Gone Home Game Review: A House is Not a Home

Version reviewed: PC (also available on Mac and Linux)
Available from: Steam or www.GoneHomeGame.com

How well do you really know the people closest to you? When Kaitlin Greenbriar returns home from a gap year in Europe to find her entire family gone, it’s up to her to uncover the secrets that didn’t make it into those long-distance letters.

Picking up the threads of her family’s lives, the player must explore the colossal house they have since moved into, examining letters, newspaper clippings and, if one so chooses, the hundred thousand other details that make up a life. If it’s the people, and not the house, that make a home, then this game shows how each individual has inhabited every room with their cares, uncertainties and basic humanity.

From hastily scrawled notes passed between friends during class, to adult magazines buried under work documents, Gone Home is teeming with meticulously authentic details of family life that the player is at liberty to snoop through, turning each find over to yield further hidden notes or features.

The lives of the house's inhabitants can be traced through a paper trail of letters, postcards and other communications that feel delightfully authentic.

Events are set in the Pacific Northwest in 1995; the time period selection was a conscious decision on the part of developers The Fullbright Company (whose members have previously worked on the downloadable content Minerva's Den for BioShock 2), as they considered 1995 to be the latest year in which technology had not made general communication digital in nature. This decision is telling of the aims of the developers, and the expansive, cavernous backdrop of the house proves the ideal setting for an open, yet intensely intimate, exploration of a family’s history, both over the past decades and in the last year that Kaitlin has been away.

"If it’s the people, and not the house, that make a home, then Gone Home shows how each individual has inhabited every room with their cares, uncertainties and basic humanity."

From the moment you gain control of Kaitlin and find yourself unable to step beyond the bounds of the house due to a raging storm, it becomes apparent that Gone Home’s story is one that is told on an unapologetically domestic scale. There are no combative sequences, cut-scenes or real-time dialogues featured in this game – or other characters present at all, in fact. The solitary nature of the game, and the unfilled spaces of the impracticably large house, which Kaitlin’s family have recently moved into, makes for an odd sense of detachment. Gone Home could well be one of the finest examples of environmental storytelling – but it is still hampered by some of the genre's inherent limitations.

Indeed, relying upon found objects to fill in blanks, rather than interactions, means that the dynamic between certain central characters remains uncertain, while there is a subsequent uneven amount of attention given to character backstories, which might have benefitted from some further fleshing out. In some ways, however, these points work in the game’s favour, which deals with themes of estrangement and change. At the very least, the medium is a testament to what can be achieved with the sparsest of plot-furthering devices – relying instead on environment and atmosphere.

Gone Home is teeming with personal and era-relevant detail, like this stash of manually recorded X-Files videotapes.

Unfilled gaps aside, this is a game in which story is privileged – the fragments of which must be pieced together gradually, with intimate, impressively delivered voice-overs from Kaitlin’s younger sister, Sam, punctuating proceedings. For those who prefer taking a more conventionally active role in their games, Gone Home might prove unstimulating. But for the rest of us – those shameless voyeurs who have always yearned to pry inside their little sister’s journal or listen in on what their parents talk about when the kids are away (because, surprise! They’re people, too) – Gone Home will make for a compulsively immersive experience.

The game also succeeds in being genuinely creepy; players would be forgiven taking a moment to gather themselves before plunging into a pitch black room and fumbling frantically for the light switch – or, parental reproach ringing in their ears, leaving all the lights on as they go.

"The game succeeds in being genuinely creepy; players would be forgiven taking a moment to gather themselves before plunging into a pitch black room and fumbling frantically for the light switch."

How well Gone Home reconciles the personal with the eerie is debatable. On one hand, this juxtaposition is unique, even suggesting shades of Freud, who posited that the uncanny was frightening for the very reason that it leads us back to what is known and familiar. On the other hand, there's no real attempt to feed these intriguing aspects back into each other, which might feel like a slight deflation to some. By the game’s end, the spooky narrative strand feels unsatisfactory and unresolved, especially when compared to Sam's deep and involving story – whether that's the point or not. What these antagonistic elements are good at is defying preconceptions – an objective in keeping with its central narrative – which The Fullbright Company pulls off magnificently throughout.

Nevertheless, this isn’t a game with dizzying twists and turns or life and death consequences that implicate the fate of the nation or the universe as we know it. Gone Home focuses, instead, on day-to-day concerns and small, personal triumphs – and in this sense, its content is of monumental significance, because it’s universal. Almost each and every find informs the plot, the characters or their relationship to each other in some way.

Interactive artefacts and notes, like these adolescent locker doodles, aren't all essential to plot progression, but are rewarding nevertheless.

While these minutiae are not all essential to the progression of the game, it’s this attention to detail that makes everything such a joy – the game creators have worked hard to create a setting that feels organic, in which no one thing is more or less important than another. Everything is a process of undirected, yet purposeful, discovery that rewards the completionists that this investigative style of gameplay is sure to appeal to.

This makes for a rewarding evening of play, since the game can be – demands to be – completed in a single sitting; it’s that absorbing. This is bolstered in no small part by Chris Remo’s haunting soundtrack, as well as observant and nostalgic ’90s-era touches. But it's also down to its keen insight into a teen mindset that is in turns thoughtful and passionate, na├»ve and complex – which, despite its ominous setting, will likely register as heartrendingly familiar.

This is one of the game's greatest triumphs – in building an environment that is both familiar and foreign, the game manages to evoke accompanying feelings of tenderness and terror. They might have been more seamlessly interwoven, and Gone Home might be more of an experience than a game in the traditional sense – but it’s an unexpectedly affecting one nonetheless, and will stay with you long after you have disentangled every last narrative thread.


This review was also posted on my Kinja.


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