“What happened here?” is an easy question for a game to ask. “Why did this happen?” presents a more complex problem. Narrative and any ensuing mystery are typically in service to levels designed to test proficiency in player mechanics. Exposition by way of cut-scenes suffice for storytelling in even the most respected games, leaving any communication by the environment as incidental at best and unnoticed at worst. It’s not as simple as stripping combat out of BioShock Infinite or removing quick-time events from Heavy Rain, but rather developing a symbiotic relationship between narrative and engagement from the ground up.
Gone Home is that game. It’s a story in which you’ll get to know a handful of characters without physically meeting any one of them. A game where engagement is driven by exploration and absorption at a pace that perfectly suits the story it needs to tell. An experience that offers first and third person accounts of different lives and trusts the player with filling in the blanks. It’s not that they don’t make them like this anymore, but rather they’ve never made one like this before.
Taking place in June of 1995, Gone Home follows twenty-two year old Katie Greenbriar as she returns home after tooling around in Europe for a year. When Katie arrives her parents and sister are gone, the house is in a somewhat disheveled state, and a bewildering handwritten note from her younger sister Samantha is taped to the front door. Desperate, pleading, apologetic, and resolute, Samantha’s letter states that she’s left and isn’t coming back. Inside the house, separate stories converge into one direct action to reveal why Samantha left.
Your actions as Katie in Gone Home boil down to walking around and observing objects throughout the house. Inside drawers, behind doors, in trash cans, underneath the bed – almost every corner of every room has some piece of information worth finding. There’s correspondence between Katie’s mother and one of her old friends, scraps left by Katie’s father regarding his erratic writing career, and even a bunch of postcards Katie sent from her time across the ocean. Gone Home is ultimately Samantha’s story, but an arc exists for both parents as well, and finding every detail and weaving their stories is one of Gone Home’s more rewarding facets.
Samantha’s part in the narrative is the most overt. Her spoken journal entries are addressed directly to Katie, and the way traversal through the house is directed almost insures her story will be told in a coherent order. It’s a coming of age story at heart, complete with decisions that are consistent with figuring out who you are in the back half of your teenage years. Samantha’s story is sincere and unassuming, but Gone Home has the good sense not to beat the player over the head with exposition. There’s just enough there to give you an idea of what’s going on, and relegating some facts to the background, like a hand written paper note stained with tear drops, gives it a dynamic badge of authenticity.
For both Katie and the player, much of what’s uncovered is hard to digest. The home was acquired under rather unfortunate circumstances just after Katie left for Europe, and it seems like each member of the family is wrestling with some personal or moral crisis. Gone Home deals in sobering subjects, and being able to relate to any one of them through a personal experience or through the eyes of Katie leaves a considerable impression on the player. A trace of narrative dissonance exists in so many potentially damaging notes being left in common areas of the house, though this effect on the larger experience is minimal.
While not directly related to its mission, Gone Home is also a joyous 90’s nostalgia generator. The Greenbriar residence is full of bootleg VHS movies and X-Files episodes, exhibits a typewriter in the absence of a personal computer, and even features a careful reproduction of a color explosion Lisa Frank folder. At one point I even found hand written directions to the house, and I realized I probably hadn’t written directions to anyone in over a decade because the Internet exists. 1995 also fills potential plot holes by excusing the existence of cell phones, email, and virtually every other insant-communication tool we currently have at our disposal, ensuring that’s Katie’s isolation (both abroad and at the house that night) isn’t anything unusual.
Gone Home also has a very special relationship with Street Fighter II. We learn that Sam played Street Fighter II on her Super Nintendo, and at one point tried to take her skills to the arcade to impress her peers. She got smoked. This exact same thing happened to me, repeatedly, when I was a teenager would go home and ace “the computer” on my Genesis, write down moves and combos on scraps of paper, and try and take my skills to the local arcade – and I got destroyed every time. Knowing Sam went through that same agony and ecstasy connected me to her on an emotional level, sending me back to a time I had nearly forgotten about.
Much of Gone Home was full of instances where I felt like it was relating to my youth. These moments aren’t simple references employed as garish rewards, but are written as opportunities to demonstrate growth, insecurity, and failure from its characters. Obviously certain elements aren’t going to connect for everyone, but specific moments of rejecting authority, coming to grips with limitations, or accidentally losing yourself in someone else rang true to my personal experience. That sort of intimate connection is common in film and literature, but it’s rare for a game to exhibit its wealth of assets for the sole purpose of building its characters. There’s precisely zero background noise in Gone Home.
Of course, there’s literally background noise. With the ongoing thunderstorm outside, cracks of thunder and constant rainfall in a secluded house are quick to remind you Katie’s deep in the Pacific Northwest. Gone Home’s music, which I initially didn’t notice because of how deep it was buried in the mix, broadcasts melancholy ambience perfect for Katie’s troubling isolation. There’s also decent helping of punk rock available by, what else, putting cassette tapes into cassette players. Samantha’s narration of her journals, the only character whose voice we actually get to hear, is well acted. She’s occasionally funny, always honest, increasingly heart breaking, and it’s through her voice Gone Home guides most of its emotional punches.
There was a brief scene in Indigo Prophecy where I had to go through a character’s bedroom to try and figure out what kind of person she was, and ever since then I wondered if we’d ever get a game where you’d learn about a character exclusively by going through their stuff and absorbing their story. I wanted that to be the full game rather than a one-off tangent. Dear Esther got me part of the way there, but Gone Home took me, well, home. I understand that others, including members of the staff here at Digital Chumps, will take one look at Gone Home and wonder why anyone would pay $20 for a game that appears to be marginally interactive and lasts three hours. That’s totally fine, Gone Home’s approach isn’t going to connect with everyone, but it feels like it was made just for me.