In this exploration game released in 2013 and set in 1995, you play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21-year-old woman who’s just returned from traveling in Europe. Arriving in the middle of a rainy Oregon night, she finds her family’s home a deserted mess. Gameplay focuses on exploration to find out what has happened, as you locate objects which either hint at elements of the story or trigger playback of voice diaries from Kaitlin’s sister, Sam.
I wasn’t totally won over and there were a number of things I strongly disliked, but I think there are some interesting things going on in the game and I’m glad I played it (and that I got it on sale, but thoughts on that later.) Reviewing the game on this blog is itself a spoiler: a major character in the story is not straight. I’m not sweating revealing this spoiler above the cut because the game’s been out a while and the spoiler is fairly well known among people who haven’t played the game yet. However, the rest of this review contains more spoilers, as well as some thoughts about spoilers and gender and sexuality minority characters, behind the cut. I think you can probably read these spoilers without actually spoiling the gameplay, but you’ve been warned.
The game involves learning about your high-school-aged sister Sam figuring out her sexual orientation and dealing with the response from her new school and her parents, culminating in running away with her girlfriend. That story is fleshed out by simply learning about what this family’s life is like in their new house. Sam as well as parents Janice and Terry are varyingly fleshed-out, realistic characters. This is where I felt the game was at its strongest. The scriptwriting and character development for Sam and Terry is very well done. The same for Janice (the mother) is not as engaging, but there’s enough to work. There isn’t much about Kaitlin, the player character, who actually functions more as a non-playing observer, but the process of discovering the events in this house is managed decently to build a little about her as you go.
The developers also found a good balance between the required and nonrequired story. You can simply complete the game by finding most of the objects triggering Sam’s voice diaries, which tell the core story and guide you through the house. However, the less guided process of piecing together the stories of the other characters from notes and other found objects was more fun for me, and left me wanting more. Actually, despite voice actress Sarah Grayson’s superb reading of Sam’s voice diaries, I’d have preferred to discover Sam’s story in the same clue-driven way. If you get the game through Steam, there is an option to play without these voice diaries; I didn’t get it through Steam so I don’t know how well that would work. I think you can still figure out the core story, but without the emotional depth, and this gets us into one of my major issues with the game: emotional depth outside of the script was managed through expectations of nostalgia.
The environment of the game is a mansion in Oregon in 1995. The developers have said that the game’s setting in 1995 is largely because it means more handwritten notes and clues. I get that, but I think the bigger thing here is that 1995 is when they were somewhere around Sam’s and Kaitlin’s ages. This becomes clear when listening to the developers play through the game. They put in a phenomenal amount of effort designing all these elements of the homes from their childhood. They talk about artists creating objects from their own childhood memories, and other members of the team seeing those objects and remembering them too: a blue woven rug, a white wicker chest of drawers. This effort at detail also means the game is also dense with in jokes and references, which hint more at what I think is actually being created here — not immersion, but community. I didn’t feel like i was looking at the lives of these characters, but rather was asked to remember when my life included these things it never did.
If these elements bring you nostalgia, then that seems to create immersion really effectively and means that the game is dense with relevant and meaningful stuff. The cost of the game makes sense for the work spent on creating this nostalgia mine. Since the nostalgia stuff was lost on me, I’m glad I got it on sale. There’s nothing wrong with writing what you know. However, it’s a lot easier to fall into a “you had to be there at the time” situation, and that’s how I often felt while playing this game: I had to be there at the time to get why this mattered, and in the many places where the game designers put deep work into the visual design of the environment, the solution to “why does this matter” was to make up some sort of nostalgic response.
