Warning: Major Spoilers
Since Gone Home made its way onto consoles and I finally got a chance to play it, it’s become one of my favorite video games of all time. It ranks up there with re-watching Harlem Nights or re-reading The Great Train Robbery as one of my go-to comfort media experiences.
Yet, even though the game is three years old and has been endlessly dissected, I notice there’s a backstory that never seems to get explored or talked about. The focus of the game is Kaitlin Greenbriar's returning home from a summer abroad and exploring the new house her family moved into while she was away, all the while discovering that her sister, Samantha, had fallen in love with a girl at school and run away with her to start a new life. And that’s a very compelling story that I enjoy, but the entire Greenbriar family also has a tale lurking in the shadows.
The one I want to look at today is about Terrence, Kaitlin and Samantha’s dad, and his uncle, Oscar Masan, who died and left the Greenbriars his mansion. Oscar is probably the most mysterious figure in the game’s lore. Samantha and her girlfriend, Lonnie, attempt to summon him in a séance under the stairs, and notes left by the girls indicate that they believe his ghost wanders the halls of the house on Arbor Hill. There’s also the matter of creepy secret passages plastered with old newspaper advertisements Oscar apparently had built into the house at some point.
All of this is primarily part of the game’s fake-out, that you’re playing a survival horror game until it becomes clear all the creepiest elements were merely window dressing for a more mundane coming-of-age story. Oscar somewhat fades into the background as the plot tightens on Sam and Lonnie’s relationship, but there is still a compelling history involving him. You just have to look for it.
With the exception of some newspaper clippings, every note directly dealing with Oscar as a living person is hidden. One is in a false bottom compartment in Terrence’s desk, another in a locked file cabinet, and the last in a safe in the basement. All these notes are optional and easy to miss, and just to make it even more annoying, they’re all in a hard-to-read script you really have to take the time to decipher.
The note in the desk sets up the story. I’ve transcribed it below…
I write on what I hope and imagine is a joyous occasion. News reaches me that you are newly married to a wonderful young woman. I have had more than a little time to consider my past and my family, and my thoughts have often lingered on your development and welfare in the ten years since we last met. Your marriage gives me much reassurance in this regard.
You are always welcome on Arbor Hill, [torn] I will understand [torn] -urse if you feel you can- [torn] accept this invitation.
Yours very sincerely,
The postmark on this letter is 1973, 23 years before the game takes place. According to some other evidence in the game (more on that later), the last time Terrence saw Oscar, he was 12 years old, in 1963. The other letter in Terrence’s office is Oscar’s will, indicating 1973 was the year he willed the house on Arbor Hill to Terrence, though there’s no evidence the two ever corresponded anymore. All we know is that, according to a newspaper article about Oscar’s drugstore/ice cream parlor, Terrence was his favorite nephew, and then he stopped seeing him suddenly when Terrence was still young.
Some notes on Terrence real quick. He is a science fiction writer fallen on hard times. He had two books released dealing with time travel and the Kennedy assassination (in 1963, remember?), but his publisher dropped him because of declining sales and he contributes to the family by writing stereo equipment reviews for a magazine. Since he moved to the house on Arbor Hill, it’s indicated that he’s become physically and emotionally distant from his family and possibly drinks too much. By the end it’s revealed that a publisher has rediscovered and re-released his books, and that Terrence has begun work on a third novel.
However, there’s still more to the story in the basement. The first clue is a copy of Terrence’s first book, with a note taped to the back. It’s a letter from his father congratulating him on being published, but largely deriding the book as pulp fiction garbage. You can find one of his father's (Richard’s) books down here as well, a scholarly tome on James Joyce put out by a university press. The in-game text calls this “one of grandpa’s books,” hinting that Richard Greenbriar was a prolific and successful writer where his son was not. You can also find Richard’s portrait. His face has been cut out of the picture.
The implication here is that Terrence’s dad was kind of a cold and distant man (the Joyce book’s publication date is 1961, during Terrence’s childhood), and that he instead bonded with his uncle. Why would that relationship stop, though?
In the basement, in an easy-to-miss spot, there are height marks for Terrence growing up that abruptly stop at 12 in 1963. Beyond the fact that Oscar's measuring Terrence in the basement is already a little creepy, there is a secret passage here to the guest bedroom. There’s also the safe with the final Oscar letter. It’s addressed to his sister, Terrence’s mother, and it came back to him undelivered. It reads…
I write what shall be my last appeal to [redacted] go unanswered, one way or the other. I feel a prisoner, as on an island, with no jailor, no human soul for commune - only my one mind, examine itself, endlessly, endlessly searching for relief.
In the years since transgression I have sought no absolution, only bare forgiveness. In good faith I have removed myself from all temptation, sacrificed to prove my commitments however I can imagine.
Since Mother's passing I have yearned for nothing more than the acknowledgment of my own kin, to be treated as human again, to breathe the air of human spirit once more. By grace, even a wretch like me could be saved, but I do not expect it. If no response is received, I shall henceforth accept my sentence, and one day simply cease to be.
With a brother's love always,
The letter is post-dated either 1973 or 1975, it’s hard to tell which.
Since the safe also contains what looks like supplies for heroin use, I always assumed that Oscar had been caught abusing opioids by his sister while Terrence was visiting and cut off all communication with him over it. The other prevailing theory is that Oscar sexually abused Terrence, and got caught. That’s at least the authorial intent, according to Steve Gaynor when I asked him on Twitter.
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Yet another theory is that Oscar was himself gay and his family ostracized him for it. Regardless, something happened in the house to estrange Terrence from his uncle and that turned Oscar into a recluse. Terrence himself became fixated on the year 1963, as did Oscar (the combination to the basement safe is 1963). Terrence’s books are all about changing the past, and a note from Terrence’s editor at the stereo magazine implies that he has a tendency to wax eloquently about idyllic childhood in his reviews.
What I take away from this fractured story in the background of Gone Home is that Terrence was a gifted boy whose father was more interested in his own pursuits than his son, and that Oscar was a lonely man who found meaning in a relationship with his nephew. Oscar betrayed that relationship in some fashion, and tried to make amends by gifting his home to Terrence and isolating himself from the world. Whether there was a greater reconciliation is never revealed, and even having played the game’s commentary mode, little about Terrence and Oscar’s relationship comes up.
Mechanically, Gone Home is a game about what you can decipher about a house’s residents by the things those residents leave behind, and both Terrence and Oscar are characters that go to great lengths to leave little to be found. Oscar sequesters his few remaining possessions away in a basement or behind secret passages. Aside from his work as a writer, Terrence leaves behind virtually nothing for a player to discover, and one of those items is a note asking Samantha not to leave the lights on, literally asking her to shroud the house in darkness.
Gone Home’s story is dense. There’s a lot going on. It’s like Twin Peaks or Donnie Darko or House of Leaves. It’s something you have to actively re-explore, and even if you do, there’s no guarantee that you’ve found everything that’s to be found. For a game that so many people deride for being too short for its purchase price, it’s definitely a work I continue to get new things out of every time I play it. The hidden history of Oscar and Terrence is one of those things. I wonder what I’ll discover the next time I play it.