Before the reviews went up for Gone Home, I knew it was going to be interesting seeing who considered what parts of the game a spoiler.
Almost a year ago when I played the IGF build of Gone Home, I would have agree that Sam’s coming out story was a spoiler. As such I kept the secret, thinking that it played a much larger role in the game. Keep in mind this was a demo that ended when you open Sam’s locker and hear about her first kiss. The story, at that point, culminated in the realization of Sam’s sexual awakening, without any access to the basement, kitchen, dining room, greenhouse, or attic that comprised over half of the entire experience.
After playing the full game my view on its spoiler status changed, and I was excited to read reviews from other writers and see whether they considered it a spoiler or not after playing through the whole thing at once without a first playthrough that ended at the locker.
It turns out mine was the only review (that I saw at least) that mentioned Sam’s coming out story. I was shocked, expecting at least a few to at least acknowledge one of the game’s most prevalent themes. There was actually one other writer who sent me private messages on twitter asking if I thought talking about queerness was a spoiler or fair game for a review, and I explained that I thought it wasn’t. That writer’s review ultimately does not include any reference to Sam being a lesbian.
Now, the argument has been made that it is best to go into Gone Home without any prior knowledge of the plot at all, and I think that is also an acceptable view. But if you are writing a review from that stance, it can be a nigh impossible task. Mentioning that the father is a troubled writer or that the mother is contemplating an affair already breaks that trust, which most reviews had no trouble disclosing. So why leave out the main character, the character who is quite literally the voice of Gone Home?
I believe the fact that Sam’s sexuality is considered a spoiler says more about our culture’s views on homosexuality than it does on the actual game. Homosexuality is still largely considered the taboo “other,” even by allies and many within the LGBT community. That is not “other” in a negative sense, but rather the simple expectation that someone is straight until proven gay, and when that proof is given there is a tendency to act surprised. I am guilty of this as well, it is a pervasive part of our culture.
So even though Sam’s attraction is clear from the very first note mentioning Lonnie, a note most players will find within their first 10-20 minutes, it is still treated largely as a surprise, as an unexpected twist that subverts expectations. Even though there is no grounding for those expectations in how Sam is presented at any point in the game.
Let’s compare the reaction to Gone Home to another recent game with character relationships at its core: The Walking Dead. I would argue that Sam’s relationship with Lonnie is just as central to Gone Home as Lee’s adopted fatherhood for Clementine. And yet reviews had no issue coming right out and (rightfully) praising The Walking Dead for having and developing that relationship. The fact that Lee takes on that father-figure role isn’t a spoiler, it’s how that relationship informs their actions that players will discover and shape the emotional core of the game.
Likewise, it isn’t a spoiler that Sam is attracted to other women. Like the theme of fatherhood, within the theme of “queerness” there are still a vast spectrum of experiences that could be conveyed. Her sexuality simply acts as the framing agent for those experiences.
Just using Sam’s queerness as a starting point it opens tons of story possibilities. Does Lonnie feel the same way? If so, will they stay together? How will Sam’s parents react? How does Sam’s school react? How does this all piece together to explain why Sam isn’t home, and where she might be? Does the fact that Sam is missing have anything to do with why the parents aren’t home? What is going on with the parents anyway? Who is Oscar? Why is the house called “The Psycho House?”
One more question, does Sam’s sexuality ruin the reveal of those more relevant questions?
Knowing that Sam is a lesbian doesn’t spoil the discovery of her Captain Allegra stories and how they evolve with her own self-realization. It doesn’t spoil how her own affinity for writing fiction draws a parallel to Terry, who also tried to make sense of childhood experiences through fiction and received only discouragement from his own father. It doesn’t spoil how the “ghost” of Oscar that caused Terry to become reclusive and jeopardize his marriage was also the catalyst for Sam’s first true love. It doesn’t spoil a strained and complex family dynamic. It doesn’t spoil Sam and Lonnie’s zine, or Sam’s attempt in vain to make her school aware of the abuse and bullying she received because of who she loved. It doesn’t spoil that Sam and Lonnie’s only option was to escape from their expected lives if they had any hope of being happy.
So why did I come right out to say Sam was a lesbian in my review, and spoil Gone Home for all those potential players? Because Sam’s sexuality isn’t a spoiler, and I didn’t actually spoil anything.