I strongly appreciated how some design choices in the game supported the story’s themes. A major element of the story was Sam’s fantasies, particularly her exploration of the house and efforts to find and connect with ghosts that ultimately weren’t there, because this isn’t a ghost story. Terry and Janice also each have their fantasies they are chasing as ways of dealing with, or avoiding, the difficult realities of their lives. These all called back to a gameplay theme of escapism, and are potentially mirrored by you, the player, setting up this fantasy of what might be happening based on hints at horror and supernatural elements, only to find that they really are just fantasies and these characters are dealing with something real too. However, for one, real stories don’t need the exclusion of fantasy — just in terms of games, I’m thinking of the Blackwell series and The Cat Lady — and for another, this in many ways isn’t a real story. It’s a nicer, simpler, happier story, which ends on a strangely discordant note because the runaway ending doesn’t make sense to me in context of the information given.
And so that’s another place the game lost me: I want to say that it’s nice to see a story with a queer main character who both experiences homophobia and has a positive ending, but this is a very romanticized, nearly consequence-free presentation of running away. It undermined the theme of facing reality, and as someone who actually ran away it rubbed me very wrong.
Designer Steve Gaynor says that this was basically a modern Romeo and Juliet, and maybe that’s why this turns out to be a simpler, lighter, romanticized story. But this means that Sam’s experiences of homophobia sound much closer to when the game came out in 2013 than to its setting in 1995; there’s almost no sexism outside of the lesbophobia in her experience, weirdly enough, which makes her riot grrl zines and music feel tacked on and shallow. Her voice diaries describe her experience in a way that feels like it’s supposed to be comprehensive, enough of a gist of the whole iceberg. It’s the other characters for whom we get only the tip, wanting to know more. Although this game is celebrated for centering a sexual minority character, the most compelling character to me was Terry, the straight father, whose story went from just plain weird to fascinating (spoiler-heavy link here). Where the same-gender romance, as well as Janice’s affair, felt like worn plots without much exploration, Terry’s story felt fresh and mysterious. In fact, as someone who really was the queer kid who ran away, his story and a little of Janice’s brought me some understanding of the parents’ experience, even as those parents were significantly different from my own. Meanwhile, Kaitlin is almost a non-player character, just a mechanic for everyone else’s stories. This felt disappointing for a game whose characters were mostly independent women, and the overreliance on tropes felt disappointing for a relatively puzzle-free exploration game.
However, I see that the story worked for a lot of people. It was very highly reviewed by many people, of many sexual orientations. So, I think that matters. Nostalgia aside, since a coming out story is the core, I think your likelihood of enjoying the game is pretty tied to how much you enjoy — or at least, are willing to experience — coming out stories.
And that brings me to talking about spoilers. I am angry that revelation of a characters sexual orientation or gender identity remains a significant, effective plot point. I am angry that heteronormative and cisnormative standards around storytelling make many creators feel that the only way they can include gender and sexual minority characters is to have those characters’ difference be a plot point, therefore giving them a reason to be present in the story at all. I’m angry that this means there’s a large volume of media with gender and sexual minority characters whose mere mention on this blog is a spoiler. I believe this reinforces the ongoing erasure and abnormalization of real people who are gender and sexual minorities, even when those GSM characters are implemented respectfully and carefully. I do believe that the developers were respectful and careful and loving in writing the characters in this story. I think revelation of a character’s gender or sexual orientation as a plot point can be a useful tool sometimes. Here it seemed like it was used to avoid telling people this was a coming out story, and to pad the narrative of that coming out story. Which is sad, because the coming out stories that need telling don’t generally need padding.
Lacking numbers, I find myself weighing their possibilities: how many people wouldn’t have played if they knew its sexual minority content beforehand, but when they did play they learned something and maybe became better people? How many people would have played the game either way? How many straight people loved the game because it felt like a way to love a sexual minority character and also know someone else’s secret? Is there any way that this narrative plot choice has any benefit for GSM players?
At the end of the day, I think the mainstream video game industry’s celebration of this game is a valuable and important milestone, and I hope it helps encourage mainstream game companies to invest in more sexual and gender minority character stories. It’s a sweet little story written with care and compassion even when it’s shallow, and Terry’s story is dark and sad in ways that surprised me. It’s not a great game, but it’s a good game, full of objects of potentially deeply personal significance, and intertwined stories that are a pleasure to unfold.