House of Mirrors: How Gone Home Showed Me Myself

“When you showed me myself, I became someone else.” — Joseph Arthur, “In the Sun”

Last Saturday I was in Seattle to record an episode of Feminist Frequency Radio at GeekGirlCon. At one point, we all showed clips from our picks for Best Love Story of the Decade. Anita had chosen Gone Home, due in part to its cultural significance, the way it told a story about people video games had previously so rarely told stories about.

The clip Anita showed was of the player standing in the upstairs bathroom, listening as we hear Sam Greenbriar say these words:

Lonnie brought her hair dye over today. She said, “I need to fix these roots. Think you could help?” Dyeing hair is weirdly intimate. I don’t know if I’ve touched someone else’s scalp before. That’s pretty intimate, right? It felt intimate.

We looked in the mirror together after and I expected her to say something about how it looked crappy, or good or whatever. But that’s when she said, “You’re so beautiful.” And she was looking at me. Right in that moment, I wanted to say… something. But I waited, and the moment was gone.

Right in that moment, I was transported back to the house on Arbor Hill. Look, I think Gone Home is a tremendously important game. The fact that it got review-bombed on Metacritic by people who angrily accused it of having an “agenda,” as if telling stories about straight people somehow isn’t political but telling stories about queer people is, convinced me of its importance. Clearly it was moving the needle, and upsetting the right people. But watching that clip, I remembered that I love Gone Home so much not because of any larger cultural significance the game may possess, but because of its profound personal significance to me, and my belief that it’s a deeper, more insightful and true game than many people realize.

Saying Gone Home is about two young queer women falling in love is, I think, an oversimplification that misses what makes its story so resonant. To me, Gone Home is largely about how Sam Greenbriar slowly, tentatively undergoes the intense transformation one experiences when (if) we feel, for the first time, truly seen, desired and loved for the person we are. My heart cracks open every time I hear Sam relate the experience of Lonnie telling her she was “so beautiful.” How powerful it was for Sam to feel seen in that moment. It makes my heart ache a little, because often, even in the rare instances when people tell me I’m beautiful, it’s in some way that makes me feel less seen, that makes me want to dissociate from rather than to occupy my body. In telling me I’m beautiful, people sometimes say things like “I see you not as a woman or a man but as a person.” They may as well just come right out and say that they don’t really see me at all.

Gone Home knows how revelatory it is to finally feel seen. Consider the journal entry “Hanging Out With Girls,” written early in Sam and Lonnie’s friendship. In it, Sam says:

It’s weird hanging out with girls. Daniel was around ever since I was little, and other girls… I dunno. But being around Lonnie is, like, instantly just right. I gave her the grand Psycho House tour, and took my revenge on Super Nintendo, and it was like, I dunno, I finally found someone I feel normal around.

Like me, Sam always feels like a weirdo. She doesn’t fit in with other girls. But with Lonnie, something just clicks into place. Do you know what that’s like, to feel a bit odd around almost everyone, then to find someone around whom things seem to make sense? It’s life-changing. It’s the first step in Sam’s transformation. Gone Home isn’t just concerned with Sam and Lonnie falling in love. It’s concerned with Sam’s inner life, how she is changed, as any of us are changed, by the first experience she has of feeling “normal” and seen and loved. It’s a not entirely painless experience of self-discovery, a chance to find out who she herself is, when she’s around someone with whom she feels free to be herself.

Sam also mentions taking her “revenge on Super Nintendo.” Play is a huge part of how these two interact with and discover each other. There are the video games, of course, Street Fighter II at the 7-Eleven and then on the SNES in Sam’s new home, but there are also other forms of play. Consider the couch cushion fort you find in the living room, where you can still almost hear the echoes of their laughter as they read together about Hauntings & Poltergeists. Sam and Lonnie embark on shared endeavors of the imagination, searching the house for ghosts and ultimately performing an exorcism that symbolically releases the house from the shadow of a decades-old transgression. It’s love as a healing force, which is what love should be.

As Sam comes to terms with herself as a lesbian, something she’s on some level “known since She-Ra,” she also playfully works her new sense of herself, and her love of Lonnie, into the pirate fantasies she’s been writing since childhood.

I won’t lie, I think this story is kinda hot, and as someone who is still routinely misgendered and rarely feels seen by the world, I wish I could take a dip in the Amazonian Queen’s magic vat myself.

Play is essential, I think, to any first experience of love. If we can’t play with someone, if we can’t share our imaginations with them and step into theirs, how can we build anything real together? Without play, parts of ourselves remain closed off.

