oscar obviously feeling guilty gave Terry the house as a way of saying sorry. I’ve debated who ripped out Terry’s father’s face in the portrait, but based on all the family boxes and this theory, I believe Terry took his own father’s face out the portrait, because he failed to protect, understand, and support him.