On the evening of June 11, 2016, I left Orlando for a one month trip to visit my family in England.
On the morning of June 12, Pulse happened.
On July 12, the night before returning to Orlando, I played Gone Home for the first time.
Released in 2013, Gone Home is a short adventure video game about a woman named Katie Greenbriar returning to the new house her family moved into after she left for a year abroad. Playing as her, you arrive during a midnight rainstorm to find that none of her family are there. A tearful answering machine message and a cryptic note from her teenage sister, Sam, suggests a dramatic reason for their absence, so you begin exploring your new home for clues about what’s happened to them.
You piece together the timeline the way any respectful housemate would – by snooping through their things. There are hundreds of objects you can interact with, ranging from letters to pizza boxes to laundry detergent to (literally) underground zines. Some, like Sam’s Halloween costume, trigger diary entries read in Sam’s voice to explain their significance to the unfolding family drama; most others, like the condom you find in your parents’ underwear drawer, largely speak for themselves.
I played Gone Home that night because I played a lot of video games during my downtime on that trip – anything not to endlessly ruminate about the physical and psychic distance separating me from my hometown. It was one of the most emotionally vacant months of my life. I played Gone Home that night because it was a favorite game of some of my friends who were most impacted by the shooting, friends I was desperate to connect with after a month of sporadic, fraught check-ins. But the biggest reason I played Gone Home that night was because I knew it’s twist. What Katie ultimately finds is that her sister developed feelings for her best friend Lonnie and began a queer relationship with her. Their parents did not approve.
Gone Home is a game about someone returning from a long trip to Europe and having to readjust to the changed queer reality of her family. In a sense, I was about to do just that.
I am an asexual man with a complicated relationship to queer identity. The ace and queer communities have historically shared a great deal of friction over purity politics – that is, questions of who “counts” as queer or ace – which made me hesitant to identify as ace for many years and makes me reluctant to claim queer identity at all. However, it’s within queer spaces that I’ve felt most comfortable coming out as ace and have been most accepted in my identity. Because of that, I have an odd sense of one-directional attachment to queer communities. They’re important to me, but I have trouble feeling part of them – a sense of membership without ownership.
The small pocket of queer family I have in Orlando is different. It is a chosen family, containing some of the closest, most loving relationships I’ve ever had. Among them I’ve enjoyed the greatest level of acceptance I’ve ever known, the greatest level of openness and exploration and permission to be uncertain without ever feeling excluded. And because I felt so close to them, I felt the chasm between us as they lived through one of the darkest chapters in our history while I read the news and agonized over updates from afar.
They had changed enormously in the time I’d been gone. They’d endured an enormous loss without me. They had mourned without me. They had come together to heal – memorials, tributes, fundraisers, vigils, community service drives – all without me. I was separated from some of my dearest loved ones when they most could have used me, and I them.
I thought about this while guiding Katie through her new family home. Sam’s increasing fear about the logistics of maintaining her relationship with Lonnie, as well as her deteriorating relationship with her parents, painted a vivid picture of distress. Katie was there for none of it. All she could do was observe her family’s turmoil from the distant perch of the future, unable to meaningfully interact with these people or events beyond learning about them after the fact. Though Katie’s occasional reactions to the objects you encounter veer more towards inquisitive amusement (or endearing embarrassment, for some of the racier discoveries), I couldn’t help but regard them with a degree of impotent sadness about their implications, like a janitor cleaning stained bandages off a hospital floor.
There’s a paradoxical tone to Gone Home, at once both intimate and sterile. You’re rifling through the personal effects of the people you’re closest to, learning secrets about them they keep even from each other, yet for all of your newfound understanding about the trials and motivations of your loved ones…you’re alone. You have no way to act on this understanding. An unbridgeable gap of time and space separates you from what they were going through then and where they are now. At times the house feels less like a lived-in home and more like a sloppy museum. Through your amateur archaeology you can achieve connection, but never communion. I felt similarly when digging into the shaken and fractured dispatches from my community back in Orlando. I had access to all the details of their trauma, yet I felt powerless to help – either them or myself.
There’s an unsettling uncanniness to the house itself, too. The game plays with the inherent discomfort of exploring an unfamiliar place at night by constantly hinting at horror. You find that Sam has become obsessed with the notion that their dead uncle, the house’s former owner, is haunting it. The house occasionally creaks in a way that sounds like footsteps. There’s a well-executed jump scare where a lightbulb overhead bursts when you inspect a cross in a hidden passageway. A foreboding atmosphere hangs over the house that something dreadful has happened here recently. If you dig enough, you find out this was true in the case of the uncle, who committed suicide and left your father the house out of guilt for abusing him when he visited as a child, affirming that the safety we should expect from this new home has already been corrupted.
