Growing up Riot Grrl: The Nostalgia Lie of Gone Home

by Maddy Myers

I don't even know how to begin to write about Gone Home. I guess I'll start by linking Anna Anthropy's piece, since it made me feel relieved. Oh, spoilers, by the way.

Even though I had some trouble connecting to Gone Home, I'm incredibly thankful it exists. It's worth $20. It's worth more than that. If I had to give it a score, I'd give it 10/10. It made me cry.

I still had trouble connecting to the game, though, and that's because it's depressingly unrealistic. Oh, don't get me wrong -- it's set in reality. There are no ghosts (I told you there'd be spoilers! No apologies). But it doesn't feel like a story that would happen in our world.

 I was relieved to play a story about gay teens that didn't end in tragedy. Gone Home manages to avoid that particular exploitative cliche ... and some players, or at least, some of the players in the NeoGAF thread about Gone Home, seem genuinely disappointed about the game not playing that trope straight (heh).

I wasn't disappointed by the lack of tragedy at the end of the game. I was relieved. But my relief had been ongoing, even foreshadowed by other elements in the game. In other words, the happy ending of Gone Home didn't feel like a real "twist" to me because the game had already pulled several punches earlier on.

I was born in 1986, so like Brendan Keogh and Mattie Brice (both around my age), I didn't quite feel the sense of 90s nostalgia that I think the game hoped to evoke. A 30+ aged player will remember this time period better than I. But I think I felt the nostalgia more than Mattie and Brendan did, overall. I started listening to NIN and Tori Amos in middle school (the late 90s), and during the time, I had a lot of older friends via my three-years-older-than-me sister (all of whom were grungy punks and goths). Perhaps most importantly, I was in a rock band starting in 1999.

When I was 13, a guy who I'd dated for two weeks asked me to be in his band because I had the best singing voice of anybody he knew. I also played the piano. And my parents had been in a band so my house was full of band equipment, so I had access to a crappy drum kit, a PA, a synthesizer, and all of my Dad's fancy guitars (which he eventually let said ex-boyfriend borrow). I may have been asked to be in the band because of my basement full of band equipment (and that may have been the reason why I never got kicked out of my high school band). I don't know. I try not to think about that too hard.

"But Maddy," you're saying, "you've told us that you weren't cool growing up! You said you didn't have any friends! You were in a band?!?!?!?!?!?!"

I'm not sure how to explain this so that you fully understand it, reader, but being in a band did not make me cool. We wrote rock songs that were literally about video games and the tropes therein (I'm currently in a band that still does this; I'm also still not cool). We were the only band in our entire high school that had any women in it at all. We were also the only band that had a non-white kid in it. We were also all incredibly unpopular at school, mostly due to not being attractive and/or being awkward and/or raising our hands in class too often and/or being squares etc etc etc. Cool kids unanimously cleared the floor whenever we got on stage. But we brought the PA, every time, and usually, my musician parents would be the ones mixing sound, so people had to put up with us. We'd get invited to open at parties packed with people way cooler than we were. But we didn't mind opening. If we closed, everybody would leave early.

It's interesting to look back on those times with my new-found progressive knowledge and realize how terrible it was. At the time, I had no idea why being in a band was so difficult or why no one liked my band. I honestly couldn't figure it out. I didn't put it together until much later: we were huge fucking nerds, AND we had women and people of color in our band (our original line-up had three female members; eventually, we had only one and then went back up to two). That was a double whammy that no one could get past. How could we possibly be rock n' roll with all of that shit in our band? We were the antithesis of rock n' roll! Or something.

The other kids in bands at school actually were popular and cool. There was a group of four incredibly rich white guys who had the fanciest amplifiers, the biggest houses on the nicest side of town, and their very own record with four beautifully recorded tracks. They sounded a little bit like Muse crossed with Dashboard Confessional, except slightly whinier. I hated those guys for their money and their inexplicable success, while simultaneously being confused about the fact that I had a secret crush on one of them. All four of them were jerks, some more than others. I can only hope they grew out of it ... but let's be real, they probably didn't.

The other "popular" band at school played ska. They were also pretty good, and I think they might have been nice, but none of them ever talked to me so I have no idea if they were. I guess that kind of speaks for itself, doesn't it?

