Gone Home is an exploration game created in 2013 by The Fullbright Company and was released during a time when indie games were surging in popularity because they made narrative and game design choices that were, for the most part, not available from AAA studios. Set in 1995, the player controls Katie Greenbriar, a 21-year-old woman returning from a trip to Europe. While Katie was overseas, her family moved into a new house, and when she gets home she only finds a note on the door from her younger sister, Sam, asking her to not investigate what happened, but that’s exactly what we do.
Even though the lights can flicker, a severe thunderstorm rages on, and we can hear the floorboards creaking, there are no jump scares in Gone Home. There are no enemies. There aren’t even any people. The game is about exploring the environment around you, getting into everything that you can, in order to piece together what has been going on in this house while you’ve been away. Due to the fact that we must rummage through family possessions, it creates an oddly intimate connection between the player character and the absent family. As the player goes throughout the house, finding papers and notes written by Sam about her life and evolving romance with another girl named Lonnie (complete with parental disapproval), we’re able to find the narrative of the game.
This type of friendly intrusion has an entirely different feeling when examining another game called A Normal Lost Phone, created in early 2017 by Accidental Queens. A Normal Lost Phone starts with the player character finding a lost phone in the park. In order to find out more about its owner, whose name we find out is Sam, the player must go through pictures, text messages, and various apps on the phone to figure out who Sam is and what has happened to them.
While Gone Home and A Normal Lost Phone are both games that drive the narrative by being invasive, there are very different feelings between the two. For one, Katie is getting into things that are not her own and invades the privacy of others, but they are items belonging to people that she intimately knows and cares for deeply. The unnamed player character in the other game does not know Sam at all, and at one point to progress the story the player must send a picture of Sam to a person they had been talking to on a dating app, with the issue being that Sam is a closeted transgender person and that we as the player must choose which photo and gender representation to send to the other person.
This is a gross violation of privacy as coming out and gender representation is highly personal and to be forced to send one of two photos in order to advance the narrative makes the player an unwanted and intrusive participant in an uncomfortable situation. Additionally, in modern society phones are highly private items that contain a lot of sensitive information about their owners; as such it’s seen as invasive to try and get into one without explicit permission from the owner themselves. From every side of the situation it’s a bad idea to get into this phone, but the entire game is built on the invasive presence of a stranger.
The context within these two narratives is especially important when examining what each of these characters are going through. For instance, the notes Katie is looking for in Gone Home are addressed to her directly and were written by Sam to let her big sister know what has happened in her life. Sometimes we get into Sam’s things, but the ultimate item we’re looking for are notes that are specifically for Katie. The playable character in A Normal Lost Phone has nothing to do with the owner, and could have easily just turned the phone into the police once they saw that the phone was locked.
As the youngest child, I’ve broken my fair share of diary locks and have listened in to many phone conversations between my older sister and her friends, but I’ve also always been close to my sibling, and knew when to keep my mouth shut about things I found out. Perhaps this is why Gone Home feels invasive in a less disgusting way, especially if you have siblings, as it’s a part of life that we all go through with families. A Normal Lost Phone, however, makes me feel like I want to take a shower afterwards because I feel gross for inserting myself in the secrets of someone that I (as the playable character) am not familiar with at all.