A Practical Guide to Gone Home

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Ian here—

Two weeks ago, I taught Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013) for my “Frames, Claims and Videogames” course. I hadn’t played the game in quite some time, so, in the run-up to the course, I re-played it, searching through the house exhaustively, reminding myself of where every last note and prop was, re-acquainting myself with the ins and outs of everyone’s story. Taking some notes, it occurred to me that it would be nice if there was a guide to it online. Not just a guide to picking up all of the items that give you achievements, or something like that—there are plenty of those online, already. Rather, a guide to the stories Gone Home tells, and where exactly you can find the environmental elements that move those stories forward, and flesh it out.

Well, I guess it falls to me to create what I’m looking for. Again.

My guide to Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic (2013) was just a walkthrough. This is a bit more, as I have specifically designed it to aid in things like class prep and analysis. It isn’t, by itself, analysis, but tends closer to that direction than the Problem Attic one does. (I’d place it roughly in the realm of my Virginia videos.) Enjoy!

Fabula and Syuzhet

Not surprisingly, most embedded narratives, at present, take the form of detective or conspiracy stories, since these genres help to motivate the player’s active examination of clues and exploration of spaces and provide a rationale for our efforts to reconstruct the narrative of past events. Yet, as the preceding examples suggest, melodrama provides another—and as yet largely unexplored—model for how an embedded story might work as we read letters and diaries, snoop around in bedroom drawers and closets, in search of secrets that might shed light on the relationships between characters.[i]

With these words, Henry Jenkins cements his 2004 essay “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” as the most glaringly obvious choice of course reading to pair with Gone HomeGone Home does, in fact, take strong cues from literary genres such as melodrama and gothic fiction, in which character’s emotions are charted out in terms of architecture, with unspoken romantic relationships sometimes literally hiding in the walls. This essay is a no-brainer to pair with Gone Home, so of course I did it in my course.

Beyond Jenkins, though, there’s another bit of literary theory that can be useful when thinking through Gone Home: the Russian Formalist’s distinction between fabula and syuzhet. I didn’t assign any formalist criticism to my students for this particular class, but I would consider doing it in the future, and I’m going to use these terms to talk some about Gone Home‘s design here.

As proposed by Yury Tynyanov, the distinction between fabula and syuzhet is the distinction between what we might call story, and how that story is plotted. That is: the fabula consists of the in-universe events that transpired, arranged in the proper chronological order in which they transpired. The syuzhet, by contrast, are those events in the order that we, as readers/viewers/listeners/whatever of the story, are made privy to them. Being a masterful storyteller is often a matter of knowing when to hold off on revealing details of what happened to characters in the past. Jane Eyre just wouldn’t be the same if it began, “Once upon a time there was a man named Edward Rochester, who, upon marrying Bertha Mason, found that her mental health was quickly deteriorating….” Jane’s discovery of Bertha, and of Rochester’s secret, is key to that novel’s air of gothic mystery.

If we consider the careful curation of the syuzhet to be, in essence, the real art of storytelling, than Gone Home‘s environmental storytelling is a curious beast. Although the game is linear in some respects, with certain areas of the house not unlocking until we have found specific items in other areas, within this linearity it does offer a large amount of freedom for players to wander around and pick up items in any order. Much like HER STORY (Sam Barlow, 2015), this creates a lot of potential variability across players’ possible syuzhets.

My creation of this guide involves plotting a specific path through the game’s mansion, which in turn involves proposing one specific syuzhet out of many. I’ve broken my guide below into multiple sections, but all of them presuppose a path through the mansion that proceeds as follows:

  • Front porch
  • Foyer
  • Hallway & closet of first floor west wing
  • TV room & its closet
  • Terry’s office
  • Library
  • Music room & its closet
  • First floor west wing hallway dead end, at the locked basement door
  • Up the grand staircase to the second floor and its landing
  • Sam’s room and its closet
  • Bathroom across from Sam’s room
  • Jan and Terry’s room, its closet, and its bathroom
  • Guest room
  • Sitting room
  • Sewing room, picking up the first secret passage map
  • Jan and Terry’s room closet to library secret passage
  • “Treasure hunting” in the library
  • “Treasure hunting” in the east wing hallway
  • “Treasure hunting” in the hallway across from Sam’s room
  • Sam’s locker
  • Basement entrance room
  • Basement storage room
  • Servant’s quarters
  • Junk room
  • Sam and Lonnie’s hidden zine-manufacturing room
  • First floor east wing main hallway and closet
  • Dining room
  • Kitchen
  • Garage annex
  • Garage
  • East wing bathroom
  • Laundry room
  • Green house
  • Hidden room under the grand staircase
  • Attic

For reference, here are some in-game maps:

Some notes on why this is my preferred path through the game’s space:

  • The game gives players a large amount of spatial freedom at the beginning, and it is perfectly possible to explore the second floor before the first floor west wing. I would venture, though, that the imposing staircase and the way the lighting works makes the first floor the more attractive option. I haven’t watched enough people play through the game to know what the actual breakdown is of player behavior, but I would venture a guess that the game was designed to subtly encourage exploration of the first floor first.
  • Looking only at the map, it might seem to make more sense to explore Terry’s office before the TV room. The sound of the severe weather warning, though, combined with the glow of the TV, provide subtle attention-grabbing cues that are likely to funnel players in there first, I think.
  • This path has the effect of making the player’s syuzhet path almost exactly match the fabula order of Sam’s diary entries, with a couple small exceptions. (Her April 5th and April 10th journal entries are flopped, as are her May 1st and May 19th journal entries.) Since Sam’s story proceeds quite well when it is delivered in this order, I am predisposed to think of this path as Fullbright’s intended player path through the mansion, allowing for some minor variations.