If you were a punk rock girl at my school, you probably had a crush on at least one of the guys in these two bands. Or you were actually dating one. My Mom made a joke to me at one point about how as soon as my band got on stage, every single girl in the crowd would exit the floor.

The guys would stick around to watch us, though. This led to some prize stories later on, like the time when I got off stage and a group of dudes asked me how much I weighed because they "had a bet going". I told them, because it didn't occur to me not to, and when they laughed and walked away, I realized I had been the butt of a joke that had gone over my head.

People refused to dance to our songs, even covers; they would only dance to the other bands. Often they would openly laugh at us or mock us while we played. After one such experience, I started crying after leaving the stage because it had been so exhausting to keep playing in that environment. My Mom screamed at me the whole way home for giving in and crying in front of everyone, for letting them see me cry. I had embarrassed her. (As previously stated, my Mom had also been in bands growing up and knew exactly what I had gotten myself into. She just didn't know how to help me besides telling me to buck up and deal.)

Once, my band covered "Basket Case" by Green Day (Green Day had "sold out" by the time we covered that song, but everyone agreed that Dookie was still a cool album). Our cover provoked an extreme negative reaction. Multiple guys came up to my drummer and guitarist after the fact to tell them that we should never cover a Green Day song, or any other punk song, because my voice "ruined" it. (I have a recording of us doing this cover; I'll upload it later and you guys can decide if you think I "ruined" it. Spoiler: it just sounds like the song but with a woman singing. We didn't even change the key or any of the instrumentation.)


Eventually, my own band-mates started to blame me for our band's inexplicable unpopularity. It was my voice, they said. I had to sing lower (we changed the keys of some of our songs to accommodate this). I had to scream more. I had to sound masculine. I wasn't wearing the right thing. I looked too slutty, or not slutty enough. I wasn't enough of a "front-woman". My drummer made jokes about how my boobs were too small. They said I hid behind my piano too much. The one time I sang a song while standing in front of my piano, not playing it or hiding behind it, a guy came up to my drummer after the show to tell him to tell me not to do that because I "looked like a slut". (Noticed a pattern yet? These guys could never say these things to my face.) I couldn't do anything right.

I could go on. But that's more than enough anecdotes for now, really.

Gone Home is also about a girl who joins a band. It's even about girls playing fighting games, which I've also written about before, a little bit. Because I'm exhausted from all of those stories about my band, I don't think I'm going to bother to type out a bunch of stories about interactions I've had with guys growing up, playing fighting games and eventually lots of other different kinds of games. Let's just assume that the fighting games scene and the rock band scene aren't that different from one another. Because they aren't.

But Gone Home is about two girls who are part of these scenes. The game unabashedly describes these two young women going to arcades and playing Street Fighter together. There's no catch. There's no group of guys in the background telling them they're "weird", telling them to stop taking up space at the arcade or wherever else. Gone Home doesn't include diary entries or crumpled letters or evidence of harassment from the other guys in the band, or from the audience at the shows. There are some oblique references to "people at school," but that's about it.

I spent this entire game on pins and needles not because I was worried about discovering sudden tragedy, but because I know how this sort of story actually goes and it isn't this happy. I was worried the game would eventually become, y'know, realistic.

Gone Home does include some unexpected darkness in the story of Sam's dad, which if you connect the dots, turns out to be a story about abuse (that plot line has been confirmed by the Gone Home writers, by the way). But the story of Sam and Lonnie is unexpectedly happy and devoid of obstacles. Okay, there are some obstacles. But compared to my high school experience? Compared to most people's high school experiences? Dang!

No wonder I'm seeing so many young women playing Gone Home and saying they feel "jealous" of what these two had. I guess I just want to tell those young women ... uh, no one had this. This isn't a thing people had. This still isn't a thing people have, now.

I felt both confused and relieved to see Sam and Lonnie's feminist zine, since the only patriarchal "enemy" they define, on one scrap of paper on the kitchen table, is Mr. Grossman (who I think was the teacher who got Lonnie in trouble for that graffiti incident). If these two girls only had one awful encounter with a misogynist jerk, given the male-dominated scenes they both inhabited, that's incredible.

