What you see is not always what you get: The Use of Horror Tropes and Themes in Gone Home

Josephine Kehm  

Michael Movsum

Kirk Paradis

Matthew Slaunwhite

Laura Vargas

ENGL 255

Carolyn Jong

February 3rd, 2017

There are numerous forms of media that artists can utilize in order to convey the themes that resonate with them. Some direct movies, others write literary novels or draw, but no matter the medium they choose to employ, there is always a purpose to their work. Video game designers are no different. Gone Home is a game that uses each component of its content for a specific and well thought out purpose. Various horror themes and tropes are utilized in order to set the atmosphere of the game world, and misdirect players into following a false narrative that heightens suspense and creates a deeply immersive game-play experience. Gone Home does not simply rely on narrating a story, but instead encourages each player to create a unique narrative in their heads. Players are intentionally mislead through the game’s visuals, sounds, lighting, clues, and written notes.

Within minutes of exploring the house and observing the surroundings, an unsettling atmosphere and tone is set, making it easy to suspect that something terrible has happened at 1 Arbor Hill. The house is mostly dark, apart from the main foyer, which is the only room that is illuminated. As the player continues to explore the house, many subtle allusions are made to various horror movies. The setting of the game is a large, unoccupied dark house. The house is in a state of chaos. Gone Home refuses to explicitly state what is going on, and invites the player to explore a dark and perhaps abandoned house. The game uses the horror trope called “nothing is scarier” in which the player “desperately wishes to know what has happened, so imagination fills in the blanks and their minds provide the content, using what the individual considers scary, which has an advantage over Show, Don’t Tell because not everyone finds the same thing scary”[1]. If the initial tone set by the house is not enough, early in the game a bloody bathtub is found by the player thus adding to the players’ earlier suspicions.gonehomie-600x375

However, this feeling is only momentary as the keen eyed player will soon discover that it is not blood in the bathtub, but hair dye.   Furthermore, as the player progresses in the game they come across a Ouija board accompanied by a note written by the dead owner of the house, and a pentagram in a secret room under the stairs.maxresdefault


The natural response of players upon finding these objects, is to wonder if the house is haunted, which is another popular horror trope. At every turn in Gone Home the developers rely on well-known horror tropes to mislead the player into believing they are about to uncover something terrible; all the while telling a beautiful love story.

One of the strongest visual horror moments in Gone Home is when the player has to enter the pitch black basement. We have all seen enough horror movies to know that it is never a good idea to go into dark basements, especially if you are alone. This moment of the game is incredibly immersive because of how relatable it is to real life and the associations being made in each player’s mind. We are sure every person at one point in their life has been uneasy about entering a dark basement and made a beeline for the light switch in the same way the player does in Gone Home.

Video of the player entering the basement in Gone Home: https://youtu.be/—wHuffn3g?t=489

In his blog post, “Creating Horror in Videogames: Topics, Tropes and Atmosphere” Panzadolphin56 states that “visual design is a key factor in atmosphere, and thus tension, and thus fear. A lot of the time good art direction is just as important to a game’s scares as the gameplay itself or the monsters”[2].  Gone Home is a perfect example of visual design creating fear. It does not rely on monsters, ghosts or murder to create fear for the player. The game simply uses visuals like darkness, emptiness, mess, confusing spaces, and imagination to create an atmosphere that puts each player on edge. This atmosphere is what creates such an immersive experience and this immersion is what builds fear in the player, even when there is nothing to fear. In his paper, “A Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer Role Playing Games”, Edo Stern discusses the taxonomy of narrative elements, and how specific technological issues in a game like server down time, glitches, communication between human players and loading screens can break the immersive experience [3]. Gone home is a truly an immersive experience not only because of the strong visuals that build the atmosphere, create fear and draw the player in, but because it does not present any situations where technological issues break the immersion. There are no servers, no glitches and no humans to interact with. It is just the game and the player, in one sitting, and each player’s experience is never interrupted. Gone Home draws the player into the story and hooks them from beginning to end. For the few hours of gameplay the player truly is Katie trying to figure out just what has happened to her family. Although the visuals in Gome Home are the strongest element in terms of building immersive gameplay, they would not have nearly the same impact without the fantastic sound design.

Sound technicians have mastered the art of atmospheric components through many years of experience, which has led to their ability to influence the mind of the player. Choosing the right patterns, timings, scales, and volume to provoke a reaction has become a prominent aspect of video game creation. Gone Home implemented ambient sounds brilliantly, carefully injecting expectations related to fear in the player’s mind as they wander through the deserted mansion.

