A Kind of Personal Debris

Gone Home, a poem by Patrick Phillips, and the desperate attempt to find meaning in the things we own.


Sometimes the circumstances in your life seem to align in an unusual way. We look for patterns everywhere and impose them in places we shouldn’t, but some weeks or months demand acknowledgement of their strange coincidences. Gone Home put me on an introspective course that felt preordained.

In Gone Home, an independently produced videogame by the Fullbright Company, you investigate a family’s abandoned house for hints of their current whereabouts. You walk through their huge, empty home and pick up items that might have some useful information. You search through desks, look over work papers, examine utility bills, read diaries, comb through photos, listen to cassette tapes, open up bookbags and drawers, and generally snoop around in order to piece together this family’s story.

In the process, you learn the intricacies of their lives and come to know their personalities, their habits, their ways of coping with the day-to-day challenges of modern life. It’s a ruminative experience. The storytelling is done through context creation rather than linear plot development. It looks to represent a peculiar element of the way we’ve set up our lives.

Around the same time I played Gone Home, I was rereading a book of poems by a professor I had in college. On page 20, this poem shows up:

In the Museum of Your Last Day

by Patrick Phillips

there is a coat on a coat hook in a hall. Work-gloves
in the pockets, pliers and bent nails.

There is a case of Quaker State for the Ford.
Two cans of spray paint in a crisp brown bag.

A mug on a book by the hi-fi.
A disk that starts on its own: Boccherini.

There is a dent in the soap the shape of your thumb.
A swirl in the glass when it fogs.

And a gray hair that twines
through the tines of a little black comb.

There is a watch laid smooth on a wallet.
And pairs of your shoes everywhere.

A phone no one answers. A note that says Friday.
Your voice on the tape talking softly.

I first read it a few years back, after I’d finished a class with him, and I was taken by how precise a portrait of a life it paints. It never names the subject of the poem or gives us a biography, but it doesn’t matter. We learn through tiny observations. This is what Gone Home aims to do. Both want to represent life through all the things we fill our time with. It seemed like a funny coincidence that I’d be reading the poem at the same time I’d be playing the game.

It took me a few days to realize that the reason I’d gone back to the book was because I’d spent the last few weeks digging through fifteen years of my stuff, dumping some of it in cardboard boxes and some of it in the trash. I rediscovered a piece of my history with every book or photo or letter or CD or whatever it was that I picked up. I was moving for the first time since before my tenth birthday, and in a way, I was performing my own version of Gone Home‘s interactive gallery.

My situation was a little different from the ones depicted in the game and poem, of course. In Gone Home, you piece together elements to solve a mystery. And the title of my professor’s poem suggests revisiting the home of someone deceased. Done properly, moving shouldn’t much resemble a mystery-thriller or being visited by family and friends after my death, but there’s a similarity in the process. Gone Home and “In the Museum of Your Last Day” reflect a reality that I came to better understand through weeks of cleaning and packing.

There is an intimacy to the mundane, but it only appears when we have the chance to look at the accumulation in our lives in the kind of uncommon context offered by the game and the poem When we order these random things around a bedroom or a kitchen, they begin to tell a story. Soon enough, it becomes a story specific to the lives we lived and hoped to live.

This is what inspires the accumulation in the first place. We become attached to what these objects represent, so we hold onto them long after their usefulness has run out. I haven’t owned a PC that runs Windows in five years, and haven’t played a major PC release in maybe twice that, but there in my desk cabinet, I found two dozen PC game boxes. These were all from the late 90′s and early 2000′s, before the size of retail PC packages shrunk. Now, they look comical and are wildly impractical at the same time. I had effectively prevented myself from using any of that desk space for a solid decade. I must not have minded much.


I don’t know why I felt the need to keep the boxes for the original EverQuest and three of its expansions, but I do know I must have seen them in that cabinet every few weeks and decided, each time, not to junk them. I haven’t played EverQuest since middle school, back when I thought I wanted to be an illustrator for a living. I found a bunch of old drawing pads and pens in my room, too. Some of them were unused, but all of them were kept out of the trash throughout high school and college. Maybe I’d try it again someday. Or maybe I liked remembering that ambition, despite how tenuous my link to it now might be.

A pen and pad really don’t mean much to most people, but that’s the difficulty in going through our own belongings and deciding what to hold onto and what to let go. Every item becomes so fused with the memory of that part of our lives – whether it was one birthday party, one vacation or movie ticket, two years of a past relationship – that throwing it away feels like we’re risking throwing away that part of ourselves. If we don’t hold onto this, we might forget that part entirely. It’s better to leave it just as it is, at least for now, until we decide what to do with it. That’ll come later, after we’ve filled more notebooks and hard drives and albums with the rest of ourselves. By then, we’ll have figured it out.

It’s a ridiculous proposition. We ignore this accumulation as it happens and are forced to make sense of it later. It’s impossible to be objective in these circumstances. We act the same way in Gone Home, desperately picking up each tissue box and blank piece of paper, hoping to find some significance in every item placed around the house. We want all of these pieces to have meaning.

Opening a door to the home of a dead parent, friend, or sibling is devastating. Seeing their daily routine in stasis confirms that they’re gone. But it also tells us that they lived in the first place. Here is their story in soap bars and pliers. Hopefully, someone will find ours, too.

I ended up throwing out the PC game boxes, the yellowed paper that hadn’t been drawn on, the dried-up pens that hadn’t been used, the printed-out walkthroughs for games I didn’t finish. But I took a lot of the rest with me. I took the letters, the high school mix CDs, the notebooks filled with rough drafts of stories and poems, the handwritten notation for songs written on guitar as a teenager. With so many of the routine decisions I make now, I’m adding to it and ignoring the curation.

We leave our stories scattered around us every day, in dozens of small ways. The right onlooker can create a clear portrait out of the mundane objects that fill our homes, apartments, dormitories, cars, and whatever else. Intentional or not, this seemingly insignificant stuff forms the backbones of our biographies. I’m grateful that an old writing professor and a new game could show me what was right in front of me before I had pulled out of the driveway of that house for the last time.

Adam Boffa is writer and musician from New Jersey. He tweets at @ambinate.