The landscape of video games has changed a great deal in the recent past. The ever-greater focus on a realistic and cinematic experience is something that has been allowed to flourish this generation, bringing with it a new level of expectation from gamers and casual players alike. However, making games look and feel more realistic has also brought with it more opportunities, namely the evolution of the interactive story. This sub-genre of sorts has lead to some of the best titles of this generation, with the likes of Heavy Rain and Dear Esther (as well as others) receiving great critical and commercial success. It is here, in this newly flourishing and somewhat niche sub-genre of gaming that we find Gone Home quaintly nestled and unashamedly comfortable.
Set against the backdrop of the Pacific Northwest in June 1995, players take control of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a young woman who returns on a stormy night from a yearlong trip around the world to find her family home inexplicably empty. Expecting a welcome from her parents and younger sister, its Kaitlin’s job to discover the whereabouts of her family and (to some extent) the history of their seemingly newly inherited home.
What makes this dynamic unique is its lack of normal gaming stereotypes. There is no health bar, no levels, no upgrades, in fact not much of anything besides a large house and the opportunity to inspect almost every element of it. However the lack of such familiar elements is actually one of Gone Home’s greatest strengths as an experience. The story being told here is one of great emotional prowess and runs along some very mature themes but never strays into the realms of the unbelievable or the overzealous during its short but poignant 2-4 hour length. To tell a story with such character development and dramatic effect using only visual triggers and some narrated diary entries is not only a great accomplishment but also serves as a lesson to the industry on the strengths of subtlety and understatement.
One of the greatest strengths Gone Home shows as a by-product of this design is its emphasis on exploration and the players increasing desire to learn more through it. As the game progressed, I found myself returning to rooms I had already explored several times in order to try and find more evidence of what had gone on before my arrival and how events had unfolded for the characters I had come to feel I knew. This in turn adds a level of depth and replay value whilst never compromising the themes or structure of Gone Home’s multi-layered story.
However, this narrative driven and visual based design is not something many look for from their personal gaming experience. Gone Home feels almost like an interactive book with its heavy emphasis on character exposition, atmospheric development and written content meaning unfortunately some will dismiss the effort required to get the most out of its depth and complexity. Although this is a shame in one sense, it has to be said that this type of escapism simply may not be what some are looking for, making Gone Home a game that will limit but never underestimate its audience.
When it comes to aesthetics there is also little to complain about here. Although Gone Home doesn’t have copious amounts to do in this area, it still manages to provide a very believable environment that becomes ever more intrinsic to the story as the game progresses. This atmospheric environment is only compounded further by some great lighting and incredible sound design, both of which are best experienced in a dark room with some good headphones.
However, it is this atmosphere that unfortunately leads to one of Gone Home’s most poignant issues. When first arriving at the Greenbriar residence, the raging storm and creaking house brings with it a definite sense of dread. This feeling is only compounded throughout the game as you search dark rooms, basements and attics cautiously poised in perpetual terror, waiting for something to happen. This creepy feeling of an almost supernatural threat is also touched on in the stories narrative, albeit only in small part. However after a few hours it becomes apparent that there is no threat to you in Gone Home. You cannot fail, die or get attacked by something or someone evil and the narrative never really utilises this incredibly intense atmosphere after the players initial introduction to it. This in turn means that the game never really comes together as well as the likes of say Dear Esther, as it feels a little confused thematically. This also means that Gone Home unfortunately feels a little anti-climatic and without spoiling anything, could leave some players feeling deflated and a little underwhelmed.
Despite a few structural issues, Gone Home is one of the most original games I have played in a while. It’s interesting, intense and tells a story that thematically and emotionally is rarely seen in the world of games. Although not for everyone and unashamedly unconventional, if you are willing to attempt a new, interactive experience then you may find a story here that will stay with you for a long time