First posted on 26 September 2013. Last updated on 05 October 2013.
|Katie finds an ominous message from her sister.|
|The seemingly happy family portrait is only a facade.|
|The X-Files is on!|
|Katie learns that the new house may be haunted.|
|Roaming through the empty house with the lights off can be quite spooky.|
It is a fair critique that Gone Home from The Fullbright Company is not a game in the traditional definition, adventure or otherwise. Rather, Gone Home is an example of a nearly fully interactive deconstructed narrative, peppered with introspective monologues, riot grrrl music, and a few casual puzzles. The game is likely to be a polarizing experience for any player who experiences it. Gamers booting up Gone Home expecting proper puzzles, inventory management, and character interactions will be disappointed. On the other hand, gamers who embark upon Gone Home with concern solely for its story—not simply the advertised mystery that drives the bulk of the narrative—will undergo an emotional parabola that will stay with them long after the credits roll.
Ostensibly, Gone Home tells the story of Kaitlin "Katie" Greenbriar—a young woman in her 20s just back from a year's trip abroad—returning home to a house unfamiliar to her due to her family's recent relocation, only to find that neither her parents nor her younger sister are there. Kaitlin subsequently decides to explore the empty house, searching for clues as to her family's whereabouts. In reality, Gone Home is the story of a family—any family—going through hard times in their various interpersonal relationships, filtered through Katie's occasional narrative remarks. The main narrative—the dominant plot—revolves around the younger sister Samantha (Sam), who has disappeared, leaving only a note on the front door begging Katie not to look for her. While Katie searches the unfamiliar house for any sign as to the possible fate of her sister, audio journal entries are unlocked, letting Kate (and the player) know what Sam has been up to during the past year. Subplots involving her parents' careers and marital problems, as well as musings as to whether or not the house (dubbed The Psycho House) is in fact haunted by its previous occupant, are also introduced. Gameplay is confined to only exploring the house, examining items within (most of which exist only as detail), and optionally figuring out a few safe combinations in order to gain access to more subplot information.
Being a deconstructed narrative, Gone Home offers a lot of answers without posing any overt questions. It is up to the player to collate the information presented into a complete story. For example, early on, Kate stumbles across a photo of a young girl, but the player needs to find other items, such as Sam's journal, to solidify the identity of the girl. Similarly, the player can find enough evidence in the house to either confirm that it is in fact haunted or debunk the theory and logically explain such haunted house tropes as flickering lights, creaking and groaning, and bloodstained bathtubs. While Sam's narrative is mostly straightforward—likely due in no small part to Sam's journal being the only voice acting, which does not leave much room for interpretation—the rest of the story is told in implication, ultimately leaving the truth to be interpreted by the player.
Gone Home takes place in 1995 (at a time before texting, emailing, and blogging being commonplace), which neatly explains why the house contains so many handwritten letters and notes. The developer's attention to detail in order to create an unforced, immersive environment congruent to that era must be applauded—a copy of TV Guide shows a listing of popular 90s shows; a magic eye poster hangs on a closet door; riot grrrl mixtapes are scattered throughout the house. The details are engrossing without being stereotypical of the era, eliminating the risk of removing the player from the narrative. Additionally, the game does an incredible job of establishing and fully fleshing out characters who are never actually present. Thanks to a family portrait in the foyer, the player knows what the Greenbriar family looks like. The player then gleans other details of the family from the various texts and items found inside the house, Sam's journal, and Katie's occasional asides. The family dynamic is established, explored, and wholly believable. The mere fact that the player will leave the game with a solid understanding of the characters' relationships with each other and attitudes towards themselves, despite never hearing from most of them, is not at all an easy feat to accomplish.
To its detriment, Gone Home is also a game that has very little to offer when it is replayed again. Most good mystery novels offer a different experience upon a second reading—when the ending is already known, the reader is able to pick up on clues and implications previously missed in the initial read-through. Perhaps by narrative necessity, Gone Home is actually very linear in its design. The player is given access to only blocks of rooms at a time, rather than free reign of the whole house, necessitating either finding a key or approaching a locked door from the other side in order to create easy access. This forced linearity makes it unlikely that any of the game's narrative is missed upon the first play-through, thereby offering little encouragement to experience the game again. Furthermore, the game is very short. Even with picking up every item, unlocking every audio journal entry, and exploring every room in the house, the game does not take longer than 2-3 hours to complete.
For Gone Home, which has very little gameplay outside of exploration, a tight and utterly immersive story is imperative to not only keep the player invested but also to simply keep the game together. While the narrative techniques that Gone Home uses are not unique, they nevertheless intertwine nicely and complement each other enough to flesh out characters, posit some mysteries and possible resolutions, and leave enough open to interpretation to make the entire experience seem entirely novel (no pun intended) to any gamer who is willing to leave the traditional definition of game at the door.