At well placed times in the game, the player will hear sounds like crackling wood, reminding them that the mansion is old and silent, bringing up memories of horror movies.This, in turn, creates expectations once again. Moreover, many visual clues point towards the presence of a poltergeist, but these clues would not be as strong if the clear sound of footsteps did not accompany them. Add a serious thunderstorm outside, and limitless thoughts may cross the player’s mind. These thoughts are utilized in order to create a sinister atmosphere that aids in the immersion of the player, and the belief that something disturbing is about to happen. These loud sounds instantly break the heavy silence and the player’s focus, leading into a jump scare almost every time.

Additionally, the voices heard in the background when music is playing or a voice message is being listened to contribute to the atmosphere. Almost inaudible deep voices whispering through the sound waves of an audiotape stimulate our horror references, and force a fearful reaction. While many of the visual clues can be paired with logical explanations as to why they exist, these voices remain a mystery throughout the entirety of the game, constantly keeping the player on their toes, expecting a frightening event to occur at any moment.

Lastly, there is music played through audiotapes. For the casual player not paying too much attention, the music they hear is mostly Sam’s teenager punk rock, anti-conformist music. However, the songs were chosen for a reason. While the tone and mood of the music itself is not troubling, the lyrics point towards the presence of an unknown individual, watching over the listener. These hints, even though players do not necessarily pay attention to them, are processed by their brains, and the lyrics also play a role in forcing a psychological reaction from each player. On a different note, when the music is playing loudly, the player becomes calmer. The noise covers all the ambient sounds that make the atmosphere extremely dense, giving a rest to the brain, letting it be distracted by the music. However, the music is another medium to convey a message to the subconscious of the player through its lyrics.

Considering these audio components, we can refer to the studies of Dr. Daniel Blumstein, an expert at the University of California in animal distress calls. Blumstein demonstrates how nonlinear sounds, usage of minor scales, and sudden rise in volume match the physical reaction of a young mammal calling for help when struck by fear. In his studies, the replication of these sound patterns inevitably triggers an instinctive reaction of fear. Like horror games and movies that have come before it, Gone Home makes use of this concept, and therefore, misleads the players into believing they are immersed in a frightening, unsafe environment.[4]

Although Gone Home is a game that focuses mostly on the visual side of narrative, the rare instances of spoken narrative throughout the game prove to be very important. In fact the game mostly relies on visual clues like written messages, but the spoken narrative provides the player with more information that extends beyond their own interpretation of what they see. The spoken narrative in this game is limiting, however, since the only person whose feelings and thoughts are shared are those of Sam. The dynamics of the family as well as information regarding the parents are only revealed through written clues and other objects that the player may manipulate and observe. The game also pushes the player to interpret the meaning behind Sam’s narrated journal entries, as most entries remain short and vague but often suggestive. Unlike other video games, Gone Home gives its players the freedom to “find” the spoken narrative. In other words, the player must touch certain objects in order to trigger one of Sam’s journal entries. The player could technically go through the entire game not touching these objects which would remove the spoken narrative from the game completely. The fact that the spoken narrative has to be triggered in some way stresses its importance as it provides the player with the most resourceful clues concerning Sam’s disappearance, thus encouraging them to look for more ways to activate Sam’s journal entries.

The spoken narrative is also important as it complements the visual clues found around the house. Once Sam has revealed her feelings at the time of writing the journal entry in question, the player becomes more aware of certain elements in the game. For example when the player enters Sam’s bathroom there seems to be blood in the bathtub, but the player soon found out it is only hair dye. Sam then talks about the time Lonnie dyed her hair and how intimate the situation felt. This spoken narrative helps to explain the relationship between Lonnie and Sam and may give the player an idea of why Sam isn’t anywhere to be found. Initially seeing the “blood” the player assumes someone died, most likely Sam, but the spoken narrative contradicts what the players are lead to believe. The fact that the spoken and visual narratives seem to be at odds with each other throughout the course of the game keeps it mysterious as the player may feel confused and unsure as to what direction the narrative of the game is headed into. The spoken narrative is often short and vague which allows the player to interpret it in many different ways. The ominous feeling created by the game’s visuals influences the player’s interpretation of the spoken narrative. In other words, the sense of creepiness felt by the player over the course of the game influences the interpretation of the spoken narrative, which shows nothing alarming but a rebelling teenager.  

