I'm very late to the Gone Home bandwagon. It's a game that has been available for well over a year and a half. I've had it sitting in my Steam library for quite some time, but only just now got around to playing it, since I've been busy with other games and projects.
The game has already received piles and piles of critical acclaim, awards, and accolades, and I can't imagine that I have anything new to add to this conversation. It was very hard to go into this game without a bias considering that I already knew a bit about how it would play out, and that it's received overwhelmingly positive praise. But now that I've played it, I can say that Gone Home deserves every bit of praise that it receives!
The inclusion of real family photos
adds to the sense of realism.
A living family
The premise of Gone Home is that the player assumes the role of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a young woman arriving at her family's new house for the first time after a year of university abroad. She finds the house empty. Her younger sister apparently got into a fight with her parents and has run away. The player must explore the house to discover clues as to what happened in the family, why Sam ran away, and where she is now.
To discover the details of the situation, the player must explore the house, reading hand-written notes, looking at journals, looking at photographs, and picking up cues from the environment in order to piece together the story. Each note has distinct hand-writing, and by the end of the game, you'll even start to recognize the handwritings and know who wrote a particular note before you even pick it up.
The rollercoaster of teen love
By observing the house, reading notes, and hearing journal voice-overs, the player begins to piece together the family's story. The primary narrative revolves around a budding romance between Kate's younger sister, Sam, and a friend at school, and the conflict that comes from her parents' disapproval of the relationship.
Anyone who has ever had a crush or been in love (which is almost all of us) should be able to recognize and relate to elements of Sam's story, even if your situation doesn't mirror hers. The early notes depicting the excitement of getting to know someone new and falling in love were particularly powerful. Reading about Sam being shy in approaching her crush, and then finally having the feeling reciprocated is heartwarming. And the eventual roadblocks in the relationship are then equally heartbreaking.
The game is loaded with personality that makes the characters more substantial and real.
This story is made even more powerful by the absolutely perfect voice-over narration of Sam's journal. You can hear the excitement in her voice when she talks about the new experiences with her lover. And you can hear the despair in her voice when things don't go well. As great as the hand-written notes are at conveying the story, these voice-overs just make the character and story that much more human and real.
The whole family are fully-realized characters
But Gone Home isn't just about Sam's love life. The rest of the family are also fully-realized characters with their own emotional roller coasters. Kaitlin's father (Terry) is an aspiring novelist struggling to get his work published. We read about the joy of having his first book published, and the depression of it being a flop and publishers refusing to publish his successive books. His wife (Jan) struggles with dealing with her husband's occupational troubles. He becomes obsessive with his work and the marriage begins to stagnate, so she begins reading marriage advice books and possibly engages in an affair with a co-worker. And both parents have to struggle with the teenage drama of Sam and her relationship, and their disapproval with the negative influences that the relationship has on Sam.
Even extended family members like the uncle who willed the house to Kaitlin's parents have short backstories that can be discovered through exploration.
Kaitlin's personality shines through
when she interacts with items.
Being the sibling on the pedestal
Kaitlin herself has some development as well, but it's much less direct. Some of it comes from the letters from her sister, but a lot of it comes from careful observation of the environment. The text prompts to examine some objects will even provide insight into Kaitlin's mind by having context-sensitive text explaining what Kaitlin thinks of the object. For example, the prompt to pick up a condom wrapper in her parent's dresser will read "Ow, barf."
But the house itself also tells us more about Kaitlin, as well as her relationship to her parents and younger sister. Kaitlin is the "good" sister. She's the more high-achieving and well-behaved of the two sisters. She does well in school, won extra-curricular awards, and never had disciplinary problems, and her younger sister feels the stress and pressure of having to live up to those standards, and failing. This was a story that I felt particularly poignant because it very closely mirrors the relationship between my own sister and me.
Kaitlin is the over-achieving sibling that her younger sister has trouble living up to
- a situation that I personally relate to.
