In Gone Home, a first-person exploration video game released back in 2013, the players are put into the role of a young woman, Katie, a college student returning home from Europe. The story is set in the late 90s, where Katie discovers her sister Sam’s identity and inner world all-while solving the puzzle of her missing family members and an empty house, which her family had moved into while she was away. The game was essentially a walking simulator: the player of the game gets to explore and interact with objects in the “home” that they are completely unfamiliar with. The house that they call “home”, being multi-floored, decorated in 19th-century fashion with dim lightings, builds up a world that is filled with unknowns and unfamiliarity.
Despite the dark, eerie vibe of the environment, Gone Home is not a horror game, it had no jump scares or any elements that had to do with a haunted house. Different from what most players would expect, Gone Home is about a house that is haunted in its own way of family drama. In the game, the player, or Katie, learns new information about her family members through picking up objects around the house as clues for what is going on. Eventually, they gain an eventual understanding of what had happened to Katie’s family while she was away overseas. Her parents are going through a marriage crisis and a potential divorce, all while her little sister, Sam, undergoes bullying as the new girl in town when the family moved into the “Psycho-House”. Katie learns from Sam’s diaries, that as the target of peer pressuring and bullying, Sam develops traumatic stress within herself, becoming self-conscious of and tries to avoid the place that she calls home. Sam, being a queer teenager in the nineties, was mistreated by her peers in school, as well as misunderstood by her family. The game becomes a personal depiction of a horror story; unlike exploring in a haunted house of ghosts, Sam has to live in the house that seems to symbolize her loneliness and isolation from the rest of the world. The same sense of loneliness and isolation would lead Sam into the feeling of fragmentation. To cope with the emotional trauma she is going through, she goes back and forth with her self identity, failing to accept herself as a queer teenager, a “psycho-house girl”, or the girl that is just “shy and having trouble making friends” in her parents’ perspective. The parents are emotionally absent from helping Sam as they are busy dealing with their own problems, leaving Sam nobody to talk to for a long time. Sam’s eventual decision to leave the house even before she gets to see her sister Katie may come from the same sense of fragmentation; on one hand, Katie is the person Sam writes to and recognize as one of her closest friends, but on the other hand, Sam is uncertain whether Katie will fail to accept her queer identity like everyone else. This leads to Sam’s decision of escapism, avoiding communicating and connecting with her sister. As the player of Gone Home, I grow accustomed to viewing Sam as my own sister and develop an understanding to be empathetic with Sam’s experiences.
Gris was designed under a very distinct aesthetic. While Gone Home displayed a traumatic experience through a voice-note, journal-entry narrated by Sam’s human voice, Gris showed mental traumas in the visualization of colors and the lack of colors. In Gris, players control the main character, a girl who is lost in her inside world, to bring back the colors symbolizing positive emotions over the platform game. At the beginning of the game, players are supplied with even less background knowledge than Gone Home. Not knowing the name of the protagonist or the goal of the game, we see the girl fall from the sky into a void of a grey desert. Gris is a game, but it is also an illustrational art piece. Its simplistic yet detailed hand-drawn background with barely any verbal cues or directions created an immersive experience for the players to explore in the world of Gris, guided by the colors and images that conveyed the emotions of Gris, or “grey” in Spanish. In Gris, the grayness is a representation of emotional trauma and fragmentation. One key notion of the game is that grayness is equal to a lack of colors, and to bring back the colors is to erase the grayness. In Gris, the protagonist’s inner world is a colorless world of storms and ruins, yet she undergoes self-learning and recovery to bring back order and colors. The self-learning was shown in gaming by unlocking new skills to combat the sandstorms, representing the main character learning a new coping mechanism to fight against her traumas. A complete play-through of Gris would lead to bringing back all colors to the girl’s inner world through a series of puzzle-solving and visual experience.
Neither Gone Home and Gris are designed for commercial playability; they are made to illustrate an experience of trauma and recovery. In both games, players get to gain an empathic view of the characters going through traumatic fragmentation in their lives. Probing through the game, a common theme shared by both games was that they connect the players to the characters’ trauma, despite in different ways. In Gone Home, players using the walking simulator can easily put themselves into Katie’s first-person perspective. With no previous knowledge of the house or the family issues, Katie is just as confused as the players. Hearing Sam’s voice through her journals and exploring daily items used by each family member, we can develop the notion that we are Katie, and fully empathize with the little sister, Sam. When Sam’s sexuality and identity are revealed at the end of the exploration, players can no longer say that they feel isolated from the story. In a first-person experience, we get to delve into Sam’s mental wounds through the view of a loving family member, wanting to help her through communications and establishing a connection. Gris entails a similar experience illustrated through very different mechanisms. We know little about the person who owns the inner world of Gris. It could be anyone in this world who is undergoing any form of grief and trauma, looking for a recovery. In my opinion, the girl living in the world of Gris does not represent the gender of the main character, instead, it could be living in everyone’s individual, inner mental realm. A play-through of Gris would require players to guide the girl and be alongside her as she retrieves colors to the ruins to finally be able embrace her individuality and mental health. Even though it is a two-dimensional platform game, we can still feel engaged as the protagonist of the game. In both cases, players do not necessarily have a “fun” gaming experience. What we receive alternatively is a learning opportunity to empathize and relate to those who have undergone pain and fragmentation; we obtain an understanding of ideas to help with recoveries from these traumas.