Aside from the spoken narrative in the game, the story is also conveyed through journal entries which can be found scattered around the house. One of the first interactions with this type of medium can be found at the beginning of the game, when Kaitlin comes back home after studying abroad and reads a letter from her sister Sam. In the letter, Sam invites Kaitlin to use her room for her stay at home since, as Sam abruptly confesses, she will not need it any longer.letter-to-katie

Because the reason Sam will not be needing the bed any longer is unclear to Kaitlin, and the player, this message sets up the dark and ominous tone that is characteristic to the game. By inserting this letter so early in the game, the developers clue in the players as to what type of game this is, and set the dark atmosphere that is consistent throughout the entire story.  

As the story progresses, other journal entries are uncovered as the player explores the house. The game focuses mostly on Sam’s story, however, on some occasions, journal entries are added that address her parents’ marriage. Through these entries, the players learn about the many marital issues that have been occurring in the family, which seem to indicate that a terrible fallout has occurred in this house. The storytellers take it a step further when they include a note from Sam’s uncle who is believed to have gone mad.

Link to image of letter: http://images.akamai.steamusercontent.com/ugc/420314414244442044/AD1746A0EDE85DCD58B107BFAB0DE7583C2F1056/

Although there are few entries concerning this character, there is an entry of a letter that he wrote to his sister about wanting to be recognized by his own family. The frantic writing, combined with the troubled tone that he writes in, suggest further tension in this family. This entry had the purpose of  raising the question of whether or not the uncle had a hand in this terrible event that may have happened in this house.

As the player continues to explore the story, more links are made as to what they think happened in this creepy house. An important thing to note is that for the most part of the experience, the journal entries and notes that are found throughout the house are hidden from the player. This is significant because each player is free to explore the house in whichever order they please and thus, can obtain different results depending on their experience. Since it is possible to miss most of these notes and just focus on Sam’s story, players may be lead to believe that perhaps Sam has committed suicide because of all the issues surrounding her. However, if the player chooses to read some of the other notes and journal entries as well as pay attention to the interactive objects in the game, they may be led to think she has been involved in some type of demonic ritual.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that the game never explicitly mentions any of the beliefs that the players might be having. These beliefs are a byproduct of preconceived notions and biases that each player brings with them to the game that form the beginning of the story.  This is not an uncommon practice in videogames. A top tier contender for storytelling using narrative are games from the Dark Souls series. These games implement the workings of the written work, sound design and dialogue in order to tell their stories. These games however, do not feature much spoken dialogue. The entirety of the game even though filled with enemies and some minor NPC’s will be void of words. This is similar to Gone Home, in that the player gets to interact with the story and choose their immersion level [5].

The story of Gone Home is one that depends completely on the engagement of each player.  How they perceive the environment, what links they make and what they choose to interact with, all play a part in how the game is interpreted by each individual. While playing the game, it is clear that although the clues and pieces of information given to each player are important, the absence of information is equally important. Characters who were once there and now are not give the player a sense of purpose. Likewise, the missing pieces of the story drive players to continue searching for answers to questions that their brains create. Adding that to the use of visuals and ambient sounds, players are left with a brilliant game that allows them to participant in the unveiling mysteries of the Greenbriar family.


Full playthrough video of Gone Home



List of further readings





Works Cited

[1] “Nothing is Scarier.” TV Tropes.  30 Jan. 2017.


[2] Panzadolphin56. “Creating Horror in Videogames: Topics, Tropes and Atmosphere.” Destructoid. ModernMethod LLC. 5 Dec. 2012.


[3] Stern, Eddo. “A Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer Role Playing Games.” Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference Proceedings. Ed. Frans Mayra. Tampre University Press, 2002.


[4]  HAGGIN, Patience, TIME, June 19th, 2012, Web, http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/06/19/why-is-scary-music-scary-heres-the-science/


[5] Battery, Tom. “Narrative Design in Dark Souls.” Gamasutra Article. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.


Picture sources:



Ouija board


Blood in tub



Holmes , Courtney . “Why Computer Game Gone Home Deserves a Place in Your Teenager’s English Curriculum.” Pixelkin. N.p., 21 Dec. 2014. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.


“Steam Community :: Guide :: The Chronological Order of Events in “Gone Home”.” Steam Community :: Guide :: The Chronological Order of Events in “Gone Home”. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

What you see is not always what you get: The Use of Horror Tropes and Themes in Gone Home

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