Remember when you were young, and you had to go downstairs in the middle of the night for a glass of water? The battle that happened in your brain between the part that knew you were in the warm comfort of your own home, and the other part that said there was a monster going to jump out at you round every corner? That’s the feeling that Gone Home brought out in me through it’s entire narrative journey, and is why I am writing this review.
You play Kate Greenbriar, a young twentysomething returning after a “finding yourself” trip around Europe. Arriving at your new family home (your parents and sibling having moved while you were gone) you find a note taped to the front door from your sister Sam, telling you that she isn’t there and that you are not to worry. For those of you with siblings or a family of your own, being told not to worry is a great way to start worrying. The house is empty, a thunderstorm batters the windows, your parents are not there to welcome you, and boxes from the recent house move still scattered throughout. As Kate, you wander round a house you have never lived in, attempting to piece together what happened while you were away.
The main character in this story is actually Sam, possibly the first case of second person storytelling that I have experienced. As Kate moves through the house, finding specific hand scrawled notes or relevant object will provoke Sam to read from her letters to you, as if she was right there by your side. Sam’s voice actor deserves massive amounts of credit for the success of Gone Home’s storytelling, as the narration of her life while you have been away is always full of emotion, excitement, trepidation and sadness flitting in and out of her speech in equal measure, sometimes all at once.
The attention paid to the story extends to the amazing level of detail on show in Gone Home, with almost every object you would expect to be able to pick up, spin around and examine, allowing you to do so. The ability to place the object back where you found it was welcomed by the more OCD side of me, and stopped the house devolving into looking as though a bugler had turned the place over.
It’s very difficult to talk about Gone Home without revealing key plot points, because that’s really all there is to the game. The environment is there to facilitate the telling of the narrative, and that is it. There are no collectables to collect or achievements to achieve. You don’t get a gun, and there are no crates to hide behind. This is the epitome of interactive story telling.
This is not a tale you just sit back and have spoon fed to you, however. You have to work for those nuggets of information, by meticulously searching for that little torn off bit of paper that will bring Sam’s voice back into your ears. It is very possible, and indeed likely, that you will miss the plot lines of the other residents of the house. You may never find out about the peaks and troughs of your fathers career as an author, or your mothers hard work as a forest ranger during a dry season. You might miss the story of the house itself, or it’s previous owners own particular thread. When my time with Gone Home was through, I had completely overlooked a key motivation for one of the participants, and took an article referenced from a forum post to see it. All the information is there, you just have to be willing to spend the time to look for it.
I feel like the content of the story should be mentioned briefly. If you want to go in totally cold then I would skip the next paragraph.
Over the course of Sam’s diaries, you find that she has fallen hopelessly in love with someone from her school, with all the nervous conversations, fluttering stomachs and self doubt that entails. You follow her realisation that the target of her affections feels the same, how they discover and then lose each other. It is entirely inconsequential that Sam’s heart lies with another girl, and the fact that this is a unique point worth mentioning makes me slightly sad. This is not a relationship written to be “edgy” or “unconventional”, or to be exploited to generate buzz. It is as genuine a love story as authentic and believable as the best that other media has already gifted us with, and is orders of magnitude better than the standard fare we consume being players of video games.
I feel I should mention, so as to not miss sell you on Gone Home, that this is not a horror game. There are no spectral beings waiting behind every corner, no monsters ready to jump from closets. This is a game set in the real world that you and me both inhabit. It is because of this that it is phenomenally impressive that the experience provokes those childhood wanderings in the middle of the night I mentioned before. As a 26 year old man I was suddenly 8 again, knowing that I was not about to see a ghost behind the door, but still opening it with the most apprehensive of pushes, flinching at every un-oiled hinge and creaky floorboard. Gone Home plays on established horror tropes beautifully, stopping you dead in your tracks as the lights flicker despite having given you completely sound and logical reasons why they are doing so. There are notes from electricians, mentioning that when buying an old house, of course the wiring is a a bit dodgy. It doesn’t help.
I should also mention that this is not a long experience by any stretch of the imagination. My play timer showed just over 90 minutes after watching the credits roll. This was with me playing the meticulous sleuth, turning over every book, medicine packet and rubber duck in the house, scouring for every scrap of information. It is entirely possible to see all the main line story has to offer in about half that. If this was a £3-4 game or a Steam Summer Sale purchase then this paragraph would not have been written. This is a £15 title however, with no replay factor or known room for expansion. How much that affects the enjoyment you extract from Gone Home is purely a personal decision. While personally I am content that the experience, I can foresee disillusionment with some players when the screen fades to black after an hour and a half.
Gone Home is a stellar piece of interactive fiction, wrapped in an intensely atmospheric binding. While the low “currency to hour” return for your investment may colour your experience, this is a risk worth taking. With fantastic writing and voice work, and a world that doesn’t need next gen hardware to render something intensely believable, Gone Home will draw out feelings of love and joy for people you have never met.