But it takes more than play. It takes trust. It takes reassurance. I love that Gone Home knows this and takes the time to acknowledge it. In the journal entry “Adjusting to the Dark,” Sam writes:

At Todd’s brother’s place after the show, there was only a futon to sleep on, so Lonnie and I shared it. The lights went out… I was turned toward her… my eyes started to adjust, and then I could see she was looking at me, too. In the dark, she smiled. My heart was beating so fast. I rolled over, I felt so… I don’t know, nervous? After a minute she put her arm around me, and was so close, and whispered in my ear, “I really like you.” I just nodded my head and I really hope she could tell. I really hope… that she meant what I think she did. I’ve felt like a shook-up can of soda ever since. I hope we have a chance to talk before I explode.

Here we can feel the excitement bubbling up in Sam at the possibility that Lonnie may reciprocate her feelings, but also the doubt, the what if she doesn’t? She doesn’t actually know if it’s possible, not yet, because it’s never happened in her life before, and if she’s wrong, the pain will be devastating. So she’s cautious, not yet fully trusting the possibility that someone she thinks is great, someone who, as she writes in an earlier entry, has a “big gold star” around her, might look at her and see a big gold star, too. I especially love the line about feeling like a “shook-up can of soda.” This isn’t casual for Sam, or light. Lonnie fucks her up.

I feel like most people my age don’t want to be fucked up anymore. People want casual sex and casual relationships, things they can ease into that don’t fundamentally change them. And that’s fine, but I can’t do casual. Not now, not yet, not without going through some of what Sam goes through in the game. Because I’m 43 now, sometimes I feel like this is a personal failing on my part, and like it’s on me to just pretend that I’m like everybody else, to act as if I’ve been through things that in actuality I haven’t been through. But what’s the point of a relationship if it’s founded on performance? I’ve already worked so hard precisely so that I wouldn’t have to keep performing anymore. Lonnie brings Sam’s defenses crashing down. Sam has no choice but to stand yearning and real before her. It’s that way for me too. You either crack me open or you don’t.

It’s in the next journal entry, “There Was Nothing Wrong,” that the moment of truth finally comes for Sam. One way or the other, she has to know.

Lonnie came over today. But everything was… different. She was sitting at my desk chair. And she wouldn’t look at me. Finally I asked her what was going on. She said she felt like she’d done something wrong that night in the city, like I must think… But I said no, there was nothing wrong. I just wanted to say… But I couldn’t find the words. I felt like I was going to cry, but I wasn’t sad. She got up and sat next to me on the bed. I looked at her. “Lonnie… do you… think… you could ever…” … And that’s when she kissed me.

Voice actor Sarah Grayson perfectly captures all the doubt and hesitation in Sam’s heart here as she stands on the precipice where things are either going to go one way or the other, and then the catharsis as all that fear gives way to laughter and joy when Lonnie kisses her. How amazing to finally know that all of her feelings about Lonnie weren’t just imaginative leaps into the impossible, that Lonnie actually does see her and desire her and love her the way she is. I remember the first time I experienced that moment, the “And that’s when she kissed me” moment. It was months before Gone Home’s official release, part of an IGF demo I got to play. That’s where the demo ended, with all the promise and potential of that statement hanging in the air. I was shaken and electrified, because it was a vicarious experience for me of something that I had never experienced in real life, and still haven’t.

How that must have changed Sam, to be seen that way, to know that she could give voice to the feelings she carried in her heart, to take something that until that point lived only inside of herself, and share it with another person. Sam’s next journal entry is called “It’s Different Now,” and it reads:

It’s different now. I mean, we still hang out all the time like before. But now when no one else is around… well, you know. So you COULD say we’re dating. But it’s secret. Secret dating? I don’t know. I mean I guess that’s the real difference: now, when we get off the phone, or go home for the night… or it’s just quiet and we’re alone… we say “I love you.”

Even this is a massive transformation. To be able to express what one feels in one’s heart. I sometimes feel the weight of so many unspoken “I love you’s” in my own heart, all the love I’ve carried with nowhere to put it. To take the private, the personal, and make it manifest, even just through speaking so that another person hears us, is hugely liberating. It’s the things we carry inside that are ours and ours alone, the things that nobody seems to want and that we can’t share with anyone, that can really weigh us down.

Once Sam’s period of uncertainty is over, Gone Home shifts from being insightful about the experience of doubt and emotional turmoil over whether she can be seen and loved by Lonnie into being insightful about what it’s like to be able to experience and express those feelings without shame. In the journal entry titled “I Can Sing,” Sam says of watching Lonnie perform, “I feel so… proud when she’s onstage. It’s incredible being in awe of somebody you love.” This may seem like a throwaway detail to many, but to me, it’s an essential truth. Even though I’m still looking for this kind of love in my life, I do know what it is to admire someone in this way, to set them apart and burst with admiration over the things they achieve.

