My Game of the Decade
The past decade of games has been defined by diversity — the age of massive publishers controlling game investment ended, and smaller, more experimental spaces have flourished. The industry itself had to reckon with a diversifying fanbase — In 2010, Nintendo was still selling every single Wii console they could build to bars and nursing homes, while the Xbox 360 and PS3 battled over the core audience that had dominated previous eras.
This decade saw the rise of VR, the fall of 3D, and the widespread adoption of motion controls. Improved mobile and tablet platforms meant that new gaming experiences were never far from anyone. Insurgent franchises dominated, as the twin juggernauts of Minecraft and Fortnite shaped the minds of every child raised in the era. Twitch and Youtube exploded with performative real-play videos and became the new television for an entire generation.
Against this backdrop, how does one even begin to encapsulate what was gaming in the 2010s? Do you look to the games that had the furthest-reaching influence on the industry as a whole? Do you elevate the game that brought you the most hours of joy? Or is the question an impossible, unanswerable conundrum?
To name a game of the decade diminishes every other game that could fill this spot, and give short shrift to the thousands of hours I’ve spent playing things I adored. I am not arrogant enough to say that I can predict what will be the most influential or best remembered — I’m no prophet. I can only speak about what I truly feel — not what I think best fits a narrative about capital-G Gaming.
I would also be loath to name a game if I didn’t feel strongly it should be named. I want to think that I wouldn’t be writing this if there wasn’t a game that needed to be elevated to greater importance. Luckily, when I look into my own gaming experiences of the past decade, there is one game that I simply can’t forget.
My game of the decade is 2013’s Gone Home.
The first few minutes of Gone Home sketch out a straightforward mystery/horror story. It is the 1990s, and you have returned from a long trip abroad to your family’s new home to find it abandoned. The floorboards creak, the lights sputter, and you steel yourself every time you round the next corner.
But what follows isn’t a ghost story (or at least not in the usual way). There’s no supernatural horror, no jump scares. Unlike other games of the time, there’s not even any combat — just walking, reading, and examining the relics of the 90s strewn across the set. (It was this game that led Steam users to coin the term “walking simulator”, intended as a slight.) This house isn’t a nexus of dimensional evil, nor the locus of an ancient curse. The ghosts that dwell in these walls are much more mundane.
At this point, I’d implore you to play this game if you haven’t. Gone Home shines as the player unravels the mysteries that the house contains. I’m going to go into detail here, but if you have the time and means please allow the game speak for itself first.
The ghosts in this house are your sister, Sam Greenbriar, and her friend Yolanda DeSoto (“Lonnie”). They are seniors in high school, both outsiders of different types. These girls were drawn to each other by their mutual interest in the aspects of 90’s culture that were considered “non-girly”: Street Fighter, riot grrl, and speculative fiction. They are fully realized teenage girls navigating the highs and lows of their own lives.
The beginning of their friendship can be read like a thousand other teenage dramas — kindred spirits from different walks of life brought together by circumstance. However, the truth of their relationship is initially obscured even to themselves, and it takes them months to come to a simple, frightening realization. Sam and Lonnie love each other.
As their relationship develops, it’s clear that neither girl had considered that they were queer, or at least did not have the words to express why they felt different. Nor did they initially think that the feelings they had for each other were anything more than high school friendship. They revel in finding the first person with whom they can actually share their obscure tastes and outcast irreverence. They grow closer and confide in each other about the wordless sense of social isolation they both feel, all set to the screaming catharsis of their latest riot grrl cassette.
The moment where they begin to truly see each other is the moment in the game that undid me. When exploring Sam’s bathroom, you discover the tub stained with red blotches —immediately evoking the spectre of suicide, the game clearly playing on the fear you have for these girls. Yet by the sink in that same room lies a simple bottle of red hair dye. And when I picked it up, the words of Sam’s diary played:
Lonnie brought her hair dye over today. She said, “I need to fix these roots. Think you could help?” Dyeing hair is weirdly… intimate. I don’t know if I’ve touched someone else’s scalp before. That’s pretty intimate, right? It felt intimate.
We looked in the mirror together after and I expected her to say something about how it looked crappy, or good or whatever. But that’s when she said, “You’re so beautiful.” And she was looking at me. Right in that moment, I wanted to say… something. But I waited, and the moment was gone.
This simple moment was the heart of this game’s story. The fear for these two girls, finally realizing how they felt, but knowing that their love would cut them apart from the inside. The image of them both looking in the mirror, keeping their distance from what they saw reflected back. Sam was transformed — her vulnerability and intimacy with Lonnie shone back, both her body and mind changed to something else.
I am a straight white male. I’ve been lucky enough in my life to be on the “acceptable” side of gender, race, and sex norms. In fact, I had never really questioned it — my upbringing saw those social mores as something akin to natural law. I had known that queer folk existed, but my exposure was limited to popular portrayals barely a step above stereotype.
Gone Home paused to show me these two girls, and something in me shifted. I saw for the briefest moment what it was like to be afraid of who you are. The stories I grew up with told me that loving another person was pure, joyous, and could never cause you harm. But then I saw these two queer girls who deep down knew that they loved each other, yet were absolutely terrified about what that meant. They showed their love by sitting in that awful silence, unwilling to love the other and put them in danger.
This wasn’t the first game I had played that had shown a same-sex relationship, but it was the first that made me understand the smallest bit of what it was like to actually live a queer life. The jokes I’d hear/make at school, and the lurid details you’d read about in tabloids were exposed as shallow sensationalism. Sam and Lonnie showed me of what it meant to truly be marginalized. To live in fear without hope. To be unable to live as you are, love as you will, and smile without fear of reprisal. Being gay wasn’t a punchline or a frivolity to these girls, it was a sentence to hardship and pain.
I had been bullied growing up — pretty badly, to the point that I’ve spent years in therapy trying to untangle it from my brain. I thought I knew what it like to live in fear. But where my experience differs is that I could imagine a future (distant though it might be) where the pain would end. A “normal” life with a family and full of peace.
After Gone Home I knew that my struggles, though very real and significant, paled behind the struggles of people whose very being damned them to a daily promise of pain. My privilege gave me a hard, yet realistic choice — endure, and tomorrow might be better. Sam and Lonnie lived a very different calculus: Either they could love as they would and suffer for it, or deny themselves true happiness and be allowed to continue to exist.
This was why Gone Home is my game of the decade. Not just because it affected me personally, but because it was one of the first big indie games to tell a story without violent conflict at the center, a story that was not built around events of cosmic importance but instead on the intimate, the quiet, the unsaid.
I want to be careful here — Gone Home did not invent the more intimate video game story by any stretch, nor was it the first to examine queer lifestyles. But it was the first to show a broader audience that not only did those games exist, but also say that games can explore these stories in a way that uniquely brings them alive.
The strength of video games to me has always been that they allow you to experience something you wouldn’t otherwise. I had always seen that in purely situational/role terms. I could be a magician, a fated hero, an otherworldly being. Early games taught me that the point of games was escapism, to revel in living another’s role. I never expected that a game would let me see something that was so alien to my own experience, yet so heartbreakingly human.
One afternoon, Gone Home let me see through the scared eyes of a young queer girl, and made me understand.