Gone Home

Posted by Mike Suskie (August 19, 2013)

After you finish Gone Home, the first thing you'll want to do is read what others had to say about it. You may try to do that before you play Gone Home, at which point you'll be urged to stop reading, avoid hearing anything about the game and buy it immediately. Now that I find myself in the same position of having to sell the game without spoiling it, I'm tempted to echo that. Between Brothers and now this, what's going on here? Is this some international competition to develop the world's most critic-proof game?

Gone Home is a completely story-driven adventure game, and when I say "completely," I'm not using the word lightly. This is barely even a "game" in the traditional sense. There is, essentially, no challenge. Nothing poses a threat to you. The only real obstacles are locked doors and a few hidden passages, and the game's environment – a lone Oregonian manor – is small enough that so long as you keep your eyes open, your progress will never really halt. Gone Home should be thought of less as a game and more as a narrative experiment, and most of its strengths, of which there are many, lie in its story and the way developer The Fullbright Company chooses to tell it, which is something that players are better left to experience on their own.

Here's what I can reveal to you. Players control Kaitlin Greenbriar, a college student in her early twenties who has been studying abroad in Europe and returns home to find her family missing. The Greenbriars moved into a supposedly haunted mansion within the last year, and this is Kaitlin's first time setting foot in the building, a simple but ingenious detail that makes her as much of a stranger to the setting as we are. As you explore the house and collect clues pertaining to the family's whereabouts, Kaitlin's younger sister, Sam, narrates via what sound like journal entries, detailing her life and the ordeals leading up to... whatever happened at the Greenbriar manor.

There's one specific aspect of the story that I'm comfortable telling you about, and it's Sam's lesbian relationship with a girl at her high school named Lonnie. I emphasize "lesbian" because that's not a minute detail. Kaitlin may be the player-controlled character, but Sam is the heroine of Gone Home. She's the one with the bulk of the character development, and her entire arc revolves around both her bond with Lonnie and her massive identity crisis resulting from being what she perceives as an outcast. Her struggles to keep her budding relationship a secret from both her school and her parents (who are, shall we say, very traditional in their social views) exacerbate the unbearable tension of her struggle.

I'm not going to reveal how this develops, and you won't figure it out, anyway. Gone Home uses every tool at its disposal to... not necessarily misdirect players, but opt out of directing them at all. The tone is very obviously downtrodden, up to and including a perpetual rainstorm that's raging outside, and while hearing journal entries read aloud always sounds just the slightest bit awkward to me, voice actress Sarah Grayson recounts the most somber moments of Sam's romantic journey with such overwhelming melancholy that you frequently think, "This can't possibly end well." But then there are Sam's frequent spikes of self-confidence, aided by subtle but effective music cues, and the many instances in which her love for Lonnie seems to be overriding any lingering doubts or conflicts. Maybe this will end well. It'd be a tragedy for it to end any other way.

Then there's the matter of simple genre. Is Gone Home a straight-up drama? Is it horror? Is everything we're seeing entirely on the level, or are supernatural elements involved? There doesn't seem to be anything sinister at play, but there are an awful lot of unsettling sound effects – creaking boards and so forth – and an eventual subplot in which Sam and Lonnie try to perform séances to communicate with a ghost that's apparently haunting the grounds. What's that all about?

I'm almost always a proponent of the games-should-be-games line of thinking, and I believe that something as heavily plot-centric as Gone Home damn well ought to have some justification for being interactive. After all, telling a story after the fact entirely using written documents is a technique that was used in literature for centuries before video games even existed. There's even a word for it: "epistolary." The Fullbright Company gets away with it, though, because simply describing Gone Home as a series of journal entries is utterly inadequate when so much of the game's effectiveness stems from its attention to detail. Here's a sex ed homework assignment wherein Sam's answers resulted in a "SEE ME" in red ink. Here are a collection of short stories Sam wrote at various points throughout her life detailing the adventures of someone named "Allegra" and her first mate. Here's a more or less irrelevant side-story in which Sam's father is a struggling author whose sci-fi series has recently been reprinted.

Gone Home even gives you the option to pick up, rotate and thoroughly examine nearly any item in the household, and I cannot for the life of me recall a single instance in which this is actually required to advance the game; it's simply there for its own sake. The game will last you no more than two hours, and I'd wager you could finish it in ten to fifteen minutes if you knew exactly where to go, but the developers' most successful gamble is that they trust you not to do that. They treat you like an adult. If you're mature enough to be interested in something like Gone Home, you're mature enough not to rush through it, but to instead get the full picture, to examine every letter, every receipt, every disciplinary notice from Sam's school.

This is interactive storytelling to the bone, and it's amazingly effective. In less than two hours, patient players will learn so much about the Greenbriars that they'll feel personally invested in Kaitlin's discoveries without having even seen or met any of these people. The mystery of where the family went is the kicking-off point, but as you press on, you evolve from merely searching for answers to being genuinely interested. And if you do want to play this game, and if you are willing to spend two hours slowly traipsing around a mansion examining objects, then the answers you do eventually get will knock you on your ass. I won't say how and I won't say why, but they will.

I mentioned that Gone Home focuses on a lesbian relationship between two teenage girls, but the game itself is not really about sexual identity; it's about identity, period. It's about coming to terms with what makes you an outsider and realizing that, regardless of what others may say, being different is a beautiful thing. That's a message that I'd like to think anyone could relate to, and once you sympathize with Sam's struggles on one level or another, you become all the more concerned with her ability to overcome them. You may not actually be her sister, but you want things to work out for her just the same.

If Gone Home needed to be this story-driven, and I believe that it did, then I can at least commend it for not pretending to be something it isn't. There are no forced action sequences, no cheap thrills, and no misplaced puzzles centered around overcomplicated locking mechanisms or anything of the sort. It's extremely brief and, again, it's barely a "game" at all. If that's not something that you're willing to spend $18 on, I can't necessarily blame you, but you're missing out. Gone Home will hold a different meaning for everyone, but whatever it says to you, you can be damn sure it's something significant.

Rating: 9/10


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