I wish I'd had a zine, or even understood feminism at all, when I was in high school. Instead, my experiences in a rock band and with gaming led me to believe that femininity itself was evil, bad, boring, shitty, and should be rejected. I downplayed my femininity as much as possible as time went on, realizing that in the context of those scenes, being femme meant being mocked. I started buying pants from the boys' section, not wearing any makeup besides a bucket of eyeliner, and making misogynist jokes for fun. I wanted to fit in with those scenes because those were the things I liked -- rock n' roll and video games. I thought that because I was a girl who liked those things, there might be something wrong with me ... or, something wrong with girls and girlhood.

I continued in that vein until about 2009, so, all the way from 1999 (age 13) through my college years (I graduated with an English degree in '08). Working at the Boston Phoenix actually helped me figure out what the fuck I was talking about with regard to gender. Thank goodness I ended up getting my start by writing about video games (and movies, and theater) at the Phoenix instead of IGN or something like that.

I'm jealous that Gone Home's heroines did figure out their progressive politics at such an early age, and that they also seemed to live in a sort of magical zone where patriarchy was a problem, but, like, y'know, not a biiiigggg problem. For example, when Lonnie quits ROTC at the end of the game, we don't really hear about the consequences -- seems like a metaphor for how the game approaches authority structures in general. Basically, all you have to do to get rid of patriarchy in Gone Home-iverse is ... step outside of it. Leave. Get in a car. And drive. Away.

There are probably tons of other people who can't relate to this game for a myriad of other reasons, like because it's a bunch of skinny white people who live in a mansion and have a decent public school in a town that seems safe. (Riot grrl was a great scene, and all, but it was still a scene. The riot grrl scene [and the goth scene, and the grunge scene] was pretty white-washed. "Heroin chic" favored the pale and the thin. Meanwhile, video games had/have their own issues.)

But there is a big part of me that likes this fake world. I did cry at the end of the game. I wanted Sam and Lonnie to live in their special world together forever. I wanted them to escape what few problems they did have, all of which were caused by the world around them and never by one another (seriously, no fights? This is a realistic relationship how exactly? jk, jk) and drive off into the sunset.

I never had anybody like Lonnie when I was younger. The relationships I had were terrible for a very, very long time. I didn't even have a friend like her growing up, let alone a significant other. I felt all alone and like no one understood what I was going through. I dated a couple musicians and a couple of gamers and none of them made me happy (I use the word "date" pretty loosely, here -- the number of actual significant others I've had in my whole life can be all-too-easily counted on one hand). A look through my house growing up would have revealed all of that.

After I played Gone Home I looked around my apartment and thought about that. I mostly thought about what my actual house -- my room at my parents' house, packed with poetry and lyrics and an entire horrible musical I wrote about all of the rock band drama at my school -- would reveal. A much sadder story, and not one that ended happily or neatly. I don't think I ever finished writing that musical, for starters.

That's okay, though. I'd rather play through a story with an actual narrative. And an ending, no matter how unrealistically adorable it may feel. It made me want something I could never have (thanks for that one, Trent). But I also knew that I'd come about as close as anybody could to having this past, this "cool girl" experience, and it was miserable bullshit.

Don't let anybody ever tell you that high school is the best time of your life. And don't, don't bother being falsely nostalgic for the world of Gone Home. It's a beautiful story. But that's all it is. It's just a story.

ETA: It is possible that had I attended high school a mere 4 years earlier, my experience would have been ~*completely different*~. I do know that the mid-'90s and the aughts featured a lot of cultural backlash against the advances of feminism made in the '80s and early '90s, so my experiences couldn't ever quite mimic Sam and Lonnie's. I may have been a few years too late for "true" riot grrl, although I would argue that I caught the tail end.
That said, I will maintain that high schoolers -- especially high schoolers in bands -- tend to be shitty, period. This other essay by a lady who was in a band around the same time period as mine describes her experience, which was also bad. Maybe 1995 was a banner year for girls in bands (so long as they were skinny and white)? At least (a small sliver of) the lady population of rockers got that one year, yeah? Yeah. Sigh.

ETA #2: Because I love you all, here are two more very old mp3s. The first one is from a show we played when we were all aged 13-14. It was our first show ever, and we played it for my sister and my parents (and recorded it). You can hear my sister's best friend at that time shouting "Violet Shift rocks!" at the beginning of the first track <3


 What's weird is that I think we sounded better in this first recording than we did two years later (at ages 15-16) when we tried to roughen up our sound in an effort to sound more bad-ass (it didn't work).