I haven’t written a game review in a long while, but then I haven’t played a game that affected me as strongly Gone Home in a long while.
What is Gone Home? Well, it’s sort of a first person interactive fiction game. It is the debut release of the The Fullbright Company, formed by a group of developers who have variously worked on Bioshock 2 (and it’s acclaimed DLC Minerva’s Den), Bioshock Infinite, and others. Here, watch this video:
The story is told through two main mechanisms. You play as Katie, returning from an extended trip in Europe to her family’s new home in Portland. You walk around, leafing through personal belongings of the family who live there, piecing together an incidental narrative of their lives. This aspect of the game is particularly impressive. Objects can be examined from all angles, notes are actually handwritten (not written in a handwriting font), object labels and book covers are fully legible (and fascinating), and everything is more or less where it might be in a lived-in family home.
There are incredibly rich details to be learned about the lives of each family member, and these details are imparted in a very subtle and naturalistic way. There are many characters who are never seen nor heard, but between their handwriting and their personal belongings, Gone Home lets you feel like you know these people, that you are a part of their lives.
The second storytelling mechanism in Gone Home is a series of audio diaries, triggered by certain objects in the world. There is certain amount of videogamey artifice to this at the outset , though by the end it is better contextualised than the audio logs of in most games, wherein some poor scientist’s dying words on tape just happened to include the password to the door you must open to proceed. The voice acting and writing is absolutely superb throughout, and it really brings the characters and the world to life.
There is a sense of voyeurism to some degree, going through other peoples’ belongings, though the player is a member of the family, so it never veers into creepy territory. The game even provides an option to return any object to the location it was found in – not for an achievement (of which there thankfully are none), or some other arbitrary reward, but because the world is so rich and believable that it feels wrong to just drop that Heavens to Betsy cassette case on the floor when you’re done looking at it.
Regarding the world the game takes place in. It’s mid 90s Portland, the Riot Grrrl scene is in full effect, and that whole teenage disillusionment thing. I’m slightly too young, and born in the wrong part of the world to have been aware of this at the time, but I do have a fondness for all things Pacific Northwestern counterculture, so I get a kick out of that. And even if you’re not interested by that off the bat, these elements provide a colourful and important cultural context for the story.
Early on, there is an expectation on the player’s part that something supernatural is lurking around the corner, aliens, ghosts or monsters lurking behind the next door or through a secret passageway hidden in the wall. This is probably because the game bears some superficial resemblance to the Amnesia series, but make no mistake, this is not a horror game. The atmosphere is a little spooky, but there’s no jump scares or sudden twist. Although the designers toy with these expectations a little, Gone Home has a very different and much more personal and realistic story to tell.
Without going into too much detail, the main narrative here focuses on Samantha, the younger sister of the family, and her experiences as she comes to the end of her high school days, it really would be a shame to spoil any more of the story.
At this point I wrote 1,000+ word rant about polarisation in this game’s reception, and a disconcerting trend towards anti-feminism as a backlash toward an increasingly inclusive form of videogame journalism, but that’s a story that’s been covered elsewhere by better writers than me. I might revisit it for later, but for now let me just say this: regardless of the specifics of this story’s subject matter, this game works as a piece of interactive fiction. It is a game, and it’s completely okay to not like it, but you also need to understand it’s perfectly possible to enjoy this game for what it is without there being some hyper-PC agenda behind it.
This is not a new genre of game, but it’s one that fell by the wayside for many years. Indie darlings like Gone Home, Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable have revived the genre to some extent, but it’s still on the fringes. There are some who would say there’s not enough “game” in there to justify the price, but I disagree. This game weaves a story in such an interactive way that it would lose its potency in a non-interactive form. There are characters here whose lives you become invested in, whose struggles and experiences ring true in a way that is new and exciting for the medium, and I think that ought to be celebrated.
If you come to this looking for an action game, an RPG, or more justifiably a survival horror game, you will be disappointed. This is not a challenging to overcome, full of choices and branching dialogue trees. Here the exploration of this highly detailed world and its narrative serves as its own reward. Though it’s not a particularly complex narrative, certainly not one that is particularly groundbreaking in and of itself, it’s just an extremely well-told in a medium unaccustomed to such grounded storytelling.
Truth be told, there is very little real reason to revisit this game once its couple hours of play time draw to a close, but the developers just added a nice commentary mode if you’re into that. If you’re looking for endless hours of distraction, you may be left feeling short-changed. While not super-expensive, this is not cheap enough to really be a whimsical purchase.
If like me, you value the richness and quality of an experience over its duration, and are open to the idea of a well-told narrative of exploration, there’s more than sufficient treasure to be enjoyed here.