If we look at the past few years or so, nothing is as apparent as the fact that video games are now a mainstream staple. Lots of games tend to emulate real world scenarios in amazingly fantastical situations, whether it’s shooting guns at terrorists, shooting a basketball through a hoop while the shot clock winds down, or even doing illegal street racing on the streets of Los Angeles. Yet there’s also a new genre that’s popped up recently that is as counter-culture as games can get. Recently released games like Cart Life and Papers, Please have so far been the staples of this new genre of the mundane. Gone Home, another addition to said genre, promises none of the bombastic moments delivered by higher profile, triple A games. Instead, it has something that is both unique and genuine: Gone Home is quite simply one of the most beautiful and heartwarming tales I’ve experienced in a very long time.
Experiencing is believing
In Gone Home, you play the role of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a girl in her late teens who just came from a year-round trip through Europe in 1995. After arriving at your home, you find a note from your sister on the front door of your house apologizing for not being around to greet you when you arrived, as she’s left without any reason or any way to get in touch with her. Your parents are also notably missing, which leads you to investigate the house to find out why the residence is devoid of your family.
To be perfectly clear, there really is nothing remarkable about the gameplay of Gone Home. At its core, the game is ostensibly a first person adventure game, not so dissimilar to games like Myst, except totally devoid of puzzles or anything resembling combat. The gameplay revolves around figuring out exactly what happened to your family by going through their cabinets, closets, and notes to try and piece together the events leading up to why they went missing. This suggests that the player is really cast in the role of an anthropologist, piecing together journals, news clippings, and even cassette tapes with actual songs to try and analyze how the family lived and to find out the things that drove each family member to do what they do. Punctuating this exploration are audio narrations done by your sister, Samantha Greenbriar. The role of Sam is played by Sarah Robertson, a Portland actress, and she does a fantastic job of reeling players into the world as if she’s right next to you. These narrations serve to provide meaningful context to the things that you find around the house and to help tie these seemingly disparate clues together.
There is a narrative progression throughout the house and it’s cleverly controlled because of your character’s non-familiarity with her house. The Greenbriars actually moved there after Kaitlin left for Europe, so she is naturally unfamiliar to the environment, like the player. Because of this, the game provides you with a map to use to keep track of any nooks and crannies that you may find. You also have an audio journal tab that allows you to replay any of Sam’s narrations, as well as a basic inventory tab that holds some trivial items like Kaitlin’s passport and a bunch of other items you may find. Other than these menus, there are absolutely no real interface elements in the game, save for a dot crosshair that helps you figure out what item you’ll be interacting with. This approach to minimalism really helps you focus on what’s truly the most enchanting thing about this game: Discovery.
The familiar and the beautiful
While the mystery of your family’s disappearance is the driving force behind your exploration of the house, Gone Home is also filled with a lot of the small details that other games seem to gloss over. For example, the handwritten notes that you find around the house are actually written by real people. The handwriting credits at the end of the game confirm this. Also, the actual written prose feels as though its genuinely coming from each of the characters in the story.
It’s because of these notes and pieces of documentation that actually allow you to explore more of the home. The Greenbriar’s home is particularly huge for a family of four, and a side narrative actually talks about why the family moved there in the first place. Only by being meticulous about your searches and reading will the home’s various nooks and crannies be revealed to you. As a way to control the narrative flow of the game, certain parts of the house are locked or can only be accessed via information locked inside a combination safe. Speaking more about the side narratives, the way that you find them come as naturally as finding clues to advance the main narrative. They’re usually in the same rooms and/or locations as important documents and notes, or sometimes completely hidden from plain view. This makes you think that the entire Greenbriar family is comprised of a bunch of passive aggressive folk, but the apprehension in sharing information to each other is a familial trait that is portrayed in countless other media.
The choice of 1995 as the game’s setting is certainly a curious one. It’s a time that I’m very familiar with, as I was probably Sam’s age at that time, and all of the different callbacks and references in the game definitely take me back to that time. Perhaps it’s because of this that I feel right at home (no pun intended) with the setting, as I’ve experienced many of the things that the characters have been through. Especially so with Kaitllin’s sister Sam, with the constant mention of playing Street Fighter and borrowing someone’s Nintendo just in order to get really good with Chun Li’s moves. And while this nostalgia is very nice and welcome for me personally, I can’t help but think what people who were born before or after this era would feel about these callbacks.
It’s because of these and many more details that make Gone Home feel more genuinely in tune with the story they’re trying to tell than any other adventure game out there.
Virtual voyeurism, simplicity, and the price of experience
While players are, in fact, playing a role in the game, it was interesting for me to feel that I was a voyeur peering into somebody else’s home. This brings up a question that I often hear people ask: If I’m not around and people look through my things, would they be surprised or shocked at what they find? This is but a few of the many fundamental questions that I was thinking when playing Gone Home.
One of the bigger questions I’ve kept asking myself while playing through this title is whether or not this experience was worth $19.99. I’m not a particularly picky individual when it comes to the value/price proposition, but I can’t help but shake the notion that some people might think that the initial price point of the game is just too much for this game. Personally, I enjoyed my time with the game, but I’ve talked to peers who have played the game and completed the game quickly and thought that the game itself could be better.
But there’s an inherent simplicity to the presentation and gameplay of Gone Home that I find appealing and personally fulfilling. While it’s been really difficult trying to address the story of the game without giving any spoilers, what I can tell you is that the game has no big sci-fi or fantasy twist at all, despite other outlets’ insistence that there might be. And while I can’t properly contextualize the reality of Gone Home as well as its developers, I at least know what I’ve experienced. Through and through, Gone Home has shown me that there’s room for a game like this in the industry, and regardless of its price point, the manner in which it tells its story, coupled with the fantastic writing and the pedigree behind this title, is a welcome sight in a binary world of triple A titles and indie games.
Alex played Gone Home for approximately 98 minutes on his iMac, according to the built-in Steam timer. He also purchased the game from Steam and was not provided a review copy by the developer. Prior to the writing of this review, he has been asked by some readers to play Dear Esther. He intends to play the latter soon.
+ Elegant in its simplicity
+ Features a very creative way to tell the narrative
+ Engaging, often times thought provoking
+ All the notes you come across are richly detailed, in both prose and penmanship
-People might get turned off by the $20 launch price
Available on: PC, Mac
Version Reviewed: Mac