Start Date: February 1, 2016
End Date: February 1, 2016
Gone Home puts you in the shoes of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21-year-old girl who is just returning home after spending a year traveling through Europe. Her family moved into a new house while she was away, but Kaitlin arrives to find it empty – her parents and teenage sister Samantha are nowhere to be found. Gameplay consists of exploring the house to find clues as to the whereabouts of your family.
The game takes place in the mid-1990’s, and the house is full of artifacts from that era. This type of thing can be obnoxious and pandering if handled poorly, but as someone who spent his adolescence entrenched in that decade, I can tell you that Gone Home feels very authentic. Samantha, as the resident teenager, is especially up on the pop culture of the era. From her snotty pop star collages…
…to her interest in Super Nintendo games…
…Samantha feels like a living, breathing kid that I might have hung out with in high school. She even gets heavily involved in the riot grrrl movement, listening to Bratmobile cassettes and making her own zine:
It’s a good thing Sam is so fleshed out because, although you never meet her, Samantha is the heart and soul of Gone Home. The whole thing falls apart if you don’t gradually grow to love this character, so luckily she’s totally fucking awesome.
Samantha and your parents have left little “clues” everywhere, in the form of notes, letters, diary entries, etc. Normal, everyday artifacts containing little nuggets of information that you eventually string together mentally to learn more about your family’s recent activities. Taken individually, these things also feel extremely authentic, although my biggest complaint is the way they’re strewn all around the house. If the mother has a secret she’s keeping from her family, for instance, why would she leave a note about it in the living room? These are the moments that felt the most “video gamey” to me, and they broke the immersion a little bit.
This game sort of sent me on a rollercoaster ride of conflicting opinions. I really enjoyed the time I spent playing, but the ending initially left me a little bit cold – it felt abrupt and unsatisfying. After reflecting a little bit, though, I came to appreciate the way that Gone Home defied my expectations. Because this is an adventure game in a creepy house, I was anticipating some kind of twisty ending – or any ending, for that matter. Instead, the game felt like it just suddenly ended, without any explanation. But once I thought about it, I realized I didn’t need an explanation – from piecing together the clues I’d found, I’d pretty much figured out, on my own, exactly what happened to my family. So why should I expect the game to redundantly spell out what I already know? The writers had faith in my ability to work things out, and exorcised the unnecessary exposition that you’d normally find in this kind of story. That was a really clever trick and one I really appreciated once I got over my initial disorientation.
How you’ll feel about Gone Home will depend on how you feel about that approach to storytelling, and how accepting you’d be of a game with a very grounded, almost mundane narrative. It’s definitely unique, and if nothing else serves as an interesting “demo” for a potential new method of video game storytelling. I’d love to see these techniques further fleshed out in the future, and used in “deeper” game experiences – they’d be perfect for a detective game, for example.
Gone Home is available on Steam, as well as PS4 and XBox One. It’s definitely not for everybody, but if you’re in the market for an emotional and contemplative experience that doesn’t hold your hand narratively, then you could do worse than to check it out.