Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world in miniseries form. For this edition of the feature—Empty Spaces—we’re examining games’ most fascinating realms of desolation.
There’s a universal human fear of big, empty houses that feels almost primordial; something hardwired into our genetic code that tickles our fight-or-flight mechanism. Speaking generally, if you’re walking through the front door shouting “Hello?” and the only answer is your own voice echoing through the cavernous halls, it’s time to either pull out your Pope-blessed shiv or run for the hills. I’m not talking about haunted houses per se. I’m talking about emptiness. At least the Overlook Hotel had someone around, even if that someone was the enraged and restless souls of a defiled Native American burial ground. Still, there’s something to react to, something to mark your relative position in space-time. An empty house that has been abandoned, even by the ghosts? That’s truly unsettling.
“Daddy. Daddy. Find us.”
As Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs begins, you hear the disembodied voice of a child—yours, presumably—begging you to come to his rescue. You appear to be in a giant Victorian home, complete with metal cages surrounding the beds (for some harmless reason, surely!), a surprisingly large quantity of ceremonial pig masks, and a Transylvanian museum’s worth of troubling artwork lining the walls. The game doesn’t give you much more to go on, and soon enough you’re off with your trusty untrustworthy lantern to explore every dark, creepy corner of Satan’s beach chalet.
Like many sprawling charnel houses before it, the domicile in A Machine For Pigs is rife with big-game taxidermy, weird noises, and hidden passages. When you stumble into these secondary halls, you are sure to find the ephemera of murder—photographs, charcoal sketches, empty cribs, dolls, and one-way mirrors. What you won’t find, aside from the playful ghosts of your dead children, are other people.
The Amnesia house is at its most disturbing when it’s deathly quiet—when all you can hear are your own footsteps along the floorboards, or when you’re slowly ascending into a dark attic. Too often, though, the illusion of emptiness is shattered, and it feels like a cheesy haunted house built along the San Andreas fault. A piano will play of its own accord, or the lights will flicker, or the room will shake violently as you walk down the stairs. I half expected Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis to come dancing out of the rafters to “Jump In The Line.”
By the time you make your way into the catacombs beneath the estate, any lingering sense of atmosphere is drained by the presence of the horrible pig mutants that call this dank underground sty home. The beautiful mystery of the desolated house gives way to The Leaky Basement Of Dr. Moreau.
The makers of Gone Home—not nominally a horror game—understand the power of emptiness very well. The game takes place about 100 years after that guy in the other game who killed his kids was sacrificed to the all-powerful pig machine. It’s June of 1995 in Arbor Hill, Oregon. Your character, Katie, returns home after a year abroad. As the game begins, you’re on the porch of her parents’ house with luggage in tow. There’s a note on the door from your little sister, Sam. In the note, Sam apologizes for not being there to meet you, and she asks you not to go digging around trying to find out where she went. Sam doesn’t offer any explanation, promising only that you’ll meet again someday.
Neither of your parents are home. This is all turning out to be one of the crappier homecomings someone could ever not hope for. As Katie, you poke around the house, looking not just for clues to Sam’s whereabouts but also for your missing mom and dad. In the game’s one nod to horror cliché, there’s a raging thunderstorm outside. Fortunately, there’s no sign of pig monsters in the Pacific Northwest.
Gone Home was prototyped on the same engine that ran the first Amnesia game, and in many ways the house isn’t all that different than the one in A Machine For Pigs—it even has secret passages of its own. Also like that place, the Gone Home house is preposterously huge. The suburban trappings make its enormity feel even more ridiculous than the house in Amnesia, which at least looks like it might belong to an eccentric textile millionaire out of Dickens. This house, home to a failed writer and his family, is so big that it requires a map to navigate. I make my living as a writer. A map detailing my apartment would be pretty sad, and a game based on exploring it even sadder. Maybe I need to move the suburbs?
Gone Home has no poltergeists. There are no blood-splattered walls (although there is some clever use of red hair dye). There’s only one real “jump scare,” but it’s possible to miss it entirely. There are definitely no hideous affronts to nature or infernal machines. It’s all mundane, really. But Gone Home succeeds by embracing the emptiness, to the point that its most fully fleshed-out character never appears.
It takes a fair-to-downright-ballsy level of confidence in your creation, your writing, and your audience to pull this off. There’s an expectation in many games—and this extends to life in general, I think—that you’re not getting your money’s worth unless there’s a pig monster (figuratively speaking) around every corner. Gone Home serves as a standing rebuke to this idea of “more is more.” We don’t need pig monsters around every corner, and furthermore, we might be better off without any pig monsters at all.
Now, listen, I’ve seen every season of Dawson’s Creek. I know that a two-hour game about a ’90s teenage girl’s journey of self-discovery should not be this gripping. Yet here we are. Gone Home’s makers expertly take our expectations—namely, the expectations of what should happen when you’re alone in a big, empty house during a thunderstorm—and turn them against us in a bit of storytelling judo. There’s a subtle tension exerted throughout, which by the end of the game, standing beneath the attic door, has built into something positively white-knuckled. The developers make a bet that nothing they can conjure can be worse than what we come up with when left alone with our thoughts. They’re right.
Previously in the Empty Spaces series:
- Myst uses emptiness to calm you; its sequel uses emptiness to provoke
- There’s hidden beauty in abandoned World Of Warcraft cities