Gone Home Review
A unique adventure game and a pleasant surprise
This is going to be more like a Public Service Announcement than a review. Gone Home is a first person exploration game from The Fullbright Company which defies normal review expectations. It’s nearly impossible to talk about the game without referring to the story, but to do so would ruin the essence of the game for anyone who was going to play it. I’ll try and cover the basics, and hopefully by the end you will realize that this is an important title that should be played by any and everyone.
You play as Kaitlyn, a 20 year old girl coming home to your family after a lengthy European trip in 1995. When you arrive home in stormy weather however, there is no one around. A simple note from your younger sister Samantha saying that she has gone away is pinned to the front door. She promises to return one day, but asks you to not try and find out where she has gone. Your parents are nowhere to be found either. It’s up to you to explore this house and find out what has happened and where your family might be. This is a new house to both you and your character Katie, as the family has moved here while you’ve been away, smartly getting around issues of “Why would I not know where the kitchen is?” and so on.
One of my favorite narrative enhancing devices in games is finding high resolution hand drawn textures. I was in luck with Gone Home, as this is the main way of getting the story across. You find crumpled notes, hastily written letters, formal correspondence and all kinds of other bits and pieces, all of which have a wonderful level of detail. Some of them have relevance to the various storylines in place, others are just for a bit of color, but all of them enrich and expand this wonderful world that The Fullbright Company has created. With each new important note you find, you piece together the overall story in your mind. The game doesn’t bash you over the head with it like you would expect either. It respects you as a player and as an intelligent human being. If you miss a little bit of information, it doesn’t highlight it with a big arrow, you’re just going to know a bit less. The main story is told through journal entries that have been left by Sam, seemingly for you. These are beautifully narrated and every single one pulls on your heartstrings in some way.
Beyond exploring this house (which is massive by the way, an inheritance from a deceased relative, a good way of extending play time) there isn’t much of a ‘game’ here in the traditional sense. You will find the occasional locked door or safe, and you will have to go off and find the key or combination. This isn’t really a chore though, as you’ll come across the required items by following the natural flow of the parts of the house which are open to you. It’s a pretty clever system that allows the story to be told to you in the right order. In terms of immersion it does remind you that you’re playing a game at points though. Why would an entire wing of the house be locked, and why would the key not be anywhere nearby? If it bothers you too much you can actually tick an option in the menu to start the game with all the doors in the house unlocked. This might help you with the realism, but you will probably find a jumbled up story.
Another menu option is to make sure all the lights are on in the house when you arrive. It’s an old place, and as such has a lot of dark corners and faulty wiring. The storm outside doesn’t help either. It is definitely creepy in places, and makes you feel exactly as though you would if you were completely alone, exploring somewhere you’ve never been before. Gone Home does a remarkable job of not only getting you invested in the storyline, but also immersing you in the character you are playing. I was going around the house turning on all the lights, telling myself it was so I could look for clues easier, but in the back of my mind I knew it was because it would be slightly less scary. When I found a note from my Dad telling Sam to stop leaving all the lights on in the house to save on the energy bill I felt guilty. I actually went back to places I had been before to switch some off. When I found a pack of cigarettes hidden in Sam’s room I was aghast! How could my sister do that to her own body? Doesn’t she know how bad that is for you? I had to take a step back for a moment and remind myself that I don’t actually have a sister. Nor am I female.
The only real criticism I can level at Gone Home is its price relative to its length. I’m not saying it’s too short. For a game that’s limited by the environment, I think it’s a good length. Any longer and it would have had to resort to inventing more rooms to squeeze into the residence. I completed the game in around two hours, and it told me a fantastic story, so I found myself comparing it to a movie. It is a fair way more expensive than a movie however. That said, it is still a budget price game, and I don’t think that the money should form a barrier to anyone wanting to play it.
Gone Home is an important game. It has a superbly well written story about empathy, heartbreak, compassion, reconciliation and love, but the way in which it is told is unmatched in the medium. You are left to piece together the story on your own, rather than it being forced upon you. It looks great, with excellent use of lighting, and has a Riot Grrrl soundtrack related to the narrative discovered through cassette tapes which you can insert into tape players around the house. This is the kind of game best talked about after playing it, so you should check it out and share it with as many people as possible. That’s what I’m doing.