This piece is rife with story spoilers for Gone Home — and it's not the kind of game you want spoiled! Proceed at your own risk.
For about seven years, I was a queer movie critic. The job was almost as awesome as reviewing games, and its only real drawback is how, well ... not great so many queer movies actually are, usually thanks to budgetary issues and access problems.
I watched a whole lot of well-meaning schlock during that time. I've seen so many films about coming out, with love scenes featuring crying and/or poetry-spouting lesbians set to awful acoustic music, and zero-budget musicals that I secretly kind of loved, but only because they were capital-F fabulous. I've seen wonderful, transcendent queer movies as well, and everything in between.
None of them — good, bad, ugly, or just plain depressing — have moved me half as much as Gone Home did.
I've never, ever expected a game to be able to hit me on this deep a level. I've been playing games since I was five years old and, in that period, I've survived God knows how many apocalypses, interrogated and tortured people, harvested innocent Little Sisters, saved countless lives, saved the planet, romanced a bunch of aliens and humans and guys and girls and possibly robots (a lady never tells). I've gotten teary-eyed once or twice over an emotional ending, and counted favorite game characters (like Ellie from The Last of Us, my own Shepard from the Mass Effect trilogy and half of the cast of Psychonauts) among my favorite fictional people of all time.
But none of these experiences, as "emotional" as they are meant to be, could match the weight of playing through an experience that was so heart-wrenchingly real and painfully close to my own. Gone Home is, at its heart, the story of a young queer couple, and more specifically, the coming of age of Samantha, the creative, riot grrrl-obsessed sister of the main protagonist.
No queer movies have moved me half as much as Gone Home did
If you add a few years (2001 or so as opposed to 1995), change the SNES in the bedroom to a Dreamcast, and changed a few incidental details, this could be my story as a teen. I fell in love with another girl when I was 17. It was unexpected, and weird, and deeply disconcerting at the time. And we had a secret romance, the details of which could easily be excavated out of dorky notes and art projects and movie tickets, just like Samantha's and Lonnie's. Mortifyingly, I had a journal back then that I wrote in, saying basically the same things (occasionally exactly the same things) as Sam does. And my parents weren't exactly thrilled with the situation, either.
This took me right back to 2001, and right back to my 17-year-old self, the night I came out to my mom.
At first I was actually a little bit embarrassed by Sam, since the reminder was so stark. Who wants to remember being that young and awkward? The things you say and do when you're a nerdy 17-year-old queer kid terrified of anyone finding out what and who you really are are sad and funny and more than a little bit heartbreaking when you examine them from a distance. So looking at them up close again was difficult.
But the game treats Samantha's feelings as valid and real, not just something to be ridiculed. When you are that young, and going through a fundamental shift in your identity, it does feel that dramatic. And the power of that emotion bleeds into everything you do, whether it's playing Street Fighter 2 or writing elaborate stories about a badass pirate couple or trying to come out to your mom while you're at Walt Disney World, waiting for the rest of the family to ride The Tower Of Terror (that last one was all me — and a very apt description for coming out).
I do believe the generalities of the story apply to anyone who's ever been a teenager. Coming of age is universal, whether you're gay, straight, bi, queer, trans, or from any other color of the rainbow.
But for once in my life as a gamer, the specifics applied to me. And that was an immensely powerful experience.