Much like Kaitlin, I am the high-achieving older sibling who breezed through school with nary a problem. My sister, on the other hand, struggled with academics, and that brought her into conflict with my parents. She brought home personal and relationship drama that I never experienced as a younger child and teenager. She felt the unfortunate pressure of having to live up to my standards and not being able to do it, while also wanting to find her own [different] path in life. And there's a lot to those conflicts that I didn't even know about till later, much like Kaitlin is learning about her sister's troubles for the first time.
So a lot of Sam's notes read like something that my own sister could have written, and I couldn't help but get teary-eyed with the knowledge that my own sister had to go through this same despair, and there wasn't much I could do to help.
No place like home
The actual gameplay is really simple and straightfoward. It resembles the old point-and-click puzzle games of the 90's, which is appropriate considering that the game takes place in the mid 90's. Except this game has a crisply-rendered and well-detailed, full 3-D house to explore, rather than just pre-rendered, static backdrops. The house itself feels just as real as the family that inhabited it (except maybe for the exaggerated basement), and interactions with the house and its contents are surprisingly natural and intuitive.
Notes like this provide insight into the characters,
and meta commentary on players.
It actually made me change my in-game behavior.
You can open doors and switch lights on and off as you enter and exit rooms. Most objects in the house can be picked up or examined, and some offer additional clues if you rotate them around to see the backside. Little details like post-it notes with believable scribbles on them and the labels on VHS tapes add an even greater sense of authenticity.
My only real complaint with the house is the excessive re-use of some decorations. Almost every surface in the house is covered in the same two or three stacks of paper, and closets all seem to have the same carboard boxes and row of jackets.
Putting together the puzzle of life and family
The game's puzzles are also a bit shallow. Most of them require just picking up key items and looking at them for a passcode or key. The problem is that these items are always very obvious, so that the player doesn't have to put much thought into solving a puzzle. Considering how well the game immerses the player in the setting, I was disappointed that the designers didn't include some slightly more abstract puzzles that tested the player's perception of the environment and characters, rather than relying on collectible "keys".
Because the puzzles are so simple and obvious, actually playing the game is mostly just an exercise in walking from place to place in a semi-guided tour of the game world. I know that the game is focused on telling its story, and the designers didn't want to hide that story behind obtuse puzzles that some people wouldn't be able to figure out. But it would have been nice for the gameplay to have engaged the player's senses and mind, and encouraged exploration, in the same way that the story does. I'm not asking for Myst puzzles; I just want something a bit more complicated and thought-provoking than "find the note with the padlock combo".
I was hoping that the puzzles would require a little more thought than just picking up a note that tells you the answer.
But putting together the larger puzzle of the family's story was still engaging enough to keep me playing. It was even addictive. The characters are so lifelike that it's hard not to sympathize with them, and I wanted to find the next memo or journal entry or family photo in order to discover what happened next. I wanted to hear Sam's next voice-over about what happens with her lover. I wanted to find a note from Terry's publisher saying that his newest book was a huge success. I wanted to read a note from Jan's friend Carol saying that she is happy that Jan and Terry worked things out. And I wanted Kaitlin and Sam to have a happy reunion.
Not to say that any of those things actually did happen (that's for you to find out), but I wanted them to happen because I felt a connection to these characters and cared about whether they ended up happy. For two or three hours, I felt like I had a second family.
A masterpiece of interactive art
Gone Home is a game that absolutely deserves to be played. It isn't exciting or action packed or even have any unique or innovative gameplay features. But the story it tells and the way that it tells that story make it worthwhile. It pulls in the player in a way that so many games try, but so few succeed at. It is exactly what video games should be: an interactive peek into someone else's life, and an opportunity to live part of that life and feel what the character feels.
It's a near-perfect game in context of what it wants to do. It uses its interactive nature to almost maximum effect and goes far beyond what can be accomplished in a book or film. It is an absolute masterpiece of interactive art!