August 21, 2013 1:28 PM | Paul Hack
I've been struggling with what to write about Gone Home. Last week, a chorus of online approval broke out over the game's release, and I tried to avoid much of it because I wanted to go in with unjaded eyes. Assuming that's not your intent, because you are reading this, I will try to give a spoiler-free explanation of why so many people (a ton of critics and developers, that is) adore this game, despite a few things that have annoyed some gamers, such as a "short" playing time, a supposed lack of interaction, and a $20 price tag.
Having finished the game (it took me about 3 hours, and I was thorough), and having had time to digest it, I must disclose that I love it, though I probably won't play it again (maybe in a few years, like revisiting a good book). It was an immersive, emotional, nostalgic experience. I got chills at the end, and came fairly close to tears. But were they feel-good almost-tears or a reaction to a tragic outcome? Ah, that I will not disclose.
I think at times we have all felt like we were lost and looking for ourselves, and you could say that about any of the characters in Gone Home. It's mirrored by your own fumblings in the dark as you explore an unfamiliar house. You play as a 21-year old American woman who has just returned home from a year in Europe. It's not the house where you grew up; it's a house your parents inherited and it's your first time there. You expect to find your parents and younger sister waiting for you, but they are all gone.
The house has been lived in, and the detritus of occupancy is everywhere you look. You can interact with almost everything, and you piece together the story of your family's past year by rifling through things, reading various paper documents, and uncovering secrets about both the house and its occupants. It's far more interactive than, say, Dear Esther--you don't merely walk, look, and listen (not to disparage the excellent but very different experience that is Dear Esther).
There's a giant house to explore (with the aid of an automap) and there are a couple of combination lock puzzles to solve, but the real focus of the game is immersion and storytelling, and the story unfolds through your interactions with the environment. If you're a spawn of the 90's, you'll appreciate details like the riot-grrrl casette tapes, SNES cartidges, Magic Eye posters (that work!), and xeroxed zines. There is no artificial soundtrack; there is only ambient sound and music. There is voiced narration in the form of a series of letters read in your sister's voice. A lot of the game's emotional resonance, and your identification with the characters, relies on that voice performance, and it hits it out of the park.
The control interface is intuitive and familiar to anyone who's played an FPS. Of course, there's no shooting. WASD moves, the mouse looks, and, when you can interact with an object (door, drawer, postcard, cassette, broom, crumpled note, coffee mug, etc.), it is highlighted and you simply left-click to open it or pick it up. For objects you can pick up, you can then right-click and drag to examine the item from all angles, or you can read it, or put it in a tape player to listen to it, and so on. Most objects are not revelations or solutions to puzzles and serve mainly to deepen your immersion in the constructed reality. Almost anything you can read, however, tells a generally crucial piece of the story.
The story of your younger sister Samantha is the crux of this tale, but your discoveries also unravel two other stories: those of your parents and what has been a pivotal year in both of their lives, as well. Gone Home does an amazing job of creating realistic characters. Learning about them is a lot like when we grow up enough to discover that our parents are actually humans with flaws and passions, who had a life before we came along, and who live life when we are not there.
Realism is at the core of Gone Home. You can crouch, but you don't jump. Rooms are dark until you throw a light switch. There's not anything you do in Gone Home that you couldn't do yourself. There are no artificial puzzles, no item hoarding, and no dialogue trees (there's no dialogue at all, actually--only monologue). Maybe people leave notes of a delicate nature lying around more in the game than in real life, but everything else about the game makes it easy to suspend your disbelief. You could absolutely do a live-action re-enactment of Gone Home with real people and props and with no special effects, except for the thunderstorm that rages outside and mirrors the inner turmoi--oh, just play it.
Gone Home is available for purchase on Steam. It's worth $20 for incredibly high production values and 2-3 hours of the most immersive, meaningfully interactive storytelling that's yet been produced in our beloved medium. In my humble opinion.