All of this buildup gets filtered through the lens of Sam’s urgent message in the beginning. In a note taped to the front door, Sam announces her desire not to be found and her hope she’ll see Katie again “some day.” You learn that the crying voice on the answering machine belonged to Lonnie, desperately trying to get in touch with Sam. The real specter haunting the house – for Sam, for Katie, for everyone who’s ever dwelt in the house including me as a player – is the distress of isolation. It’s somewhere that’s supposed to feel welcoming, yet is imposing in its unfamiliarity. You were supposed to be returning to somewhere well-known, your family home, yet thanks to the time that’s passed on your trip, you’re returning to a place (that feels) entirely new. And, of course, there are people who should be there who aren’t.
Gone Home leverages that grief of absence for a fakeout happy ending. Between the friction of not knowing how to interact with their daughter and their professional and marital stress, the Greenbriar parents decide to go on a marriage counseling retreat. Sam takes the opportunity to run away with Lonnie, who abandons long-held plans to join the army so she can be with Sam. The tragedy the game teases at swerves at the last moment to become hopeful, uplifting the embattled teens from the dark night of repression to a position where queer family can maybe take root.
However, for me, the game’s optimism always rang somewhat hollow. The young couple at the heart of Gone Home’s story did wind up together, but on the run, having abandoned their other dreams for college and a military career, separated from their families and from the resources they would need to survive. Another way to view the end of their story is that it’s the beginning of another, one on queer youth homelessness. As the credits roll it’s still raining. The world outside is still hostile and scars lurk within the corners of the house.
For all of Orlando’s uplifting rebranding – #OneOrlando, #OneLove, #LoveIsLove, #LoveNotHate – the fact is that the brutal reality made bare in that shooting has not significantly changed. Guns are still almost as easy to buy as their toy counterparts. Queer people still face daily legislative and social assaults on their well-being, especially in our current regime of freshly empowered bigotry. It’s still raining outside, and it’s unclear who will ultimately get to live here.
It rained when I visited my first Pulse memorial, too. The day after I returned, I visited the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center, whose lawn held one of the few public mourning sites still in force besides the nightclub itself. The heavy morning rain had drenched the hundreds of gathered flowers and personal mementos that constituted the makeshift cairn. Teddy bears slumped with water weight; flower pots overflowed; banners covered in signatures now lay covered in puddles, too.
To this collection I added a rainbow rubber ducky I’d received at London Pride, England’s biggest pride march. I found out about it on a day trip to London the day before and convinced my Dad to take me. He was flustered that I wanted to cancel our other plans to return to London a second day in a row. He didn’t realize how much the news about Pulse had affected me, how important Orlando’s queer community is to me, or how badly I was looking for a connection to it. I had tried my best not to let the extent of my anguish show to my family in England. I wasn’t out as ace, nor was I in a position to decide whether coming out was even meaningful to me, especially while I had so little control over the circumstances. Still, I insisted. We went, and one float threw rainbow rubber duckies to the crowd.
One of the first items you find in Gone Home, curiously abandoned in a side table on the front porch, is a wreath-clad toy duck Katie identifies as Christmas Duck. If you carry it with you to the attic at the end of the game, you can find a nest marked for it next to the other Christmas decorations. Right as Sam finishes her adventure to find out what happened to her vacant family, you find the resting place of this other estranged object. It takes time, but you can regain that sense of belonging. I knew where I had to take my own duck.
I needed that reminder that separations need not be permanent. When I returned to Orlando, I went to as many Pulse memorials and events as I could. They made me feel hollow. This was my city and my community, yet I felt like an outsider trying to share in that communal grief. I feared my regret for being absent during the aftermath would lock me out of ever feeling that connection.
But I’ve kept trying. During a rally last year to protest gun violence and commemorate the victims of the Pulse and the Parkland shootings, I volunteered to help hold a 20 ft. rainbow flag for the Orlando chapter of Gays Against Guns. It was the first Pulse event I truly felt part of. My hands trembled as the wind tried to carry off the flag. My eyes welled as I listened to survivors share their experiences. It rained that day, too, but in the closing number the clouds parted to reveal a rainbow. I belonged there, in that moment, with those people, sharing those feelings. I was home.
On July 14, 2016, I left my rainbow duck floating placidly in one of the flower containers. It, along with every other non-perishable item left in remembrance of Pulse, would be gathered the next day by the city’s history center for eventual use in a permanent memorial still being planned. All of those items, though divorced from their original contexts and heavy with new ones, will carry their stories forward, hopefully sharing their messages with the people who need them most.
I spelled out mine, at least. On the rubber ducky’s head, I wrote, “From London with love.” There, among the collection of offerings gathered from all of Orlando’s Pulse tributes, it is finally home, too.
 Setting aside larger, thornier questions of claiming a reclaimed slur as an identity without having experienced the oppression from which it arose, and whether it’s been reclaimed to a sufficient extent to transcend that origin and serve as the umbrella term for gender and sexual minorities it’s now often used as – questions far beyond my scope here.