On a final note, if you’re interested in an exhaustive attempt to reconstruct the fabula of Gone Home, you’re looking in the wrong place. My guide cannot hold a candle to this one, by Steam community member Saraneth. Seriously, check it out. It’s awesome, and potentially very useful if you want to study the game further.

The stories: The Greenbrier family, and their house

Gone Home hooks us in with some immediate questions. Who are we? Apparently we are the ones who have “gone home,” as the title implies. The answering machine message that opens the game indicates that we’re coming home from a trip to Europe. But what are we coming home to? Is our character supposed to recognize this enormous house? And, most importantly, where is everyone? What happened here?

In this first part, I’ll just be walking through the immediate answers to those questions. A lot of things quickly referred to here are expanded in sections below.

First, though, a quick apology: WordPress’s “slideshow” feature is useless. I would love for you to be able to take it full-screen, to closely examine each of these items, but it doesn’t work that way. In fact, if you want to offer a genuine full-screen slideshow to readers, you are much better off embedding a mosaic.

So, that’s what I’ve done. Please treat the mosaics below as slideshows. Click on the top leftmost image to make it go full-screen, and tap through from there. I’ve kept each screenshot in its full 1080×1920 resolution. Pretty much all of them have extensive captions, guiding you through each of the game’s stories. I have also embedded a little mini-map embedded in each image, letting you know exactly where you can find each item.

I apologize for the fact that you have to scroll past these enormous mosaics while making your way to the next section. I would much rather have the slideshow function work the way I want it to, but, alas, this is what we have.

The stories: Sam and Lonnie

Although the question of why Katie arrives to an empty, ransacked house provides the initial hook for Gone Home, the story of Sam and her girlfriend Lonnie turns out to be very much the central story of the game. It’s the only story that is actually revealed to us in the first-person, through journal entries, rather than through letters and other environmental details. What’s more, these journal entries are actually read out, meaning that Sam is the one character with prominent voice acting in the game (although we do at points hear both Katie’s and Lonnie’s voices).

As a result, this is very much the most overt story of Gone Home, with less needing to be carefully teased out from environmental detail and gradually pieced together. This guide will show you where to find all twenty-three of Lonnie’s audio diaries, her five cassette tapesthree Captain Allegra stories, and also a few incidental environmental details. I won’t be spelling out Sam and Lonnie’s story in the captions as much, though, because it is simply not necessary.

The stories: Terry’s writing career

Terry’s side story is anchored by some fun props—his books, in particular, with their pulpy JFK conspiracy sci-fi alternate history nonsense subject matter. As such, it is probably the most attention grabbing of the side-stories in Gone Home. Terry’s story takes on some extra resonance when we combine it with Oscar’s story, but in this section I will just be outlining the basics of Terry’s career arc.

The stories: Jan’s affair-that-wasn’t

Jan’s side story is somewhat more scattered and spread out than Terry’s, with fewer central props (such as the copies Terry’s books) to cement her development. It involves her career, her flagging social life, and her increasingly strained marriage with Terry. The fact that Terry gets a larger role in Jan’s story that Jan gets in his gives things a lopsided feel: Jan stand apart less as her own agent than Terry does within the Greenbriar family.

The stories: Oscar and Terry

The story of Oscar Maran and his relationship to his nephew, Terry Greenbriar, is difficult in two respects. First, it is difficult simply because it is the toughest to piece together. Its key documents are among the toughest to find in the game, and even when you have everything in front of you, it still requires some amount of interpretive effort to pin everything down. (It is a far cry from Sam and Lonnie’s story, in this regard.) Fully piecing everything together requires not just reading documents, but also paying close attention to other environmental details, such as objects located in strange places. It is a master class in subtle environmental storytelling.

The other reason that the Oscar-Terry story is difficult is because it is very dark and upsetting. Before you continue on, I should add a content warning for sexual abuse.

Before I offer my own breakdown, I first want to point out the good critical work that has been done by others, piecing these various clues together in a persuasive way. To my knowledge, the first author I know to publicly offer a take on Oscar’s story was Austin Walker. It has since been written about by a bunch of other people. I deserve no credit for laying this out here. All I’ve done is take the screenshots.

The stories: Katie’s Europe trip

Finally, a series of postcards dotted around the house let us know what Katie was up to this past year, while the family was dealing with its various dramas. I’ve only found four of these, which seems like a small number. Perhaps I’m missing one or two? I’ll update this guide in the future, if I find more.

[i]. Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” In First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. Pg 128.

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