The Almost Gone is one of those games that I didn’t fully understand by the end. It’s a mysterious, eerie story that gave me a lot of answers about the world and its inhabitants, but not all the answers that I wanted. I felt it left me some room for speculation, so I wanted to do a little bit of that in this piece of writing. While all of this is speculative really, as I haven’t done any searching for information on the game’s story outside of my experience with the game itself, the last section will focus more on elements of the game that I feel much less sure about and don’t truly understand.
What I understand to be true
This game seems to center around a person named Emily, a cynical and distrusting protagonist looking back through her own past and those of her family members. We follow her through the years surrounding an event, tracing an outline of the mental illness and multi-generational abuse carried by her grandfather, father, and mother, while learning more about Emily’s own personal struggles within this family.
Emily’s mother suffers from clinical depression and alcoholism, and seemingly felt out of place in the family. She likely came from a family that didn’t have much money, as noted by the dialogue surrounding one of the grandfather’s expensive jackets which said that she must’ve felt uncomfortable surrounded by all the wealth amassed by the grandfather’s family. She also felt very protective of Emily, and didn’t want her to spend so much time with her father or go camping with him. She was eventually sent to the psychiatric ward at the grandfather’s hospital, and died there. She fought with Emily’s father a lot, and based on the pregnancy test we find toward the beginning of the game her pregnancy with Emily happened either right after their marriage or it’s what prompted them to get married. The parents filed for divorce once Emily was grown.
Emily’s paternal grandfather was a rich man who made his fortune as a world-renowned architect. He spirals into guilt and shame after one of his designs is shown to contain a fatal flaw, which left many people dead after the building collapsed. He spends a lot of time studying that design, trying to figure out what caused it to fall apart, and trying to figure out where to place the blame (if it should truly land on himself). He receives countless letters and lawsuits from the people whose families were impacted by the collapse, and can’t bring himself to respond to any of them. Instead he focuses on making his son become an architect, a better architect than he was. His methods are abusive, locking his son in the basement of the apartment building for hours on end, and making him stare at a blank wall – a blank canvas for his mind to map imaginary fledgeling designs onto.
Emily’s father, as a boy growing up in this building, shows signs of mental illness in disturbing drawings and killing of birds. He wanted to build a treehouse, perhaps to escape from it all; something that he projected onto Emily once she was born. After growing up and marrying Emily’s mother, it’s noted that nobody would build his designs. Something was always wrong with them, and they couldn’t be built. Once Emily was born, he started his efforts to make Emily into an architect as well, maybe so that she could restore the family’s reputation, or just because that’s what was imposed on him. He would take Emily camping often, but would ask that she create a drawing of a building before coming to see him.
Emily herself seems to never trust her surroundings. She doesn’t think her parents care about her, she thinks she’s the reason that they’re unhappy, and she doesn’t want to be duped by their tricks, or their attempts to surround her with a fake reality.
Unanswered Questions and Speculations
Who is Emily? Most of the game focuses on the past, much of which doesn’t directly involve Emily. As a result our protagonist is a relative stranger to us by the end of the game compared to the more fully fleshed out members of her family. I also don’t know why Emily is as cynical as she is about everything that’s going on and everyone in her life. She definitely doesn’t have a good relationship with her family, but we only get a little bit of detail on why that is and what her family has done to her in the past to give Emily the impression that they were trying to trick her or get rid of her.
I’m also interested to know more about Emily’s mother’s story before she met Emily’s dad. The only thing I was able to figure out about her was that she didn’t come from a wealthy family like the father did. Did she struggle with depression before meeting him? How did she come to depend on alcohol the way she does throughout Emily’s life?
Aside from these, there is one question that I think about the most: What happened to Emily? I don’t know if Emily is dreaming, dying, or already dead. One achievement available in the game offers a potential answer, an achievement called “Lost in Limbo.” Based on this and the strange, ethereal, endless void that Emily’s immediate surroundings exist in, I suppose that Emily has died somehow and now exists in her own version of limbo. She has to go back through her life and the lives of her family to understand her experience with mental health and broken family relationships, and come to peace with it all. She seems to share our omniscient perspective, as a disembodied viewer of the places she’s been. This is evidenced by her being able to see and comment on objects or structures that are hidden behind buildings or flush against walls without moving them. I think Emily eventually realizes this as well, which is why she eventually comes around to making sense of the fakeness of everything and embraces the memories she’s travelling through.
What I find interesting about these unanswered questions is wondering whether the information I feel that I’m missing is meant to be left ambiguous, or if it was supposed to be communicated through the gameplay. In my playthrough with a friend we ended up brute forcing our way through a puzzle or two, and I’ve considered whether that affected our overall understanding of the story or the characters it surrounds. I’m certain that a game like this is meant to leave room for players to speculate. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if I’m missing something. The storytelling of The Almost Gone is woven together with its puzzles, so I would believe that not following each piece of a puzzle to its intended end would result in an incomplete understanding. Still, this is what I got out of my first playthrough of The Almost Gone.