Grow Up is a series in which I evaluate whether games called young adult actually fit the definition and exploring why that matters.
Gone Home was really the inspiration for this column. It’s a critical darling—when it was released back in 2013, it was everywhere. At the time, it was like few other games out there; you didn’t play the hero, it revolved around two queer teenage girls, and it was more interested in exploration and atmosphere than traditional game mechanics. By virtue of being new and different (and kicking off the explosion of walking simulators), it was impossible not to talk about.
In Gone Home, the player embodies a college-age woman named Katie returning to her empty house after a vacation abroad. As she explores, she finds evidence of her parents’ marital problems (the reason why they’re gone) and remnants of her sister Sam’s life—riot grrl mixtapes, an empty pizza box, a blood-like smear of red hair dye on the bathtub, The X-Files on VHS, lit candles, and a chalk pentagram in a hidden room. More importantly, Katie discovers the existence of Sam’s girlfriend, Lonnie.
Just as the game leads you to worry about their safety—there’s a suggestion that one or both of the girls may have harmed themselves—it’s instead revealed that Lonnie couldn’t bring herself to join the army and leave Sam behind. The two girls run off together, happily (we hope) ever after.
In the six years since, some of the luster has faded. It was new then, but in being new, it falls victim to a few flaws: a narratively nonsensical series of locked doors, a lot of empty space with little to fill it. Despite my love for the game, I’ll admit that it’s not perfect, but there’s one criticism that sticks in my craw: that the game is juvenile, immature, the video game equivalent of young adult fiction.
In theory, “juvenile” and “young adult” can mean the same thing. But people outside of the young adult demographic (including its adult audience) often use “young adult” to refer to narratives that are underdeveloped or immature.
As game designer and author Ian Bogost points out on his piece on Gone Home, it isn’t a bad thing to be young adult. Though we fundamentally disagree on what that means for the game’s reception, it’s important to note that young adult is a different audience, that young adult games can and should exist alongside games for other audiences, and that recognizing their existence is important.
That’s precisely why dismissal of the game’s narrative as “juvenile” irritates me. It is one thing to be young adult—that is true of Gone Home, with its teenage protagonist, its exploration of self, its romantic and familial conflicts, even its brush with death—and it’s quite another to be narratively immature.
Bogost and other critics have pointed out that Gone Home‘s narrative may not stand up in other media. He suggests that, compared to other narratives of queerness—Virginia Woolfe’s Orlando or Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, for example—this one doesn’t really have anything new or different to offer, which is why we shouldn’t talk it up as more than it is.
The problem, I think, is that Orlando and Rubyfruit Jungle aren’t necessarily young adult. Certainly, young queer folks read them, and certainly, they shouldn’t be stopped from doing so. But it’s baffling to me that Gone Home shouldn’t be talked up because it’s not as deep or revolutionary as those books.
Bogost cites Merritt Kopas’ essay “On Gone Home,” found in Queer Games Studies, that the game does stand out from others: “This is a videogame. About girls in love. That shouldn’t be exceptional in and of itself, but it is.” It’s a tragedy that that’s true, even now, in 2019. A handful of queer girls is not enough, not when there are so many of us longing to see ourselves.
Kopas, as a queer trans woman, discusses how she sees herself in the game and how its portrayal of girlhood allows her and others to experience a girlhood they were denied. “But we can write new stories,” she writes, “ones where girls in love don’t die tragic deaths and where big empty houses are scary but ultimately safe and where you can have a teenage girl romance at twenty-five, or thirty-five, or whenever you want to.”
Though Bogost agrees with Kopas that it shouldn’t be exceptional to have a game about girls in love, his conclusion is different—he suggests that Gone Home‘s initial ecstatic critical reception is embarrassing. “The promise of Gone Home is also its hazard: not just that it offers a well-needed alternative to videogames’ immaturity, but also that it offers enough of one to satisfy us,” he writes. “That pubescence’s salve is more pubescence, but inverted. That the coming-of-age has arrived, and that its arrival is sufficient.”
It’s here that Bogost and I—and other critics who have since soured on Gone Home—diverge. I’m no longer a queer girl. I’m a queer woman; I’m thirty years old. Old enough to be somewhat secure in my sexuality (bisexuality is a quagmire of insecurities, of questions, of impostor syndrome), old enough that the thought of running away with my girlfriend to a Bratmobile soundtrack is almost laughable.
But it wasn’t, once. When I was 16, the handful of queer women I saw in fiction (in my town, queer women were largely secrets) could be queer in theory but rarely in practice; a story like Sam and Lonnie’s would have meant the world to me. There are girls like 16-year-old me all over the world; even now, when we have Life is Strange and Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Carmilla and Labyrinth Lost, there is no surplus of queer girls in media. Girls like 16-year-old me still face doubts and judgment and violence, and they are not always going to find themselves in Orlando or Rubyfruit Jungle.
I agree that Gone Home isn’t the pinnacle of storytelling. It doesn’t have to be. It’s not trying to be. It’s a story of two queer girls who find hope and happiness in solace in one another—the quintessential Bildungsroman, simple, sometimes clumsy, but no less meaningful for it.
Because Gone Home, despite being about young protagonists, despite having a happy ending, isn’t juvenile in its message. It’s a game that is—dare I say it—deeply subversive in both form and message. A walking simulator about teenage lesbians may be a critical darling, but that in no way makes it a dominant narrative or structure, particularly when that narrative tempts your inclination toward cynicism and ends by saying, “Ha! Sike. Not everything sucks, after all.”
This is young adult. It’s a story about two teenagers navigating their senses of self and exploring what it means to be themselves. It’s a story about first love.
It isn’t for me, anymore, even if I still tear up when I enter that attic in the final moments and find that Sam and Lonnie have run off together. But that’s why it’s important; not all game audiences are 30-year-old women, nor are they game critics, nor are all of them likely to check out Rubyfruit Jungle from the library. Its simplicity, its ease, its sometimes cloying sweetness serve a different audience: an audience that’s young and hungry and looking for hope. Gone Home is young adult, and that, itself, is worth celebrating.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.