Sam and Lonnie live in a world where their freedom is a private freedom, a secret freedom that exists only between the two of them, that the rest of the world refuses to accept. A freedom that isn’t free. Sam’s parents don’t accept it. The military, which Lonnie is joining, doesn’t accept it. They have only one option: run away and seek a home together. To me, this is the true meaning of the game’s title. Gone Home. Okay, but where is home? Home is not the house on Arbor Street, which the family has only recently moved into, and where Sam cannot fully be herself. For Sam and Lonnie, home is each other, or maybe the promise of home lies in whatever place they might find where they can truly be together.

Gone Home speaks to many of my peers about who they were, and where they were emotionally, many years ago. It speaks to me about who I am and where I am emotionally right now. It did when I first played it in 2013, and it still does today. It’s not that I haven’t had relationships in my life. I had a few long ones when I was younger, before I transitioned, but though there was love there, those relationships were also predicated on the culturally imposed lie I was living at the time about who I was. What I haven’t had yet is a real relationship in which I felt seen and loved for who I am, at least not by anyone who has a big gold star around them, anyone with whom I felt I could play, or share my true self.

It’s crucial to note that Gone Home’s meaning isn’t made just through the pre-scripted journal entries I’ve quoted here. It’s made through the act of play itself, the way that you can pick up a family portrait and toss it in the trash, or collect things from around the house and build your own shrine to Sam and Lonnie’s love. It’s in the way you feel the presence of family members in the house even though they’re absent. It’s in the way certain objects, like a skull Lonnie sends Sam from Mexico, find a place among the Greenbriars’ things, hinting at the new kind of family they could all become, if only. As we head into the new decade, I think Gone Home still has so much to teach us, about how space can make meaning, about how little details can communicate volumes, about how games can trust players to piece things together for themselves.

Visiting the house on Arbor Hill almost feels like a mindfulness exercise to me. Though the house has its ghosts, I feel safe there, able to inhabit myself fully. I feel grounded in that space, because of the way I can pick things up and turn them around, the way I can feel the family that lives there, the way the rain gently falls on the roof the entire time. In real life, dissociation is my default state, partially because of the ways in which the world so often makes me feel like my body stands in the way of people seeing me clearly. I don’t want to be here. But Gone Home changes that.

Gone Home is a house of mirrors, but not the distorting funhouse kind. The kind that let me see myself more clearly; who I am, what I’m looking for, how I love. What I still hope to find someday is a person who feels like home to me, too, who makes me feel seen when most of the world doesn’t, and who makes me feel like my skin is worth being in. Someone I want to come home to, and be in the present moment with, and make memories with, and who wants to be there with me, too.

The way my life started late, I sometimes feel like I passed through some kind of portal that left me out of sync with the flow of time. When this decade began, I was 33, and I’d only just started living “full-time.” I’d known I was trans forever, but I’d just never been in the right circumstances financially or professionally to make the shift to living as myself. And although I sometimes feel like a hopeless fuck-up over the lack of relationships in my life, maybe it’s understandable that a trans woman might not find a real relationship in those first ten years.

It’s complicated. My age is a fact, but it’s also true that because of all the things I haven’t been through, my heart is still a teenage heart, with all the doubt and uncertainty Sam feels, and with all the eagerness and intensity, too. Being seen and desired and loved by someone I love would be as much the transformative, first-time experience for me now that it is for Sam in Gone Home.

Gone Home is like a talisman for my teenage heart. It tells me that there’s nothing wrong with the way I love, with what I’m still looking for and waiting for. It tells me that it’s okay that just holding hands with someone I love, or being held by them, still feels intensely intimate, because it’s never yet become normalized for me. It tells me that it’s okay to be changed by encounters with “someone I feel normal around.”

While the world says “Be casual,” “Be chill,” “Take it all in stride,” Gone Home says it’s okay if someone leaves you feeling like a shook-up can of soda. It’s okay if someone brings your defenses crashing down. It’s okay if the possibility of love is still an experience of upheaval and transformation and self-discovery.

I don’t know if Sam and Lonnie found a place in their hostile world that felt like home to them, but I believe that there is hope just in the trying.

When this decade started, I was 33, and I was 17.

As this decade ends, I am 43, and I am 17.

Sam and Lonnie have to leave almost everything behind. There are things I want to leave behind, too, as 2020 looms. Things I’ve held onto for too long. Stories I’ve told myself too many times. Maybe even my stories about this game. Maybe this post is itself a kind of exorcism, an effort to express and expel things that have lingered for too long, to put them to rest at last. But hope is not one of those things I want to let go of.

I’m still intensely guarded. Most people don’t really make sense to me, or don’t make me feel like I make any sense, and I still almost never feel seen. I still need time and trust and reassurance. I’m still looking for someone who has a big gold star around them. I’m still capable of feeling like a shook-up can of soda. Gone Home has made me feel seen like almost nothing else. And there is still so much hope in my fierce little teenage heart.

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