Note: This response to Gone Home will be free of major spoilers, but I heartily recommend coming to the experience as fresh as possible. The two articles I’ve linked to in the body of this post do contain major spoilers.
Ten years ago I moved from the UK to the USA.
A not insignificant milestone in one’s life, which as you might expect fed into my dreams in a variety of unusual ways. Considering that most of these dreams involve the exploration of hauntingly familiar, yet mysteriously empty locations from my past, it’s perhaps no surprise that I connected with Gone Home barely more than a few minutes into the game. Especially as one of my recurring dreams sees me returning to my old family home in the UK, after a lengthy absence overseas, only to find it deserted, the whereabouts of my family members a mystery.
And so began an intriguing three hours with a game that immediately resonated with me, even if the story that gradually unfolded diverted from my own family experience. Nevertheless, there was much that was familiar to me: in the mid-90s (the period in which the game’s set) I was the same age as Katie, my younger brother about the same age as Sam, my parents the same age as Terry and Jan, the fastidious VHS cassette labeling, the mix-tapes, etc. Enough to give me some grounding in Katie and Sam’s world.
For those who haven’t followed the game’s development too closely, Gone Home was developed by The Fullbright Company, a small cadre of talented individuals who previously cut their teeth on BioShock 2 and its Minerva’s Den DLC over at 2K Marin. This lineage is important to note because Gone Home essentially amplifies the ambient storytelling techniques of BioShock and its predecessors, removing the combat and fantastical setting, to deliver a more personal narrative.
Gone Home is a story told via multiple, multi-layered narratives. The over-arcing mystery (what happened to Katie’s family?) soon fractures, turning into a quest to uncover a very personal story for each member of the Greenbriar family. Sam’s story is the one that steers the player, but even more poignant perhaps is the story involved Terry and his relationship with his uncle. Jan’s story also informs much of the unfolding narrative—it remains the weakest of the three but not in a way that negatively impacts the overall experience.
But the most important narrative that unfolds in Gone Home is the one that takes place exclusively in the player’s imagination. Despite its generous number of locations and the number of interactive, narrative-driving objects packed into each, the game is also spacious enough to allow the player to make their own inferences on the puzzle that is slowly being pieced together. Gone Home is as much about the player’s perception of what they think is happening as it is about what’s actually happening. It’s the friction generated by these two narratives—the real and the imagined—that generates much of the game’s tension, atmosphere and sense of foreboding. Gone Home is, despite some reviewers’ protestations to the contrary, a “horror” game in the classical sense, because those empty spaces that exist in the game, both physically and narratively, are populated by a sense of the unknown that is shaped almost exclusively by the player’s subconscious.
A number of people on Twitter, unsure of whether or not the game might appeal to them, have elected to spoil the ending for themselves. Their response has usually been along the lines of, “Is that it? I don’t think I’ll bother!” On one hand, fair enough. The game lacks conventional puzzles and doesn’t give you weapons nor anyone to shoot, so I can understand the lack of obvious “gamey” hooks being a deterrent. On the other hand, I haven’t encountered one single person who, upon completion of the game, summarized their feelings with “Is that it?”
Like Dear Esther before it, Gone Home is all about the journey rather than the destination. The destination is important in the sense that it provides a sense of closure to the player and provides them with all they need to reassess their interpretation of everything they previously encountered, but it’s a fleeting, gone-in-a-flash moment that without the preceding three hours of context isn’t overly meaningful. Those who spoil themselves “just to see if I’d like the game” are forever robbing themselves of the Gone Home experience. To define Gone Home exclusively on the basis of its ending is a bit like suggesting Citizen Kane’s just a movie about some guy’s sled. Once someone tosses you an empty bone, there’s little chance you’ll be able to put the meat back on it.
Is Gone Home replayable? Yes, after a fashion. Like any good book or movie you watch time and time again, Gone Home needs time and space between play throughs. Even the most thorough player is unlikely to uncover every scrap of narrative their first time round. As evidenced by various discussion threads across the interwebs, even the smallest throwaway object can blossom into a whole new narrative that casts new light on the Greenbriars. People are swapping experiences, swapping interpretations, and reconstructing completely new interpretations based on what other players have discovered. Gone Home is a great water cooler game and I advise those of you who’ve finished it to seek out some post-game discussion and analysis with like-minded folk. It’s almost like playing the game fresh a second time.
Upon finishing Gone Home I immediately emailed my brother and recommended he play it. It’s not often I go out of my way to make a very specific recommendation like that, but Gone Home proved to be a hugely nostalgic experience for me, not least because it appeared to be born from my recurring dreams, but because there was much about the Greenbriar family I could relate to—and know my brother would relate to.
It’s not often that a video game reflects our lives so deeply and personally. The proliferation of games featuring space marines, super heroes, and sports stars clearly speaks to our yearning for something beyond the familiar. That Gone Home seems to have been as warmly received as it has suggests that amidst all the fantastic furor we surround ourselves with as gamers, every now and then we crave something a little more introspective, a little more personal, something a little closer to home.
Gone Home is available now on PC, Mac and Linux, via Steam or directly from www.gonehomegame.com.