There is something about an empty house at night, regardless of how skeptical one is of the paranormal, that is eerie. There is something else about a house and the odds and ends that people keep in their junk drawers, atop their nightstands, and underneath their mattresses. The objects say something about the lives of the occupants— from them the routine and secret are revealed. It is this combination of rifling through things and exploring unoccupied living spaces that makes up the bulk of Gone Home, a indie game created by The Fullbright Company.
Gone Home is, and I know people say this a lot, more of an experience than a game. An interactive and exploratory story might be the best name for it. Because of its nature, I think this game is best enjoyed cold, without my prompting. If you trust me, just go and play the game now. For my skeptics and for those just reading this for kicks, I promise nothing substantial is spoiled here. Read on without fear.
The year is 1995, and Kaitlin Greenbrair is a young woman returning home from time abroad. Since leaving her family, they have moved to a new, rather large house, which is the only thing to greet her homecoming. A note on the front door implores Kaitlin to avoid discovering the reason for her sister’s absence, which is ominous enough to propel the player into the house. And that’s it for plot. Yes, that is all I will say, because this game centers around discovering exactly what the story is. What I can promise you is a story that is a fertile, character-driven narrative wrapped around a basic gameplay focus. It offers players the chance to do something taboo in the real world—look at people’s mundane belongings and treasured possessions without consequence. That sentence sounds creepier than it is; but, after a few minutes of gameplay, you will feel as I did.
It is inexplicably engrossing to search through the house and discover things about people from notes and pictures and tapes and trash. As one might imagine, the gameplay is simple. You press a button to interact with objects and study the details of said object by turning it around or interacting with it in some way. Those who scour a room are rewarded with details big and small about Kaitlin, her family, and the house. When specific objects are found, there is voiced dialogue to fill in more vivid details of events that transpired prior to Kaitlin’s arrival. What begins as wonder on the part of the player soon becomes a desperate attempt to learn more about the evolving situation; you feel enraptured as if you have become Kaitlin who, by all rights, deserves to be interested and/or miffed that her family has left her home alone in an unfamiliar place. It is a real curiosity of a game. After three hours or so of unhurried exploration, it is hard to tear oneself away from the lives of these people.
Criticizing this game is complicated, because it does what one hopes to achieve in what some might see as limited gameplay. As a game it offers little variety, is short, and probably won’t have multiple replays, which is difficult to argue for at the asking price of twenty dollars. The game looks great and, at moments, feels a little too real. As a child of the late 80’s and 90’s, it felt familiar in all its tape-player, fat TV-having, big-hairdo world. Story-wise, this game has something that so, so, so many games lack—characters that demand attention and force one to sympathize. This quality sets good works of fiction apart from the everyday.
If this idea sounds like it would bore you, you may be right. Gone Home is not for everyone. It is what it is: a game reminiscent of a scrapbook with unmarked pages, torn from the spine, thrown up into the air on a windy day, in desperate need of reassembly. This assembly is a labor of love that you will not be ready to part with.
Vinny Orsillo | @VinnyOhGames